Multiculturalism Jumps The Shark

Union Flag, by Adrian Clark on Flickr
Union Flag, by Adrian Clark on Flickr

Or rather, “State multiculturalism has failed” jumps the shark.

David Cameron had made a speech about multiculturalism this weekend.  When I heard news reports about his remarks, I thought to myself that this was probably nothing new.  I have only just got around to reading the speech today, and unfortunately, I have been proved right.

Cameron argues for the need to separate the concept of Islamist violence, from mainstream, peaceful Islam.  He complains about public money being given to ‘gatekeeper’ organisations who claim to speak for all Muslims.  He argues for a definition of identity that can encompass all British citizens, regardless of their faith or origins.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal points out that these are issues that we thrashed out long ago, and a sensible consensus has already been reached.

I vehemently attacked “state multiculturalism”, as Cameron did yesterday, back in 2006. At the time there was a problem with the government funding “community leaders” to deal with integration and counter-terrorism. There isn’t now. Organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain haven’t received state funding for years.

Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society is equally scathing:

David Cameron said next to nothing new yesterday. Breathlessly briefed and largely received as one of his most important speeches as Prime Minister, I struggled to spot an original thought that he hasn’t been habitually been expressing for more than five years, from equating Islamist ideology with Nazism when running for Tory leader in 2005 or his frequent attacks on state-sponsored multiculturalism. Repeating himself as Prime Minister on the international stage gives it a certain status.

Cameron’s core narrative claim – that “muscular liberalism” must now replace decades of a lily-livered refusal to articulate our shared values – does depend upon one very silly founding premise: that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, John Major and Michael Howard, and presumably Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit too, were rarely or never willing to articulate shared British values. This is patently absurd.

The Prime Minister’s suggestion that we forge a shared British identity is embarrassingly behind the times.  The 9/11 terrorist attacks kick-started the debate.  Wars in the Middle-East and terrorist attacks in Europe have kept the discussion spinning.  Entire books have been written, published and reprinted during that time. Billy Bragg’s Progressive Patriot is one that springs to mind: it deals with far right extremisim, and how British people reconcile the fact that we all have (at least) two flags.  Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad is another obvious example, where state multiculturalism is impressively critiqued.

David Cameron’s speech is soooo 2005.  This isn’t leadership.  He needs some new ideas… and some new speech writers who can articulate them.

Global Culture vs International Culture

International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.
International departures at Gardermoen Airport, Oslo. Photo by Yrstrly.

And now for some semantics.  David at Minority Report muses the problem of net nuetrality, and highlights a post over at Confused of Calcutta on the ‘un-national’, a word borrowed from a William Stafford poem.  JP contrasts concepts like ‘global’ with apparent synonyms like ‘international’ and its derivatives.  The former has an implied statelessness, the absence of a nation, whereas the latter implies that the thing we are describing (a person, or an organisation) does have one or more nations of origin, a liable jurisdiction that can control and curtail their activities.

This chimes with Jay Rosen’s description of Wikileaks as the first ‘Stateless’ news organisation, an idea he expanded on in a recent edition of his Rebooting the News podcast (#76, I think), making the same point that ‘global’ and ‘international’ are not necessarily the same thing.  In the context of net neutrality and cyber-dissidence, a ‘global’ organisation, with no final country of origin, is better protected against interference and attack, than an ‘international’ organisation which nevertheless has a home nation. Rosen recommends that Wikileaks adopts a similar model to Greenpeace, Amnesty, and PEN, with national organisations/chapters in many countries.

My thoughts naturally turn to multi-culture and how these terms might be applied in that area.  When cultural phenomenons, and pieces of art and cultural expression, become popular in many countries, are they international or global (in the senses described above).  I would say that musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles (bigger, for a time, than Jesus) and Michael Jackson are all international.  In each case, their music is a product of a particular time and place – regardless of where their fans are located, or where they play their concerts.

However, I think cultural phenomenons like Islam or Football are clearly global.  As they exist now, they seem to be a product of the human race as a whole, even if their origins can be pin-pointed accurately to a single country.  You could even include things like World of Warcraft, and the graffiti aesthetic in that list, but not Les Misérables.  What about LOLcats?

Kunzru on Multiculturalism

Hari Kunzru is in Istanbul for the European Writers Parliament. He has just published the text of his speech, and the following passage is clear Sharp-bait:

It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.

The phrase “the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries” sticks out and rings true.  “Asserting our common life” is what the Dalai Lama suggested multiculturalsim means.  Nevertheless I’m very aware that I push the term to its limits when I reference it in these terms.  What Kunzru identifies seems to echo what Kenan Malik said at a South Asian Literary Festival event last month:  That ‘state’ multiculturalism is a different thing to simply living a multicultural life.  As I have said before on this blog, I fear to lose the word ‘multiculturalism’ to its detractors, because to do so would seem to concede defeat to the cultural conservatives Kunzru describes.

Hindi versus English

Last Thursday was International Translation Day, and I spent a little bit of time at a translation conference, hosted by English PEN and the Free Word Centre. Plenty of rabble-rousing for more international fiction to be translated into English. Our Director Jonathan Heawood did a great job noting the key points on Twitter, under the hashtag #ITD.

We know that the use language can be ideological. My Welsh grandmother told a story about how my great-grandmother was punished at school for speaking Welsh in the playground… by teachers for whom Welsh was the native tongue: an act of class oppression, for sure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, South Africa’s Constitution provides for eleven official languages. It is a clear attempt to negate previous forms of oppression-through-language (perhaps at the price of confusion and cohesion?).

Last week I watched an interview with Bollywood superstars Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor on a programme called Buzz of the Week. It was a very casual and undemanding piece of promotional puffery on a big red sofa, but the two actors different approach to language was striking. Priyanka insisted in answering all questions in English, even those that were asked mainly in Hindi. Meanwhile, Ranbir spoke nothing but Hindi. This was odd – both are clearly bilingual and laughed at each others’ banter – and I assume they are native Hindi speakers, yet both steadfastly refused to respond to the other in the same language!  I am told that this has an ideological component too:  Priyanka was “showing off” and putting on airs; while Ranbir was trying to be more down-to-earth.

However, what really puzzled me was the interviewer, who jumped between Hindi and English with no apparent pattern – some clauses in one language, some in another.  Moreover, the phrases she was using were fairly simple: It was not as if she was forced to use English for a complicated concept for which there was no Hindi equivalent.  What was going on there?

Priyanka Chopra, English speaker
Priyanka Chopra, English speaker

Chimanmanda Adichie's Single Story

An interesting TED talk by the novellist Chimamanda Adichie on the power of stories, and how a multitude of stories are required in order to fully understand other people.

Key quote is thirteen minutes into the speech:

I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the Single Story is this: It robs people of dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.

That’s my kind of multiculturalism.

Defending the Cordoba Mosque

Over in New York, an argument is blazing over the Cordoba Initiative, an Islamic cultural and community centre planned for downtown New York.  Shrill critics have labelled it the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and called for the project to be cancelled, due to it offending the sensibilities of the families of 9/11 victims.  However, a calmer look at the proposed centre reveals although it is in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre site, its hardly on top of it.  Other mosques exist in the downtown area, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the project, has been praised for his interfaith work.

This controversy has clearly been manufactured by those who seek to polarise American political debate.  It is depressing and astonishing that the arguments against the centre have gained any traction at all.  One might expect this in Europe, with its muddled and inconsistent relationship with secular ideals.  Or in theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, with their blanket intolerance of other faiths.  But for a country which explicitly enshrines human rights such as free expression and freedom of religion in its constitution, it is bizarre that the debate has advanced so far.  Most ironic is that the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation set-up specifically to combat religious prejudice and anti-semitism, has led the calls for the plans to be scrapped.  Their statement prioritises public outrage and ‘offence’ over freedom of expression, assembly, and religion – A dubious position indeed.

Thankfully, the principles of tolerance appear to be waxing.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave a fantastic speech where he reaffirmed the principles upon which the United States was founded.  As a Jewish New Yorker, his words have a certain ‘rhetorical authority’ (as David Foster Wallace would call it).  Let’s hope this argument becomes another ‘teaching moment’, a step away from the global war that Osama Bin Laden sought to provoke when he planned the September 11 attacks.

“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.


Daily Dish has some great commentary.

WOMAD and Multiculturalism

Moussa Sissiokho, Johnny Kalsi and James McNally at WOMAD 2010. Photo by yrstrly

One of the highlights of WOMAD last weekend was watching a comeback performance by the Afro-Celt Sound System, who rocked the tent on Sunday evening with a tight blend of two cultures. The undoubted crowd-pleaser was a three-way drum duel between James McNally on the bodhran, Johnny Kalsi on the dhol, and Moussa Sissiokho on the tamma (‘talking drum’).  Underlay a little bit of electronica and some pipes, and the result is something that cannot fail to move you, both physically and emotionally. Its great to see musicians do that to an audience – and its even better to be a part of such primeval happenings yourself.  In such moments, the rising pace of the drums causes your mind to wander and wonder.

Here, I thought, we have a group of disparate musicians bringing their different traditions together to create something new.  Indeed, ‘fusion’ music is one of the festival’s specialities, and the Afro-Celt Soundsystem are very musch a creature of WOMAD.  But in watching the McNally/Kalsi/Sissiokho three-way, I was reminded that such music only works if the individual members have a (shall we say) traditional music upbringing.  Perhaps the discipline, and the distincitiveness of their separate musical heritages, are actually pre-requisites for their fusion music to work.

If true, it is an argument for a fairly rigourous form of multiculturalism.  Perhaps there is a value in encouraging not the fusion of cultures itself, but instead a promotion of the more traditional practices on which that fusion is based?  Only with a mature understanding of one’s culture can you confidently engage with others, and thereby play a proper part in creating something global, transcendental.

In a diverse country like Britain, this means supporting projects which pedestalise both the minority cultures, and the deeper roots of English and Celtic cultures.  This approach implies division, and the creation cultural silos, and has come in for much criticism in recent years.  But watching the talents of the musicians at WOMAD, you cannot help but percieve the long, accumulated embedded within each artist.  When you do, its natural to want to preserve and protect that history.

WOMAD flags by Wolfgang Haak on Flickr
WOMAD flags by Wolfgang Haak on Flickr

Trouble Looming over Burqa Ban

So, French MPs have voted to ban the burka.

We know where this story will go next.  Somewhere in France, a woman will engage in a piece of civil disobediance and enter a public space wearing her veil.  She will draw attention, crowds, the press.  She will be asked to leave, but she will not leave.  Eventually, she will be deported from the area by the gendarmerie or other state agency.  Worse, someone may try to pull off the offending strip of cloth.

This event will be photgraphed and videoed by more than one person, and the footage will be on YouTube within the hour.  It will then become a staple of anti-secular propaganda, proving the intolerance of the European mind and the inherent anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the West.

Some might suggest that my worries about this inevitable end-point are purely pragmatic.  They might agree that the new French law is counter-productive in the PR war against fundamentalist Islam… but then go on to argue that sometimes, the right decisions are not popular and that we cannot allow short-term realpolitik to trump the principle of the thing.

Here, I have to disagree.  I think that the question over policing what people wear is the principle at stake here.  Dictating dress codes is an incursion on an individual’s free expression.  If we condemn a misogynistic religion or a patriarchal culture when it proscribes what women wear, then how can we support a government that intervenes (and sets prohibitions) in precisely the same arena?  It is appalling.

I often hear the argument that women who wear the veil are “brainwashed”, an assertion that certainly makes sense to me.1 But such a claim is unfalsifiable, impossible to verify.  It is therefore a useless and illegitimate argument to put forward in the political arena, and not a good enough reason to legislate.  If we are truly convinced that brainwashing has taken place, then we must engage in “reverse-brainwashing”, putting forward alternative arguments, explaining the theory and the history of patriarchy, in the hope that people make different choices.  We might begin by discussing the value of facial expressions in communication, while taking an honest look at the idea of the “male gaze” and the undoubted objectification and sexualisation of the female form that is endemic in all cultures.

This is a longer and more frustrating approach, but far better than one which says that you are empowered by being criminalised.  Unfortunately, such long-term thinking rarely appeals to politicians, who favour the heavy-hand of legislation over deeper, cultural approaches.  A burqa ban is also a convenient dog-whistle for the far-right groups, who mainstream politicians are happy to pander to at the expense of a minority with no discernible political power.

If the burqa and the niqab are oppressive to women, then the only people who can shrug off that oppression is the women themselves.  Ripping off that ‘oppression’, by force and at a time of our own choosing, does not look like liberation at all.  It merely substitutes one form of dictatorship for another, returns no autonomy to the women themselves, and unwittingly endorses intolerance.  The philosopher Alain Badiou has a great formulation:

Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Interesting articles taking a similar view at the F-Word and Oye Times.

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.
‘Her Eyes’ by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

1. One might also suggest that women who wear too little are similarly brainwashed. After all, are they not persuaded to do so by the diktats of the celebrity gossip magazines?


Multiculturalism Notebook

The World Cup and European Cup can both be relied upon to kick-start debates about national identity. All the flags of St George we see about still conjure memories of sinister appropriation by far-right groups, and national identity is the natural topic of conversation if we are already debating xenophobia.  Over at Pickled Politics, Sunny has been musing on the English Defence League and their ridiculous manoeuvre to stop the sales of ‘Anyone But England’ T-shirts, on the grounds they incite hatred.

I left a comment there about how the problem seems to stem from the lack of an adequately defined ‘English’ identity, brought about because other identities like Scottish, Welsh and Irish, or Black-Asian-Minority-Ethnic, tend in part to be defined by their not-Englishness or their not-Whiteness.  And I enjoyed the metaphor I settled on at the end:

Personally, I think this calls for more multiculturalism, not less. by this, I mean the mindset that cultures can meet and exist within individual identities (rather than in communities). Those from ethnic minorities are, it seems to me, most adept at reconciling the competing claims on their identity. To take the case of Sri Hundal, our host here: he can be Indian, Silkh, English, British or European as the circumstances dictate. We all live within a giant Venn Diagramme of overlapping affiliations. I think the intellectual contortions of the EDL/CEP are simply attempts to avoid recognising this – a game of political Twister, if you will, which becomes more and more ridiculous at every turn.

I often worry that the sort of multiculturalism I support should more accurately be described as the ‘melting pot’.  However, that would look unattractive as a Venn Diagramme: one big circle.  The perpetual and unresolved diversity has value if we are each to make a genuine choice about our way of life, and diversity of thought and opinion is essential for democracy and progress too… So I am sticking with ‘multiculturalism’ for now.

Meawhile, I’ve also been listening to old Philosophy Bites podcasts, 15 minute introductions to some of the major issues in contemporary philosophy.  Specifically, Anne Phillips on Multiculturalism.  I enjoyed Phillips analysis of why multiculturalism is the least worst option for dealing with a society changed by global migration:

If you set up multiculturalism as opposed to mono-culturalism, then I think you have to say that multiculturalism is the way forward, because mono-culturalism is inequitable, its oppressive, its coercive.  But what I would argue for is what I, rather polemically, would call a Multiculturalism without Culture.  One that is no longer premised on these very solidified notions of culture, which I think encourage and promote cultural stereotypes, which in themselves prevent us from developing the kind of multicultural diversity I would support.

I see Anne Phillips has written a whole book called Multiculturalism without Culture.  The recognition that cultures are fluid is an essential piece of the puzzle.