Pascal Bruckner on Identity

Pascal Bruckner over at Signandsight (english translation of a french original) writes in exactly the same vein as Fukuyama a few posts ago:

Multiculturalism is a racism of the anti-racists: it chains people to their roots. Thus Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam and one of the mainstays of the Dutch state, demands that one accept “the conscious discrimination of women by certain groups of orthodox Muslims” on the basis that we need a “new glue” to “hold society together.” In the name of social cohesion, we are invited to give our roaring applause for the intolerance that these groups show for our laws. The coexistence of hermetic little societies is cherished, each of which follows a different norm. If we abandon a collective criterion for discriminating between just and unjust, we sabotage the very idea of national community. A French, British or Dutch citizen will be prosecuted for beating his wife, for example. But should the crime go unpunished if it turns out that the perpetrator is a Sunni or Shiite? Should his faith give him the right to transgress the law of the land? This is the glorification in others of what we have always beaten ourselves up about: outrageous protectionism, cultural narcissism and inveterate ethnocentrism!

This tolerance harbours contempt, because it assumes that certain communities are incapable of modernising. Could it be that the dissidence of British Muslims is not only a function of the retrograde rigorism of their leaders, but also stems from a vague suspicion that all the consideration show to them by the state is little more than a subtle form of disdain, basically telling them that they are just too backward for modern civilisation ? Several communes in Italy are planning to reserve certain beaches for Muslim women, so they may bathe unexposed to male eyes. And within a few years the first “Islamic hospital,” complying in all points with the prescriptions of the Koran, may open in Rotterdam. Anyone would think we are reliving the days of segregation in the southern United States. Yet this segregation has the full backing of Europe’s most prominent progressives! Theirs is a fight on two fronts: minorities must be protected from discrimination (for example by encouraging the teaching of regional languages and cultures and adapting the school calendar to religious holidays); and private individuals must be protected from intimidation by the community in which they live.

This time a great european intellectual is promoting Enlightenment as the solution to our current multicultural problems. Again, this is an element of the right solution: old cultural traditions must be modernized to help them cope with our modern world; and condescendingly approving of them without trying to improve them will not solve anything. The rejoinder that we cannot be sure that our modernism is actually any better than anything else (we humans have been so often so wrong about our intuitions) cannot be simply sidelined. Nevertheless, the solution cannot lie in simply tweaking these old traditions enough to allow them to cohere with european moderninty nor in indoctrinating immigrants into european ways of life.

The solution must lie somewhere outside of this bipolar continuum. It is not either tolerance or modernization, but requires us to remap the political landscape. Difficulties tend to emerge in those areas where (imported) cultures come into conflict with a country’s reigning morality and law. It is precisely the distinction between culture/morality/religion on the one hand and law on the other that poses a problem: not the existence but the position of that dividing line. In the West that line has been drawn with the individual (private religion) on the one side and society (public laws) on the other. The new cultures and new identities europe is having to deal with do not draw the same line for they are much less individualistic and at time seem to draw no line at all.

My proposal is then to displace the line and allow some of collective management into the cultural arena, but to be very clear about the distinction. Much of what states now do is really beyond their natural function as geographically determined organizations. States are good at infrastructure, police and legal codes. Where they run afoul of a multicultural society is in their incursions into socio-cultural organization, into aspects that transcend geographical borders. Immigrants feel that they don’t fit in because they feel like they have to not only follow the laws of the country but also its culture. The former is not asking too much, the latter is often impossible. Two hundred years ago we learned to separate between church and state. Today we must separate further between culture and state.

An immigrant must be able to live in france and proudly show her european passport without having to forsake muslim ways – as long as they do not break the law of the land.


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