Like Merkel, Cameron Doesn't Get Multiculturalism

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/10/2011 12:02:00 AM
Why oh why do Benetton ads make more sense than some of our leaders? Politicians are not usually the most discerning observers of social dynamics. George W. Bush simplifies matters of anti-Americanism into "either you're with us or against us." In similar fashion, public dialogue concerning multiculturalism is quite poor in Western Europe. Angela Merkel has famously declared multiculturalism a failed concept without fully understanding what it means. Over the weekend, David Cameron made a similar proclamation that multiculturalism has failed. As I explained with the Merkel incident, however, Cameron too has a rather narrow and misleading view of multiculturalism. In calling for a "shared national identity," he derides multiculturalism thusly:
“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

… I believe it’s time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past...So first, instead of ignoring this extremist ideology, we – as governments and societies – have got to confront it, in all its forms. And second, instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone.”
And guess who would applaud this sort of statement? In France, none other than Marine Le Pen, daughter of Dominique Le Pen and the new leader of the ultra-right wing National Front (think Euro Klux Klan):
“It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life for 30 years,” she told the Financial Times. “I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him...”

Ms Le Pen said it was “indisputable” that Mr Cameron was taking his party closer to the traditional positions held by the National Front. “Moreover,” she said, “he will do something about it, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy who talks a lot without taking political decisions.”
Aside from attracting applause from extremists, Cameron simply does not understand what multiculturalism is in practice. Multiculturalism encompasses the idea that we have multiple identities that can act as common ground for building a spirit of community. That is, the presence of diversity shouldn't be an insurmountable barrier towards building on commonalities and shared concerns. What Cameron describes is not multiculturalism but what Amartya Sen famously called plural monoculturalism:
One important issue concerns the distinction between multiculturalism and what may be called "plural monoculturalism." Does the existence of a diversity of cultures, which might pass one another like ships in the night, count as a successful case of multiculturalism? Since, in the matter of identity, Britain is currently torn between interaction and isolation, the distinction is centrally important (and even has a bearing on the question of terrorism and violence)...

In contrast, having two styles or traditions co-existing side by side, without the twain meeting, must really be seen as plural monoculturalism. The vocal defense of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this (a common enough occurrence) is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate. And yet it is the parents' prohibition, which contributes to plural monoculturalism, that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal defense from alleged multiculturalists, on the ground of the importance of honoring traditional cultures--as if the cultural freedom of the young woman were of no relevance whatever, and as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.
If Cameron's speechwriters actually knew a thing or two about multiculturalism, they would have recognized that plural monoculturalism is what they've mistakenly substituted it for. While I often find it sardonically hilarious to point out the incomprehension of those in power, I am afraid that such muddle-headed thinking can have very negative consequences. While National Front-style intolerance may not have made much inroads in European politics, my greater fear is that their preferences filter down into more mainstream parties that readily observe the appeal of such rhetoric to certain audiences. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

No prominent author on the subject I know of has ever mentioned that tolerance of intolerance represents multiculturalism, but that's what Cameron suggests. As he compounds his errors by confusing plural monoculturalism with multiculturalism, he merits a failing grade.

UPDATE: The British National Party (BNP), another ultra-right wing party here in the UK, also applauds Cameron's speech.