Friday, August 24, 2007

Asking the Wrong Questions

The BBC international service, on its Have Your Say program, had an odd competition today to name the most multicultural city in the world. Radio hosts from each city were solicited to boast of how multicultural their burgs were. A Sydney host was prompted by a New Yorker, oddly, to cough up how many “Latinos” there are in his city, artificial though the idea of a “Latino” is. In addition to Sydney, the other candidates were London, New York, Sydney and Toronto. What no one thought to say was far more important than what was said.

First, note that all four cities – presumably selected because they are those that strike the BBC’s worldwide staff as the most tolerant – are in the Anglosphere. Presumably, a key requirement of a tolerant city is that it have British colonial heritage, which more than any other culture makes the individual the focal point of social analysis and political theory, and which enshrines individual rights as the primary governing principle. The idea of universal human aspirations that transcend our ethnoreligious differences is, frankly, not shared by all cultures. It is at least a Western and arguably a uniquely Anglo-American notion. There is little or no multiculturalism on display in Riyadh, Beijing, or even Rome or Athens.

Second, it was taken for granted that vast diversity is an ideal in itself. This sort of empty cheerleading, whereby we choose to be heedless of or even overturn centuries of tradition so that we can have a lot of ethnic restaurants to go to (one commentator on the BBC web page actually says that “My vote goes to New York, solely based on the variety of food one can find there”) avoids the hard question, which is how can people from different traditions and anthropological categories be persuaded to live together peacefully, for maximum mutual benefit? How, in other words, can a society be structured so that people from anywhere and everywhere can get along? This requires them to have some allegiance to common purpose beyond their tribal identity. Where does that common purpose come from? Surely not from continued subsidy of difference. Indeed, the willingness to tolerate annihilation of traditional cultural boundaries and engagement in cultural experimentation is a key feature of a truly peaceful yet diverse civilization. And surely there is no common purpose in the idea of diversity itself; no one ever volunteered to risk his life for diversity.

Having just visited it, I would nominate Houston as the most diverse yet harmonious place. While there, I saw, next to a very utilitarian tollway designed not to make a n architectural statement but to get people where they’re going in the most effective way possible, both a very large Chinese supermarket and very large mosque next to one another. There is something striking in that. Like most American and many European cities, Houston has had a demographic revolution in recent decades. Unlike them, Houston is a city where commerce is largely free – no zoning, low taxes, etc. And so people there have all kinds of incentives to work together for mutual gain as individuals. That is what allows "What can you do for me?" to have a chance at shoving aside "What group are you from?" as the most important question on people's minds when they meet someone new. And therein lies the key.



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