German Chancellor Angela Merkel made headlines around the world last week proclaiming that multiculturalism has failed. This pronouncement was, of course, greeted by loud cheers from race-haters everywhere. However, a fair number of people who would not consider themselves racist also found themselves nodding in agreement. Because it sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? A bad policy! That’s the problem!
But it is a fallacy: multiculturalism can’t actually fail or succeed. It either exists, or doesn’t, to greater or lesser degrees. Like it or not, in this global village, cultural diversity is a fact of life. Unless we are prepared to round up the foreign devils, drive them from our towns and cities and then barricade ourselves inside, it’s here to stay.
But, for whatever reason (most likely to secure Merkel’s re-election), Germany needs a new enemy. This is the legacy of the neo-conservative movement: politicians of every stripe have learned the power of the false foe. In the US, many politicians seem pretty content to pick on Muslims right now but I guess in Germany there’s some (don’t mention the war) residual discomfit with the idea of picking on a specific group. And so Ms Merkel has picked something that allows her to tap into people’s fears about migration, asylum seekers, racial tension and loss of culture without actually picking on any specific group in the community.
But think about this: if multiculturalism has failed, could monoculturalism succeed? All but the most rabid right-winger would acknowledge that modern life would be impossible in a true monoculture.
For years, we were fed the lie that multiculturalism was a solution. We didn’t need a great big melting pot, we needed ebony and ivory living in perfect harmony and multiculturalism would deliver it, we were told. Except that it didn’t, and never will, nor can. Humans don’t stop being humans just because they live in a culturally diverse society. It’s hard enough to get peace, love and understanding in the monoculture of a single family; there’s no magic pill/wand/policy that’s going to deliver it on a global scale.
Of course, for Angela Merkel to be the hero in this little play, she needs to defeat the enemy. And her weapon of choice is…integration. She’s replacing one non-solution with another. Fast forward five, ten, fifteen years: do we see her replacement banging on about how integration failed?
Because the opposite of integration is segregation and we all know how that works out.
Last year a Times columnist described Brixton as a ‘symbol of multicultural failure’. The main thrust of the argument is that the different communities that live in Brixton don’t mix and socialise: they co-exist rather than integrate. There’s a certain amount of truth to that part, but do what do we expect integration to deliver? Merkel’s outburst was apparently in response to a pensioner being beaten on a Munich subway by two youths, one Greek, one Turkish. Are we so blinkered that we believe that if we shop at the same stores and hang out in the same pubs we’ll stop committing crimes against each other? Pull the other one, mate.
To paraphrase Pink Floyd, we don’t need no integration. It can no more deliver peace and love than multiculturalism can. However, living side by side in harmony is both possible and desirable. We need some basic agreements – rule of law, shared language or languages – but that’s it.
What has actually failed is political will. To be fair to Merkel, she at least acknowledges that Germany’s policy of inviting ‘guest workers’ to come in and prop up the economy without actually treating them like citizens may not have been the best idea. But this has been the pattern the world over: invite foreigners to your nation but don’t give them the support they need to understand and participate in the life of the community, then be surprised when conflict arises.
In the mid-nineties I was a research assistant on a book about Vietnamese migrants and refugees in Australia. One of the questions the book asked is ‘why have the Vietnamese formed ghettos and got involved in organised crime, when the Greek and Italian migrants before them had not?’ I’m simplifying, but essentially the difference the author found is this: the Greek and Italian migrants had been given English lessons on arrival and had received a range of support services to help them settle in: find jobs, housing, a community. The Vietnamese had not. Left to fend for themselves, they stuck together and, law of the jungle, the strong preyed on the weak.
It seems the more the community expresses fear about migrants and the effects of migration, the more politicians withdraw services from those groups. Unable to communicate, get work, get a roof over their head, they then become a problem. And when they look different from the dominant culture, it’s their difference that becomes the issue.
The news, also last week, that police in England and Wales use racial profiling in stop and search more than any other force in the world came as no surprise to me: I have seen groups of young black men being stopped and searched by the police on a number of occasions. I have never seen the police stop and search a group of white guys. Black people are 26 times more likely to be targeted in this way. This is what is failing. Instead of promoting understanding and tolerance between cultures, policies like this foment fear and loathing.
People are being displaced daily by war, famine and oppression. We wealthy nations, much of our wealth built on the exploitation of the people or resources of poorer nations, have an obligation to support those people. But that means real support, not saying you have a policy of integration and punishing the people who fail to jump whatever bar you raise. Give them support to learn the language, help them to find work or contribute to the community in other ways. Give them opportunities to learn the laws that govern society and understand why we believe those things are important. Make sure their children get a good education. Treat them like they are good citizens and they will be. Treat them like a problem and they will be that, too.