In Defense of Difference
And on the General versus the Universal
The country where I live, Luxembourg, is a peculiarly rare place. With a population of just over six hundred thousand people and an area smaller than the US state of Rhode Island, it’s really quite tiny. From the village in which I live, I can cycle to Germany or France in about an hour (and can see German windmills over the Moselle from a hill about 500 meters from my home); if I wanted to go to Belgium instead, it’s just a 2 hour bike ride away. If I drove, all those journeys could be accomplished in about a quarter of the time.
Being surrounded by three much larger and populous nations (Germany of 83 million people, France at 67 million, and Belgium with 11 and a half million), one would think it might be difficult to describe anything particularly unique about the place. The largest geographical region it occupies, the Ardennes, is primarily in Belgium, while the other region, the Moselle Valley, is more generally associated with France and Germany. Also, though it has its own language, Lëtzebuergesch, government documents are written in and most commerce takes place in French.
Add to all this two rather bizarre aspect of its population demographics: only about 51% of its inhabitants are ancestrally Lëtzebuerger, and the number of people in the country increases by 33% during business hours. This second matter is due to the very large group of border inhabitants who commute into the country to take advantage of the much higher wages (the minimum wage here is also 30% higher), The first matter, that of nationality, has quite a lot to do with capitalism’s constant need for a large underclass: as native Lëtzebuerger citizens became more educated and began working in non-manual professions, the capitalist class encouraged mass immigration of the economically ruined Portuguese (from Portugal itself or its colonies such as Cape Verde) during Salazar’s authoritarian rule there. Entire villages in Portugal are said to have been abandoned by their inhabitants for Luxembourg, and now 16% of the people here have Portuguese origins.
So, one would think it might be difficult to pinpoint what makes Luxembourg unique or culturally distinct from the countries it borders, or what makes Lëtzebuerger people themselves different from its neighbors or co-citizens. Yet when you’re actually living here as an outsider, married to a Lëtzebuerger man and living in Lëtzebuerger village, the distinctions are sharp and obvious.
I suspect this idea is probably rather foreign to most of my American readers, especially those who have not lived outside of borders of that sprawling nation for any period of time. Especially for the more progressive sorts, the notion that generalizations can be accurately made about any people group likely comes across a heresy at best or potentially racist. This, I’d argue, has much more do to do with the exceptionalist situation of the United States (a country where very, very, very few can actually claim ancestral ties there older than 300 years) and its geographical isolation rather than some sort of universal political truth.
A conversation my husband and I had with someone in Slovenia will help illustrate the much deeper differences in cultural frameworks which under-gird this problem. Our interlocutor had laughed at something my husband had said regarding his perception of the Balkans, and suddenly the three of us were comparing our culturally distinct understanding of what comprised Europe and what comprised the Balkans. For my husband and I, the Balkans included everything that was once part of the former Yugoslavia. For the Slovenian, the Balkans also included parts of Hungary, Bulgaria and all of Greece, though he was clear that others would exclude those countries and also others.
Another much more famous Slovenian, sadly not present in that conversation, has also written about this definitional problem:
It is as if one can never receive a definitive answer to the question, "Where does it begin?" For Serbs, it begins down there in Kosovo or Bosnia, and they defend the Christian civilization against this Europe's Other. For Croats, it begins with the Orthodox, despotic, Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia defends the values of democratic Western civilization. For Slovenes, it begins with Croatia, and we Slovenes are the last outpost of the peaceful Mitteleuropa. For Italians and Austrians, it begins with Slovenia, where the reign of the Slavic hordes starts. For Germans, Austria itself, on account of its historic connections, is already tainted by the Balkanic corruption and inefficiency. For some arrogant Frenchmen, Germany is associated with the Balkanian Eastern savagery—up to the extreme case of some conservative anti-European-Union Englishmen for whom, in an implicit way, it is ultimately the whole of continental Europe itself that functions as a kind of Balkan Turkish global empire with Brussels as the new Constantinople, the capricious despotic center threatening English freedom and sovereignty. So Balkan is always the Other: it lies somewhere else, always a little bit more to the southeast, with the paradox that, when we reach the very bottom of the Balkan peninsula, we again magically escape Balkan. Greece is no longer Balkan proper, but the cradle of our Western civilization.
This same conceptual difference also came up as we expanded our conversation to discuss the boundaries of Europe itself. For my husband, who came of age during the strongest and most heady days of the European Union, the core of Europe is specifically the first 12 member nations of the EU, and each nation which is subsequently added expands Europe. For the Slovenian, Europe and the Balkans were entirely distinct, and he pointed to the non-contiguous situation of Greece (an original part of the EU but bordering no other EU country until 2004) as to why Greece is actually part of the Balkans, not of Europe.
For me, having lived the vast majority of my life in the United States, this was all deeply fascinating. I think perhaps my view is not the dominant American one, but I’d always considered everything on the European continent (a funny thing itself, since there is no physical boundary between the land mass considered Europe and the one considered Asia—it’s just an imagined one) to be Europe. That for me includes Russia, an idea that would mortify Ukrainian nationalists who argue they are the true frontier of Europe against Asia. I’d also include Turkey in that geographical region, an idea which would get many right-wing Europeans and many Turkish nationalists both quite furious. Other Americans I’ve talked to draw the boundaries elsewhere, often as ‘Western’ Europe, excluding everything east of Germany except Poland.
Such diverging conceptions possibly sound almost absurd for Americans for whom “North America” is just three countries. Of course, this isn’t the only accounting of the matter: in most other countings, there are actually 23 different sovereign nations in North America (20 of which are in the Caribbean). Some arrive at 30 countries in total (since Central America isn’t actually its own continent) and in some calculations there are only 2, with Mexico instead considered part of Central America.
The implication here should be obvious: where we draw the borders between one set of people and another is a deeply political and cultural problem. Again for people in the United States, the vast majority of whom share a historical situation of being from somewhere else altogether and a linguistic situation of dominance by one singular language, the idea of making distinctions between people groups can seem both archaic and politically dangerous. Distinctions nevertheless occur there, but they instead follow along even less historical political fictions such as race—in which people whose ancestral origins are located in one continent (Europe) are seen as a coherent group distinguishable from those from other continents (Asia or Africa).
This leads to many other problems. For instance, the conception of who constitutes ‘white’ in the United is completely inapplicable to Europe. Slavic peoples, Celtic peoples, and Germanic peoples don’t really see themselves as all part of the same racial group, and for some the differences between them can be as stark as those between Africans and Asians. Consider also that Turks and many North African peoples would be considered white or Arab in the United States, while they may see themselves as neither white nor Arab but parts of different people groups altogether.
In Europe, these differences tend to matter much more than Americans might think, but it isn’t because Europe is any more racist than the United States. In fact, these distinctions have very little to do with race at all, but rather with older conceptions of what constitutes a distinct people which race theory attempted to replace. Also, these conceptions cannot be universalized, since they are all based instead on relative perspectives between groups in physical interactions with each other.
This can be seen quite well in Luxembourg, a country which has had a relatively stable population with few mass displacements or influxes of new populations for most of a millennium. Lëtzebuerger people are primarily descended from Franks who settled here during several waves of migrations. Other Franks continued on into Gaul, which is now named after them (France).
The Franks who came here intermixed relatively peacefully with the indigenous Celtic peoples (the Treveri), but displaced their language and assimilated their religious beliefs into their own (the goddess Arduinna, for instance, becoming Freya). After settling here, the population remained relatively stable, particularly because of the remote and easily defensible nature of the geography. The primary city after which the entire country is named, Luxembourg, is one of Europe’s oldest continuously-inhabited fortress cities, and through deft political maneuvering Luxembourg was able to keep much of its cultural sovereignty intact during times of foreign reign.
The language itself is a strange one, because it was able to develop independently from larger language groups. This is rarely understood in the United States, but even apparently mono-lingual nations such as France and Germany have many other indigenous languages that persist. France has at least five distinct native competitors to French, for instance, including one language which shares a similar historical situation to Lëtzebuergesch: Alsatian. Both those languages are descendants of early Frankish German, which is distinct from the German spoken in Germany. Dutch also has its roots in an earlier but different Frankish migration, just as the roots of English come from Germanic migrations to Britain.1
Just as the isolation of the people here allowed the language to develop independently (though it has a lot of French loan words), cultural forms and genetic patterns also developed independently. The former can be seen particularly in several unique religious traditions carried into Catholicism that are uniquely Lëtzebuerger, while the latter is seen in certain physical features. Those without much marriage with people from other people stocks tend to have almost shockingly big and round heads and squat frames, similar to how Bretons in isolated villages in France tend to be very short with almost dwarfish facial features.
To speak of such differences again may sound like heresy or even race-thinking to an American mind, but again I’d urge you to remember that race theory is a later attempt to apply Enlightenment and Age of Reason foolishness to cultural and historical differences. The difference between the appearance and language (there are several distinct dialects of Lëtzebuergesch) of people in this village and a village an hour’s bike ride north to me has nothing to do with race, but rather historical and geographical situations.
What also complicates any discussion of such matter is our fraught relationship to the idea of generalizations. A generalization is not a statement regarding universal truth, but rather just a shorthand we humans use to exist in the world. A person can say ‘trees have leaves’ without being wrong, despite the fact that some trees have needles instead and trees in winter and dead trees have no leaves. Asserting that trees have leaves isn’t an attempt to inscribe an ideological perspective upon the world, though if someone really wants to start a fight about the matter we can imagine all kinds of arguments about what actually constitutes a tree. In other words, we are usually aware of exceptions when we generalize, and rarely are we ever talking about universals.
The other thing at play in such generalizations is the matter of difference and comparison. The aforementioned shockingly big round heads and squat bodies only can be said to be big, round, or squat in comparison to others. The Portuguese here don’t generally have shockingly big round heads, nor are they particularly squat in stature. Neither do the French or Germans living very close by, nor even those such as my Lëtzebuerger husband whose Dutch father’s genes made his body look much less like those of his mother’s relatives, ancestors, and other two sons.2
Most importantly, I think, is that such generalizations aren’t actually political observations. There is nothing politically important about some people having shockingly big and round heads or being squat, any more than there is anything politically important about some people having darker skin than others. Even the most right-wing political party here makes nothing of these physical or historical differences, but rather focuses only on cultural and linguistic distinction. Probably surprising again for an American reader, they see the primary threat to Lëtzebuerger cultural distinction coming from the French, and they’re not actually wrong in this matter.
French is the primary language of commerce here and is often the default language of other social interactions, too. It’s incredibly rare to hear another language spoken at a restaurant, bar, or grocery store, and it’s also the first language that immigrants learn in order to integrate better. Lëtzebuergesch is still spoken at home by many and is the first language many learn, but the only real protection (and a really innocuous one at that) for the language was pushed through by the far-right party. To become a citizen, you must learn to speak and understand the language at a rudimentary level. There are no racial or cultural restrictions, only linguistic, and you need never use the language again after passing the language exam since all official documents are written in French, German, and increasingly in English.
The relationship to the French here is complicated also by the mass of French workers who drive into country every day. France’s economy has been quite a mess for a very long time, and the decay of its infrastructure is on par with the decay in the United States. This is seen quite easily the moment you cross the border into France from Luxembourg by car. Immediately the highways are covered in litter, the bridges in graffiti, and the roads are in deep disrepair. When I lived in France for four years I’d assumed that all European roadsides and cities were full of litter; when I moved to Luxembourg, I understood I’d been wrong.
To make a universal statement about the French from this mere observation would be wrong, just as it would be to assert that all French people are assholes like those in Paris. Generalizing, on the other hand, is less fraught because it doesn’t make assertions about the French themselves. Despite the joke I’ve heard quite often here, that God wanted to show humans what heaven was like so he made France but then he filled it full of French people so humans would know what hell was like, there isn’t really a lot of bias against the French themselves.
What can be said, then? The same thing we can say about other groups: that they are influenced by shared historical situations and cultural forms, and we can generalize from our observations but never universalize.
I ride a bicycle daily here, and the path from this small village to another village with my gym and a grocery store often follows a route used by German workers. The road is very rural and very beautiful, and often quite deadly to animals and sometimes to people because drivers go absurdly fast on it. Whenever I hear a car speeding along it, far before I actually see the vehicle, I get off the road with my bike as fast as possible to avoid the same fate suffered by my cat, my neighbor’s cat, several deer, a fox, and several humans.
Also, every time I encounter such a car, I look at the license plate and note that they are always German. What does that say about Germans? Nothing universal. But that doesn’t mean general observations cannot be made.
Consider the detail I mentioned, that the route is used by German workers. These incidents tend to happen most in late afternoon, right about the time those workers would be leaving for home. They don’t live here, and so don’t have a sense of direct connection to the place. They are likely in a hurry to go home after work as most people are. And they live in a country where speed limits rarely exist on highways and driving insanely fast is considered an acceptable behavior.
A similar generalization can be made about Belgians derived from their shared national situation. While my husband drove us home from our honeymoon, we were stuck in a traffic jam on a French highway north of Strasbourg. Suddenly there were many cars attempting to maneuver themselves past the rest of the vehicles to get ahead of the blockage, while at the same time a group of 30 motorcyclists pushed their way through the gap between the two lanes of slowed cars. Every single one of all those had Belgian license plates.
What was happening there could be seen a mere co-incidence, or on the other hand we could assert that all Belgians are assholes. A more interesting generalization, however, one that takes into account something other than personal opinion, includes the really shoddy state of Belgian highways and the complete unreliability of highway markings and signs. To not become stuck in a direction you didn’t intend to go in Belgium (something that happened to my husband and I multiple times near Liege), you have to take illegal turns and make other maneuvers that everyone else is doing too. If you are accustomed to doing so, it would make sense that you’d apply this same sort of thinking on other highways as well.
This is the deep usefulness of generalizations and cultural analysis that has been lost within progressive, liberal, and Woke frameworks. Completely rejecting generalizations or conflating generalizations with universalizing makes it impossible to talk about actual human differences without resorting to meaningless abstractions like “structures” or “systems.” Race theory is a universalization that must absolutely be avoided (in both its right-wing and Woke forms), because race is a ridiculous and baseless grand narrative that attempted not just to universalize differences, but to impose them.
However, the reduction or destruction of difference is just as pernicious as race, something that until about ten years ago the left still understood. Globalization flattens differences by imposing singular forms across cultures and people groups. The general trend of capitalism is towards universalization: the same crops everywhere, the same products, the same brands and corporations, the same languages, the same beliefs, the same political frameworks, the same currencies.
That it is now so often nationalist and right-wing frameworks who resist the destruction of cultural difference is the greatest tragedy of our current age, but it is not an inevitable state. We all lose when cultural differences are flattened and subsumed into capitalist imperial forms and when peoples are categorized according to newly-constructed identities divorced from cultural and historical situations. We all lose when languages and the ways of thinking embodied in them disappear. We even lose when cultural differences we don’t like and cause conflict are replaced by bland and passive consumption of global media production.
Incidentally, there is a Danish dialect that sounds remarkably like British English in intonation and sound. Listening to it as a native speaker of American English can be quite shocking, since it sounds indistinguishably like British English except that you cannot understand a single word.
His paternal grandfather is said to have exclaimed upon first seeing him, the third of three children, “ah, finally a Dutch grandson!”