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February 16, 2005

One cheer, or thereabouts, for multiculturalism

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Words mean different things in different cultural contexts. Christianity means something different to an elderly Anglican than it does to a recently converted tribesman.

The same is true, I think, of another vaguely religious doctrine: multiculturalism. Because a lot of the controversies surrounding multicult are similar, I suppose I reflexively concluded that the term must mean the same thing at Duke as it does in Denmark, that the world was small enough for a common and uniform meaning. But I donít think thatís true. There is a difference.

But first things first: multiculturalism is on its face a slippery term, and therefore quite easy to interpret in different ways. Is it a way of bringing people together, or a way of rationalizing keeping them apart? Even in this country, both impulses are evident in multicult doctrine. But there seems little doubt that, owing to the USAís assimilationist history, the bringing together side of the doctrine has played the dominant role, once some of the celebration-of-difference trappings are cut away.

Not so in Europe. Press accounts concerning multiculturalism in Europe written by Europeans can be quite revealing (many examples; try here and here). The authors cannot help but demonstrate how the multicult game was constituted, and how it has been played, on the continent. There, the dominant theme is: how shall we rationalize the Pakistanis keeping to themselves in Bradford, or the Turks in Hamburg, or the Moroccans in Rotterdam? The answers: letís let them celebrate their own ways. Letís not obligate ourselves to be influenced overly by their ways. And letís not expect them to adopt our ways. Now we can all feel good about each other, happy that we can all live together, free of any pesky flies in ointment.

If only.

Ideas are many things, but from an evolutionary point of view they are improvisations looking (blindly) for some sort of traction. They need not be internally consistent or completely clear. Rather the question is: what happens when people think this, or this, or this?

However, people experience ideas from the inside out, as it were, and cannot help but invest them with more than their adaptive meaning. And so multiculturalism becomes the frame for big debate over right and wrong, a debate that ends up in odd cul-de-sacs owing to the double-sided cultural meaning of the term.

Santayana once remarked that life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament. Humans get put in conundrum-like predicaments all the time, and so it is not surprising, perhaps, that they resort to double-sided terms as a way of managing. Meanings shift; people duck, weave and improvise. Better, therefore, to consider multiculturalism as a response to a predicament than as a fixed set of right ideas.

So letís face the current predicament: there is no way any nation in the modern era can avoid the demands of diversity. The movement of populations, and the cultural frisson that results, are inevitable. The question is what to do? Too much diversity and the center cannot hold. Ignore diversity at your perilówitness Western Europe.

All this is by way of saying that an international perspective is a wonderful thing. I have been pretty sour on multicultís excesses in the US for some timeóitís pretty easy in a college to get jaded in that way. But I really donít think I knew the half of it. As puerile as a lot of multicult-think is in this country, I must say I feel a slight bit of national pride when I compare how we handle the matter with Europeans. Indeed, you can make an argument that much of the hypocrisy that so clearly characterizes multicult-in-practice can be traced back to the internal contradictions created by America's set of values: celebrating difference in a culture that has not quite given up on assimilation.

Come to think of it, Iíd prefer that hypocrisy to the clear-throated European version any day. But then I am both a pragmatist and an assimilationist myself, and have my own contradictions to worry about.



posted by Fenster at February 16, 2005


Again, whenever the Netherlands is used as an example abroad, it always is seems to be done by an ill informed journalist, mostly copying the shrillest headlines from the most populist papers.

Just to give one example from a blatant mistake in The Free Republic article:
The government has responded to the public clamour by attempting to deport 26,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from Morocco,[...]

Bullshit. Yes, there is this enormous mistake of our government of wanting to deport 26,000 people. But a] they may have become illegal immigrants but in reality are asylum seekers b] who didn't pass the various tests aimed to pick out the real refugees from the economic luck seekers c] None of them are Morroccans.

Most of them have been in the Netherlands for over ten years, because the procedures sucked, and have children that are completely Dutchified. So, this is an enormous drama, even compared to the deportation of Jews in the Second World War. Yet, when a lot of mayors threatened civil disobedience, the national government backed off. It seems it's now waiting to see who succumbs under the pressure and leaves without being forced to.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 17, 2005 7:59 AM

when you equate deportation of illegals who are
a)not citizens of the country
b)failed to prove they were persecuted in their country of origin (some had, as you say, up to 10 yrs in their posession to collect their evidence)
- to deportation of Jews, who were
a) legal citizens of the country for 3-4-5 generations
b) persecuted in their country of origin due to their ethnicity by state and private citizenry(which is quite well documented),

you look just like the "ill informed journalists" you're so enraged with...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 17, 2005 8:46 AM

This is not to say you might be right in other aspects - governmental paper gridlock, f.ex., bureaucratic hurdles, illogical procedures in obtaining legal status, &c.
But the words have meaning.
"Forced deportation" means organized mass murder; means triple-packed cow trains to Terezin's and Auschwitz's gas chambers.
Is that what it is for illegal aliens in Netherlands now?
Word corruption is a first step in moral relativism. IMO.

In recent discussion someplace else a commenter in a thread on bilingual policies called Singapore a fascist state. When I asked for explanations it turned out he meant "overregulated"...
There is a difference.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 17, 2005 10:01 AM

I tend to think about "multiculturalism" the same way I think about "postmodernism." (For what that's worth, of course.) Two sides to it, which I have very different reactions to. There's soft, informal multiculturalism, which strikes me as dandy. It's just an acknowledgment of some of the conditions we live with these days, and a small bow before the idea that different cultures have their own ways of doing things and, hey, that can even be cool. But then there's also hard, dogmatic, politicized multiculturalism. It doesn't just nod politely and agreeably. It advocates, it wants to enforce: laws must be passed, conduct must be altered, and anyone who doesn't get on board is inevitably a Nazi. This kind of multiculturalism makes me want to start throwing darts and drawing moustaches on posters.

Do you break the multiculturalism phenomenon down further than that?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 17, 2005 11:26 AM

I've been doing some thinking about these things lately, as I am currently in a "Cross-Cultural Counseling" class as part of my Master's program in Clin. Psych.

The way I see it is, both postmodernism and multiculturalism are at once fantastic advances in worldview development, and horrid dogmatic flaming bags of bullshit.

Postmodernism says: Consider context!
Multiculturalism says: Different ways of being/doing are, in the main, of equal value to the "mainstream" way!

Excellent stuff. But then postmodernism gets lost in a sea of context -- context and construction is all and there is NO wider universal frame. Next up: "The Social Construction of the Large Intestine" (as Ken Wilber has joked).

And multiculturalism becomes Identity Politics. 'Nuff said. (And African genital mutilation becomes morally equivalent to, say, Appalachian faith healing. Or whatever.)

The sick part is that both realms (actually I think of multiculturalism as a subset of postmodernism) come out of some very worthwhile critiques of (and expansions upon) modernism and pre-modernism -- but now, all too often, criticizing postmodern thought is not done or explicitly disallowed.


Posted by: Luis on February 17, 2005 2:26 PM

Blogs are nifty, aren't they? You write a post critical of the Dutch and a Dutchperson writes in, pointing out problems with your argument. Now I know how Mary Mapes feels.

Anyway, ijsbrand, I hear your argument over the deportation issue, but I am nonetheless interested, since you are Dutch and apparently still on the line, in how you evaluate the broad theme I tried to develop: that Americans and Europeans might think they mean the same thing by multiculturalism, but Europeans, without even sensing the absence, proceed with the term with precious little assimilationist rationale in the background.

Tatyana: Mercilessly on point, as usual. Another biscuit for you.

Michael: We may be looking at the same phenonomenon using different lenses is all. Your breakdown is between soft and hard, and that's a valid differentiation in terms of style and emphasis. All I was trying to do was to break it down in a different way--i.e., that (hard or soft) you can be animated more or less by a bringing-together emphasis, or a keeping apart emphasis. Gore misspoke, revealingly, a few years ago when he mistranslated E Pluribus Unum as "out of the one, many". Despite that mistake, I strongly suspect that yer average American would instinctively rally more to a multiculturalism premised on "from the many, one".

Luis: what can I say? "(B)oth postmodernism and multiculturalism are at once fantastic advances in worldview development, and horrid dogmatic flaming bags of bullshit." You have a way with words!

Tot ziens,


Posted by: fenster on February 17, 2005 5:51 PM

Could it be the confusion stems from wrong attribution?
Can't we use different terms for MulCul-1 and -2?

Say, describing "fantastic advance in world-view developement" we'd call it "internationalism", gloomy Soviet references notwithstanding (I'm open for options). And when raging against "horrid dogmatic flaming bags of buulshit (Francis, does this wonderful expression qualifies as purple prose?), could we use the original *multiculturalism*?

Oh, and I'm probably wrong here so please correct me, but isn't what you describe as European variety smells like segregation?

Label-sticking dogmatic as I am.

Fenster, if I only had a penny for each promised biscuit...

Posted by: Tatyana on February 17, 2005 8:29 PM

"Paki" is considered a racial slur in the UK - the polite term is "Pakistani". Not a big deal, I guess, but you might consider changing it if you don't want someone from the UK to tune out at that line.

Posted by: a_note on February 18, 2005 12:56 AM

segregation? more like ghettoization...
it's always someone else's problem til it becomes your own no?

I think it's interesting how the same patterns are repeated all over Europe, and how these cultures pick up on American rap music as expression. One of my friends who is abroad teaching at a bad (read ethnic dominated) school in France writes about how the graffiti (at an elementary school!) goes along hte lines of "rap is good"

Huzzah for Luis, i especially find it annoying how certain postmodernist responses to critiques always seem to revolve around framing the argument s instead. I'm waiting for the next intellectual revolution.

Posted by: azad on February 18, 2005 1:13 AM


I've changed that term, not being aware that offense might be taken. I'm parroting its usage in Stephen Frears films, and others, probly.

Posted by: fenster on February 18, 2005 8:54 AM

@Tatyana, I realize my shorthand of what happened could lead to your interpretation, but it was not my comparison I was giving. I happen to be a historian, and one that is allergic to easy references to nazism or fascism.

However, those comparisons were made over here, and for once were useful in the sense that they shook up public opinion. Our minister of immigration and integration refused to speak to organizations that represented the asylum seekers, because one of their spokesmen had used the word "deportation", to describe what would happen to the 27,000 people were meant to be send "home". Deportation smelled too much of WWII for her.
But, because of that blown up discussion about word use, municipalities and local policemen suddenly realized they were the ones responsible for removing these people from their houses. Whereas the Dutch in a huge majority wanted these 27,000 people to be pardoned to stay here, mangled as they were through petty bureaucracy. So, mayors suddenly threatened with civil disobedience to the national government, and the police unions loudly made clear they would support any officer with conscientious objections.

Which lead to the stand off there is now.

Posted by: ijsbrand on February 18, 2005 1:34 PM

Iím not sure that youíre entirely right about this:- the US is after all a nation of immigrants whereas by and large Europe is not. US culture has evolved mechanisms of integrating immigrants over a couple of hundred years. Europeans have just 30 years of experience Ė so that might explain part of why they donít quite get it.

That said the Netherlands ahs assimilated its Guayanian and Asian immigrants very successfully Ė indeed Iíd say faster than many immigrants assimilate into the US. The problem has been with the more recent MENA immigrants and the cause, I feel, is mainly economic. Its easy to be multicultural and assimilate immigrants through work, but if that work dries up then things change, and during the 90ís work started to dry up and people started to question multiculturalism. I suspect that similar attitudes would prevail in the US if it had experienced European levels of growth recently Ė just as they did at the turn of the century.

The second problem is that Europeans have also turned their backs on marriage and marriage (and children) is one of the best ways to bind recent immigrants into the fabric of society. The US has of course experienced marriage breakdown but this is mainly in the form of more divorces rather than the European path of less marriages.

Posted by: Giles on February 18, 2005 2:13 PM

Giles, you have made all valid points.
A few notes:
- for any people to be successfully assimilated the first condition is the willingness of said people to be assimilated. I don't know any Asian/Netherlanders (horrible-sounding concoction, I know), but judging by Asians - (Chinese, f.ex) here in US, second generation consider themselves Americans first, because they WANT to be Americans. They don't try to impose their customs onto their new land, but adopt American traditions, with pleasure.
I can't imagine any Chinese group demanding (and getting their way!) to close public pool on the grounds that "in their culture" both sexes should not be swimming together!

-Netherlands is as much nation of immigrants (proportionally and historically) as US; for 400 yrs it's been adopting newcomers . The difference is - these people were willing to become Dutch, in language, culture and customs.

- Economics can't be solely blamed for the current situation; even when the jobs were abundant and Europe imported "guest workers", they were de-facto segregated. Like Turks in Germany: Heinrich Boell's Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady) was written in 1971. Remember the Turk-garbageman character who appeares at the end of the novel? A social pariah, and not because of the menual job he was doing. Of course, it's a fiction, but turns out -- not exhaggerated one.

-About marriage and kids; as Michael points out in today's post above, the tendendency of households with children on decline exist in US, too.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 18, 2005 10:02 PM

Agree that its not just economics, but Germany's an exception in that its citizenship is blood determined. Allot of Turks sort of assimilated but the legal barrier made this effort pointless. Elsewhere I think most of the unsuccessful immigration was a result of bad choices e.g. Pakistanis in immigrated to Bradford just as the British Textile industry entered a death spiral.
But this cycle of bad choices can happen in the US too Ė I read an article today about Hmong immigration to the US. In most places theyíve done well as a result of their strong work ethic but in the US they mainly went to the welfare states of California and Minnesota with the end result that 48% of families are receiving government aid.
On the children side, sure the US has a problem, but its fertility rate is 2.08 not the European 1.48. The US may not be mixing enough but its better than Europe.

Posted by: Giles on February 19, 2005 1:50 AM

And, I forgot to say, the difference between 1,5 and 2.1 is that in the US immigration is complementary to natural population increase whereas in Europe it substitutes.

Posted by: Giles on February 19, 2005 2:40 AM

You have sufficiently interested me, Giles, in situation with Hmong in US to spend 1hr of my Saturday morning perusing various articles online.
What I've learned for sure is they are not the case of "cycle of bad choice in immigration" as you claim. And certainly can not be compared to Pakis in Bradford miscalculating their employment in British Textile industry, if that is the case (I'm not familiar with the story).

[Small aside: I call Pakis Pakis in same way I call Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tatars, Afghans, omitting "stanis", since it simply adds "land" or "country" to ethnicity. I don't see a reason to exempt this particular nation from the laws of English word composition.]

Victims of genocide, escaping mass graves in Laos and refugee camps in Thailand can not be compared to economical immigrants or "guest workers". Especially since these people have a right to American gratitude, as they fought - and died - as our allies in Vietnam War, which cased their plight in the first place.

Now, about welfare figures.
Imagine you came to modern industrial America from agricultural country economically and socially somewhere on a level of 17th century. All your ancestors were growing vegetables and chickens and hunting everything that moves, to survive. You know no English; you have no written language of your own, only oral tradition. No profession either: your skills are the skills of the "hunter and gatherer". Confessionally, your religion is animistic - yeah, shamans, animal sacrifices, etc. You have 8 children and wife with you to feed.
This is a portrait of average Hmong immigrant as he arrived in US.

I consider it a downright miracle and tremendous success for these people to bypass 3 centuries in 30 yrs time.

Here is the figures from the 2000 Census in comparison with 1990; please note doubling of median income, majority of employment in manufacturing and service (only 0.4% in "forestry and hunting") and growing amount of people with high education - doctors and teachers.

Oh, and I am not sure what you mean by this: in the US immigration is complementary to natural population increase whereas in Europe it substitutes As far as I know, same dynamics apply to all developed societies: the higher standard of living, the less the fertility rate. What's more, in second generation immigrant families there are less kids than in the first, and the third doesn't differ from the natives.
Am I mistaken here?

Posted by: Tatyana on February 19, 2005 10:07 AM

Tatyana - when I say choice I don't necessarily mean a specific individual or group choice - I just mean the outcome that the world choose for them. So most Pakis who went to Bradford probably didnít make an individual choice, the circumstances were that they had an uncle who was already there who said he could get them a job.
So regarding the Hmong Iím not saying that it was wrong to resettle them (theyíd have died otherwise) or that they havenít achieved a lot. I am just arguing that perhaps circumstance worked to choose a difficult settlement option for them. Jumping 300 years in 30 is some achievement, but for a lot of them I suspect it wasnít much fun Ė in particular this type of change involves a lot of cultural dislocation and for the ones who couldnít make it alienation and depression. I mean if I was being resettled and the choice was Canada or China obviously Canada would be the better choice for all concerned Ė I speak the language etc
You may have read this perhaps rose tinted article on Hmong resettlement in Guyana, which seems to have gone quite well as their skills and pre existing culture fitted the business opportunities Ė agriculture Ė perfectly and they didnít have to do much forced assimilation. This seems a good choice Ė even if it only arose by accident.
So I suppose what Iím arguing against is group immigration, particularly if its centrally directed since the chances of settling people in places they are going to have difficulty adjusting to rises. There is obviously the counter argument that group immigration is perceived to be bad simply because we have data and reports on it whereas no one really knows or talks about say Czech immigration.
My last point was simply that if, like the US you have a stable or growing indigenous population and you add say 10% immigrants to every cohort, the population make up stays constant. If you have a declining population like Europe and you add 10% immigrants to every cohort, the make up of the population actually changes. So European resistance to population is based on the reality that it really will change the population.

Posted by: Giles on February 19, 2005 11:55 AM

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