First of two parts
The horrendous acts of terror perpetrated last month in Norway amount to an attempt to stem the tide of multiculturalism flowing throughout Europe. They were apparently committed with a mind to incite a white Aryan revolution against non-whites and Muslims.
The actions of Anders Behring Breivik mimic the ethnicity-based racism, religious bigotry and ideological violence that swept across Europe in the 1930s. Is this, then, the 1930s all over again?
In the past year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron have each in their different ways denounced multiculturalism as a flawed and failed social phenomenon.
Populist parties touting confrontationalist agendas and mouthing racial hate-speak are enjoying more than a modicum of popularity in Europe. The ideological bifurcation in a wide swath of issues in the United States and the rise of disgruntled rightwing groups, egged on by media jingo-jocks, have only exacerbated the intolerance.
The first thing to point out about multiculturalism is that its premises vary with the historical context of its location.
Europe has always been a crucible of minority ethnicities and creeds whose peoples have coexisted with a Christian majority, forming the very identity even of those who have, when it suited them, considered themselves racially pure.
Consequently, the national identities of Europe’s states have constantly been redefined by inputs in customs, thought, culture and religious practice from “outsiders.” All of these threads became part of the nationalist fabric — whether the “natives” were aware of it or not.
The second thing that underlies issues of multiculturalism in migrant cultures such as those of the U.S. and Australia, for instance, is the nation’s past and present relationship with its indigenous peoples.
It’s fine for Americans and Australians to welcome “the huddled masses yearning to be free.” But those welcomes are, in both cases, founded on the genocide of the indigenous population. As a result, virtually all Americans and Australians are now migrants or their descendants.
In the older nations of Europe, ethnic-majority nationalities have existed for much longer. Anyone who is different may be seen, in the first instance, as a challenge to this established ethnicity. The model in these places is one of gradual acceptance and assimilation.
In the U.S., migrants are, by and large, considered Americans from the outset. Just add a hyphen and you’re home free.
So what is happening now? Are the Christian nations of the developed world feeling so threatened by the radical Islamist fringe that they are ready to throw tolerance to the winds and insist that minorities curb their culture to conform to some “pure” national standard?
No decent human would look upon Breivik’s acts with anything but revulsion; and yet his views, as published in his manifesto, are in no way anathema to some populist advocates of uniculturalism and anti-Muslim values.
The backlash against multiculturalism, and against the visible Muslim presence in society seen in Europe today, comes out of nothing pure or virtuous. It is, plain and simple, a viperous reaction against others’ ethnic, cultural or religious practices by deeply intolerant people who are rejecting fellow humans out of hand on the basis of a word, a gesture or a color of skin. Breivik is no more than an ignorant bigot using decorative concepts to justify crime.
If the intolerant understood that their own standard had already been enriched by centuries of the comingling of ethnicities, and that the identity of that standard is something constantly evolving, then they would not reject, as a matter of course, new infusions of culture.
The rejection of multiculturalism we see today at the highest political levels reflects a very shortsighted view of nationality.
It is often the case that new migrants struggle to make ends meet or enable their children to have more than an inferior education. This can lead to hard-core unemployment in some migrant groups, which, particularly among the youth, invites crime. Crime by people who look and act differently from those in the mainstream culture in turn invites prejudicial opinions about ethnic behavior. The media loves this topic to death; and politicians are sensitive to its development: Don’t ask why, just condemn.
A society that is open to outsiders needs to have a long vision of its future. The U.S is basically such a society. Americans have, for most of their history, believed in the second generation — the ones who get the hyphens, such as Japanese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans. It is not a myth that if the first generation of immigrants works hard, their children or grandchildren can achieve the goals they set themselves.
The image of Jewish Americans today may be one of arch-successful go-getters, but a little more than a century ago, when my grandparents settled in New York, that was certainly not the case. They landed smack in the lower classes with scant hope of dragging themselves out. Some Jewish migrants turned to crime (one of my uncles among them), forming a kind of Kosher Nostra, where a stick up was a “shtick up,” and you didn’t have to work in the garment district to give someone the slip. But succeeding generations of Jewish people made good, thanks to the social mobility at the core of U.S. society.
The unicultural backlash that we see today is caused by no more than people’s mistaken notion of their own identity. Such thinking — fortified now by the rise of nonwhite nations that are seen as an economic threat to Western dominance of global markets — allows no room for contrition over misdeeds toward indigenous people or consideration of how migrant ethnicities have contributed to the strength and resilience of the nation.
Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron, the Tea Party in the U.S. and similar intolerant and confrontationalist pressure groups in the Western world are all coming from the same place: a gross misunderstanding of what makes up their own identity today.
It is up to the media and the leaders in all walks of life to inform their compatriots of the rich comingling of ethnic and religious elements that went into the making of their contemporary identity. Sadly, media and leaders alike prefer to whip up biased sentiments and sensationalist proclivities.
It all may make for stimulating copy and exhilarating podium-pounding rhetoric, but no one should be in doubt as to where this backlash against multiculturalism ends. It ends in violence against all.
That is what happened in Norway last month. No one is immune to hatred and ignorance disguised as honor, virtue or piety. If this backlash becomes the norm, then, yes, we are headed straight back to the 1930s, when racism and intolerance led tens of millions of people down a dark spiral staircase into the depths of violence and self-destruction.
That is why multiculturalism, both as a goal and in practice, must be nurtured and kept alive.
Next week Counterpoint turns to these notions in the context of Japan.