Régis Debray's most recent book Praised Be Our Lords (Verso, 2007) recounts his years as a confidante of Che Guevara, and advisor to Salvador Allende and François Mitterrand.

Translated by John Howe.

Why monologue diplomacy isn't worth a rabbit fart

I would like to indulge in the luxury of saying aloud what is usually muttered behind the hand. If the role of North-South forums, symposiums, seminars, conferences and ceremonies supporting dialogue between cultures is to help people to kill one another on a more moderate scale, all you have to do is read the paper to wonder how useful they are. Remember the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the fallout from Benedict XVI's "anti-Islamic" speech at Regensburg, Theo van Gogh's murder, the endless bloodbaths in Iraq, the murders (or some of them) in Turkey? The street takes no apparent notice of our tireless calls for peace, tolerance and fraternity.

Exhaustion; sterility; sham; hypocrisy: such are the feelings – not all that encouraging – aroused in people observing the limited influence of such meetings (however photogenic they may be). This is not a psychological field of ruins, for that implies pre-existing structures. It's more like shifting sands, from which nothing comes, in which everything is bogged down.

We have to start from this view if we are to avoid the gradual establishment of a sort of double-sided theatre where, on one brightly-lit stage, a troupe of brilliant professionals of dialogue for dialogue's sake (the ethical alter ego of art for art's sake) would deliver moving tirades – staying in excellent hotels and playing several seasons a year, but not having to live together much – while on another stage, dark but much more heavily populated, those required to live side by side without dialogue would continue to shoot at each other as usual. After yesterday's religion as the opium of the people, will we learn tomorrow to regard the "secular theology of dialogue" as the opium of states?

States are already only too inclined to unload onto religion political problems they do not dare to address politically: in Europe the integration of immigrants, or in the Middle East the coexistence of two states. To dress up a conflict of interests as a clash of civilizations, to attribute some national insurrection against an illegal invasion to "radical religion" without even wondering what might have radicalized that religion or caused the vacuum at state level, is to lose your bearings in no uncertain fashion. In the orchestration of the spiritual, as we can see, politicians are more than capable of competing with the men of God.

Government people, who no longer govern much, should look into the work of more academic researchers if they want to stay in touch with realpolitik. They are having difficulties here and there with infra- and supra-state actors whose strength they underestimate. In the near and Middle East, culture is not the gilding but the skeleton, the infrastructure. The moral strengths that on the ground cancel out the technological superiority of an aggressor or occupant stem from and depend on immemorial cultural matrices, a long way upstream from immediate reality. Imagine how many deaths could have been avoided in Iraq and Afghanistan, American ones included, if the group of men and women in the White House had been just slightly informed on the history of mentalities, on human geography, religious history and cultural anthropology. No doubt the same could be said of yesterday's Soviet leadership and today's Russian one. In a world where forms of the historical unconscious are making a forceful comeback, the lack of culture and short-term vision of those we call decision-makers threaten to unleash a lot more bloodshed.

"Culture" is one of those inflationist words that have more value than meaning, much use and little clarity. Etymologically it falls between "cult" and "agriculture". To some it is an added value and to others of low worth, less estimable than "religion". For example, when the Vatican attached the "Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue" to the "Council for Dialogue Between Cultures", the reclassification was felt as an affront in the Muslim world. The same words are not used to describe the same things. We ourselves distinguish between Christianity and Christendom, and it never occurred to us to give the Pope any responsibility whatsoever for Mr Bush's oil crusade. There is no Organization of Christian States, but there is an Organization of Islamic States. Islam for its part is still a civilization in the full sense. The term designates at the same time a state of society, a religion, a way of life and a collection of countries. Yet when caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad appear in Denmark, we are surprised to find that not only Imams are angered by them, but also all those, in North Africa and elsewhere, for whom the religious Prophet performs the function of head of the family.

The word culture, in its heavyweight sense, means the mass of spiritual and material relations, in a given civilization, that people maintain with the world, the past, the land, the opposite sex, and death. Then we must include under the term "cultural" all the additional baggage added by human history to the genetic heritage of the species, including its technical equipment. Hence a question that has become fundamental for societies turned upside down by technological progress: how can the cultural act be distinguished from the technical act?

In a word, the techno-economic "one world" seems to oppose the plurality of cultural worlds, as the global opposes the vernacular and the ever-new the unchanging. Culture divides the human species into non-interchangeable fractions – ethnic groups, peoples and civilizations – while technology unites it, by making our objects interconnect. Places of memory and memory of places favour ethnocentrism; must-have, latest-thing, three-band telephones, plasma screens and barcodes favour cosmopolitanism. Unbound to any particular place, language, religion or space of customs and morals, Airbuses, satellites and nuclear power stations are perfect nomads. There are three thousand languages spoken in the world and only three railway gauges, two electrical voltages for public supplies, and a single International Civil Aviation Organization controlling via a single technical code – English – all the world's aircraft. And it is easier to unify markets than calendars, air conditioners than history books. Time is infinitely more difficult to master than space.

"Dialogue" has no meaning or interest unless it establishes relations between people who think and feel differently from each other. If all it means is joining a chattering globalized élite of western-style humanists and liberals meeting at intervals to congratulate themselves on democracy and human rights, the peoples of the world can be forgiven for shrugging glumly. We need to be clear on these matters. International relations are going through a curious phase at the moment. As Hubert Védrine noted recently, the dominant states, led by the US, think that they have won the final battle of history, and now regard foreign policy – the exercise that consists of negotiating with people who do not share your own ideas and values – as superfluous. The thinking is that with people like that there is nothing to discuss. They are ruffians, so you simply condemn them and "when they go too far, bomb them". If the dialogue between cultures is only there to put a high-minded gloss on this slack-jawed imperial idiocy, it won't be worth a rabbit fart.

We can see clearly enough that the climate between human groups is deteriorating badly. We talk a lot about democracy, not enough about demography. 1.5 billion individuals in 1900, 6 billion in 2000. This is the major event, if it is coupled with the transport revolution. Everyone knows the role of demographic overcrowding on the phenomena of aggression, even leading to collective suicide; a couple of days spent in the territory of Gaza will make it clear enough. But, more than that, massive movements and intermingling of populations multiply contact interfaces, and with them occasions of friction, mutual irritations. Fundamentalisms in large part resemble skin diseases.

An urbanized planet is not a measure of cosmopolitanism, quite the contrary. In the Arab and Muslim world the number of city-dwellers has multipled by fifty in a century. Whether they are led by Lubavitches, charismatics or "beardies", messianic rashes and orthodox itches have their most immediate effects among immigrants, refugees and recent arrivals. It really seems that history is taking back with one hand what it is giving us with the other: opening by means of mobility, closure by means of memory.

We should learn to value all that separates us, and that is not odious. What "dialogue" could exist between cultures without the preservation between them of some minimal interplay of differences? Without them there could no longer be any exchange, only stiffness, monologue and lethargy.

The worst thing for a culture is to be alone, stationary, growing steadily poorer. Such was the remorseless fate of certain primitive ethnic groups, dying of homogeneity. It could become the fate today of a Euro-American culture that speaks in the name of the entire West, too saturated in its own formulae to remember how to count up to two, let alone three. Its weakness, in the end, may lie in its very strength. A culture suffering from obesity, and taking itself for the culture writ large, which has spread its own way of life and modes of thought into all the other cantons of humanity, and so can only look at its own reflection in the mirror, having no foreigners to talk to and more importantly, listen to. One is often stifling. Two, sometimes a curse. With three, you can start to breathe.



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