From Melting Pot to Stir-Fry

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2006)
Within a few hundred yards of my apartment in London there are Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Italian, French, Georgian, Persian, Greek, Spanish and Indian restaurants. I suspect that this is the kind of thing people have in mind when they talk of multiculturalism: a different cuisine every night.
Certainly, I am very far from decrying a wide choice of cuisines. We have become so accustomed to such a choice, in fact, that we now find a monotonous diet if not a torment exactly, and least a minor hardship. Some people, indeed, measure the sophistication of a person by the number of cuisines with which he is intimately familiar: and to be able to discourse knowledgeably about the food of a remote country to someone who is completely ignorant of it is to gain a moral ascendancy over him similar in nature to that of an art-lover who can discourse freely on the life of Luca Signorelli to someone in whom that name rings only the faintest of bells if any at all.
I don’t exclude myself from these remarks, particularly with regard to the hardship of a monotonous diet. My wife and I were once stuck in a beautiful and unspoilt, because inaccessible, seventeenth-century town on the Rio Magdalena in Colombia, where there was at the time, to all intents and purposes, only one restaurant. And to this day, we can both easily conjure up in our mind’s ear the sound of the proprietress reciting the invariant menu. ‘Hay carne, hay pollo, hay pescado, hay bagre’ (There’s beef, there’s chicken, there’s fish, there’s bagre - a kind of catfish whose flesh was muddier even than that of ordinary Rio Magdalena fish) is a kind of private joke between us when we are offered the same meal twice in succession. By the end of a couple of weeks of twice daily meals of the same things cooked the same way with the same accompaniments we would have welcomed even the kind of food that we would not normally have eaten, just for a change, and so long as it wasn’t carne, pollo, pescado or bagre.
Not everyone likes variety, of course. I remember reading - how long ago it all seems now! - a textbook of psychology in which it was claimed that babies fell naturally into two great classes, those who were eager to eat what they had never tried before, and those who adamantly refused to do so. Pictures of two babies, one gurgling with delight as the spoon with the new food was pushed the direction of its mouth, and the other turning away from it in angry disgust, illustrated the text. I have no idea whether this distinction still holds - or even whether it ever did - but I certainly know a child who, from a very early age, refuse to eat anything other than a very restricted number of things, calling all else ‘slime.’ His parents tried to starve him into more catholic taste, but it was they, rather than he, who gave way.
Naturally, even the most adventurous of eaters usually draws the line somewhere, and finds what others eat to be disgusting. Few of us would anticipate with delight eating the grubs so favoured by the Aborigines, or drinking the mixed blood and milk that is nectar to the Masai. But this does not alter the obvious fact that, in the last half-century, our culinary tastes have altered decisively in the direction of variety, thanks to the unprecedented intermingling of races, nations and cultures brought about by mass migrations and easy travel.
In Britain, for example, with its somewhat limited culinary tradition, the national dish has changed from fish and chips to something called chicken tikka masala, a dish that does not exist in India yet is clearly of Indian inspiration. There can scarcely be an English town or village with a population of more than 1000 that is without its Indian restaurant, and I have often had occasion to be grateful for this fact. And this fact was a consequence of mass migration.
The invention and acceptance in Britain of the chicken tikka masala is often used as an example of multiculturalism in beneficent action. Not long ago, indeed, I was at a conference in Britain on multiculturalism and - almost on cue as it were - the chicken tikka masala was trotted out and exhibited, much like a prize bull at a dairy show.
It would be easy to produce many other, more important instances of cultural cross-fertilisation. Without some assimilation of foreign elements, cultures are inclined to stagnate and grow stale. The European discovery of Japanese woodblock prints had an immense effect on European art, and the modern art of India, which in my opinion is more vibrant and aesthetically much more interesting and agreeable than our own, makes use of western techniques. The work of exiled and immigrant writers is now often more interesting than that of native metropolitans, and English above all is a language that has been enriched by its ready, indeed eager, assimilation of foreign words and concepts.
Yet no one who values human diversity would (presumably) wish for customs and traditions to be so interpenetrative that no distinct customs and traditions any longer existed. There is therefore something to be said for placing a value on our customs just because they are our customs and we are attached to them. Thai cuisine (of which I happen to be fond) would die out if there were no significant population that valued it above all other cuisines, merely because it happened by accident of birth to be theirs, and not because they had studied all cuisines and come to the conclusion, based upon philosophically indubitable principles, that their was the best cuisine in any objective sense.
Nor, of course, do we speak our own language because of its peculiar beauties, strengths and expressiveness, though it may in fact have all these qualities; we speak it because it is ours. When we live at home in our own country, we have no intention of giving up our own language, and to replace it by the languages of immigrants, however numerous the immigrants might be. We have no intention either of learning their languages. And since language is so important a part of culture, our determination, whether we articulate it or not, to continue to speak it by itself calls into doubt the sincerity - or perhaps merely the coherence - of adherents of multiculturalism. Whatever language people may speak in the home, English will remain the language of the public space. This is not chauvinism: it is the mere recognition of the obvious.
Moreover, it is also clear that the customary nature of customs does not and cannot justify all customs whatsoever. Supporters of multiculturalism have cuisine in mind precisely because a preference for one cuisine over another is not a moral or political choice, but a private aesthetic one. ‘I like cuisine x because I grew up with it’ does not offend us as an explanation; ‘I think female circumcision is a good thing because it was the custom among the people with whom I grew up’ strikes us as a totally inadequate reason for the continuation of the practice. Patriotism, Dr Johnson once remaked, is the last resort of the scoundrel; but it would be as true, or perhaps more true, to say that custom is the last resort of the scoundrel.
Not all customs or traditions are folklorically picturesque, mere matters of dancing round a village maypole in prettily-embroidered costumes. It hardly needs pointing out that the political traditions of many countries, which arise organically from their culture, are not such as we would wish to see transplanted into our own lands with immigrants from those countries, however delicious their cuisine. Indeed, it is highly likely that the desire to escape the consequences of those political traditions is one of the strongest (though not by any means the only) motive for migrating in the first place. No one would wish to see the Cambodian political experience reproduced elsewhere: for even before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, it was far from admirable. There is no need for us to look to the Arabs for political guidance either, to put it mildly, though whether they should look to us for such guidance is another and much more difficult question. Our answer will depend upon how evangelical we feel about the liberal democracy that has grown out of our own traditions and historical experience, and how far we think it is of universal application. I confess that I am a sceptic, for two related reasons: first because politics by no means expresses all that is important or admirable about a country (if it did, then the countries with the best polities would be the best in all respects, which is far from being the case), and second because political forms cannot be successfully transplanted unless they are compatible with a country’s culture and society.
The reason that India, for example, became and has remained a parliamentary democracy was not because such a democracy was imposed on it - very much to the contrary - but because it accorded with the wishes of its people, or at least a very important and determining section of its people, who saw much to admire in the British example. Had the British resisted independence with the ferocity of, say, the French in Algeria, India’s historical experience would have been very different and its present democracy would not have emerged.
Whatever our foreign policy should be - whether we believe we ought to promote the welfare of others or merely to pursue our interests - there is no reason at all for us, indeed there is no real possibility for us, to be multiculturalists at home, if by multiculturalism is meant the granting of legal and social equality, recognition and protection to all the customs, traditions, beliefs and practices whatsoever of immigrants, as if multiculturalism were merely a kind of fusion cooking. Of course, we will spontaneously take from immigrants aspects of their traditions that we find congenial, but this will be an informal assimilation, not mediated by governmental decree. Multicultualism as a doctrine is just another instance of the tendency of a portion of the intelligentsia to exhibit its virtue and generosity for all the world to see, as well as provide a minor if lucrative source of employment to cultural bureaucrats.
As anyone who has ever tried it knows, understanding another culture is a Herculean labour, even when that culture is comparatively close to one’s own. My wife, who is French, speaks English perfectly, but it took her many years of residence to appreciate that the English used words according to context in very different ways, which range from the literal meaning to a meaning precisely the opposite of what they appear to mean. Even now, after a quarter of a century, it surprises her that ‘It’s been most enjoyable, we must meet again soon,’ actually often means ’Under no circumstances do I wish to see you again, and if I did, I would be most put out and embarrassed.’ A native would understand this instantly.
If it is not easy for the British and French to understand one another, though they are separated by only twenty miles of water and have been studying and reacting to each other for hundreds of years, and when their cultures are in many respects so similar, what chance is there for people to understand, in any but the most superficial way, the hundreds of extremely diverse cultures from which immigrants now come to our shores. To understand Amharic culture in any detail is the work of a lifetime for a highly intelligent person of American or European background who is determined and motivated to do so; for one person to understand Bengali, Somali, Yemeni and Vietnamese cultures as well (and these are only a handful) is impossible.
It follows from this that is it for immigrants who do us the honour of coming to our country to understand us, not for us to understand them - which is impossible in any case. It is for them to make the mental, intellectual and cultural adjustments, not us. It is a simple as that.
In special circumstances, it is well that certain people should try to learn something of the culture of immigrants. But it is humanity that should demand it, not bureaucratic multiculturalism. As a doctor in an area with many immigrants, I found the fact that I had visited many of the countries from which they came to be a great advantage, for it created a rapport that would not have been easy to create otherwise. It takes little effort of the imagination to understand the relief of a Congolese in a large British city to meet a doctor who had travelled through the Congo (and loved it). And it was very necessary in my work that I should understand the situation of Muslim girls brought up in Britain and forced into unwanted, indeed repellent, marriages to a first cousin in a village in Pakistan. But understanding and sympathy cannot be decreed, besides, the ultimate answer to the problems of the multicultural society is the melting pot, not the solution preferred by bureaucrats and their intellectual allies, the salad bowl (which perhaps one day in Europe at any rate will turn itself into the stir-fry).
In case I should be accused of insensitivity towards immigrants, I should like to point out that I am descended on both sides from refugees, whom integration brought about informally, without any official direction, served magnificently. Multiculturalism was not a doctrine in their day, a fact for which I am grateful, for otherwise I should now be in the clutches of social workers, housing departments and assorted political entrepreneurs.

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