CULTURE

Survival in a globalized world

The September 11 terrorist attacks made it clear that if we are to survive this century, we have to rethink culture, that is, theories about culture. Theories, including erroneous ones, often act as self-fulfilling prophecies. And even if a clash of civilizations may at first not be taking place to be described, it can definitely come about if elites base their policymaking and forecasts on such a model. Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos’s latest publication, a collection of three essays under the overall title «For a Culture of Civilizations» (Kastaniotis 2001), supplements and elaborates upon a central theme of the much-touted Cultural Olympiad, that is, the search for a «culture of civilizations.» In the wake of the terrorist strikes on the USA, the organizers of the Cultural Olympiad see it as an essential vehicle in the quest for alternatives to theories of civilizational conflict. But what is this «culture of civilizations» all about? For Venizelos, it is the «only culture of peace and social cohesion,» meaning, the only culture that can ensure our survival. The culture of civilizations is based on the dualism of pluralism and equality. «Cultural equality does not mean that all civilizations have the same influence or the same staying power. It rather means that they are equally able to exist and express themselves through the various collective identities,» the writer says. In order to grasp this normative concept, Venizelos continues, we first need to understand the complexity and the contradictions that pervade cultures. This, he says, is something that the political theorist Samuel Huntington and his civilizational paradigm do not even deal with. What Huntington defines as a clash of civilizations is, essentially, a clash between different religions. This superficial approach, however, bypasses the deeply political dimension, particularly of Western culture (democracy, rule of law, human rights) which is often at odds with fundamental Christian principles on matters like abortion, marriage, sexual behavior and premarital sex. Furthermore, and especially given the present crucial juncture marked by the US-led war on terrorism, Venizelos argues that we should be careful «not to equate the civilized world with the West and Western civilization.» As a result, «the broader the ideological, cultural and political front against extremism and terrorism, so much the better for democracy and culture.» Besides, Venizelos points out, extremist phenomena are not only a characteristic of non-Western states; they are also embedded in Western societies (violence in N. Ireland, clashes between minority or ethnic groups such as the Basques and Corsicans, of group suicides in the US and so on.) Hence, Venizelos suggests that Western civilization should shed its universalist pretensions and seek pluralism and coexistence. Venizelos goes even further to argue that the model of a multicultural, open and tolerant society – which is an authentically Western model – is inadequate, for it is based on cultural tolerance rather than cultural liberalism in the sense of the genuine equality for all cultures. The problem with tolerance is that it «is far from genuine equality and equal participation, that is, democracy in its full expression.» Traditional democratic theory may shelter different cultures, but does not guarantee their equal participation and representation. But if the traditional Western democratic system is lacking, it is not clear why it should still become a model for the international community, as Venizelos later argues – or, if this is because of the lack of a better alternative, the author does not say so. In fact, he believes the Western system should be universalized with the aim of setting up a «global cultural framework of common reference which can function as the basis of an international system with institutions for democratic monitoring, that is, a democratically legitimized international law,» which Venizelos defines as the ultimate goal. The author does not elaborate on how this global cultural framework could come about. He only says that it is the state (or, more precisely, the welfare state) which has to safeguard pluralism and support cultures which cannot survive on economic, competitive and market criteria. It is not clear, though, why a state should empower forces which could potentially undermine the dominant national identity and jeopardize the very survival of the state itself. But even if we assume that there is no such threat, surely more is needed than merely state aid in order to strengthen minority or marginal cultures. Given that the problem is a systemic one, such policies can only have an alleviating effect. A deeper, structural change is therefore needed as traditional democratic theories have been overcome by the process of globalization. The problem with these theories is that they miss how new identities are propelled into the context of a rapidly globalizing world. In other words, by maintaining unity through common ideals, such as the people, the nation, the common good, or the general will, traditional liberal societies are too restrictive in the diversity they allow. Rather, what we need are political institutions which do not just shelter but also express diversity. How to bring this about, however, the writer does not offer. On the contrary, he takes a step backward, stressing the need to preserve the political and institutional legacy bequeathed to us by the winners of the Second World War and, what is more, to defend the universality of this legacy. In his view, the political institutions of the West have universal power and are therefore non-negotiable. But Venizelos’s call for pluralism and cultural openness, as well as his refusal to equate the civilized world with the West, are eventually incompatible with his insistence on the universality of his pet Western values. Venizelos, the politician and the writer Evangelos Venizelos was born in Thessaloniki in 1957 and is a professor of constitutional law at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. He has represented the first constituency of the city of Thessaloniki as a deputy since the 1993 parliamentary elections and is presently minister of culture for the second time as of November 2000. In the past, he has served as minister of development, minister of justice, minister of transportation and communications, minister for press and media affairs and deputy minister to the prime minister’s office, responsible for press affairs, and was also government spokesman. He has published numerous books and scientific essays and is also the author of many articles which have been published in the press.