Monday, May 07, 2007

The (better) case against multiculturalism

Via Matthew Yglesias, I see that Marty Peretz contrasts "multiculturalism" with the idea that, "Majorities have a right--even an obligation--to preserve their own ethics, norms, cultures and histories. They have a right to define the qualifications for membership in and even admission to their societies."

If multiculturalism is problematic, is that really the problem with it, that it takes precious power away from the democratic or republican state? I'm not seeing it. The danger of multiculturalism, if there is a danger of it, is in the possibility of a slippery slope to a world in which one's 'culture' is one's race, and in which the state's 'multiculturalism' involves recognizing membership in non-voluntary organizations. Why do people refer to racially diverse classrooms or workplaces as 'multicultural'? Just how visible is this 'culture'? Is a 6th-generation black American more 'multicultural' than the American-born child of Swedish immigrants?

The obvious if extreme case is the German judge who cited the Koran in denying an emergency divorce to a woman born in Germany, simply because she and her husband "came from a Moroccan cultural milieu." What happens, under an extreme form of multiculturalism, when someone wants to opt out of 'their' culture? What can be done about the fact that one 'culture' is inevitably defined as the 'real' French, German, American, whatever, culture, from which all the 'multi' elements are of course straying?

What does multiculturalism mean in terms of individual versus group rights? Take the anti-veiling law in French public schools--what if it goes against an individual student's convictions to go to school without blue nail polish, and this is against a dress code. Why is using peyote for ceremonial reasons 'better' than using pot if one is an adamant pothead? To what extent should a secular state draw a distinction between religious conviction and whim? What if one girl wears a headscarf on a whim while another wears blue nail polish for what she understands to be deeper or more meaningful reasons? As a good American, not to mention a former school-uniform challenger, I have a knee-jerk annoyed response to the thought of girls being sent home from school for either veils or blue nail polish, the question is why conviction only 'counts,' even in a secular state, if it has an organized-religious structure backing it up.

The strength of the French model is that it doesn't deny the existence of 'Frenchness,' but insists that this quality is open to those of all races. Officially, in France, a group of people of different races all standing next to one another are assumed to be of the same culture until proven otherwise. This may not prove an effective way of dealing with difference--when culture does indeed correlate with race, denying it ends up angering those who represent the communities of correlation--but what is an effective way with dealing with difference?

The weakness of the French model, then, has more to do with France losing trust (as well it should) with Muslims and Jews after treating both groups horribly at various points in recent history, than with anything intrinsically wrong with the model itself. The assimilationist ideal is a sick joke if every so often an 'assimilated' minority gets declared a mix of 'too assimilated' and 'not assimilated enough' and is then vigorously persecuted by those who claim both cultural AND racial Frenchness. French Muslims and Jews alike realize this, and, understanding that the removal of a kippah or veil is futile, will don these headcoverings with all the more enthusiasm.

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