News agencies reported on a video on Thursday that allegedly shows Islamic State militants raiding national heritage sites in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which they currently control. The video, which some claim is staged, shows the militants burning books (they recently burned down Mosul Library, which housed thousands of ancient manuscripts), destroying artefacts at the archeological site known as Nergal Gate, and playing mailbox baseball with statues in what may have been the Mosul Museum (reports have not been independently verified).
Like the Nazis burning books in the 1930s, Islamic State destroying ancient artefacts (even if they’re only replicas) is tantamount to rebranding. The intended message is always the same: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. What they’re actually doing is hard-selling their view of the world. Commentators here in the UK are quick to point this out when the subject is IS or the Taliban or whichever beard-wielding group of baddies is trying to forcefully erase the totems of an entire culture from the map.
And so they should. History has taught us that blind adherence to extreme ideologies almost invariably leads to attacks on a society’s narrative about itself, whether they’re rewriting history or appropriating art, design and technology (IS’s massive online presence provides an example). That narrative is largely expressed in the things — objects, customs, music, dance, food, even porn — that we call culture. To impose a radical ideological program on an entire society, you are effectively hitting the “reset” button on their culture.
Because culture helps us to identify ourselves as a society, to establish a story about who we are and where we come from, zealots of all stripes can’t allow a history and presence of culture that points one way if they’re inclined to drag that narrative kicking and screaming in a totally different direction. But the bonds of culture, like those of love, are ill to loose.
Conquerors and imperialists know this. Even Mohammed allowed the subjected regions of his kingdom to practise their own religions and observe their own customs, demanding tributes in the form of taxation — which IS have selectively aped in some areas under their control. In the last 30 years, China’s Cultural Revolution has been all but reversed. Rather than suppressing western art forms, acts like Madonna are paid gigantic sums to perform to audiences with roughly the same predictable bad taste as people here in the west. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, collapsed under the pressure of playing Whack-A-Mole with giant swaths of their own population who wanted to listen to pop music and drink Coke.
But it is not just outwardly oppressive regimes that are the enemies of culture. Wherever it happens, the politically handy conflation of “patriotism” with “love of one’s country” puts The Nation, in the abstract, above the nation as a place where a bunch of people live and work and make things and feel themselves to be a nation. The extent to which those seeking power appeal to a people’s abstract nationhood as their defining characteristic and virtue, the less they appeal to that people’s actual, self-determined culture. Take as an example the mainstream political parties’ vague, half-baked use of seemingly banal terms like “Britain” or “hardworking people”; or UKIP’s pub-going “commoners”, etc.
The voices of power in a Twitter-feed society speak in sound bites, oversimplifying complicated issues; but real life is complicated, and the sophisticated way we interact as a nation develops, responding to our diversity. Our culture is in constant flux as the reality on the ground changes. So, people from Asia move to the UK post-war and curry becomes the British national cuisine. Much of the UK is so multicultural that the word “multicultural” almost sounds stupid, as you mostly hear it bemoaned by stupidity connoisseurs like Nigel Farage. Our national identities are patchworks: people who live in Britain are a pick and mix, yet all of them form a uniquely British identity.
Conversely, a Nation in the abstract is formed in the offices of lobby groups and think tanks, by people very similar to each other who you’re never likely to meet: it’s called Patriotism. This vision of the nation always struggles to keep up with reality — and it must be vague to be useful. The Union Jack means one thing to the middle-aged Cornish B&B owner; another thing entirely to the mixed-race mother of three who sells used cars in Glasgow, and another thing again to the Scottish bloke working behind the bar at GAY in London. Patriotism is togetherness in the abstract, a narrative borrowed from those who share our nationality but not our culture. It is a placebo purpose-built for vagueness — an attempt to mean all things to all people.
Whereas culture thrives on variety and nuance, and is able to integrate new influences, the all-purpose nature of patriotism acts as a force for uniformity. Giant corporate outlets like McDonald’s or Starbucks (whose products’ selling point is that they’re the same wherever you find them) are an active threat to small local businesses, who are the outlets of culture. These conveyor belt behemoths not only standardize the coffee we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the films and music we consume — but they actively and aggressively manipulate the way we view ourselves and our world through advertising. We are sold a worldview, encouraged to buy into it, trained to aspire to pre-fabricated identities. Our culture comes ready-made, as uniqueness is prized less than familiarity — reliably uniform, familiar, and ubiquitous.
To supplant a people’s culture with multinational brands is an act of disempowerment: the forging of their identity is entrusted to groups whose modus operandi is to seize the narrative and turn it to their benefit — whether it’s fundamentalist Islam or fundamentalist McDonaldisation.
In both of these extremes, the handmade fabric of society is shredded and culture works less and less as a social glue. We are bound together in contrast to our enemies, as opposed to our own commonality. When culture loses its value, there is a void of narrative, which must be filled. In both extremes, that void is filled with the sentimental belligerence of patriotism.