Thursday, July 03, 2008

We can be better than neutral

Here's a more upbeat story to report on. Over at Abandon Skip, there's a post on the popularity of the song De La Rey amongst Afrikaners in South Africa. The song has become something of an anthem for Afrikaners, expressing a pride in their own identity.

There are a couple of things about the situation which impress me. First, it seems to be predominantly young Afrikaners, both male and female, who are generating enthusiasm for the song. Second, some of the Arikaners have clearly rejected the idea that it is a mark of distinction to be neutral about ethnicity.

For instance, Bok van Blerk asks the audience before singing the song, "I'm proud of my language and culture. Are you?". He has also made the comment that, "Tswana, Zulu, Sotho, English or Afrikaner, take pride in who you are, it gives you backbone and direction in life."

This is exactly the shift Westerners need to make. For a long time, the neutrality strand of liberalism has set a different tone. The gist of this strand of liberalism is that it's best to be neutral about important public goods, and to orient ourselves instead to the pursuit of our private, individual interests. At best, ethnicity is then recognised as a purely personal sentiment, not to be defended as a good in a formal, public setting.

We are therefore supposed to win admiration by proving how neutral we are about our own ethnicity. The most advanced practitioners of this art achieve status by identifying the most "othered" ethnic group and displaying sympathy toward them. In general, though, the effect is to produce a Westerner who has little sense of his own culture and who thinks of culture instead as something he consumes according to taste from a range of other ethnicities.

It's not a sustainable way of ordering things. If everyone were to do it, and we were all neutralists, then there would be no range of "other" ethnicities to consume. In other words, even to maintain things as they are now, there have to be groups of people who reject the ideal of neutrality and who continue to produce distinctive cultures.

There is another problem with the neutrality strand: it trivialises our life aims. Much of what is significant in life requires a communal setting. If we limit ourselves to the pursuit of private interests, we undermine the opportunity to fulfil important aspects of life.

We can be better than neutral. We can identify positively with our own culture; we can defend its value as a real entity and not just as a personal sentiment; and we can admire those who show themselves to be most connected to their own ethnic culture and who represent it at its best.

(If you follow the link to Abandon Skip's post there are several short You Tube videos showing the response of young Afrikaners to the De La Rey song.)


  1. Heres some other delightful Songs from South Africa (also mentioned at Abandon Skip)

  2. It's important to note that the Afrikaners have a strong tradition of ethnocentrism. The Afrikaners were essentially a people frozen in time; a "lost" white tribe at the ends of the earth who missed the developments of 18th century Europe, the age in which liberalism was born. Therefore, they were never exposed to the same anti-ethnocentric liberal thinking that infected most other western European peoples.

  3. Mark -

    If you want to see a classic example of liberal "identity" rhetoric, you need look no further than Bob Hawke's 1988 bicentennial speech in Sydney.

    You might even find a post in it:

  4. On reflection, it's incredible how empty our national identity would be according to Bob Hawke's speech. Basically, according to Hawke, you only need to be "committed to Australia's future" in order to be an Australia.

    But anyone could be committed to Australia, so essentially this is a meaningless designation.

  5. Nguyen, thanks for your comment. I went to You Tube and watched Hawke's speech. It was curiously passionless for a PM delivering a bicentenary speech, as if he thought the whole thing a bit dangerous and risky and had to deliver a serious warning about what was happening.

    You're right that Hawke defined what it meant to be Australian in stripped down terms: "A commitment to Australia and its future".

    The bicentenary comment I've never forgotten though was made by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. He wrote:

    "What is this "Australian-ness" we are supposed to be celebrating? ... 15 million people are pursuing 15 million different lives and not giving a damn about the attempt to turn them into Aussies instead of individuals".

    According to the Sydney Morning Herald, we are all just individuals pursuing our own private interests, and "Australian-ness" is just a fictional imposition to be cast aside.

  6. I'm not sure we could have expected much more from the ALP during the bicentenary. In 1996, not that long after, ALP candidates for the federal election were polled to find out their attitude to Australia's history. Nearly a third declared they had little or no pride in Australia's history. A third!

  7. That's strange. 15 million people living under the same laws would surely need SOMETHING in common. Surely you must at a bare minimum agree on the very basics of the political system, the legal system, the distinction between the public/private, common morality, and so on? But according to the SMH, the best that could be said was that these 15 million had NOTHING in common. That is liberalism taken to the nth degree. And it cannot possibly work either. It is a recipe for the destruction of any functional society.

    As for Bob Hawke. The funny thing is that his latest position is that you don't even need a commitment to Australia's future - you only need to work and pay taxes in Australia in order to be an Australian. That's easily the bizarrest definition of "identity" I've heard yet. Do remember that Bob Hawke has extensive business interests in China, and is in fact a slavish advocate of China's greatness - I suppose he is just as Chinese as any Chinese peasant or factory worker then?? You certainly would think so, according to him.

    I suppose I'll just move to the Congo, get a job there, and PRESTO! I'll become Congolese in an instant, with or without a commitment to the Congo's "future".

  8. I am at a loss to describe my confusion...

    I have always considered myself to be a conservative, and as I happily stumbled onto your site I was able to gain a clearer understanding of what underlies my beliefs (for example, I am against multiculturalism and unlimited immigration). However, I am still confronted with an issue represented by a set of related questions that seem to have no good answers:
    - Why must a particular culture (or subculture as in the US) be inevitably linked to a particular racial heredity?
    - Is a baby with specific racial genotypes thereby forced to assume a culture ascribed to him by historical ethnicity? As a counter example, couldn't an oriental baby be adopted and brought up by a white Australian family to believe, support, and defend Western traditionalist culture?
    - Isn't it inherently racist to assume such a fixed connection, since the result can only be one in which reality-based superior/inferior manifestations cannot be ignored?
    - If such a connection is indeed fixed, then isn't the question of how blacks can successfully live in the US doomed to failure unless they form a separate class that is happy with its inevitable economic and/or societal status distinct from, and at some other level than the white majority? (I suppose this gets into “separate but equal” and “equal opportunities versus equal outcomes” conundrums). How in the world can such a solution (if indeed it is one) ever realistically be accepted and/or implemented?

    If these questions cannot be answered definitively, then perhaps I am doomed to be a right liberal.

  9. Here's another video by Bok van Blerk. This time about the living hell that is South Africa.