4.1The Many Faces of Multiculturalism

On first acquaintance with an unlikely neologism such as 'multiculturalism', one might be expected to encounter a spectrum of reaction ranging from mild misunderstanding to rebarbative rejection. Many have hailed the concept and the practice as the basis for salvation in the current world with its polyglot conglomeration of ethnic, racial, religious and other differentiating characteristics that make up most nations today. Others take the opposite point of view and regard multiculturalism as divisive and a sure recipe for implosive disintegration.

Richard Bernstein in a recent publication "Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future" advances such a bleak picture. He charges that 'ideological multiculturalism' has brought about 'a great inversion in American intellectual life'. He continues: 'the threat of intellectual tyranny now comes from the left, and it now has to do with collective guilt, an overweening moralism, and multiculturalism. The danger to such things as free speech and genuine diversity of opinion is no longer due to conservatism; it is due to the triumph of a modish, leftist, moralistic liberalism.'

Multiculturalism in America was particularly concerned with the advancement of the rights of the oppressed, the blacks and browns who would not or could not integrate with the American main stream, mainly Waspish populace. The waves of migrants who settled there over the years integrated to varying extents. The Irish went and integrated well. So did waves of Italians later on. There was no need to invent multiculturalism for them, the argument goes, and there is no need now for multiculturalism to accommodate the Hispanic and other recent immigrants.

It has all gone wrong, according to Bernstein, and it has now degenerated into a 'universe of ambitious good intentions which has wandered off the highroad of respect for difference and plunged into a foggy chasm of dogmatic assertions, wishful thinking and pseudoscientific pronouncement about race and sex.'

One might feel sympathetic to Bernstein's views when multiculturalism is used not to help the oppressed reach a minimum level of participation in society, but to impose minority views on the majority - e.g. obliging them to study minority languages and history. Multiculturalism was never meant as punishment for the dominant group, but merely as providing a modus vivendi for the under-dog.

Looking at the other side of the world, in Australia, the concept of multiculturalism has been far more successful as an experiment and although it also has had its share of critics, it has flourished to an extent unknown in most other places, including Europe. The same can be said about multiculturalism in Canada.

Multiculturalism in Australia has meant that since the 1980s, there is no longer an expectation that immigrants have to change their skin, drop their culture, change their language and become "assimilated" within the great Aussie dream. It came about with a realisation that loyalties to the State could be just as strong, perhaps much stronger, if cultural habits born of centuries are maintained and fostered. There is a considerable body of evidence to show that particularly those with a strong cultural background tend to perform far better as citizens in a new country, compared to those who have dithered and ditched their mother culture and family ties. It has been realised at long last that suppressing the feeling of migrants or ensuring that they expressed themselves only in an acquired language, over which they had only poor command, did nothing to their self-esteem, and was inimical to enhancing their performance in a new society.

It is certainly not the pizza or the festa or the folk singing and dancing that is the hallmark of a multicultural society. These are but the tip of the iceberg, the celebration of a status quo, and anyone who thinks that this is what multiculturalism is all about is mistaking the icing for the cake.

The reason why multiculturalism has had a better success in the later established 'ex-colonies' compared to the bastions of right-wing establishments like the US are deep and varied. In Australia it may have had something to do with the fact that the proportion of immigrants to the total population is higher than anywhere else in the world. But I would have thought it was also, perhaps largely, due to the realisation that it is in the long term the only policy that makes sense.

In Europe also, the concept of multiculturalism has been extremely difficult to digest and to accept as policy. We have been used to the hard policy relating to migrant 'guest' workers in Germany, the draconian regulations preventing workers from obtaining resident status in Switzerland, or the termination of any pretensions of Commonwealth by the UK with its introduction of strict regulations about citizenship. Everywhere in Europe a cloud of paranoia has settled and enveloped the thinking of all nations, making a working-out of a possible solution well nigh impossible. The result is millions of migrants roaming from state to state looking for a host country to settle in.

Even in Malta we find it difficult to come to grips with basic elements of multiculturalism. While any action that we do is likely to be only as a drop in the ocean, it is curious to analyse our attitudes to those that we call refugees waiting for a final solution to their problem. While the average Maltese person is generous to a fault, and many have gone out of their way to ensure the well-being of these odd thousand persons who find themselves among us, the official policy is to keep them apart, feeding them and housing them but not treating them as part of our own,. They are with us but not of us. In particular, they will not be graced with that most fundamental of social rights: an opportunity to obtain their own daily bread through a (temporary) job.

Europe and America have a lot to learn from the experiments in multiculturalism as practised in Australia and Canada. Sharing what we have with those who have not is not just an option - it has become an urgent and morally binding demand. The tenets of multiculturalism ensure that basic human principles are respected.

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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