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Prepare to be assimilated. Resistance is futile!

By way of comment on Will Kymlicka, ‘The evolution of the Anglo-American debate on minority rights and multiculturalism’.

Last week I watched one of those innumerable Star Trek episodes. It was one in which the USS Enterprise engages an extraterrestrial species known as the Borg. The designation ‘Borg’, probably, is short for ‘cyborg’ – it is a species shot through with technology, from the Hell’s Kitchen factory interior of their ships, right down to the individual, physical level of half man, half machine organisms. When they encounter other species, the Borg always broadcast the same message: ‘Prepare to be assimilated. Resistance is futile!’. ‘Assimilate’ means that the Borg annihilate other species by making them part of themselves, literally incorporating them. Only useful knowledge is retained; culture, emotion, and individuality are discarded. The Enterprise, as you will expect, always fights to defend those values. And thus far it has escaped assimilation. Or so it seems. 

Reflecting on Star Trek, we have to ask ourselves: why resist the Borg? Is their offer not tempting? They are indeed superior. They have formed the ‘greater and more perfect union’ that many peoples dream of. They are powerful, knowledgeable, technologically advanced, omnipresent. Their non-negotiable universalism offers a magical vaporization of conflict, to produce an aesthetics of transparency that seems effortlessly inclusive. I borrow this last sentence from a recent book by Doris Sommer, professor of Romance languages and literatures at Harvard University. She used it, not to describe the Borg, but for characterizing what she calls the menacing appeal of Walt Whitman, America’s national poet. Hear this: 

‘I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.

This might be the national anthem of the Borg. But in fact, these are the opening lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of myself. Whitman, like the Borg, gobbles up difference, literally digesting otherness to feed his fantasy of a cosmic self. But, also like the Borg, he makes us an offer we cannot refuse: to be taken in into a limitless embrace, in which differences are canceled out, and in which liberty and equality have no argument with one another (39). Whitman, as Sommer says, delivers America, citizen by (free) citizen, like an infinite machine of (equal) interchangeable parts (60).

I shall come to the point now. I agree with Will Kymlicka on one very important point: we are talking about an offer we cannot refuse. First, because we do not want to refuse it. Second, because we have already accepted it. We are already being digested by – take your pick – the Borg, the Enterprise, Walt Whitman, capitalism, liberalism, imperialism, the network society: all metonymia for a system that promises ever increasing freedom and individuality. Still, watching Star Trek, we feel ourselves allied with Captain Picard and his crew; we want to save culture, emotion, and individuality. The most interesting characters in the series are, not by coincidence, hybrids, ‘aliens’ trying to acquire human traits – whether it be Mr. Spock, a semi-Vulcan addicted to logic; Mr. Data, an android with human subroutines; or Seven of Nine, a dis-assimilated ex-Borg female with an attitude.

It is these types of people that we are in fact talking about when we discuss multicultural citizenship (for the politically correct: ‘diasporic citizenship’) [cf Isin and Wood, Citizenship and identity; Sage 1999, p.48]: hybrids, mestizo’s, persons who are mixed up between two cultures (or more), one of which – liberalism – is dominant. The question is: how can, or should, we account for their cultural otherness within the dominant framework of liberalism? Here, Will Kymlicka says that liberal culturalism has won the day. Let’s face it – he says to those who feel Unbehagen in liberalism – most cultural minorities want liberalism. And for those aspects of liberalism that they (really) don’t want, or that (really) bother them, we can make exceptions. These provide them with ‘access to their own culture’ where needed, while not compromising basic liberal values and norms. And this is indeed part of what many of the inter-cultural Star Trek characters want. For instance, they want time off to engage in obscure Klingon warrior rituals. Or they can quite literally access their culture on the Holodeck, a computer-generated lifeworld in which any any cultural fancy can become virtual reality (one of the most prophetic Star Trek inventions).

Now Will Kymlicka deserves much credit for making liberalism less ‘assimilative’ by insisting on culture as a ‘primary good’, and on rights derived from cultural interests. Yet I think his liberal culturalism is still too assimilative. Look at the Star Trek mestizos. They want to become (more) human, yet they want to retain their otherness. They feel like they are being assimilated, ‘even as they speak’ (this phrase is for the post-structuralists among you). Cultural exceptions do not solve their problem here, at least not completely. They want the dominant culture, they want liberalism, but they also want to retain (what they see as) their difference. They want to speak the same language, yet speak it with their own voice. They do not exactly want hyphenated liberalism; to stay within the linguistic metaphor; what they want is something like the same language with their own character set. They want to carry over minority culture into majority culture, without majority culture getting a grip on it – by regulating, licensing, formatting, and yes, disciplining it.

Speaking in terms introduced by Michael Walzer, this is a matter of delicate translation between thick and thin. As Walzer observed, we have no problem understanding what the protesters in Prague in the eighties meant when they walked the street holding signs saying ‘Justice’ and ‘Truth’, even though we do not share their culture or background. Analogously, when cultural minorities want to speak ‘thick’ language they do not thereby reject the norms designated by the thin vocabulary of liberal justice. What they do want is a ‘cultural proviso’: they do not automatically want to carry the cultural baggage that the dominant vocabulary automatically associates with the thin norms. Walzer expresses this by noting that the translation from thin to thick is culture-dependent. Truth and justice do not carry the same cultural baggage everywhere, not even within the same political or social system.

And of course liberalism does carry a lot of dominant baggage with it. It is the language of Jefferson, Lincoln, and John Stuart Mill, but it carries the baggage of imperialism, of capitalism, of global market expansion, of the Yankee dollar, Walt Disney, and yes, even Walt Whitman. In other words, it carries the overtones of assimilation. The Borg, we feel, would be quite justified in calling their vessel ‘The Enterprise’, it being the ultimate mobile platform of capitalist-imperialist-expansionist assimilationism. Indeed we (as we sit here) are the Borg, and we assimilate minorities. Indeed we should warn them, and indeed we should create cultural exceptions for them. But we should also take care not to burden them unneccasarily with our cultural baggage. For they will rightly resist, albeit ambiguously, and it is our task to understand the signs of ambiguity. Indeed we should ‘proceed with caution when engaged by minority writing in the americas’ - this being the thoughtful title of Doris Sommer’s book I quoted earlier (Harvard up 1999).

I do not want to deny that multiculturalisation requires an answer in terms of rights and policy. But it also requires an answer in terms of ‘cultural justice’. It then becomes a question of allowing space, within liberalism, for cultural resistance, for making essentially ambiguous translations between thick and thin, for protecting difference without insisting on it, for being accomplices to the subversion of dominant norms, without abandoning them. Such movements can be supported and enhanced by policy, but they are often a matter of ‘citizenship’, in the sense of citizens (or groups of citizens) knowing how to go about in the public sphere.

This remark on citizenship, to close up, ties my criticism of Will Kymlicka’s paper, which has focused on what he called ‘the second possible line of critique of liberal culturalism’, to the first line, that of republican citizenship. I do share Kymlicka’s objection against republicanism that citizenship capacities (or rights) are not neutral amongst ethnocultural groups. And I also think that republicanism unjustifiably severs the connections between social-cultural identity on the one hand, and political identity on the other hand, thereby effectively removing some of the most important motives people have for acting politically. People watch Star Trek rather than go to political meetings; but they will go to political meetings to protest Star Trek being boycotted by their local cable company.

But I do think that Will Kymlicka’s treatment of the issue of citizenship puts too much emphasis on policy, and is too restricted in seeing politics mainly as ‘government’. If we understand government also as ‘self-rule’, in the tradition of Rousseau and critical theory, citizenship becomes much more central to politics and to the rule of law (maintenance of the Rechtsstaat). Especially in times of privatization and the network society, in which people are increasingly expected to arrange things without government assistance or assurance, citizenship capacities become increasingly important. We may profitably see Star Trek as an ‘imaginary domain’, a playground shielded from the brute forces of practical life where all sorts of scenarios of practical dealing with aliens and with difference are tried out. Like the Star Trek mestizo’s, we may then develop personal styles of dealing with difference in the public sphere. As a result, we may have not only citizenship in diverse societies, but also diverse citizenship within one society.

Comments on lecture by prof Will Kymlicka, given at Twente University, Dept. of Government, April 8, 2000.

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