With some pride, I want to announce the new issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Disapora, the new “webzine” (on-line magazine) that I help to edit. This issue has been praised by Oromo websites and blogs here, here, here, and here. Naturally, it is very exciting for me to be a part of this adventure and to be a part of what I have previously in this blog called the “Oromo Renaissance.” As I mentioned there, most Americans don’t know who the Oromo are, even though they are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and this sudden flourishing of cultural activity has only recently become possible because of a more tolerant Ethiopian government and a newly globalized Oromo culture. The new issue of Ogina focuses on hip hop and spoken word poetry, and it features several artists, an interview with two of them, and an essay about how the internet changes the nature of culture and politics by creating a transnational public sphere.
What that essay by Qeerransoo Biyyaa argues is that Oromo hip hop is a “glocal“ phenomenon because it brings together a global art form and a local political movement. However, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises important questions about the internet as a tool for cultural and political communication. On the one hand it allows displaced Oromo refugees a means to share their cultural identity all over the world, but on the other hand, less than 1% of Oromo living in Ethiopia have access to a computer.
Making such observations, Qeerransoo Biyyaa raises some important theoretical questions about the very nature of culture itself as well as the nature of what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere.” Such questions are clearly important to many Oromo in the United States and Canada who are refugees living in exile, and since my blog is a “theory teacher blog,” I want to draw attention to how he is using theory to make very practical observations about his culture and about the possibilty of political agency for his people.
But here I will raise yet another question. What is the best concept for describing the kind of cultural activity we are seeing here?
Before you continue reading this blog post, please take a moment to think about how many times you’ve heard the words “multicultural” or “multiculturalism.” Probably a lot, and since the early 1990s, it has become popular for Americans to say that we live in a multicultural society. Instead of the proverbial “melting pot” metaphor in which everyone is supposed to assimilate to a single national culture, we now celebrate the “salad bowl” of different cultures all mixed together. To celebrate our cultural diversity is to participate in the ideology of multiculturalism.
But is multiculturalism really the best concept? Certainly, in my view, it’s better than monoculturalism (a.k.a. national chauvenism) which argues for a homogenous culture and celebrates that one culture as somehow superior to all others. But multiculturalism’s celebration of diversity (as I have mentioned in my previous blog post on intercultural competency) can sometimes seem a little shallow. We’re all different, hooray? Is that it? Certainly there’s more to multiculturalism than that, and indeed there is. Theorists of multiculturalism are very serious about not only the importance of cultural recognition but also the problems of cultural recognition when it is understood as an end in itself. In other words, for many, the true end — or goal — of multiculturalism ought to be social justice, not the naive celebration of difference.
However, as many scholars and journalists have pointed out, all the while that people in the United States were celebrating their multicultural nation in the mid-1990s, large multinational corporations such as Nike and Wal-Mart were moving their factories overseas where they could find a cheaper and more powerless workforce to exploit. For the Oromo living in Ethiopia, such global trade was both good and bad. It was good because it opened up large markets for their biggest commercial product — coffee. But it was bad because the multinational corporations controlled the market and left the Oromo people politically powerless, economically dependent, and socially traumatized. In fact, an award winning movie Black Gold analyzed this problem and proposed fair trade coffee organizations such as Equal Exchange as a possible solution.
At the same time that we notice the rise of multinational corporations in a more globalized economy, we also notice another phenomenon. Not only are there more immigrants, but — because of new technologies such as the telephone, television, and the internet — immigrants are remaining more and more emotionally, culturally, and even politically attached to their homeland. Hence, just as multinational corporations are not based in any single nation-state but operate in many nations around the globe, so are diasporic communities such as the Oromo also multinational — living and operating as a single culture in many different nations. The concept “multicultural” doesn’t really capture this phenomenon, so today we use the word “transnational” to better explain the movement of commodities, capital, culture, and people across national borders. And what about communities such as the Oromo and Native Americans who have never felt fully at home within their own homeland and who have never been fully enfranchised by the national government to which they are subject? Aren’t they essentially transnational communities, even if they never emigrate?
However, though we may throw around terms such as transnational, global, and glocal, the nation-state has not disappeared (as the recent effort to strengthen the border between the United States and Mexico indicates.) The nation-state is still the primary political structure available to people through which to adjudicate legal disputes and deliberate on policy. But in terms of both cultural identity and business practices, it has become more confusing and complicated. Some people such as John Carlos Rowe argue that the word transnational is too weak. It doesn’t draw enough attention to the conflicting senses of identity and the challenges of governing multinational corporations and transnational communities. Since the old model assumed that the nation-state governs people and their business inside a nation, how do we govern people and businesses that seems to exist in more than one nation or between nations? Rowe favors the word “post-national” because, he argues, the very strangeness of that made-up word actually calls attention to itself as a fundamentally paradoxical situation.
So, which of these words — multicultural, transnational, glocal, multinational, transnational, global, or post-national — provides us with the best conceptual lens through which to see our world today?