Can Multiculturalism Work?

What is multiculturalism?  Here is something that I am for, and think is a positive thing, but a recent interview I listened to made me wonder if I was perhaps defining it differently than other people.  Not that I am necessarily wrong, but it is perhaps a term that easily lends itself to some interpretation.  Perhaps part of the reason is a definition of what we consider culture likely also varies from person to person.

The argument has come up many times in Europe and North America in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis that multiculturalism doesn’t work.   My father-in-law in Poland has even joined the parade of fear over refugees and said he’s against “multy-culty”.  Many Americans describe the U.S. as a melting pot and promote that as an important part of a successful nation.  But are we really a melting pot?  It’s clear when you look around there are plenty of cultures celebrating events that are important to them.  Whether it’s religious holidays, whether it’s going to the church or temple of their religion.  There are also plenty of restaurants catering to different ethnic cuisines.  We can see the evidence of different cultural norms among African-Americans and among Hispanic groups.

So, what is it that we are actually afraid of changing?  It seems that when most people say multiculturalism won’t work it’s targeting specific values that another culture holds, or is perceived to hold that is different than values held already in the country.  But since there are clearly many diverse cultural practices that go on already that don’t bother anybody is it reasonable to say something so broad like multiculturalism doesn’t work?  I don’t believe so.  That doesn’t mean that bringing in other cultures into your own society won’t have problems.  Part of the reason why the story of immigration keeps repeating itself with one generation of immigrants being criticized by the generations before is that we generally don’t trust what we really don’t know.  But we live in the age of information so there should be a bunch of stuff we do know.   So let’s take a look, and for a little bit, ignore the fact that often in these situations the experiential knowledge goes a lot further than book knowledge.

When it comes to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan let’s face it, a large majority of these immigrants are going to be Muslims and fear of Islam is at a high today.  While extremism exists in every religion right now, a good portion of it is coming from Islam, so perhaps there is a good reason to have more fear, even if that fear compared to other things we have to fear in this world, are exaggerated.  Once again I don’t want to get into any No True Scotsman arguments, because we can say extremists are not truly followers of Islam, but they claim they are so let’s go with the idea that whatever religion people claim they are affiliated with that’s their religion.  It’s true to say that whatever small percentage of Muslims we bring into this country that are jihadists, the more immigrants we take, the numbers go up.  So I think this is always worth paying attention to since a society should always be aiming to reduce violent crime.  But for now let’s just throw away the extremist views and look at these societies in general.  We have very traditional values.  Women do not have equal rights in Islam.  They are expected to dress modestly because they are a temptation to men.  They try to protect their followers from information that would cast doubt or refute tenets of their religion.  Their governments do not have separation of church and state.  Islam has strong rewards for commitment to the religion and strong punishment for those who are apostates (both on this plane of existence and the other ones).  They have no tolerance for homosexuality.  Do any of these qualities sound familiar?  They should, they are the very similar attitudes held by a large portion of the religion right here in the U.S.  What’s very odd about it, is that the same people who have so much in common with all these potential new immigrants are the most against them coming in, and it’s the left that is happy to important such illiberal values into the U.S.

Now before you fight me on this, let it sink in a bit.  If this is the case, what’s going on.  Are we all very confused?  No, but perhaps we are a little confused.  First of all we shouldn’t expect two very similar religions to coexist happily.  It’s easy to see why to very conservative groups with slight variations on “The Truth” don’t want to share space.   It’s also not hard to see that Islam doesn’t have a high degree of tolerance towards free speech, something that many, if not most on the right, consider to be one of our most important values as an American. It is also isn’t difficult to understand why people on the left would be side with Muslim immigrants.  Certainly, when it comes to the refugees there is going to be a great deal of desire to reduce human suffering.  But let’s say, to a large degree many people, whether they support immigration or not, are moved my human suffering.  From an ideological point of view, we’d expect many people to be sensitive to the oppression they’ve endured at the hands of religious intolerance, racism, and misogyny. It’s not completely irrational, therefore, to be against allowing large groups of people that are experiencing oppression and suffering to be painted with a broad-brush stroke simply for being different.  We’re all too familiar with what happens when such attitudes persist in a society.  We know the harm that stereotyping can play and how it closes doors to meaningful conversations which can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutual understanding.  There is value in diversity and adding some might not be a bad idea.  This at least for me is at the heart of a multicultural society.

My concern is that we seemed to have reached a level of political correctness where it is not okay to criticize Islam, out of fear we will be supporting attitudes on the right.  And I would like to believe that there are many people on the right who might be similarly scared of expressing empathy to humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in case they are seen as supporting the left.  Identity politics is not helping.  We have to have some honest conversations about what we can tolerate in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  As a liberal there are certain harmful views that I will not tolerate in any culture, and do not want to see them increasingly practiced in my country or any country.  Many of the Syrian refugees are very educated, which is helpful, but harmful cultural practices, particularly attitudes towards gender or sexual orientation are not dependent on the level of education.  It’s not unreasonable to be against importing illiberal values into our society, just as it is not unreasonable to be intolerant to illiberal values here.  It seems clear to me that multiculturalism is not impossible, but it does have limits and if you claim to be a liberal it’s of value for you to recognize that.  And on the right, the level of xenophobia and fear of terrorism is also highly disproportionate, dishonest and is not helpful to meaningful conversation.

I come from Canada and am proud to say that is one the few if not the last country that largely embraces multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we tolerate every cultural practice.  Canada can boast some of the most progressive imams in Islamic society who actively speak out against Islamic extremism.  I wonder if Canada’s inclusive attitude towards different cultures has anything to do with that?  And I am not under any illusions that racism or bigotry is absent in Canada.  It’s still a problem.  It takes time to solve such problems and I think Canada has made some impressive progress.  Growing up in Canada my view of multiculturalism was that you retain the best of your culture and adopt the best of Canada, and the nation simply gets better.  As someone who is biracial I never struggled about whether to consider myself Indian or white, I always just thought of myself as Canadian, because Canada recognized the value that other countries have brought with them to Canada.  To me, this is one of the principal differences between Canada and the U.S.  Canada definitely thinks we have some lessons for other cultures, but we are humble enough to recognize that maybe other cultures have something to teach us as while.  It seems to me that the U.S. has an attitude that it only needs to teach others, but has nothing to learn from them.  Such an attitude seems to be held by many Americans on the left and right because it seems to play out in identity politics as well.   Maybe, in the end, whether or not multiculturalism can work all depends how willing each culture is willing to listen and learn.  This is a value that we all need wherever we may live.

Syrian Refugee Crisis Nearly Solves Homelessness in the U.S., Again

ninos.guerra
Omran Dagneesh who nearly solved homelessness in America

Washington, D.C. – Last week, the bombing of Aleppo, Syria caused social media in the U.S. to surge with evanescent concern for their over 500,000 homeless people.  Experts are saying that the plight of Syrians has been one of the best tragedies for getting people to feign interest over the increasingly prevalent problem of homelessness in the U.S.  One of the more moving scenes from last week’s bombing was the vacant expression on the face of a young boy, Omran Dagneesh, who was pulled from the rubble in the aftermath and bolstered vast amounts of fleeting sympathy for homeless people.  Once his wounds had been tended to, reporters had a chance to speak to him about his reactions to the near end of homelessness in the
U.S.  “Of course,” remarked the traumatized young boy, “I am pleased that my town, my neighbors, could all be bombed so that people in America could demonstrate momentary outrage at the terrible homelessness problem.  I mean it’s the most powerful economy of any country on Earth so I was glad that bricks and cement could bury me like that so that people could seem to care for homeless people, even if just for a day.”

Omran Dagneesh’s father echoed his son’s joy at being part of the short-lived concern for homeless people in the U.S.  “I only wish,” said the smiling father whose life was recently destroyed, “that we could have shown pictures of the other children, particularly the ones that died.  Oh and my neighbor who was pregnant and whose unborn baby was killed in her womb.  I’m certain that concern for homelessness could have trended on Facebook in the U.S. in a much more significant way.”

But social media experts say last week’s wave of false concern was small in comparison to last year’s overwhelming spurious concern for the homeless.  Reporters asked Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg whether this was true. “There is no doubt that when millions of Syrians were desperately fleeing the deteriorated conditions in Syria last year, the concern for homeless people was so great that it almost felt tangible.”  Zuckerberg added, “not tangible enough to do anything, but boy you really felt liked homelessness would be over soon.”

Long time Facebook user David Olsen of Battlecreek, MI remembers the time well.  “I don’t know what came over me,” reflected Olsen, “as I saw so many articles being posted about taking in all these Syrians who were completely destitute and in need of help, I suddenly become aware of all those who were destitute and in need of help, and thought about our own homeless.  Unfortunately, I was too busy reminding everybody about them to donate any money or volunteer any time to actually help them.  But you know it really felt good to get the information out.  When news about the Syrians disappeared from my newsfeed, it was like the homeless problem disappeared as well. Problem essentialy solved.”

Other Facebook users like Shirley Potter of Enid, OK however had a difficult time showing overall temporary care for homelessness.  “In general I think homeless people just need to pull themselves off their bootstraps,” said a resolute Potter, “but I am very pro-military, and when I found out that many of our vets were homeless as I learned about how much help the Syrians needed, I was able to join the chorus of people with transient sympathy for homeless people.”

To get the opinion of those who were at the receiving end of this ersatz concern, reporters asked homeless man Barton Kirby how he felt.  Kirby however was too moved to respond by the fact that in 12  years nobody had asked him his name and also that reporters didn’t spit at him.

mcconnellAt the political end of the spectrum Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answered numerous questions from reporters at a press conference last week.  “Ultimately as a nation we can only act like we care for so many things at once, and we simply don’t have the resources to be helping Syrians with so many homeless people about,” exclaimed the senator from the nation that spends a higher percentage of their GDP on health care than any other developed nation.  “Currently we lead all developed nations in the category of child homelessness.  This problem isn’t going to go away unless we really get exposed to some long term suffering of the Syrian people so we can generate some solid and temporary concern for the homeless.”  The senator then added “We also have other problems we need to pay lip service to.  There are our veterans.” asserted the senator from the country that spends more per capita on defense than any other nation over 30 million people, and still has homeless veterans and veterans without proper physical and mental health care after their service. “We also have many people unemployed,” declared the senator, part of a congress whose work to pass jobs bills has been dwarfed by the over 60 times they tried to repeal the ACA, “so you see we have our hands full with all these other things we pretend are important, and can’t possibly help Syrian refugees.  And we’d like to thank the media for exposing the issues the good people of Syria face so we can continue this very moral and serious façade of being too busy working on our own problems to help others.”

Some detractors say that ultimately helping people is really more about the political and popular will to do so, but Dave Olsen disagrees.  “The only way we can solve homelessness through mock empathy is if we remain vigilant to stories about the suffering of the Syrian people.  I, along with many others on social media, are working together as a community to make sure that the Syrians never get helped while inspiring us to keep talking, but not actually doing anything, about the very important topic of homelessness.”