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Few will remember an incident that took place in 2007 when the actor Richard Gere got into hot water over a bit of foolish macho grandstanding. Participating in an AIDS awareness gathering in Mumbai, he appears to have gotten carried away in the presence of the Indian actress, Shilpa Shetty, made famous for her outspoken role on the “Big Brother” TV series.
The exchange was infinitely replayed on YouTube, let alone local media outlets across the globe. In just about one minute, what began as an initially friendly kiss on the actress’ hand quickly escalated into something more threatening. The incident took place in the days before #MeToo! and was pushed as much by the event’s spirited festivity as by Gere’s clearly inappropriate behavior.
It all unfolded so rapidly: From Gere’s kiss to a spontaneous hug, to a kiss on Shetty’s neck or cheek, to his forceful embrace, to a classical, overpowering Hollywood smooch, to, finally, the ever-gallant Hollywood screen star bending the seemingly less-than-willing Bollywood actress over his knee to plant a final grand smacker.
Perhaps most surprising, when it was over, Gere moved down stage and seemed surprised by his actions. Once the deed was done, he uncomfortably bowed before her, extending his joined palms in a gesture of contrition, seeking forgiveness, apparently acknowledging to himself and Shetty the foolish, impulsiveness of his behavior. Appearing more composed and in-charge as the event’s host, the actress quickly put her hair and clothes in order and it was on with the show.
In India, Hindu and other fundamentalist militants seized upon the kiss as an example of the clash of civilizations, of growing moral corruption imposed by the West. A rural judge issued an arrest warrant for the flabbergasted actors. In quick retreat, the well-intentioned Gere, who regularly visits India in support of Tibetan freedom and the Dalai Lama, issued an apology. Now, a decade later, all has been forgotten, if not forgiven.
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The Gere incident was about a kiss and more than a kiss, a clash of civilizations. A kiss is a physical exchange, a highly ritualized yet all-too-human gesture embodying many forms of intimacy. Clearly, the Mumbai event’s festive mood and good cheer encouraged Gere to a spontaneous expression what may have been genuine but could equally have been an expression of the false intimacy not uncommon among macho celebrities.
Nevertheless, an apparently unanticipated, unwanted and non-mutual kiss, especially in public, can have many meanings, some of them very threatening. It can represent a sexist act, symbolizing an intimacy that is misplaced, suggesting a (nonexistent) closeness that is simply inappropriate. And, especially for the woman, it can be experienced as a personal violation, an unwarranted crossing-of-the-line between the self as a public and a private being.
A public kiss can also represent, as in this case, an imperialist act, symbolizing the long, long history of Western (male) dominance over a former (British) colony. This meaning can take on a particular egregious significance when the man appears to overpower the woman. It can violate a host of known and unknown cultural norms, particularly norms that are being contested as globalization remakes the world order.
Gere’s kiss was an expression of this “clash of civilizations,” a clash of profound cultural differences … and something more. The kiss represents something deeper, something that would make the gesture as inappropriate in Mumbai as in Los Angeles.
The deep fundamentalist religious fervor sweeping much of the world today is a forceful, if ultimately failed, attempt to contain globalization and the excesses of capitalism. Religious fundamentalists in the U.S. as well as in quasi-feudalistic regimes throughout the “developing” world are experiencing enormous social and personal disruption. Reading the bitter diatribes of some of these fundamentalists, it’s clear that they feel that their world is undergoing profound dislocation. No area is being as profoundly upset as human sexuality and the age-old power relations between women and men that are embodied in physical, erotic encounters.
Life in the West over the last four centuries has been fundamentally and forever remade. And we cannot imagine it otherwise. Religious orthodoxy of old was superseded by secular values, with scientific reasoning overcoming superstition; the rule of divine kings and popes was replaced by ever-expanding notion of “bourgeois,” personal liberties; and industrialization, class society and the tyranny of commodity relations overthrew pre-modern values. People are, today, left with little more than their bank accounts for security against the vicissitudes of modern life.
Sexuality is a principal battle zone in the transition from the “premodern” to the “postmodern” world. Over the last century, but especially since the consumer revolution of the post-WWII era, sexuality in the West was enlisted to advance the wonders of a capitalist commodity society. And it’s been remarkably successful.
Smart Madison Avenue advertisers convincingly linked the social virtue of “personal freedom” with the ability to consume commercial products; even smarter, this “freedom” to consume was eroticized and mere objects of even the simplest utility were enveloped with the fantasy of sexual pleasure. This linkage became evermore explicit with the introduction of the oral contractive pill and IUD in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the concomitant sexual revolution. The “freedom” of the impulse purchase became indistinguishable from the zip-less fuck.
For centuries, sexuality has been a bitter terrain of social and personal struggle. For contemporary puritans, whether in the U.S. or throughout the world, sex remains deeply disturbing. It is something that must be forcefully controlled. First, sex is the most intimate form of human contact; each sex act, but especially those culminating in procreation or pleasure, can invoke our animal nature. Second, sex is a personal and social relationship that can disrupt, even threaten, prevailing religious and secular orthodoxies; it can challenge not only established authority and power relations, but sanctioned beliefs about nature, the body and pleasure.
No wonder why Gere’s public kiss for some Hindus in India, like gay marriage for some evangelical Christians in the U.S., handholding in public by an unmarried couple for some Muslims in Iran, simply walking together by two young people from different religious groups in Iraq or competing in a two-piece swim suit for some in Israel can be so disturbing. From a secular perspective, these acts may seem rather innocent, innocuous. But for those clinging to premodern values in an effort to forestall the ever-encroaching power of the Western-controlled market, these acts violate both public values and private morals, to say nothing of religious teachings.
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In the face of the Trump administration’s mounting political crisis, the well-worn concept of the “clash of civilizations” lives on. This neo-con ideological prop provided the rationale for the imperialist interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere – and continues to do so. It’s being promoted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, UN representative Nikki Haley and — most loudly — by National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The thesis was originally formulated by Bernard Lewis and gained wider acceptance through the writings of Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and others. At its core, the neo-cons argue that in a post-Cold War world, new forces have emerged to shape global conflicts.
Last year, during the G20 summit in Warsaw, Poland, Trump raised the specter of the clash of civilizations, warning:
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Intensely nationalistic groups and movements (some with state power) have replaced the two competing superpowers to foster conflict, thus challenge the hegemony of the U.S. and the “postmodern” world. As Huntington wrote in Foreign Affairsa quarter-century ago, “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
For Trump, Huntington, et. al., the battle between nation-states has been superseded by the battle between cultures. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, economic competition, class struggle, anti-colonial battles and spheres-of-influence concerns determined global conflict. However, in the post-Cold War millennium, from those promoting the notion of the clash of civilization, Huntington and others argue, a people’s culture — their values, beliefs and religion — has become the determining source of conflict.
For neo-cons, the clash-of-civilizations thesis artfully simplifies the world. It reformulates the classical Christian battle between “good” and “evil,” God and the Devil, into contemporary terms. It pits the alleged progress achieved through secular capitalism against the apparent traditionalism imposed by religious fundamentalism.
Both sides of the ostensible clash-of-civilizations’ “battle” – the moralistic secularists and religious fundamentalists — share a belief that human existence is something more than animal existence. Much of orthodox or traditionalists religious belief is rooted in the rejection of nature, especially the notion of humans are natural beings. They deny the physicality of human existence, of the living body, of pleasure and reproduction. In effect, some believe that the body is a machine and consciousness a computer.
Many assume that to be human is to be imbued with something divine, something more than being an animal with long-learned consciousness. God, heaven, the soul and the whole cavalcade of superstitious spirits that envelop much of religion is but an enormous phantasmagoria denying animal mortality. Religious proscriptions seek to suppress the erotic passion that for many is more powerful than their deity.
Put simply, the clash of civilizations is but a reformulation of the oldest war-cry, the battle of “us” against “them,” for 21st century globalization. Making matters worse, the theory has been implicitly accepted by many in the media (and, in most likelihood, the population at large) as the defining framework or paradigm not only to understanding the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to conceptualize global relations and conflicts. It also underscores Trump’s anti-immigrant pronouncements.
At its root, the clash-of-civilizations thesis is a simplistic bifurcation of a complex, variegated world. Much criticism of the theory has been raised as to its inherent racism, its mechanistic view of history and, equally disturbing, its freezing of all contesting social forces (particularly in the West) under the banner of ruling-class globalization. As Edward Said recognized, “In fact, Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history ….”
The issue of sex never appears in the writings of Lewis, Huntington and the others who promote the clash-of-civilization theory. The closest Huntington gets is sweeping statements like the following: “Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox cultures.” While sex is not mentioned, it represents the integratation of core “Western ideas” expressed as personal practice and social policy.
Sex provides a unique window into the alleged clash of civilizations. It is that sphere of human existence in which the dual identities of being human – of flesh and mind — exists as one. In sex, the truly human and the truly animal are forged into a unified experience. This unity is experienced in both the human species’ reproduction practice and erotic, physical pleasure.
The “clash” can be reframed in terms of sexuality as the modern vs. the traditional, the naked and the covered. It is expressed in a host of hot-button issues, be it abortion rights and sex education, gay sex and gay marriage, pre- and extra-marital relations, divorce and arranged marriage or female public attire and artistic expression (especially how obscenity is defined).
The sexuality attributed to this “clash” is a staple of Western media. Most of the popular media regularly run stories about religious repression in the Middle East and about the difficulties more traditionalist Muslims have integrating into secular society, particularly Europe. However, by pealing away the dichotomy between the Middle East and the West, religious fundamentalism and secular capitalism inherent in the clash-of-civilizations theory, one can get beyond its moralistic simplicity and reveal deeper social forces – in both the Middle East and the West — that are advancing the cause of sexual freedom throughout the world.
For the last four centuries, capitalism, intimately linked with bourgeois rights and scientific rationalism, has helped transform sexuality. The cornerstone of this transformation is the reconstitution of the individual into a commodity for marketplace exchange. It is expressed in the social fiction of the autonomous (adult) person as citizen, laborer and, in the 20thcentury, consumer.
Herbert Marcuse warned that the capitalist marketplace conceals a kernel of utopian negation, thus challenging monogamous, conventional sexuality. However, as the market (and its power to transform everything into a commodity relation) came to increasingly dictate the nature of pleasure, it also increasingly came to serve as an agent of repression. In One-Dimensional Man, his insight rings as true today as it did when first articulated a half-century ago: “The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged, but through this process, the Pleasure Principle is reduced – deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society. Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.”
Fundamentalist fury is, in part, a rebellion against market globalization and the unequal power relations it requires. This is especially true in terms of the sexuality that it promotes. The market upends premodern social conventions and power relations and, thus, undermines traditional forms of order and repression, especially the patriarchal family. Such disruption fundamentally destabilizes what Huntington calls culture, let alone personal identify. Today’s religious fury, whether in the Middle East or the U.S., is a protest against what is experienced by many as social dislocation, of the world being turned upside down.
Social dislocation takes many forms, including: the breakdown of the traditional family, increase in divorce and rise of single-parent households; changing established patriarchal roles and greater empowerment of women and young people, with traditional male identity in crisis; opposition to female genital mutilation and domestic violence; liberation of gay and lesbian people, who now have the right to conventional “bourgeois” marriage; decriminalization of prostitution and toleration of all adult, noncommercial and consensual sexual relations; sexualization of the young (especially girls) through advertising and fashion, fostering increased sex offenses against and among the young; and a widening separation of procreation from pleasure through enhanced birth control practices, including abortion.
However, the structural realignment of sexual practice is made worse when the nation that is being upended lacks a sufficient level of economic development and political liberty to lubricate market relations. Without such lubrication, social dislocation generates a host of deeply disturbing consequences that invite the reestablishment of traditional forms of power and sexual repression.
Under the tyranny imposed by the oil industry and its military apparatus over client states (and the U.S. should be seen as such a state, along with much of the Middle East), insurgent fundamentalism becomes the loudest voice of resistance. This dislocation was made all the worse by the Bush administration’s failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continued, never-ending wars pursued by Obama and Trump.
In the U.S. and other advanced capitalist states, a new, progressive challenge to market-determined sexuality needs to once again arise. It can reassert a vision of an emancipatory sexuality free of market manipulation. It needs to acknowledge that sex crimes are crimes against humanity.
This challenge can draw upon the experiences of the “free love” movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. It can draw together those in support of a woman’s right to choose, gay rights, the decriminalization of prostitution, sexual pleasures among consenting adults and sex education (and pleasure) for young people. Such a movement needs to forge an alliance not only among those in the U.S., but with fellow progressives throughout the world.
Richard Gere’s kiss of Shilpa Shetty, if remembered at all, is but a sad story. Its deeper meaning as a vivid expression of the clash of civilizations, however, will reverberate for years to come. It may be one of the most insignificant manifestations of globalization, but a revealing expression nonetheless.