January 17th, 2008


Goons and coconuts round on multiculti

Here's Josephine Baker singing her biggest hit, J'ai Deux Amours (1931). "My savanna is beautiful," runs the lyric, "but why deny / Paris has me under its spell / To see it one day is my pretty dream / I have two loves, my country and Paris".

Now, what's exciting about this song is a certain promiscuity -- to have two cultural loves is clearly slightly naughty, just as it is to have two loves in a sexual sense. Monocultural superpatriots with their hands on their hearts and their eyes on the flag would be confused to have to put their hands on two hearts and gaze at two flags. After all, if you can love two, why not three or four? Where does it end?

The answer is that it ends in multiculturalism. "J'ai Deux Amours" might well be the national anthem of multiculti, the idea that we should support things like multiple citizenship, multiple national and cultural loyalties, linguistic pluralism or, conversely, the right not to have to speak in one set language, the official celebration of lots of different festivals belonging to different ethnic and religious groups, a certain freedom of dress codes, subsidy for minority artforms, and so on.

That's all multiculti at the level of government policy. But if we're making Josephine Baker the ambassadrice of multiculti, and saying there's a sexy sort of miscegenating promiscuity built into the idea, what might that mean on a personal level? Well, it would mean that I might well have a lover of a different race, a lover who carried a different passport, with whom I might eventually have multiculti children, children who'd be encouraged to see their parents' two cultures (more if the parents are themselves multiculti) as equally important. It might mean that I would choose to live in a country other than the one I was born in, and feel that I had the right to retain my foreignness rather than be socialized into some kind of sameness. Above all it might be a certain idea about difference being a positive, a thing to be celebrated rather than suppressed, sought out rather than avoided, preserved rather than eroded.

This is where multiculti becomes slightly more complex. To become multiculti, I jump out of the monoculture I was born into, but I don't jump so far that I lose contact with my "savanna" altogether. Because if I lose touch with my roots, my origins, and just melt in the melting pot, difference itself is destroyed. We return to the idea of oneness, the monolithic, and the lack of respect for difference. There can, after all, be no foreignness without acknowledgment of difference, and the right to stay different. If there's a right wing threat to multiculti in the form of ethnic cleansing, patriotism and so on, there's a left wing threat to it in the idea of the melting pot; the idea that racial or cultural or national differences should become meaningless, or be deliberately ignored. An ignored difference is not a happy one.

I'm personally pretty invested in the idea of multiculti -- it's how I live. Super Collider, for instance, described life in Berlin's Japanese bubble, a place in which multiple national cultures produce cultural hybrids without losing sight of their original specificity. It would be absurd to say that the Japanese in Berlin should be forced to speak only German, or make oaths of allegiance to the German state, or be made to answer quiz questions about the history of German culture before being allowed to settle here. The point of a bubble is that it's an exotic little ecosystem within a wider one. It has walls which protect it from the prevailing environment, frail though they may be.

The idea of multiculti has been under attack since the 90s, and particularly since the November 2001 Bush speech about being either with us or against us. "Recently," says Wikipedia, "right-of-center governments in several European states—notably the Netherlands and Denmark— have reversed the national policy and returned to an official monoculturalism. A similar reversal is the subject of debate in the United Kingdom and Germany, among others, due to evidence of incipient segregation and anxieties over 'home-grown' terrorism." Just the other day Michael Chertoff, head of the American Department of Homeland Security, said that Europe now poses the biggest threat to US security. The logic seemed to be a Eurabian one; that Europe has increasingly large numbers of increasingly non-assimilated Muslims who may wish to do the US harm. Even if you guys don't consider that a threat, Chertoff seemed to be saying, we do.

Multiculti is also being attacked from within a certain sector of the immigrant communities in Western countries -- the Coconut-Banana Sector, we could call it. Here's Saira Khan (of Pakistani origin, married to a white British businessman) speaking on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions last Friday:

"I believe that multiculturalism has completely failed in this country and I think previous governments have had a big part to play in that. And I think the thought - the way forward is integration and making people feel and understand what British values are, what it means to be British and actually embrace that. I'm not saying we don't welcome other cultures, I'm saying we must feel part of a common cause and respect common values living in Britain. [CLAPPING]".

Eric Liu published a book in which he calls himself (and other successful, integrated American-Asians) The Accidental Asian. "He is a fervent advocate of success in the mainstream," says the New York Times, "and he's not prepared to jeopardize his future by clinging to an ethnic past that was never really his own. As a result, he tends to be regarded by whites as an ''honorary white'' and by Asians as a ''banana'' (yellow on the outside, white on the inside)."

''Unlike blacks,'' Liu writes, ''Asians do not have a cultural idiom that arose from centuries of thinking of themselves as a race; unlike Jews, Asians haven't a unifying spiritual and historical legacy; unlike Latinos, another recently invented community, Asians don't have a linguistic basis for their continued apartness.'' As an avowed ''identity libertarian,'' he believes that efforts to forge a separatist, monolithic community -- in a country where most Asian-Americans under 34 are married to non-Asians -- go against the grain of logic and demography."

Now, I have the same problem with "identity libertarians" that I have with libertarianism in general; it tends to return power patterns to something rather Darwinian. Take away the walls of the bubble, the support of the community, and you're left to fend for yourself in the dominant culture. That's fine if you're an achiever like Liu.

It's interesting that people who think this way usually do well in business, and have mainstream, smiling photographs. They tend to be people who distinguish themselves from rather than in their communities of origin, and find themselves more popular with the indigenous majority than with minority communities they're seen as having betrayed. It's also worrying from the point of view of the erosion of difference, and for the fact that it basically puts immigrants on the same team as the mildly anti-immigrant rightwingers who want them to jump through ever-more-undignified loyalty hoops -- to "think and live like us". Liu clearly already does -- in his case there's not much to lose. His ethnicity is "accidental" and immaterial. He clearly feels he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by ditching his difference. Unlike sexy Josephine Baker, he has one love, not two.

I find it rather telling that the New York Times is now lauding Eric Liu's "I have basically just one love" approach. In 1936 the paper, reviewing one of Josephine Baker's few US shows, called her a "Negro wench". These days, of course, you wouldn't say that -- you'd leave the racial slurs to the immigrant community themselves (they call Liu a "banana"). But the basic message is the same. Preserving your difference, sharing your love equally between two cultures, won't do. You're either with us or against us. As the clip above points out, even Josephine Baker had to choose in the end. After her unfriendly reception in the US in the mid-30s, she started singing "my country is Paris" instead of "my country and Paris". Loving two is just too hard.