29 July 2009 **** Front Page

"The gentle warmth of diversity"

By Tapani Lausti

Kenan Malik, Strange fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. Oneworld 2008.

On a memorable evening in April 1997 at the Finnish Institute in London Kenan Malik was the keynote speaker on race and ethnicity. His fellow researcher on race, Marek Kohn, summed up the speaker's views: "Malik concluded by pointing to the decline of the idea of a common culture, and to the prevailing pessimism about people's ability to change the world. The embrace of difference, as a substitute for equality, was the embrace of social and political defeat." (Celebrating diversity or equality? Eagle Street, June 1997; see also Diane Abbott draws Finns into British race debate, Eagle Street, March 1997)

It's not that Malik denies the existence of difference and diversity. The question is how they influence our politics. In this new book on the race debate Malik writes: "Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms — as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals — but in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith. The question people ask themselves is not so much 'What kind of society do I want to live in?' as 'Who am I?'" (p. 271)

Thus people have become obsessed by their identity. Simultaneously race has returned to the centre of social discourse, albeit "swaddled in the gentle warmth of diversity". (p. 276) In spite of the seemingly innocent nature of this kind of multiculturalism, the consequences have turned out to be harmful for democratic pursuits: "The politics of difference has helped the most conservative sections of minority communities to reassert their authority at the expense of the most vulnerable groups and to undermine more progressive trends." (p. 283)

This change in political discourse has weakened the traditional Enlightenment idea that people should be treated in the same fashion without regard to their race, religion or culture. Malik explains where this has led: "Contemporary multiculturalists argue to the contrary that people should be treated not equally despite their differences, but differently because of them." (p. 173) Malik argues also: "Far from giving a voice to the voiceless, the politics of difference appears to undermine individual autonomy, reduce liberty and enforce conformity." (pp. 176-177)

Malik thinks that concentrating so much on cultural identities has turned much of the left against Enlightenment ideas of democracy and equality. By the end of the 20th century, "the fire of ideological battle was all but extinguished. For the first time since the French Revolution, politics became less about competing visions of the kind of society people wanted than a debate about how best to run the society they already inhabited." (pp. 186-187) Malik quotes Russell Jacoby who has concluded that multiculturalism "has become the opium of disillusioned intellectuals, the ideology of an era without ideology". (p. 187)

This lack of ideology opened the door for postmodernism which denies the existence of universal reason and demands the right for every culture to think differently. This kind of politics can have devastating effects as the example of India shows. Malik quotes the Indian writer Meera Nanda: "The left inclined anti-Enlightenment movements have been successful in silencing the modernist, Enlightenment style thought in India" and helped "deliver the people they profess to love — non-Western masses, the presumed victims of 'Western science' and modernity — to the growing forces of hatred, fascism and religious fanaticism." (p. 285)

So we end up with a frustrating conclusion. Just when humanity needs urgent collective thinking and action to save itself from the ravages of capitalism and climate change, too many people are busy worrying about their identity, race, roots and faith. When urgently needed, radical mass movements are nowhere to be seen. Socialists hardly dare speak about socialism. No wonder that large segments of the voting public think of politics as rivalry between personalities. Capitalist reality in this discourse is neither here nor there. Current financial and economic crisis has not turned people into critics of capitalism nor dreamers of another kind of society.

This may change. Malik writes: "The irony is that we've all become multiculturalists at the very time the world is becoming less, not more, plural." (p. 180) And: "Why is it that on both sides of the Atlantic we have become obsessed by cultural differences at the very time that real cultural differences have less and less meaning in our lives?" (182) Indeed, Malik thinks that there is a high degree of "inauthencity about the contemporary demand for authencity." (p. 174)

The lull in radical politics may be temporary. People are watching money elites and politicians with quiet scepticism. Race or ethnicity may begin to lose their hold on our thinking when it becomes obvious that our main identity is as victims of destructive capitalism.


Read also:

Visit the archive: Kenan Malik, Jeremy Seabrook, Noam Chomsky, Multiculturalism and identity, Social thinking, Book reviews



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