Cana­dian MSNBC broad­caster Ali Velshi is both alarmed and fas­ci­nated by the weaponiza­tion of cul­tural iden­tity that is on­go­ing in the United States, and he’ll be speak­ing about it in Van­cou­ver.

The TV an­chor and busi­ness cor­re­spon­dent wor­ries about the rise of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY CHAR­LIE SMITH

MSNBC broad­caster Ali Velshi has had a busy day by the time he gets on the line with the Ge­or­gia Straight from New York City. U. S. pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is just about to pull his coun­try out of the nu­clear deal with Iran. And Velshi is gath­er­ing his thoughts about an up­com­ing visit to Van­cou­ver to dis­cuss the “weaponiza­tion of cul­ture”.

Velshi, an Is­maili Mus­lim born in Kenya and raised in Toronto, says he has al­ways felt that hav­ing a cul­tural iden­tity and ex­po­sure to oth­ers’ cul­tural iden­ti­ties are a pos­i­tive thing for so­ci­ety.

“I thought it was an ad­di­tive,” he says. “I thought it was an en­hance­ment to your cit­i­zen­ship.”

But now he’s wit­ness­ing cul­tural iden­ti­ties be­ing ap­pro­pri­ated into po­lit­i­cal weapons that are pulling so­ci­eties apart. He no­ticed it in the United King­dom’s Brexit ref­er­en­dum and in re­cent elec­tions in sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to him, it’s also on dis­play in Amer­ica, where more peo­ple are vot­ing on the be­lief that if an­other cul­ture is mak­ing gains, then they must be los­ing.

“It’s a zero- sum game,” Velshi em­pha­sizes. “‘Make Amer­ica great again’ was a slo­gan of a cul­tural war.…there was a clear un­der­cur­rent that said, ‘ A lot of changes that you have seen have come at a cost to you eco­nom­i­cally. Let’s re­claim that for our­selves.’ ”

It’s a view­point that Velshi adamantly re­jects. And he wor­ries that this type of think­ing is lay­ing a foun­da­tion for some po­ten­tially earth- shat­ter­ing con­se­quences.

“I’m very alarmed at the sim­i­lar­i­ties that we are see­ing to­day to Rwanda, to pre­war Ger­many, to other to­tal­i­tar­ian en­vi­ron­ments,” Velshi says, re­fer­ring to a 1994 African geno­cide and the rise of the Nazis in Europe.

And he ad­mits that he’s puz­zled that it’s tak­ing place in the dig­i­tal age in the United States, which has a First Amend­ment to its con­sti­tu­tion that guar­an­tees free­dom of re­li­gion, ex­pres­sion, as­sem­bly, and the right to pe­ti­tion.

“I truly still don’t un­der­stand why in democ­ra­cies we strug­gle with this,” Velshi con­tin­ues.

He ac­knowl­edges that cul­ture wars aren’t un­com­mon through­out his­tory in places like Europe and In­dia. But in Amer­ica it’s more sur­pris­ing to him, given the coun­try’s rel­a­tive pros­per­ity and its over­all labour short­age.

“Rather than think of so­phis­ti­cated im­mi­gra­tion con­cerns, we cre­ate bo­gey­men on the south­ern bor­der: rapists and mur­der­ers,” he says. “Cul­ture is play­ing a part in cre­at­ing the fear.”

As Velshi has delved more deeply into this topic, he has come to ap­pre­ci­ate the im­por­tance of build­ing “bridges of em­pa­thy” with those with op­pos­ing points of view. In this re­gard, he’s been in­flu­enced by so­ci­ol­o­gist Ar­lie Rus­sell Hochschild, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. She spent five years study­ing Tea Party sup­port­ers in Lou­i­si­ana to find out why they would sup­port politi­cians who iden­ti­fied with po­lit­i­cal causes that didn’t help them get ahead in life.

Ac­cord­ing to Velshi, they iden­tify with right-wing broad­caster Rush Lim­baugh and Trump “be­cause those peo­ple have so im­preg­nated them with the view that their loss is specif­i­cally be­cause of some­one else’s gain in so­ci­ety”.

“So ho­mo­pho­bic views, racist views, things like that have re­ally been born out of the idea that they needed…a scape­goat,” the MSNBC broad­caster says. “Some in so­ci­ety have very suc­cess­fully il­lus­trated a scape­goat for them.”

Velshi wants to be­come bet­ter in­formed about why peo­ple feel this need to have scape­goats so he is bet­ter equipped to bring them over to the side of plu­ral­ism.

In this re­gard, he’s been in­spired by the spir­i­tual leader of the Is­mailis, the Aga Khan, who is one of the world’s fore­most ad­vo­cates for plu­ral­ism. In fact, the Aga Khan spear­headed the cre­ation of the Global Cen­tre for Plu­ral­ism in Ot­tawa with the goal of deep­en­ing un­der­stand­ing of fac­tors that con­trib­ute to in­clu­sion and ex­clu­sion around the world.

“When the Aga Khan speaks of cul­ture, it’s not just eth­nic­ity and re­li­gion,” Velshi points out. “He talks about mu­sic and art and the built en­vi­ron­ment.”

An­other in­spi­ra­tion has been cel­list Yo-yo Ma, who syn­the­sizes mu­si­cal tra­di­tions from a va­ri­ety of cul­tures. Velshi likes to cite ex­am­ples like this to show how an in­ter­cul­tural ap­proach can en­rich so­ci­ety.

Velshi has also paid at­ten­tion to neu­ro­science, which is shed­ding new light on the struc­ture and func­tion­ing of the brain and how dem­a­gogues can ex­ploit this to fan the flames of racism. How­ever, be­cause neu­ro­science is not his spe­cialty, he prefers to speak about the po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of the weaponiza­tion of cul­ture.

“I’m at the front end of this jour­ney, and I’m truly fas­ci­nated by it,” Velshi re­veals. “I had spent a few years fo­cus­ing on the phe­nom­e­non of fake news—from an eco­nomic per­spec­tive— and how it grew. I’m re­al­iz­ing fake news is just a sub­set of this larger con­ver­sa­tion. Fake news is em­ployed very suc­cess­fully in cul­ture wars.”-

Ali Velshi will de­liver the Peter Wall In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Stud­ies Wall Ex­change lec­ture on Wed­nes­day ( May 16) at the Vogue Theatre. For more in­for­ma­tion, see www.

Open Roboethics In­sti­tute direc­tor Ajung Moon points out that the cre­ators of ro­bots have the power to repli­cate their views and ideas over and over. Mar­tin Dee photo.

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