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.