by Robert Bruce (August 2017)
Europeans are conscience-stricken Canadians (having convinced themselves that their very existence is a sin) who have adopted public penitence as a national religion (to judge by the latest Trudeau instalment there is no limit to what one can apologise for). Among its most sensitive prophets, the pose of “citizen of the world” has reached absurd heights of self-parody. Asked on what the country meant to him as an aspirant Canadian premier returning after a lifetime living abroad, Ignatieff responded that his recent book on Canada had “deepened my attachment to the place on Earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” Even amongst angsty Canaks this was pushing it but, when you have the multicultural salad bowl as your founding myth, these are canaries in the mine you shouldn’t overlook.
It was this neoliberal version of multiculturalism—ethnicity, mobility and intercultural competence as market assets—that was promoted actively in the 1980s and early 1990s, and that in some places eclipsed the earlier more emancipatory vision of multiculturalism. As a result, many citizens experienced multiculturalism and neoliberalism as a single phenomenon, as two sides of the same coin that threatened inherited schemes of national solidarity. And understandably, many citizens recoiled from this image of neoliberal multiculturalism, and mobilized to defend national solidarity and the welfare state. But all too often, this mobilization has taken the inverse form of neoliberal multiculturalism: that is to say, welfare chauvinism, or solidarity without inclusion. Social protection is reserved for those who fit some narrow definition of national belonging. Immigrants’ access to the welfare state is not only delayed or deferred for varying periods of time, but a range of new obstacles are put in place that make it difficult or unpredictable to meet these thresholds for access. (Solidarity in Diverse Societies: Beyond Neoliberal Multiculturalism and Welfare Chauvinism)
If this is bad enough, it pales beside the crippling sense of futility which accompanies it. Many academics, even very considerable ones, write as badly as Kymlika but if with some, the inelegant prose is the price for sublime inspirations, with Kymlika you feel stuck in the eternal present of an exceptionally bad college essay. And yet, what rewards! No academic in living memory has been as well-remunerated for such an onslaught of banality—the research grants piling up year-on-year, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe freeing up half the continent for his daring thoughts.
Moral ideals are a kind of sediment,” as Michael Oakeshott noted, “They have significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition.” Once this goes, all the febrile innovations of intellectuals are thin gruel.”
a culture’. Once the habit of non judgementalism is acquired and worked on it is difficult to shake off and, whilst Kymlika has always been emphatic that cultural membership is valuable principally as ‘a context for choice, ‘his oxymoronic liberal multiculturalism contrives to get the worst of both possible worlds. It has not gone unnoticed. As the more red-blooded multiculturalist Bikhu Parekh has noted, if you apply liberal standards you get well . . . liberalism. Only confusion is generated by adding multiculturalism, especially when you consider that liberalism is nothing if not the abridgement of a distinctive cultural tradition. Kymlika, for obvious reasons, swerves the question—to concede that liberalism has deep roots only in a particular way of life, would be to shift the emphasis on to means of preserving it and this would be a communitarianism too far. For Kymlika, the fragile historic accomplishment of civil society is a solid firmament around which exotic cultures orbit, the latter happy to extort their guilt-ridden tributes and the former floating in an apolitical vacuum comfortably beyond the reach of tribal passions. This is a distinctly demilitarised vision which only someone cocooned in academia could have dreamt up. The cultural identities he talks of look more like Mill’s experiments in living than real visceral attachments—a dequate perhaps for capturing the horrors of Caledonian societies but an uncertain guide at best for grappling with burning faiths.
It was this question, not communism per se, that Popper addressed in his famous opening lines to The Open Society and its Enemies.
It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilisation and to return to tribalism.
The Eskimo Question
It turns out I wasn’t too wrong anyway, and I know from reliable sources (Wikipedia) that even inuit is tainted by the cultural imperialism of the Inuit Circumpolar council. Predictably, in the USA they’re less bothered too—Alaskan natives are apparently fine with it. It’s a small thing but the memory still hurts and, when you hit early onset mediocrity, the chance of avenging yourself on the past is too tempting to pass up. On the slightly graver question of how milleting minority cultures actually improves the life chances of their members, I would refer readers to the brilliant but, sadly, deceased anthropologist Roger Sandall, whose critique of New Age primitivism, The Culture Cult is the best last word on the subject. As Sandall noted, most of the grim social pathologies that afflict the Australian aborigines are of recent vintage, and he was not slow to identify the culprit.
If your traditional way of life has no alphabet, no writing, no books, and no libraries, and yet you are continually told that you have a culture which is “rich,” “complex,” and “sophisticated,” how can you realistically see your place in the scheme of things? If all such hyperbole were true, who would need books or writing? Why not hang up a “Gone Fishing” sign and head for the beach? I might do that myself. In Australia, policies inspired by the Culture Cult have brought the illiterization of thousands of Aborigines whose grandparents could read and write.
This is hardly a tribute to the benefits of multiculturalism and, if the case is an extreme one, the lessons to be learned have a wider currency. The most humane policy would have been to fully integrate Aborigines into Australian society for the simple reason that stone age societies can only survive in the 21st century through acts of charity and, whatever slum missionary anthropologists might imagine, this is always received with servile dependence and burning resentment.
Robert Bruce is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.
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