Strange Bedfellows in the War Against Valentine’s Day

Strange Bedfellows in the War Against Valentine’s Day

By Farish A. Noor

Hate and prejudice can strange bedfellows make. As the world struggles on
under the yoke of a globalisation process that continues unabated and
unguided, the crippling effects of uneven development make themselves
manifest all over. This has led to a counter-reaction from many parts of the
world from groups that oppose the globalisation process and who have
attempted an anti-systemic critique instead, though these anti-systemic
movements are arrayed across a wide spectrum and also include, quite
frankly, some creepy and loony ones.

In many parts of the developing South, the failure of the post colonial
state has contributed to the rise of right-wings conservative groups and
parties who base their narrow communitarian brand of politics on simplistic
essentialist understandings of identity and the difference between ‘Self’
and ‘Other’. For some of them, standing against globalisation has been
equated as standing squarely against the West in toto.

Due to the fact that most of these groups are formed out of a communitarian
mould, their politics tend to be shallow as it is short-sighted. The narrow
ethnocentrism that underlies their political campaigns also explains why
their critiques of globalisation have tended to be couched in essentialist
terms that see the ‘West’ as static and simple, and their own identities as
fixed by non-permeable frontiers.

This sort of simplistic politics was clearly evident this week when
right-wing groups all over the South called for a ‘ban’ on celebrations of
Valentine’s day, which for them is yet another Western cultural import that
underscores the cultural hegemony of the West over the rest. In many of
these cases what emerged instead was a culturalist (as opposed to
structuralist) critique of Valentine’s day on the grounds that it was
another case of the ‘great evil Western empire’ spreading its cultural
tentacles worldwide.

It is ironic that in this simplistic blanket condemnation of all things
Western that right-wing conservative groups in Asia were united by a common
hatred of Western culture. While Islamist groups in countries like Malaysia,
Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh threatened to go out into the streets and
‘morally police’ the behaviour of wayward youths on that day, extreme
right-wing Hindu activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)
and RSS in India also took the law into their own hands and harassed young
Indian kids who wanted to go out on dates. The leaders of the ABVP even
argued that the ‘sitting culture’ in Indian restaurants should be curbed, in
order to rid Indian society of social evils that emanate from the Saint who
died hundreds of years ago! As ever, the tactics of these right-wing
movements are predictably simple: Venting their spleen on the West and
laying the blame for their own economic problems on the Other is a simple
way of exteriorising what is really an internal structural crisis. It also
allows them to extend their power and influence by adopting a paternalistic
rhetoric of ‘Care’ for their constituencies, as well as their victims – who
more often than not happen to be young kids.

One can only lament the fate of poor old Saint Valentine, whose martyrdom at
the hands of his murderers has now served to unite Islamic and Hindu
fundamentalists in their unstated common struggle against the ‘evil’ West.
What is more worrying and problematic, however, is the way in which the rise
of such authoritarian groups in countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia and
Indonesia continues unabated before the seemingly blind eyes of a public
that has grown accustomed to the hyperbolic rhetoric of the right.

Lest it be forgotten, some simple truths need to be stated once more: The
celebration of Valentine’s day these days may indeed be a crass and vulgar
affair totally distorted by consumerism and commercialism, but it is
certainly not the main problem of globalisation that the South faces. If
anything, the popularisation of the St Valentine cult is merely a symptom
of the wider integration of the South into the global economic system, which
has brought with it other popular cultural markers such as McDonalds, Nike,
karaoke and other such nonsensical things. To suppose, as the right-wingers
do, that the banning of Valentine’s day or even McDonalds would somehow
miraculously solve the problem of uneven development and globalisation is as
naïve and simplistic as their own overblown rhetoric.

Nor does the celebration of Valentine’s day represent a danger in any
tangible, realistic sense. Compared to the carpet bombing of Iraq not too
long ago, to be showered by cards bearing messages of love – even if they
are written by spotty teens – is infinitely better, one should think. The
structural inequalities of the global economic system remains the primary
reason why the countries of the developing South are vulnerable to the
vicissitudes of the global economy as well as the bullying tactics and
gunboat diplomacy of powerful developed nations. As long as these structural
issues are not addressed in earnest, and with some intelligence, the
problems will remain. (And blaming dead saints will not get us anywhere.)

On a final note: In anticipation of the nonsensical accusation that I am
somehow defending the ‘corrupting culture’ of Western materialism by
defending poor old (and dead) Saint Valentine, allow me to state clearly why
I choose to take this stand. In an apparently loveless world beset by
man-made calamities of an unprecedented scale, I feel that what the world
needs now is Love. Putting aside the crass materialism and consumerism that
accompanies the annual celebration of Valentine’s day, the fact remains that
its essential message is that of Love and companionship between human
beings. It is that message of common humanity and solidarity that the
anti-systemic and anti-globalisation movements of the South need to use and
capitalise, in order to create instrumental coalitions that transcend
boundaries of politics and culture.

So next year, instead of ranting and raving against all things Western,
perhaps some of these anti-globalisation activists of the South might want
to consider sending a Valentine’s card to their counterparts in the
anti-globalisation movement in the West. That, at least, would be a step in
the right direction!