In recent years, multiculturalism has come under severe attack. The first high-profile warning came in October 2010 when German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism had failed in her country; she was joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron in February 2011 and then French President Nicholas Sarkozy soon after. Interestingly, both Cameron and Sarkozy pointed to the divergent culture of their Muslim citizens though Merkel was more circumspect.
It is unfortunate that faith in multiculturalism is waning. The very thing which makes some cities such an exhilarating experience – their diversity – has now become suspect. At a certain point, the heterogeneity of a settlement develops an emergent property; as the late Tony Judt explained, the city begins to have a “distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland.”
There is something liberating about being able to live in a place where worlds collide. The Paris of the long 19th century, fin de siècle Vienna, and New York in the 20th century were all world cities whose common feature was a vibrant cultural world informed by the seamless confluence of migrants and minorities with the majority. For the cosmopolitan, there is nothing more charming than waking up to a South Indian breakfast, getting a haircut at an Arab salon, picking up some Sicilian arancini on the way home, catching an art exhibition of 19th century French Romantics, and ending the day with some Brazilian salgadinhos. Historically, these have been the fertile beds of new intellectual and artistic movements.
Yet what turns the tide against this intellectual and indeed, spiritual, hedonism? Why are the gates of Paris, Berlin, and London closing to the very thing that made them great just a couple of centuries earlier? In fact, these great capitals of yesteryear are today stumped by the very thing that was a sign of their luminescence then – diversity and immigration. The reversal of this tide in the age of postmodern virtues is an ominous portent of the further decline of our civilisations.
The recent distaste of multiculturalism is understandable – it opposes policies that treat guest workers and immigrants as different yet equal and puts no pressure on them to adopt some of the norms of the host country. Many migrants have difficulty in learning the local language, or live cloistered in distinct ghettos that replicate their home country so that the need to interact with the local population is minimised. At times, some customs cause friction with the native population. One prominent example is strong sentiment against burqas in several European countries such as France and Germany. One can only imagine the loss a burqa-clad Isabelle Adjani would have meant to the world of French cinema.
The recent fetish for juxtaposing diversity and assimilation has encouraged homesick and anxious immigrants to remain aloof from the mainstream of their host country. Over time, this self-segregation ossifies and any attempt to integrate newcomers is seen as an encroachment upon minority rights with little regard given to practical matters such as familiarisation and harmonious existence. Many immigrants even have trouble speaking the native tongue, an easy marker of difference and subject of resentment. One wonders what the world might have missed if Emmanuel Levinas wrote only in Lithuanian or René Goscinny had clung to Polish.
The fear of being labelled racist or one of its variants has undermined common sense; it is preferable to avoid mud wrestling with interest groups in the glare of the media than to adhere to policies that have worked in the past. Liberalism has, sadly, come to mean license and immigrants’ right to replicate their home culture in their new domicile has come at the cost of the integrity of the social fabric.
Multiculturalism has today come to mean disparate communities living closely together whereas it has historically meant the capacity of a host culture to absorb foreign ideas harmoniously. Just as the majority is expected to be sensitive and welcoming towards newcomers, the onus to adjust to the host culture must be on migrants; no people will tolerate the Balkanisation of their city in the name of multiculturalism.
Such fractures in society become fertile beds for the growth of radicalism and xenophobia; if communities are separated by barriers of dress and language, the two most common sites of social interaction, the potential for mutual suspicion is greater. Ghetto formation further reduces chances for intermingling and fans suspicions and dislike of the migrant Other.
It is unfortunate for both the local population as well as the migrants that the policies of “cultural salad” intellectuals has resulted in a strong backlash against multiculturalism. What could have been an enriching coexistence has been marred by political correctness and parochial interests. Multiculturalism was never meant to sabotage nationalism, be it civic like the French or ethnic like in Germany – the Muslims and Jews of Toledo hardly sought any special preferences from their Christian political overlords, and many of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire sought to fight with the Sultan in his army. The Left’s misappropriation of multiculturalism has been a huge setback for plurality.
Critics of multiculturalism following in the footsteps of Cameron, Merkel, and Sarkozy would do well to remember that the crumbling state of inter-communal harmony was brought about by paying obeisance to abstract social wishlists that did not reflect reality. There is great strength and joy in diversity and it ought not be snuffed out because politicians are too cowardly to oppose flawed social theories.
This post appeared on FirstPost on November 07, 2014.