Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Is multiculturalism an illusion?

Today, openDemocracy published an essay by Theo Veenkamp, a Dutch specialist on migration, who asks what the murder of Theo van Gogh means for the Dutch multiculturalist model. (openDemocracy's multiculturalism debate is here.)

Tomorrow's International Herald Tribune also carries a piece on multiculturalism - this one by William Pfaff (already available at the time of writing here.)

Pfaff's piece may make some readers uncomfortable. Under the title Europe pays the price for its cultural naïveté, Pfaff writes:

The troubled case of the Netherlands is the most interesting...because the Dutch - like the British - said their aim was a multicultural society composed of equals. This was a convenient illusion, or form of hypocrisy, because the Netherlands, like other West European countries, never ceased to believe in the superiority of its own society and to indulge in a high-minded denial of the power of national cultures and religion...

This specifically Dutch tragedy was created by good intentions combined with false assumptions about the human, social and political realities of cultural difference. After the Nazi catastrophe, racial and cultural distinctions were interpreted as cause for discrimination and conflict, and accordingly were not only avoided but denied. Certain illusions about the nature of man were - and are - promoted. People in the West want to continue to believe in these illusions, despite all that history has done to disprove them.

They include the belief that the core values of the Western democracies are innate, and that education, the liberalization of political and social institutions, and political action can liberate these values among people who don't yet recognize them. It is believed that all men and women are headed not only toward liberal democracy but also toward secularism or religious indifference.

Western political...values are said to be universal, valid for all societies now and in the future. Hence the unity of mankind is only a matter of time. The moral complexity of the human condition in the past is ignored, or is simply unknown.

It all adds up to a naïve version of the belief in inevitable human progress that arose during the French Enlightenment and has inspired virtually every Western political ideology we have known since - and that history has repeatedly disproved.

Some readers, instead of thinking, may be quick to assign Pfaff to a pigeon hole labelled "reactionary" (pessimism about progress is not cool). But from what I have read, Pfaff is not a lightweight or a bigot. He has a deep understanding of history and how it shapes political and cultural thought, and is a more effective critic of - for example - the Bush administration than many self-proclaimed progressives.

[See, for example, his excellent skewering of both the administration and "mainstream" foreign policy critics like Zbigniew Brzezinski in The American Mission? (NYRB, 4 April 2004) or quite good rapid summary articles containing passages like this: The language of political hyperbole used by some alarmists to describe the threat of Islamist radicals resembles the language of totalitarianism. It does not describe an empirically observed reality. It describes and exaggerates something feared and imagined (This Futile Fundamentalism, Observer, 17 Oct 2004).]

So the uncomfortable question is: if Pfaff is right on flaws in the foundations of real existing multiculturalism, where do Europeans, and others, go from here?

Radio Netherlands has an interesting piece on Dutch Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk telling Muslim clerics in the Netherlands that they need to assimilate into Dutch society (The minister, the imam and the handshake, 22 Nov), while Dominique Moisi has a fascinating review of Nicolas Sarkozy's La Republique, Les Religions, L'Esperance in the 24 Nov FT (Sarkozy's entente with Islam).

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