Monday, 3 October 2016

Justin Bieber and the fight against islamic extremism

The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and the Italian Prime Minister , Matteo Renzi (Photo: Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters, taken from the newspaper The Atlantic)
A recent NPR article, entitled Italy's 'CulturalAllowance' For Teens Aims To Educate, Counter Extremism is a clear demonstration of the confusion existing, at various levels and in various contexts, in relation to access to culture and to culture as a panacea for many ills of this world.

The title is not an exaggeration of the newspaper. It was the Italian Prime-Minister himself who said, when announcing this culture allowance (€500 for every 18-year-old to spend on cultural products), shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015: "They destroy statues, we protect them. They burn books, we are the country of libraries. They envision terror, we respond with culture."

"They destroy statues, we protect them"... Said by the Prime Minister of the country that earlier this year received the President of an Islamic Republic and - in deference to the sensitivities of the distinguished guest, although we don’t exactly know on whose decision - covered the naked statues in museums (here and here). The guest was the President of a country that promotes public executions, sends dissidents and human rights defenders to horrible prisons and confiscates the passports of intellectuals and activists. What does this say about our Culture?

The measure announced by the Italian government was applauded by many. The Prime-Minster’s words and aspirations caused, as it is natural, very positive impressions and they were seen as a clear signal of support for Culture, at a time when several other governments opt to disinvest. I think that the initiative, like others of the same nature before it, raises several questions:

Firstly, what does Culture represent for politicians? What is their vision regarding the place of Culture both in their own lives and daily practice (as politicians, but also as parents, professionals from different areas, ordinary citizens) and regarding its potential role in the society? Is Culture a way of being, conscious and practiced, or rather a kind of pill against the evils of the world (something like "Youth goes to Justin Bieber concert = Youth dissuaded from following radical Islam")?

Secondly – and assuming that one recognizes the potential contribution of culture in the construction of a more humane, fair, critical, tolerant, democratic society -, what would be the purpose of an investment in the promotion of cultural participation? One reads in the caption of the photo illustrating the NPR article that the objective of the Italian allowance is "to help a growing number of young immigrants to assimilate." Furthermore, Barak Mendelsohn’s alert (a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and an expert in the fight against extremism): "There is a chance that Lady Gaga is exactly what's going to make somebody angry. That doesn't mean that they buy into your values." What is the purpose, then, of cultural participation and the 'encounters' it may provide? The assimilation of the "other", the disappearance of the differences, the prevalence of a mono-Culture? Or the celebration of cultural diversity, of the principles that unite us and also our mutual "contamination"?

Thirdly, this type of investment in culture - in the form of "allowance" (as, for example, the Vale Cultura in Brazil or what might be the +Culture Card, announced by the Portuguese government) - an isolated investment, without a context - puts an emphasis on money as the main barrier to cultural participation or as the main stimulus of participation. And it insists on ignoring a number of other factors - social, intellectual, psychological - that keep most people away or indifferent. For how much longer shall we be focusing our efforts on the false issue of money instead of on the more complex and continuous task of reflecting and working on those factors that are key barriers both for those who have and those who haven’t got money? With all the consequences this exclusion brings to our societies (at least for those who believe in the contribution of culture in building these societies) and to the quality of our democracies.

The "Ahlan" programme at the Vancouver Art Gallery (image courtesy of Institute of Canadian Citizenship / Kenin Hill)

Little by little, I come to know better the work of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC). News, a few years ago, of citizenship ceremonies (for the attribution of citizenship to new Canadians) taking place in museums had got me interested. The symbolism of the choice of place meant a lot to me. The latest news on the "Ahlan" programme, for the inclusion of refugees, and the Cultural Access Pass made me look for more information.

"Diversity is a reality. Inclusion is a choice", one reads on the ICC homepage. And their mission: "Inspiring Canadians to be inclusive, embrace fresh thinking, practice active citizenship, and own our collective culture and spaces." Culture is an actual, active factor in the way the ICC seeks to pursue its mission. It's not just a theory, much less is it given as a pill. And so it is very tempting to wish to believe that Justin Trudeau's election as Prime Minister may also be the result of this culture; a result of the practice of this culture (although it remains to be seen how he would receive the Iranian President). Anyway, it seems to me that this is a case worth studying better, because it raises issues that are much more profound and fundamental than the unsupported and contextless distribution of allowances or free tickets.

More readings on this blog

Discussing values, from Brazil to Lebanon

House with a roof but no foundations?

Government reflections on access to culture

Myths and excuses regarding free admission

Can Culture help to overcome the fragmentation of society?

Culture and the arts: what for?

Freedom of speech

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