UNESCO and CNN: two media giants
In 1971 Claude Levi-Strauss was invited by UNESCO to open the international year of the struggle against racism with a major lecture.
That was to become, as he himself called it in the introduction to his collection of essays including the lecture: 'un assez joli scandale'. The then director of UNESCO, Rene Maheu, not only made use of his introduction to defuse in advance the world-famous anthropologist's blasphemies, but also to confuse the schedule in such a way that the speaker was forced to make cuts, thus reducing the number of abominations, according to Levi-Strauss himself. Nevertheless, he calmly read his entire lecture.
What was so terrible about what Levi-Strauss did? He defended cultural diversity, as this promoted competition between groups. A little xenophobia is healthy, according to Levi-Strauss.
How did UNESCO react? Extremely well. The lecture was printed in UNESCO's Revue internationale de Science Sociale and Levi-Strauss, together with two Arab princes and four Nobel prize winners, is now an honourary member of the Commission which twenty five years later is writing a book on Cultural Diversity.
Chapter Four of the report of the World Commission for Culture and Development (hereafter: the Commission), on which this conference is based, is devoted to 'Challenges of a media-rich world'. The Commission's response to that challenge includes a proposal to tax commercial TV stations in order to finance alternative public regional or worldwide media, to generate diversity of content.
The Commission gives as reason for this tax the fact that worldwide TV stations like CNN are not in a position to offer a platform to all sectors and levels of society, while there should be international systems which can better appeal to the different needs of all peoples. Is this realistic?
My answer is no. An organisation like UNESCO, which assembled the Commission together with the United Nations, cannot provide an answer to a cultural problem which cannot be solved by money alone and which also involves a serious conflict of parties. In order to compare the two media giants, CNN and UNESCO - because is not UNESCO itself a media bastion? - I first have to examine their similarities. They are both tolerant. That tolerance is due to the global character of their audience. UNESCO and CNN reach a broad audience and therefore have to maintain good relations with as many people as possible. In the case of UNESCO these are the representatives of all member states; CNN needs a licence in every country to use the cable. CNN broadcasts over the entire world and the top men in Atlanta therefore do their best to make a fair selection of presenters from among the main ethnic groups and the two sexes. In brief, neither UNESCO and CNN can afford radical ideas.
UNESCO used to maintain friendly relations with the communists. That caused few problems as liberals shared the belief in universal equality and the possibility of progress by mankind with the communists who also began as progressive. But to openly take the side of communist revolutions was of course not possible. The old appeal to respect human rights and therefore to support peace is still valid, but now it has been joined by a universal right to diversity. And that produces real problems.
Now that a substantial number of members of the UN are Islamic, UNESCO has to make compromises with powerful member states populated by people who reject the ideals of Western Enlightenment. So UNESCO cannot be strongly opposed to Islam, as formerly they could not afford to spurn the communists.
If you want to hear radical standpoints, for example acclaim for a terrorist attack, then you have to turn to your local, regional or marginal sources in Ohio or Damascus. The same is true of extreme violence or pornography. They are not broadcast by the big television stations, you have to go to video stores or bookshops to get them. On the Internet too, you will only find small suppliers of undesirable communications. You cannot forbid them, as the suppliers are so small and diverse. Nor are there criteria shared by the entire world for this.
To return to the conflict between Levi-Strauss and UNESCO. In 1974 Rene Maheu collected the basic documents for a General UNESCO conference under the title: UNESCO in perspective. UNESCO - or Maheu - identified four problem areas here:
And although Maheu declares that his division is not hierarchic and suggests no priorities, it is clear that Levi-Strauss's idea is here being pushed into the last compartment, to never again come into contact with the other problem areas.
What is a problem for UNESCO? If something is a problem then it appears as a budgetary item. Money has to be diverted for the 'fostering of the sense of responsibility in the use of the communication media; the improvement of educational content, methods and techniques; training of educational personnel; greater awareness', also of 'methods of disarmament', which are supposed to encourage the superpowers to end the arms race. Of all the problems, only that one has been solved, by the victory of one of the participants: a result which seriously threatens that point 2, Peace.
In 1974 UNESCO was faithful to the ideal of the Enlightenment, and it still is: more knowledge would mean more understanding. And that understanding would help in the elimination of the enemies: racism, colonialism, neocolonialism and apartheid. Those concepts boil down to inequality and inequality does not belong to the integral human being and the whole mankind.
But does Creative Diversity? There is a conflict here which flares up from time to time. The differences in opinion between Levi-Strauss and Maheu was already an example of this. The conflict can be formulated by postulating two questions: what do you do with customs which are considered undesirable in terms of the criteria of humanity, such as slavery and clitorectomy? What use is understanding when dealing with fanatics who regard any understanding for their viewpoint as a concession? In both cases you will not get far if you aim at mutual understanding. In the first case because you yourself refuse to show understanding, and in the second case because the other does not want to show understanding. And as far as the second case is concerned, to meet violence with understanding leads to the paradox of turning the other cheek. You can possibly refuse a good deed, but a bad one not so easily. Because whoever loves his enemy agrees with him as a matter of course. But I think that UNESCO still believes in the benefit of more understanding for the other, in all his diversity.
UNESCO simply cannot believe that seventeen hundred years after the triumph of Christianity, people are killing each other or burning those who think differently, simply on the basis of beliefs, as heresy is like a contagious illness. According to the Commission which was assembled by UNESCO, civil wars in Afghanistan, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sri Lanka, are between people and are caused by lack of development or wrong models of development.4
The civil war in Afghanistan started after a communist revolution (wrong model of development?) and is now being continued by all kinds of Islamic groups who are fighting each other because they have studied the Koran better than the others. The conflicts in the other countries mentioned are conflicts between ethnic groups; of racists among themselves, you could day. Islam is not involved, while from the viewpoint of human rights and Enlightenment you should in fact oppose all attempts to introduce the medieval Sar'yia (medieval Islamic law). But they are not clear about this in this new report. In particular the section has difficulty in steering a course between two rocks. The one rock is the Western ethnocentrism of people who argue in favour of equality for women, the other rock is the unprincipled defence of a cultural relativism which deprives women of fundamental rights in the name of Difference (see p. 131 of the report).
The makers of the report cannot choose. When they encounter convictions which cannot be easily fitted into their progressive or emancipatory principles, then that does not mean that they oppose them. They carefully place a question mark beside them: Religious Revivalism: fanaticism or search for meaning?
It would then appear that fundamentalism can be explained as a search for meaning in a hard world, a creative response to the identity crisis, a field for socio-cultural experiments. A professor in comparative religion tells us at the end of the section on religious revivalism (Our Creative Diversity, p. 67-68) that we must draw a distinction between a peace-loving majority and a minority of extremists. End of analysis, not a word about any possible socio-cultural experiments (death squads, torture, precision bombing?) in order to avoid it again (p. 67-68). It should be clear that you cannot tackle such problems merely on the basis of generalities. You can only talk meaningfully about a problem if you take into account the accompanying circumstances. You are then dealing with the pros and cons of a concrete matter (for example, the promotion of Basque culture or of mixed marriages between Jews and Christians) including all the informative discussions which have been going on for centuries about such limited questions and the concrete boundaries between what is acceptable on that point, and what is not, on the basis of shared general convictions.
If the Commission that was assembled by UNESCO refuses the concrete debate, then that is because there is no shared interpretation of human rights throughout the world, and no consensus on their practical application. They are thus not achievable and undesirable, if we want to respect cultural diversity. We have long known that, it is just UNESCO which does not know it and with UNESCO, all those other authorities and institutions who fight against racism and for tolerance in general. Tell me where the limit of my tolerance should be, and when I can agree with interventions. In general there is little to say about this and UNESCO does not say even that little. UNESCO is a voluminous propaganda machine for belief in the basic principles of Western civilization, but now in addition pretends to be in agreement with the principles of cultures who are opposed to these. On the other hand CNN subscribes silently to the same enlightened and optimistic principles and therefore shows the different sides of every affair. CNN provides news, UNESCO does not. CNN is based on a legal/democratic model, UNESCO on the theological/philosophical one.
UNESCO can only promote strange cultures after having removed the sting of intolerance. All cultures are regarded with the same hooded eye of the Kantian interesseloses Wohlgefallen, a pleasure which cannot be disturbed by moral, political or economic considerations. Whether it is now a question of the ruins Incas, the European monuments of exploitation and imperialism or war dances, sexual taboos and pottery: primitive customs are just as nice as rare plants and animals. They belong, so to speak, to the cultural eco-system.
UNESCO speaks in general terms of the cultural heritage which must be developed. 'Cultural heritage and development' thanks to 'A fair deal for the living heritage of crafts'. All this boils down to subsidy for the picturesque baskets and pots in the Oxfam Shop (Our Creative Diversity, p. 191).
After the triumph of Christianity, the Aya Sofia in Constantinople - now a UNESCO monument - was built from the columns and other materials of demolished temples, as a provocation to the pagans. After the fall of Constantinople it was turned into a mosque as a provocation to the defeated Christians and after the fall of the Turkish Empire it once again became a provocation, this time to Muslims, by presenting it as a museum, where the Muslims had to observe through gritted teeth the world's largest mosque occupied by tourists with their shoes on! The Western aesthetic attitude is an expression of contempt for the seriousness of religious or ethnic convictions. Christian or Muslim belief is filtered off and what remains is a tourist attraction.
How will UNESCO react if Aya Sophia again becomes a mosque and the mosaics are whitewashed?
Then the Arab honourary members will suddenly turn out to have a use.
J.P. Guépin is a classicist, poet and writer. He writes on two subjects: rhetoric and poetry. This year he published De vader van Jesus, De fantastische reis, Epinikta and De Kussen van Janus Secundus.