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.