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Multiculturalism — Is Canada a Model for Others?

John Ralston Saul recently wrote a paean to Canadian multiculturalism indicating that multiculturalism is a panacea and that the ‘nation’ is an outmoded concept. I commented as below:

John Ralston Saul makes a number of good points; however, I think we are a bit complacent and smug about our superiority as Canadians as regards multiculturalism: we are protected by three oceans and by the United States from the main sources of immigration or migration (John’s rhetoric on that distinction is a bit tricky, combining a value judgement, a programmatic intent, and a semi-factual description); the three oceans and the USA allow us to control immigration to a much greater extent than the Europeans are now able to control it; and we do control it, not allowing entry, for example, to any single young Syrian men; we also speak English and French, in particular English, which is the lingua franca of business and of much of culture throughout the world, so we are not likely to be threatened in our core linguistic identity — and identities are tied up with language, and religion and place — and, as we are protected by the United States — I hate to say this — we are really not going to be threatened in our core institutions and culture, which though different, are quite similar to that of our southern neighbors. We don’t, really, even pay for our own defense. We are, by chance and history, in many respects, free-riders.

So, when we get on our high horse and say how wonderful we are, we can do it because we know that ‘multiculturalism’ in Canada is merely a step on the road to integration, and indeed it has largely served as a useful instrument of integration. [Quebeckers are more defensive than English Canadians because a) they are a minority and their language, identity, and culture are inevitably under continual pressure, b) they fought a bitter and relatively recent battle for women’s rights and other rights, and thus are more aggressively secular — in particular as regards what they consider women’s rights — than English Canadians, who have really not had to fight any battles, domestically, to survive.]

Other peoples are not so protected, coddled, and blissfully ignorant — and privileged — as we are. Their nations, languages, lands, culture, religions, are their homes. It’s easy to say they should toss all that away when we know very well we will not be faced by the same choices.

As for Islam, well, it’s nice to be nice about people’s religions, but in spite of John, I think Islam does present a serious problem. Where it has power it is, on the whole, absolutely intolerant of people’s spiritual choices, other than obedience; it is also, certainly in the Wahhabi and Salafi versions, inimical to human rights and to rights in general, and in particular to freedom of conscience which is essential, with freedom of expression, to all other freedoms. The punishment for apostasy in many muslim countries is death. I think many attitudes incarnated in Wahhabism and Salafism are abhorrent and evil and I see no reason or justification for importing such primitive violent presumptuous obscene misogyny into Canada or anywhere else for that matter. Little anecdote: I was once chided, quite violently, in a taxi, by the Salafi taxi driver, ‘for letting women have rights.’ [My date and I had been discussing a film, and he found it outrageous that she had opinions and expressed them and he let me know in no uncertain terms once we’d dropped her off.] In Bangladesh secular bloggers are hacked to death; in various other places, Christians and Jews and others are submitted, in various measures, to vexation and ethnic cleansing and death. I’ve also been in some of the ‘suburbs’ of Paris and seen the behavior of some of the gangs in those places.

As for the nation state itself, if we didn’t have one, we would be Americans, I suppose, or Chinese, or something other than what we are. Your comments on the nation state raise interesting and I think profound questions. Yes, the nation states have gone to war and that has been horrendous (I know a tiny bit about the subject having written and broadcast on it a lot, in particular on the two world wars).

But if we didn’t have nations we would have tribes, clans, religions, classes, interest groups, and linguistic groups massacring each other with true abandon.  Hobbes didn’t write Leviathan for nothing.

In the 16th and 17th Century the state system, and imperial systems, such as they were, broke down, and you had a century of religious war, civil war, and etc., with between 8,000,000 and 15,000,000 dead; statistics broke down too.

In Africa, where states don’t function, millions have died in the last few decades, because the state does not exist. In Yugoslavia, when the state collapsed, you had civil war, with 200,000 plus dead.

In Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., where the state breaks down you get murder not liberation, and hundreds of thousands of dead. In Sicily, where the State has only imperfectly established its authority, the Mafia reigns, and with it murder, intimidation, extortion, nepotism, and corruption.

Also, the nation-state has, historically, been the great liberator and educator, the framework in which citizenship has flourished, in which and through which millions and millions of people have been educated, in which and through which cultures — which allow people to flourish in a major way — have grown and been developed and protected. The First World War itself began not with the crisis of the nation-state but with the crisis of a multicultural empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire.

So, with all its imperfections, the nation-state is, I think, for the moment, the essential bridge between our individual humanity and our identification with humanity in general. And it’s not by throwing away our own identities — and values (if we have any) — that we learn to appreciate the values and identities of others. I delight, like you, in the culinary variety of Toronto, and in the multitude of languages one can speak here (today I spoke to an American Jew, a Korean, an Iranian, a Frenchman, an Italian — the latter via Skype — a Brazilian, and a woman from the Philippines, and that is a fairly typical day). The EU is a great idea, but, for the foreseeable future, it will not, and it cannot, and in my opinion it should not, replace the nation-state.

Trying to leap for utopia often is counterproductive.

Threaten people’s identities in a profound way and you get a quite violent reaction. This is something we can hardly imagine.

And it is not because people are evil that they want to keep their ‘homelands.’ It is because they need a place to call their own, it is a very basic human instinct, and it is one everybody — including migrants and immigrants — shares.