‘Multiculturalism’ means nothing. Or does it?
Coverage of the riots in France by the American press has been skimpy, as far as I can tell from Over Here, but I’ve noticed that a few right-leaning pundits did take the chance to bash multiculturalism, and the French, and Europe as a whole, not to mention critics of the Iraq war, before moving on to more serious things, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political fortunes. “The riot-torn Paris suburbs are all but shut off from the ‘blessings of liberty,’ at least as Americans understand that term,” wrote Duncan Currie in The Weekly Standard. “There are two principal reasons for this: a bloated social-welfare state and a suicidal multiculturalism.”
Oh? The riots left about 8,400 cars burnt from Lille to Marseilles, or from Strasbourg to Toulouse, depending on how you want to cross France — 300 cities lit up nationwide — along with post offices, hospitals, police stations and schools. It was the worst destruction in France since World War II. What the rioters gave as reasons, over and over, were racism, joblessness, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and mistreatment by police. The rioters were mostly idle, gleeful, brutal kids, inspired by footage on television, armed with cell phones and a raw contempt for mainstream French society; so maybe their “reasons” aren’t rational. Still — none of them mentioned “multiculturalism.”
An article of faith on the right, in America and in Europe, is that “multiculturalism” has been a disaster. Official tolerance of foreign cultures has led to isolated racial neighborhoods, little Istanbuls or Islamabads where no one learns the local language and hatred for the host country seethes. “Multiculturalism” is the opposite of integration; it leads to puff-political measures such as government money for folk festivals, or official recognition of some foreign language, without bothering to teach kids about democratic process and civil society so they can appreciate what it means to hold citizenship in Germany or the United States.
I agree with some of this. I think civics lessons are more important than folk festivals, for example, when it comes to spending my tax dollar. The problem is that France, from an official point of view, isn’t multicultural. Official France is even less “multi-culti” than the federal United States. It takes no racial census; it doesn’t use affirmative action; it bans a Muslim girl’s headscarf (along with yarmulkes and crucifixes) in secular public schools, and so on. Official France pretends race doesn’t exist. So if the riots declare anything in the Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism Derby, it’s that pure assimilationism has gone down in a ball of flame.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. Arab- and African-descended kids learned all about citizenship in school, then learned that finding a job in France with an Islamic last name, or an address in one of the ghettos built for their guest-worker grandfathers, was like trying to get ahead as a black man in 1950s America. “The kids learn all the French republican values such as equality, and then they find in practice that it’s an illusion,” a French-Algerian anthropologist named Dounia Bouzar told The Christian Science Monitor. “There is an enormous gap between theory and practice.”
The problem, in other words, is segregation. (And if you think America is segregated, just come to Europe.) A keen observer might argue that certain countries, say Holland, have resorted to a happy liberal multiculturalism without solving their racial problems — or even making segregation worse — but you can’t argue that multiculturalism has been the downfall of la France. Where are the riots in Holland, anyway? Germany? Belgium? All those countries suffer violence and a lot of teeth-gnashing over their native-born Muslim citizens, and they’ve all used soft multicultural ways of dealing with the problem. “The first country formally to embrace ‘multiculturalism’ — to the extent of giving it a cabinet post,” wrote Mark Steyn, undercutting his own argument in a stunningly misguided column against the cult of multiculturalism, “— was Canada.”
Not to defend the cult. To me the word “multiculturalism” never sounded like a poet’s English, more like something dreamed up in a (Canadian) committee. It can be trendy and hollow and vague. And real integration is still more important than state-funded folk festivals. But the writers who like to unload on a largely benign idea because it smacks of hippie liberalism remind me of the people who — are sometimes the same people who — stamp their feet and declare that America is the fairest, most tolerant, freest nation on earth, but forget that it never would have earned a claim to that title without the sweat of its liberals.
Michael Scott Moore is an American journalist in Berlin and the author of a novel, “Too Much of Nothing.” His Web site is at radiofreemike.com.