Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Multiculturalism as Prison

The French novelist and public intellectual Pascal Bruckner has written an essay criticizing multiculturalism. He calls it "Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism," and I confess I had never thought about it that way. The French government has for decades assumed that tous les citoyens are French – not black French, white French, Arab French, etc. The French refuse to think of individuals in groups at least ethnically, even refusing to track ethnicity in their censuses, although they do have formal legal structures for dealing with particular religious communities. Despite their excessive hostility to religion, on obvious display in Mr. Bruckner's piece, there is much to admire in the way they approach diversity issues.

The article is deficient with respect to readability, although that may be due to cumbersome translation. But it makes very firmly what I think is the most damning indictment of multiculturalism, the reduction of every individual to nothing more than a member of a group – Muslim, white, whatever – drawn from a predefined list.

This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind and - for example - love in the manner they see fit.

Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.

Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied - as is so often the case - by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn't guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the "calamities" of progress. Those termed "Muslims" (North Africans, Pakistanis, Africans) are prohibited from not believing, or from believing periodically, from not giving a damn about God, from creating a life for themselves far away from the Koran and the rites of the tribe.

Multiculturalism must, if not slain before it matures, end in tragedy because it deprives us of our ability to dream, to plan, to experiment and to embrace or reject as free people. In it we are not noble individuals charged with constructing our own life but prisoners of our circumstances of birth. It is a recipe for despotism, and ultimately for group-based conflict to the death. A sound society can be based on the freedom of the individual to chart his own destiny through the guarantee of his rights. It cannot be based on investing rights in groups, particularly the "right" of a group to be free from any questioning of its cultural practices by the larger society.



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