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 emerita 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 the PWIAS website.More