Multiculturalism, R.I.P.

Throughout my adult life governments around the Western world have been propagating the gospel of multiculturalism, which tells us that immigrants, from whatever part of the world and whatever way of life, are a welcome part of our "multicultural" society. Differences of language, religion, custom, and attachment don't matter, they have reassured us, since all can form part of the colorful tapestry of the modern state. Anybody who publicly disagreed with that claim invited the attentions of the thought police, always ready with the charge of racism, and never so scrupulous as to think it a sin to destroy the career of someone, provided he was white, indigenous, and male. To be quite honest, living through this period of organized mendacity has been one of the least agreeable ordeals that we conservatives have had to undergo. Keeping your head down is bad enough; but filling your head with official lies means sacrificing thought as well as freedom.

But now, quite suddenly, the oppression has ceased. Even Angelika Merkel, chancellor of a country whose reputation for political correctness is more carefully nurtured than any other cultural asset, has just told us that multiculturalism is dead — quite dead. President Sarkozy has for some time been saying the same, while Prospect, Britain's leading left-wing intellectual monthly, currently carries the caption "re-thinking race: has multiculturalism had its day?" This caption is in many ways the most revealing of the current attempts to put multiculti at a distance. For it manages simultaneously to deny and to affirm the original message, which is that to discriminate among cultures is to discriminate on grounds of race — in other words, to be a racist. This is perhaps the most pernicious of the lies that we have been required to swallow during these years of oppression, since it is one that compares all defense of the majority culture, and all attempts to integrate minorities, with some of the greatest crimes of recent history.

So let's be clear from the outset: culture and race have nothing to do with each other. There is no contradiction in the idea that Felix Mendelssohn was Jewish by race and German by culture — or indeed that he was the most public-spirited representative of German culture in his day. Nor is there any contradiction in saying that a single person belongs to two cultures. Felix's grandfather Moses was a great Rabbi, upstanding representative of the Jewish cultural inheritance, and also founding father of the German Enlightenment. Many of the German philologists to which the Enlightenment gave rise were as multicultural as Moses Mendelssohn — Max Müller, for example, German by race, English by adoption, and more steeped in the culture of India than virtually anyone alive today. Wagner had to twist and turn his thoughts into every kind of absurd contortion in order to discover "Jewishness" in the music of Felix Mendelssohn, from whom he took so much. (How could he have got to the music ofLohengrin without the help of Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream?) And Wagner's repugnant essay on Judaism in music is one of the first instances of the lie that we have had to live through — the lie that sees race and culture as the same idea, and which tells us that in demanding a measure of cultural uniformity, we are also affirming the dominance of a single race.

Once we distinguish race and culture, the way is open to acknowledge that not all cultures are equally admirable, and that not all cultures can exist comfortably side-by-side. To deny this is to forgo the very possibility of moral judgment, and therefore to deny the fundamental experience of community. It is precisely this that has caused the multiculturalists to hesitate. Rightly enjoying the polytheistic festivals of the Hindus, the Carnivals of Caribbean blacks, and the celebrations of the Chinese New Year, they have led us to believe that cultural difference is always an addition to social life, and never a threat to it. Anyone who discriminates between cultures, therefore, really must have something more dangerous at the back of his mind — a desire to exclude on grounds of strangeness, which is the first step towards the racist mindset.

But experience has finally prevailed over wishful thinking. It is culture, not nature, that tells a family that their daughter who has fallen in love outside the permitted circle must be killed, that girls must undergo genital mutilation if they are to be respectable, that the infidel must be destroyed when Allah commands it. You can read about those things and think that they belong to the pre-history of our world. But when suddenly they are happening in your midst, you are apt to wake up to the truth about the culture that advocates them. You are apt to say, that is not our culture, and it has no businesshere. That is what Europeans are now saying — not just a few crazies, but everyone. And the multiculturalists are reluctantly compelled to agree with them.

FOR WHAT IS BEING brought home to us, through painful experiences that we might have avoided had it been permitted before now to say the truth, is that we, like everyone else, depend upon a shared culture for our security, our prosperity and our freedom to be. We don't require everyone to have the same faith, to lead the same kind of family life, or to participate in the same festivals. But we have a shared moral and legal inheritance, a shared language, and a shared public sphere. Our societies are built upon the Judeo-Christian ideal of neighbor-love, according to which strangers and intimates deserve equal concern. They require each of us to respect the freedom and sovereignty of every other, and to acknowledge the threshold of privacy beyond which it is a trespass to go unless invited. Our societies depend upon a culture of law-abidingness and open contracts, and they reinforce these things through the educational traditions that have shaped our common curriculum. It is not an arbitrary cultural imperialism that leads us to value Greek philosophy and literature, the Hebrew Bible, Roman law, and the medieval epics and romances, and to teach these things in our schools. They are ours, in just the way that the legal order and the political institutions are ours: they form part of what made us, and convey the message that it is right to be what we are.

Over time immigrants can come to share these things with us: the experience of America bears ample witness to this. And they the more easily do so when they recognize that, in any meaningful sense of the word, our culture is also a multiculture, incorporating elements absorbed in ancient times from all around the Mediterranean basin and in modern times from the adventures of European traders and explorers across the world. But this kaleidoscopic culture is still one thing, with a set of inviolable principles at its core; and it is the source of social cohesion across Europe and America. Our culture allows for a great range of ways of life; it enables people to privatize their religion and their family customs, while still belonging to the public realm of open dealings and shared allegiance. For it defines that public realm in legal and territorial terms, and not in terms of creed or kinship.

So what happens when people whose identity is fixed by creed or kinship immigrate into places settled by Western culture? The multiculturalists say that we must make room for them, and that we do this by relinquishing the space in which their culture can flourish. Our political class has at last recognized that this is a recipe for disaster, and that we can welcome immigrants only if we welcome them intoour culture, and not beside and against it. But that means telling them to accept rules, customs, and procedures that may be alien to their old way of life. Is this an injustice? Surely not. If immigrants come it is because they gain by doing so. It is therefore reasonable to remind them that there is also a cost. Only now, however, is our political class prepared to say so, and to insist that the cost be paid. And it may be that this change of heart comes too late.

Read the entire article on the American Spectator website (new window will open).

Date posted: December 10, 2010