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Beyond the multicultural ghetto

About the author
Ali Hossaini is a pioneer of interactive television and electronic media. He manages two television channels in New York City.

Anyone writing about multiculturalism is tempted to ask: where do I fit in? And a citizen of the mongrel American nation, whose origin (if ancestors are considered part of his identity – an idea that seems increasingly quaint) lies “somewhere else”, is likely to produce a longer answer than those who might fit a neater cultural category: British, German, Indian, Chinese.

So, here goes. I was born in West Virginia to American parents: a father from Basra, Iraq, whose mother came from Isfahan, Iran; and a mother from Akron, Ohio, whose own mother came from a village in the mountains of Slovakia and whose father was a Serb immigrant from Zagreb, Croatia. Mother’s family was Baptist and father’s were Shi’a Muslim. Thanks to an aunt who shared my mother’s ecumenical spirit, I have Jewish cousins who now live in California.

After hearing my family history, which makes “checking an identity box” rather difficult, would anyone guess the truth: that I have a problem with multiculturalism? It’s not that I don’t appreciate other cultures, but rather that I find it at best a blunt tool and at worst the flipside of racism.

The new fiefdoms

Let’s start with the blunt–tool aspect, most evident in the way that multiculturalism has gained prestige in academic halls over the last two decades. It arose in response to the fact that American and European universities were, by ignoring non–western intellectual, social and literary traditions, effectively trapped in a 19th century white supremacist agenda. The antidote applied by many scholars was to insert selected elements of these “other” traditions into the university, usually in the form of “area” studies: women’s studies, black studies, gay studies. These areas were usually underfunded, but like all academic departments quickly became fiefdoms. I’ve always imagined the professors who ruled them rationalising their position by citing Milton’s Lucifer that it is “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

These promoters of area studies, in an ostensible search for inclusiveness and an end to ghettoes, have in fact achieved the opposite and in the process done education a great disservice. The teaching of history is a prime example, where histories of the other – alternative narratives with their own local rules, games and players – have augmented what is generally called western , what we understand as our shared heritage. Alternative histories offer the story of “other”, that is the players whose roles have been excluded from the common stage. But the cure for a bad history is not more bad history – it is good history; that is, a western history that resists social agendas. An alternative to the several ethnocentrisms is world systems theory, an approach that looks at the integrative effects of any social interaction, including war.

To carry on the metaphor of battle, those who wish to replay the silent voices of history should aim to reform western history, and they should start in the departments that train high-school teachers as well as scholars. Without the promotion of rigorous scholarship in the core departments of the university, most students will continue to be taught 19th century propaganda. And the substantial advances in the study of non-European cultures risk being lost when area studies are defunded, as they inevitably will be. Those running area-studies departments are less pioneers of a new form of knowledge than ministers of their own intellectual ghettoes – which are enclosed, temporary and subsist only via the condescension of the powers they resist.

Afrocentrism” or equivalents, in short, is no antidote to Eurocentrism. In the interest of personal power, ownership and a flag of their own, the creators of this form of multiculturalism have replayed rather than overcome the racist agenda of the 19th century.

The test of reality

But even worse than academic is politically–mandated multiculturalism, a society of separate ethnic or identity–based groups with no shared set of values or point of coherence. There is an alternative to this form of multiculturalism in the tame Canadian utopia, but, when the winds change,as they have in our fictional clash of civilisations, it seems like a good way to breed alienated radicals. Or to get dropped into a concentration camp thanks to said radicals. There is an alternative to this form of multiculturalism in the political arena: assimilation. The proponents of “area studies” have long disdained it; it is time, I would argue, for a revival.

Indeed, assimilation - by which I mean the merger of cultures, not the annihilation of one by another - is one area where my country, for all its faults, shines. America has racism, to be sure, but the barrier to entry is low: to put it glibly, in the United States one must speak fluent American English, watch football (our sort), and love the flag. European countries have been financially generous with immigrants, but rather stingy with national identity, the prize possession of a citizen. A family can live for generations in Germany and still be considered Turks; the same goes for Pakistanis in England, although I think the struggle to create a non-ethnic British identity is progress in the right direction.

A scene from The Deer Hunter makes the point. When a police interrogator asks a Vietnam veteran: “Is that a Russian name?” the man looks him in the eye and replies: “No, it’s American.” I always liked that answer because it posed for me the historical reality of my situation and offered a neat gambit for escaping the dilemmas of “identity”.

This assimilationist perspective works at both personal and economic levels. My agenda is to raise the banner of shared humanity, not to “find out who I really am” or proudly assert some absurdly hyphenated identity. I define myself, and I wish others would take that power to themselves instead of relying on ancestors. Multiculturalists may see the denial of “diversity” as a form of false consciousness, but a celebration of the diversity of human culture should be accompanied by awareness that diversity is often a byword for social strife.

Moreover, the backbone of identity and the route of progress in America is its economic life. America assimilates those who want to work, usually in the first instance for low pay. As someone who lives in New York City, I watch the evolutionary process that mints new Americans – hot–dog vendor, taxi–driver, delicatessen–manager, ethnic restaurant–owner – whose children do better than they and, with some luck, move into the mainstream.

In a sense these recent immigrants are more truly American than those professors who would confine them to hyphenated identity–ghettoes. For it is the comfort of shared values, language and clothing that allows individuals to progress. Much may have been lost in the process, but far more has been gained: the creation of an enriched American culture based on the common striving for a common identity as Americans.

Multiculturalism implies that cultures as well as individuals have rights. It is a short step from here to telling individuals “who you really are”. Well, I love the fact that my ancestors hail from so many different nations, but I’m not interested in preserving the past, with its seething – and ultimately absurd – ethnic hatreds. Multiculturalism is “apartheid lite”: it halts the progress of a nation, stops it from creating something new from its cultural resources.

Assimilation plus tolerance works better to ensure social cohesion and progress than either academic or political multiculturalism. I hope that the rest of the world evolves towards a society that resembles the United States. Not America as it stands – an arrogant imperial power driven by corporate greed and growing class divisions – but the American ideal, so clearly envisioned in our founding compact and lived in the experience of millions of immigrants who revise the history of culture every day.

“Cultures” are wonderful things to experience, but they are not the locus of value. That lies in free individuals who can, at any moment, discard the shackles of the past and impose their will on the future.


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