Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fictional identities

For some time the difference between left and right liberals on the issue of nationalism has been quite clear.

Right liberals (such as those in the Australian Liberal Party, or the American Republicans) have supported high rates of foreign immigration, but, out of a concern for social cohesion, have emphasised the idea of assimilation. In other words, they have welcomed the idea of the "melting pot".

Left liberals, on the other hand, have been more consistently supportive of multiculturalism, rather than assimilation. They too have supported high rates of foreign immigration, but with the idea that society would be made up of the many diverse cultures brought by the immigrants.

The left liberal ideal was always a short term fiction. This is particularly true in Australia where migrants arrive from such a diverse number of countries, in relatively even numbers, and are mixed together in the large capital cities.

In these circumstances, it was unlikely that 150 or more different communities would continue to flourish independently of each other, no matter how much government funding they received to do so. The connection of migrants to their home culture was always going to weaken.

A shift

Mark Latham is the new leader of the left liberal Labor Party here in Australia. He recently made a speech on the issue of national identity in which he moved Labor Party policy a little closer to the right liberal emphasis on social cohesion and assimilation.

It's possible he did this because of the war on terror. After all, both Britain and Australia have had to face the fact that a number of terrorists have emerged from within their Islamic populations. It's noteworthy that both the British and Australian Labor Parties have recently changed their policies to more greatly emphasise assimilation and social cohesion.

However, the reason Mr Latham himself gave for the shift was that the older concept of multiculturalism was unrealistic - that it did not really describe what was happening in the general population. That, in other words, it was now more fiction than fact.

The new approach

Mr Latham has outlined what he claims to be a more modern and realistic approach to multiculturalism. One which brings people together, rather than separating them. He says,

If we treat multiculturalism as as static concept, as something frozen in time - each of us pigeon-holed into past habits and identities - then inevitably, it will be a policy based more on difference than diversity. A policy that separates people from each other, rather than bringing them together to share each other's cultures and the goals of a good society.

We shouldn't assume that a person's culture comes from a narrow set of attitudes and beliefs, that they are restricted to their nationality-of-origin or ethnic group. The reality is more complex and dynamic, with people picking and choosing from a range of cultural influences. This is true of many second-generation migrants. They do not necessarily see themselves as "Chinese Australians" or "Greek Australians" but rather, citizens with a range of interests and identities.

Government policies and definitions of multiculturalism need to catch up with this reality. They should not automatically treat nationality-of-origin as a marker of cultural identity. They should recognise that multiculturalism lies, not so much between individuals, but within them - the habit of living one's life through many cultural habits.

This should be a unifying idea in Australia's national identity - a new and realistic way of thinking about multiculturalism. In a diverse nation, social cohesion is as important as respect for difference. It provides the foundations by which people of different cultural backgrounds can interact and learn from each other. This is the key to national progress: our capacity to absorb the best of the world's cultures and create a stronger Australia ...

Liberal Man

Mr Latham's vision of national identity is still firmly within a liberal framework. Liberals want people to be self created by their own will and reason. Therefore, they reject traditional ethnic nationalism because it's something we're born into, rather than choosing for ourselves.

That's why Mr Latham uses the language of "limitation" when talking about ethnic identity. He uses terms like "pigeon-holed", "narrow" and "restricted" when rejecting the ethnic identities of migrants. There is a logic to this choice of language. If you believe that we should be self-created by our own will, then an inherited ethnic identity does represent a limitation. It limits the extent to which you are a self-defining individual.

The same logic explains why Mr Latham proposes that people ought to deliberately choose a complex, diverse and evolving identity from the best of many cultures. This is a vision of the self-defining Liberal Man, creating himself directly from out of his own reason and will, rather than accepting a traditional or inherited identity.

Commercial Culture

Joseph Wakim, the founder of the Australian Arabic Council, was quick to support Mr Latham's new approach to multiculturalism. However, in a newspaper column praising Mr Latham's new policy (Herald Sun 29/4/04) he unintentionally highlighted a flaw in the policy. He wrote,

...much of the evolving cultural identity of our home-grown Lebanese youth is actually made in the USA. Anyone who spends time with the youth in question would immediately recognise the influence of the American rap culture on their wall posters and in their language; phrases such as "Yo bro" are direct imports from the cultural West, not the Middle East ...

Their attire also resembles their hip-hop heroes, with their baggy jeans, Fila jackets, adidas shoes, Nike baseball caps and goatees...

Can we stop the tidal wave of US culture into our living rooms, market place, media and streets ...?

The truth is that the average person is not making a rational choice to form a distinctive identity from the best of many cultures. This is just another liberal fiction.

As Mr Wakim let slip, what really happens is that once a traditional identity is weakened the dominant commercial culture, wherever it is from, is likely to make inroads. At the present time, the dominant commercial culture happens to be American.

Mr Latham is therefore replacing one fictional identity, that hundreds of cultures can flourish equally within a mixed population, with another fictional identity, that we can rationally construct our own identity from the best of many cultures.

We can't for several reasons. First, the truth is that we don't, in Mr Latham's words "pick and choose" our identity. The Australian Lebanese youths did not each individually decide to opt for American popular culture. With a weakening of their ancestral identity, and a weakening of the traditional Australian identity, they were simply influenced by a mass marketed popular culture. It was a multitude of commercially marketed ads, films, songs and so on, which created the Americanised Australian Lebanese youth, not individual rational choice.

Secondly, we don't necessarily get to be influenced by what is best in the many cultures around us. Sometimes we are influenced by what is worst or at least mediocre. For instance, I can still remember a "fight fair" ideal among young Australian men. The idea was that you should fight with your fists and that you should have roughly even size and numbers. This ideal is unsustainable when other ethnic groups have a tradition of carrying weapons or king-hitting (sucker punching). In this case, there is no choice but to give up the better local tradition for something worse.

Finally, a self-selected identity will not be of the same quality as a traditional, inherited ethnic identity. It will necessarily be more superficial. An ethnic identity connects us to generations past and future; it connects us deeply to a particular cultural tradition; to a church and the tradition embodied by the church; and to a particular history of achievement and sacrifice.

In comparison, the liberal identity is something easily made and easily discarded. It is, in theory at least, a temporary creation of our own will and nothing more. It does not connect us deeply to others, nor to a particular place or culture. It is, at best, "identity-lite" for those liberals who still feel the instinctive need that we have as humans for forms of connectedness and self-identity.

For these reasons, Mark Latham's new approach to multiculturalism is neither better nor worse than the old one. Neither are realistic accounts of human identity, and both are hamstrung by the liberal need to reject traditional identities in favour of self-created ones.

It's difficult to see real progress being made in terms of building up the deeper and more satisfying forms of self-identity until we open our minds to alternatives to liberal orthodoxy.

(First published at Conservative Central, 05/05/2004)

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