Multiculturalism


Writers like Kenan Malik have wisely insisted that commentators distinguish between “multiculturalism” as it refers to cultural diversity and “multiculturalism” as a programme for managing it. They tend to welcome the former and reject the latter. Me, I’ve grown to think that both – in the forms they’re experienced today – are deeply problematic, yet the former’s here to stay, to some extent, and we’ve got to try and make the best of it. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think the latter is up for the job.

Husband and wife duo Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac have written a book titled Pax Ethnica: Where and How Diversity Succeeds. They’ve located certain multicultural areas – including Tatarstan, Marseilles, Kerala and Queens – where they believe diversity coexists with peace and stability. I don’t know enough to judge – I didn’t think of Queens as peaceful but, then, all I know about it I’ve learned from rap music – but what interests me is that despite Salon titling its interview with the authors “Multiculturalism works”, the factors they seem to believe have aided these societies in staying peaceful while diverse are undervalued by our multicultural politics…

Of course these places are not perfect — there are still conflicts. But what commonalities stand out in each of the areas you focus on?

One example is branding: You really have to make people proud of who they are. And whether you call New York the Big Apple or people identify with a football team or soccer team or cricket team in the case of Southeast Asia, you want people to be proud of being what they are.

In Paris, people that live in the suburbs around Paris, when they’re asked they never say they’re Parisian. They don’t feel like they’re Parisian. They say they’re Maghrebian, or they say they’re Algerian, or whatever they are.

A common identity? That’s mildly heretical. I suspect they’re right, however, that such visceral associations are the key to uniting different people. It’s interesting that they reference “Parisian” rather than “French”. When people drone on about “Britishness” I wonder how strongly yer Englishmen, yer Welsh, yer Scots and yer Irish would have embraced such notions in the days of yore. Many would, of course, though they’d have been more keen on “English”, “Welsh”, Scottish” and “Irish”-ness, but let’s not forget that many would bear just as heartfelt local loyalties. Bradfordians wouldn’t just be English, lad, they’d be Yorkshiremen; a family from Bolton would be Lancastrians. And, by God, we all know how the Cornish feel about these things. Talk of identity shouldn’t be the preserve of closeted Londoners; it should, in fact, be devolved.

All the neighborhoods of Marseille are also very mixed. So everybody knows everybody and knows somebody in each area – the same is true in Kerala. There’s not really a Muslim city and Hindu city, or Muslim districts and Hindu districts like there are in Gujarat or in places like Hyderabad. In Kerala, Muslims and Christians and Hindus are side by side.

Well, indeed. You don’t defecate on your doorstep. It’s not always true of Britain, and the ethnic and cultural isolation that can be a feature of its cities is too often overlooked. Or, heck, even admited: I remember Peter Preston rhapsodising over Elephant and Castle being “little South America” and Peckham being “West Africa” (I’m sure that’s an overstatement but it’s his enthusiasm that intrigues me).

One problem, if Meyer and Brysac are even right, is that these things are hard to facilitate. You can avoid taking measures that discourage people from producing such conditions but you can’t say “feel this” or “live there”, and encouraging them to is a dodgy business. Societies are closest when they’ve developed over time. That’s one thing that bugs me about this whole cultural kaboodle.

The critic, novelist and general wordsmith Marina Warner writes on languages at the inevitable…

In contemporary Britain, new forms of exclusion are often introduced or suggested on grounds of fluency. In June 2010, home secretary Theresa May said: “I believe being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle here. The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services.”

I feel very strongly that the ideal shouldn’t be mastery of another language, because that’s an unachievable goal and holding it up as the aim just makes students feel hopeless.

I agree, of course, that no one should expect perfect or even desperately sophisticated English from migrants. We don’t expect it from the English. Yet I do think studying the language of country you’ve travelled to – if you’ve plans to settle there, at least – is crucial and that its importance is ill-served by Warner’s rather blithe conclusion that while it’s indeed convenient “smatterings will do”. I’m not so sure. First of all, from nurses to bus drivers to the poor, beleagured telemarketers lots of jobs demand that we express ourselves clearly to others and while I’ve no wish to denigrate the efforts of the millions of multinationals who’ve worked hard to adopt the lingo when somebody hasn’t it can lead to mutual frustration. (An associate claims that a migrant drove him to the wrong bus stop after misunderstanding his request. Back at the station he marched to the complaints department and poured out his tale of woe. It wasn’t too productive, he says, as the poor soul behind the desk could barely speak English himself.) It’s also – yes – a major factor in one’s integration; or, to phrase it in more human terms, the making of friends and acceptance of a new home. Contemporary and traditional artistic, intellectual and social trends become fathomable, and one can exchange perspectives on them, those of one’s birthplace or one’s individual fancy. One needn’t be Martin Amis to achieve that, no, but a good understanding of the language helps.

Warner isn’t just being PC. She’s genuinely passionate about multilingualism. And rightly so!

There are gains from not knowing a language as one’s mother tongue – as Samuel Beckett realised when he set aside English and chose to write in French. Unfamiliarity helps. In my current MA class, one of the most gifted writers is Mexican. In Abu Dhabi, where I taught undergraduates, mother tongues included Spanish, Korean, Arabic and Kutchi, a language I had not heard of before. The Kutchi and Arabic speakers wrote – in English – some of the most sensitive work produced by the class. Mistakes are easily fixed, usually. Perfection of linguistic fluency isn’t of prime importance for expressive power.

Creative writers love to dig about in stuff to find the blessings, curses and generally interesting properties that have lurked unnoticed within ‘em. This can offer new perspectives on phenomena yet I can’t help but feel, at the risk of sounding philistinic, that enthusiasm for the novelty of our ideas can blind us to the fact that their relevance may be limited. So, yeah, it’s true that unfamiliarity with a language can lead to people to express themselves through it in new, innovative, splendid ways. But the minds gifted enough to achieve this, and the contexts in which it’s encouraged and worthwhile, are few. In most workplace scenarios a narrow or peculiar understanding of the common tongue would be a hindrance, and in most social situations it’d be an obstacle. For example, if a nurse comes up with an intriguing turn of phrase it won’t be welcome if she’s still unable to inform Dr Watt Ever that a patient needs immediate resuscitation, and if someone’s in a pub trying to make friends their ingenious take on English grammar is likely to be irrelevant if they still fail to express their favourite beverage, band, football team or film. Sometimes we’ve got to be tedious about these things.

Matthew Goodwin and Jocelyn Evans have polled members of the BNP and UKIP to see what the state of opinion is among the parties. Their interest seems to be focused on the question of whether supporters of the “far right” are losing what faith they’d had in the electoral system and becoming more inclined towards a belief in the inevitability of violence. It’s worth investigating. As the BNP declines – or, at least, stagnates – its members will look elsewhere and as unpalatable as Griffin and the rest may be there could be worse alternatives. They’ve found that large majorities agree that “violence between different ethnic, racial and religious groups is largely inevitable”, and that many think it will be needed to “protect [their] group from threats”. This has inspired comments about their supposed belief in “race war”.

Hrmm. I’m sure a lot of members of the BNP do think race war is on the way but I’d have liked the questions to probe deeper into the kinds of violence that the respondents might believe is coming. It could be all-out warfare between the whites the blacks, the Christians and the Muslims or whatever, or it could be localised skirmishes between gangs and grouplets who’ve defined themselves by their race or religion. And what kinds of violence are they be preparing for? Preemptive assaults on the ethnic and cultural targets of their ire, or a survivalist-seasoned defence of homes and neighbourhoods? There are clear differences, which lead me to feel that while it’s an important question and worth raising I’m not sure we’re any closer to drawing firm conclusions as to its answer. (And, by the way, throwing UKIP into the mix seems rather unfair. I doubt that their responses to many of the questions would differ to any great extent to those of the general public.)

As a gang are tried for an organised assault on a Mosque in London, though, one can’t ignore the threat of violence from militant racial and cultural supremacists. Daniel Trilling, writing for the Guardian, has an intriguing response to it, though…

The greater danger remains where it always has done: in the elements of far-right propaganda that overlap with mainstream political sentiment. Few people in Britain would agree that race war is on its way, but how many would agree that immigration has gone “too far”; that multiculturalism has failed or that the west is locked in a “clash of civilisations” with Islam?

A huge majority believes that immigration is too high, and large amounts of people offer similar responses to other points as well. You’re entitled to disagree and, indeed, to feel that such opinions are disreputable or disgusting. (I don’t but I’ll grant that the fact that a majority adopts a view gives little cause to feel that it’s a valid one. Cf. Homer Simpson on the case of Proposition 24.) But if you’re prepared to demonise such popularly held beliefs your campaign against the “far right” is liable to become a campaign against much of the public. If that’s one Trilling and like-minded souls are gearing up for that’s their business but, among other things, it risks leaving them short of tools with which to locate real thugs and short of allies when it comes to facing them.

Kristy Bamu was murdered in London by his sister and her boyfriend after they’d accused him of practicing witchcraft. This has shined the spotlight onto a practice that’s been spreading across Africa in recent years. Albert Tucker, though, writing at the inevitable, is discomfited by this interest…

However, if we are to learn anything from this terrible case and better protect children, it is essential that we do not allow this debate to become solely focused on the belief in witchcraft, or a sense that this is an “alien” concept, but understand this for what it is: a horrific form of child abuse…

Actually, it’s both those things.

What is worrying is the tendency to view this abuse differently from other forms dealt with by social services, the police and schools. Although it feels instinctively uncomfortable, these cases do not require a “special” response…

Tucker goes on to mention other forms of child abuse that have shocked our society and if his point is that it isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to particular communities he is, of course, entirely right. Yet I’m not sure how you can deny that different forms require special responses; it seems a bit like claiming that as “Spanish”, “Denver”, “egg-white” and “tamagoyaki” are all forms of omelette they require the same ingredients and prep. (This also applies to people’s identical thoughts regarding “honour” violence.)  The violent fear of witchcraft is associated with particular communities; has specific influences at home and abroad and is openly expressed in peculiar forums. I have no first hand experience, o’ course, but I’m willing to bet that it can leave singular and identifiable effects on its victims. It is, then, a unique phenomenon that cries out for a special response. And so are other forms of abuse! In a society that contains so many different beliefs and practices, which influence people’s behaviour in such different ways, it’s sometimes going to be impossible to take a uniform approach to people and their actions. It’s ironic that some commentators are least fond of multiculturalism when it’s at its least avoidable.

The Guardian’s Peter Preston writes a hymn to multicultural London…

When I started writing regular columns for the Guardian four decades ago – scribbling on my kitchen table – Walworth, just down the road, was white, glum, working class. The only black people you tended to see were young men in old cars having their boots stopped and searched by the white, Carter Street Old Bill. Brixton, just off to the left, was still Windrush world, the West Indies come to rest. And Peckham, a few yards to the right, was where Del Boy Trotter grew up and tried to prosper.

Walworth today is black, not white: a bustle and buzz of hairdressing salons and curried-goat houses open all hours. The Elephant they’re digging up again has become little South America, stretching down the Old Kent Road in polyglot variety. Vauxhall welcomes Portuguese. Camberwell mixes Greeks, Turks, Chinese and more. Welcome to Norbury, and the subcontinent. And Peckham, the high street where geezers grizzle to camera, is one of London’s great amazements: West Africa, its tropical fish, its rainbow of vegetable stalls and smiles, plonked down where only eels and pies flourished. And its array of brand new churches, mosques, temples: fervent belief marching on as the C of E makes an excuse and slinks away.

I hope this doesn’t sound unkind but Preston seems to like the diversity of London because it makes for more interesting strolls down the road. He doesn’t stop to think about how social changes have affected people’s lives – he’s just pleased to note that there’s more to see. The clearest example is the thing about “fervent belief”. Yes, those spires and minarets and veils and turbans are more interesting to observe than besweatered Anglicans but would it be a good thing if humbler faiths were superseded by assertive ones? I don’t think so. What’s significant to me is not how bustling, buzzing and bombastic cities are but how comfortable life is for their people. Welworth might have seemed “grim” to Preston in the ‘70s but was it to its residents? Who knows. I guess those “white”, “working class” people were too busy scoffing eels to get jobs in the media. Still, I know that while everybody likes to see and meet new things and people I suspect that most of them also desire familiarity; community; security; homeliness. Preston, in contrast, sounds like a tourist.

While we’re on the subject, I can’t believe our cities haven’t gotten uglier. I’m not blaming multicultural inclusions for that, though. The biggest and ugliest changes to hit English cities are the hordes of chintzy fast food outlets, identikit coffee bars and insipid retail stores. A characterful part of my hometown was recently supplanted by a clutch of bland, bleached buildings bearing glassy-eyed employees of Topshop and Apple. Yes, I know I’m being a snob. Yes, I know some people like them. But – dear Lord – I can’t believe there’s anything more bleak than finding that a local shop has closed and bears a sign threatening “New Look – Coming Soon”.

I’d like to attach a few provisos to this one. First, I wasn’t personally hurt by Diane Abbott’s strange comments so there’s no need to remove your tiny violins. Second, I’m under no illusions that in criticising her I’m boldly standing up against or for anything – the vast majority of an imposing body of opinion that her tweeting has provoked is hostile and the fact that I’ve seen people standing up for her is a measure of the eccentric circles I happen to move in. Third, I accept that the media’s response has been unpleasantly shrill. In fact, I’m not sure anybody saying anything – except, perhaps, the Queen musing the loveliness of Hitler – could deserve it.

With all that dispensed with, they were nasty comments, and not just because of her use of the term “white people”. (Now being said to be a comment on 19th Century colonialism. Goodness – if I hinted darkly at the nefariousness of Asians could I say it was a reference to Genghis Khan?) What’s more interestingly offensive about the tweet is that her claim that “white people love playing divide and rule” was in response to a black journalist’s questioning of the soundness of the notion of a “black community” and the value of the “community leaders” who purport to or are said to represent it. I don’t know a lot about race or racial politics but the claim that people who’ve been said to be the “voice” of black Britons have done little but humiliate themselves seems evidently true, and the point about the dangers of communalistic politics is, at the very least, a serious one. Abbott – one of those “leaders” herself – responded to these thoughtful points by essentially implying that the journalist should pipe down as she was doing the white man’s conspiratorial, pernicious work. That, to me, smacks of paternalistic fearmongering – the evasion of tough questions via the introduction of gratuitous and unhealthy suspicion. This goes some way towards affirming the original concern about the presumptuousness of “community leaders” – as well as ensuring that if people say her dissident perspective is being quashed I’m inclined to reach for a little violin.

By the way, there’s nothing – nothing – more painful than watching people on Facebook debate the meaning of racism. Alex DeLarge had it easy in comparison.

Richard Dawkins always says – and I agree with him – that it’s nonsense to speak of a “Christian” child, a “Muslim” child, a “Zoroastrian” child and so on. The young ‘uns haven’t accepted the faiths for themselves – they’ve had them forced upon them. (Oh, and, yes, before you ask, that’d be true of “atheist” children as well.) Kids are nigh-on bound to take after their parents and unless their influences are dramatically harmful that’s not something we should make our business. Still, that doesn’t mean we should affirm this sad reality.

That’s what I thought on reading this Telegraph article…

Muslim baby adopted because of fear of honour killing

Muslim baby? The term is repugnant in itself. Call me a cynic but I doubt a one-year-old has concluded, after much thought and personal reflection, that Allah is the one true God and that Muhammad was his prophet. Heck, I doubt that she’ll have reached the “Mama”, “Papa” stage.

The unease I felt on reading those two little words was nothing to how creeped out I was upon reading the Court judgement the article links to. It discusses the poor child’s foster parents – both observant Muslims – who display…

…[a] high degree of empathy, sympathy, insight and maturity” required to meet Q’s “particular needs for stability, for safety, for her cultural, ethnic and religious identity to be enhanced and maintained”…

Now, I make no judgement of the foster parents, but what a criterion to judge them by! “Cultural” and “religious” identities? She’s a baby for goodness’ sake. She doesn’t have them. The extent to which the state views British citizens not as, well – citizens but members of ethnic and religious demographics is becoming more and more disturbing.

The case itself is hugely depressing. An unmarried Muslim woman started a relationship with a married Muslim man; fell pregnant and, in fear, gave the child up for adoption. The judge ruled – and the Appeal Court judges have maintained – that her and her lovers’ families posed such a threat to the existence of the infant that she shouldn’t be exposed to them. It’s horrible that such views exist in our society and creepy that it’s just accepted as a fact of life. If we can conclude from somebody’s opinions that they’d pose a threat to anyone – never mind a bairn – we should have been and should be able to conclude that they’re unworthy of admittance to the nation.

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