making a difference: culture, race and social policy

patterns of prejudice, vol 39, no 4, december 2005

We're All Multiculturalists Now observed Nathan Glazer, a former critic of pluralism, in the title of a book. And indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics - these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. Nations such as Australia, Canada and South Africa have created legal frameworks to institutionalise their existence as multicultural societies. Others such as Britain have no formal recognition of their multicultural status but have nevertheless pursued pluralist policies in a pragmatic fashion. Even France, whose Republican tradition might seem to be the nemesis of multiculturalism, has flirted with pluralist policies. In 1986 the Collège de France presented the President with a report entitled 'Proposals for the Education of the Future'. The first of ten principles to which modern schools should subscribe was 'The unity of science and the plurality of cultures': 'A carefully fabricated system of education must be able to integrate the universalism inherent in scientific thought with the relativism of the social sciences, that is with disciplines attentive to the significance of cultural differences among people and to the ways people live, think and feel.'

Ironically, the idea of cultural diversity has captured the political imagination just as anthropologists themselves have started worrying about the concept. They have come to realise not just that the notion of cultural diversity is not self-evidently good but also that the concept of culture is not self-evident. After all, what exactly is a culture? What marks its boundaries? Is it possible to accord rights to cultures without treating such cultures as having fixed boundaries? Why should cultural differences be viewed as more salient than, say, class or age differences? In what way is a 16-year old British born boy of Pakistani origin living in Bradford of the same culture as a 50-year old man living in Lahore? Does a 16-year white boy from Bradford have more in common culturally with his 50-year-old father than with that 16-year old 'Asian'?

Such questions have led most anthropologists today to reject the idea of cultures as fixed, bounded entities. Some have come to question the very concept of culture. 'Since the concept of culture has become so multifarious as to obscure rather than clarify understandings of the social world', Thomas Hyland Eriksen believes, 'it may now perhaps be allowed to return to the cultural pages of the broadsheets, to the world of Bildung.' For Adam Kuper, 'Religious beliefs, rituals, knowledge, moral values, the arts, rhetorical genres, and so on, should be separated out from each other rather than bound together into a single bundle labelled culture'. 'To understand culture', he concludes, 'we must first deconstruct it'.

Whatever the doubts of anthropologists, politicians and political philosophers press on regardless. The idea multiculturalism has proved politically too seductive. In lieu of proper definitions either of culture or of cultural diversity, the term 'multicultural' has come to define a society that is particularly diverse, usually as a result of immigration. It has also come to define the policies necessary to manage such diversity. The concept of multiculturalism, in other words, has come to embody both a description of a society and a prescription for controlling that society. Multiculturalism is both the problem and the answer. This conflation of description and prescription adds to the confusion about the meaning cultural diversity at policy level while, at the same time, entrenching the idea of multiculturalism as a self-evident good.

I want to argue in this paper that the multiculturalist description of society is a highly distorted one, while the multiculturalist prescription creates the very problems it is meant to solve. Western societies in particular are not as diverse as multiculturalists would appear to believe, while multicultural policies often create divisions and resurrect ways of thinking about difference that are rooted in racial theory. To put these arguments in context I will begin with a brief discussion of the historical and philosophical roots of multiculturalism.

Contemporary multiculturalism is a marriage between the Romantic idea of culture and an equally Romantic idea of identity. Romanticism is one of those concepts that cultural historians find invaluable but which is almost impossible to define. It took many political forms it lies at the root both of modern conservatism and many strands of radicalism and appeared in different national versions. Romanticism was not a specific political or cultural view but rather described a cluster of attitudes and preferences: for the concrete over the abstract; the unique over the universal; nature over culture; the organic over the mechanical; emotion over reason; intuition over intellect; particular communities over abstract humanity.

These attitudes came to the fore towards the end of the eighteenth century largely in reaction to the predominant views of the Enlightenment. Much has been written about the varieties of beliefs and arguments within the eighteenth century and it is no longer fashionable to talk about the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, beneath the differences there were a number of beliefs that most of the philosophes held in common and which distinguished Enlightenment thinkers from those of both the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. There was a broad consensus that humans possessed a common nature; that the same institutions and forms of governance would promote human flourishing in all societies; that reason allowed humans to discover these institutions; and that through the development of such institutions social inequalities and hierarchies could be minimised and even erased.

The Romantic counter-Enlightenment challenged all these beliefs. Whereas Enlightenment philosophes saw progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their peculiar superstitions, irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions, for the Romantics the steamroller of progress and modernity was precisely what they feared. Enlightenment philosophes tended to see civilisation in the singular. Romantics understood culture in the plural. Distinct cultures were not aberrant forms to be destroyed but a precious inheritance to be cherished and protected.

The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was the German Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own. David Hume had suggested that 'Mankind are so much the same at all times and in all places that history informs us of nothing new or strange'. Herder, on the contrary, insisted that history (and anthropology) reveals many things new and strange. Mankind was not the same at all times and in all places. What made each people or nation or volk - unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist, the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. The 'grand law of nature', he proclaimed was 'let man be man. Let him mould his condition according to what he himself shall view as best.'

Herder occupies an ambiguous role in modern political thought. In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes such as their stress on universal law and on the universal validity of reason in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality. In the nineteenth century, Herder's concept of the volksgeist encouraged, albeit unwittingly, the development of racial science. Volksgeist became transformed into racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind. By the late nineteenth century, Herder's cultural pluralism came, paradoxically, also to give succour to the new anthropological notion of culture championed by critics of racial science. Franz Boas, the German American who played a key role in the development of cultural anthropology, sought, in the words of historian George Stocking, to define the Romantic notion of 'the genius of the people' in terms other than those of racial heredity. His answer ultimately was the anthropological notion of culture. And in the twentieth century, Herder's relativism and particularism came to shape much of antiracist thinking. The roots of barbarism, many came to believe, lay in Western arrogance and the roots of Western arrogance lay in an unquestioning belief in the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism and universalism. The ambiguity of Herder's legacy still shapes contemporary multiculturalism. The Herderian idea of group differences gave rise to both racial and pluralist views and there remain, as we shall, common bonds between racial and multicultural notions of human difference.

The second theme in Romantic thinking important to modern multiculturalism is the idea of identity. 'There is a certain way of being human that is my way', wrote Charles Taylor in his much discussed essay on 'The Politics of Recognition'. 'I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality'. This sense of being 'true to myself' Taylor calls ‘the ideal of "authenticity"'. The ideal of the authentic self finds its origins in the Romantic notion of the ‘inner voice’ that spoke uniquely to every individual, guided their moral actions and expressed a person’s true nature. The concept was developed in the 1950s by psychologists such as Erik Erikson and sociologists like Alvin Gouldner who pointed out that identity is not just a private matter but emerges in dialogue with others. Increasingly identity came to be seen not as something the self creates but as something through which the self is created. Identity is, in Stuart Hall's words, 'formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us.' The inner self, in other words, finds its home in the outer world by participating in a collective. But not just any collective. The world is comprised of countless groups philosophers, truck drivers, football supporters, drinkers, train spotters, conservatives, communists and so on. But in contemporary debates about identity, each person's sense of who they truly are is seen as intimately linked to only a few special categories collectives defined by people’s gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture. These comprise, of course, very different kinds of groups and the members of each are bound together by very different characteristics. Nevertheless, what collectives such as gender, sexuality, religion, race and culture all have in common is that each is defined by a set of attributes that, whether rooted in biology, faith or history, is fixed in a certain sense and compels people to act in particular ways. Identity is that which is given, whether by nature, God or one's ancestors. 'I am called upon to live my life in this way', as Charles Taylor has put it. Unlike, say, politically defined collectives, these collectives are, in philosopher John Gray's words, 'ascriptive, not elective… a matter of fate, not choice'. The collectives that are important to the contemporary notion of identity are , in other words, the modern equivalents of what Herder defined as volks. For individual identity to be authentic, so too must collective identity. 'Just like individuals', Charles Taylor writes, 'a Volk should be true to itself, that is, its own culture.' To be true to itself, a culture must faithfully pursue the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and rebuff as far as is possible the advances of modernity and of other cultures.

This view of culture and identity has transformed the way that many people understand the relationship between equality and difference. For much of the past two centuries important strands of both liberal and radical thought drew upon Enlightenment insights to view equality as requiring the state to treat all citizens in the same fashion without regard to their race, religion or culture. Most contemporary multiculturalists, on the other hand, argue that people should be treated not equally despite their differences, but differently because of them. There is, of course, a considerable diversity of views among multiculturalists. Whatever the differences, however, there are a number of common themes that underlie the arguments of mainstream multiculturalists such as Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Bhikhu Parekh and Tariq Modood.

For most multiculturalists the heterogeneity and diversity that defines contemporary societies, especially in the West, makes old-style equality, rooted in Enlightenment notions of universalism inadequate, even dangerous. The Enlightenment idea that all people flourish best under the same kinds of social institutions and forms of governance are a fantasy because the world is too complex and too varied to be subsumed under a single totalising theory. Universalism is a 'Eurocentric' viewpoint, a means of imposing Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples. In the place of universal rights come differential rights. 'Justice between groups', as the political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, 'requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights'.

An individual's cultural background frames their identity and helps define who they are. If we want to treat individuals with dignity and respect we must also treat with dignity and respect the groups that furnish them with their sense of personal being. ‘The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons', Bhikhu Parekh argues. 'Since human beings are culturally embedded, respect for them entails respect for their cultures and ways of life.' Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the 'equality of individualism' and 'equality encompassing public ethnicity: equality as not having to hide or apologise for one's origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.' We cannot, in other words, treat individuals equally unless groups also treated equally. And since, in the words of Iris Young, 'groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific, experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised', so society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival. Some go further, requiring the state to ensure the survival of cultures not just in the present but in perpetuity. Charles Taylor, for instance, suggests that the Canadian and Quebec governments should take steps to ensure the survival of the French language in Quebec 'through indefinite future generations'.

Most multiculturalists and certainly the likes of Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor would probably consider themselves as standing in the liberal Enlightenment tradition. But the rootedness of their argument in the Romantic counter-Enlightenment often gives a distinctly illiberal sheen to the policies they advocate. Take Tariq Modood's demand that people be required to give respect to various cultures and that public arrangements be adapted to accommodate them. Does this mean that schools should be forced to teach Creationism because it is part of Christian fundamentalist culture? Or should public arrangements be adapted to reflect the belief of many cultures that homosexuality is a sin? These are not simply abstract questions. In 2002, in Australia's Northern Territory, Jackie Pascoe Jamilmira, a 50 year-old Aboriginal man was given a 24-hour prison sentence for assaulting and raping a 15-year-old girl. He had apparently been plying the girl's family with gifts since her birth so that she would become his wife upon coming of age. According to the judge because the girl was an Aborigine, she 'didn't need protection. She knew what was expected of her. It's very surprising to me he was charged at all.' In California, a young Laotian-American woman was abducted from her work at Fresno State University and raped. Her assailant, a Hmong immigrant (one of the boat people who had fled Cambodia and Laos in the final stages of the Vietnam war) explained to the court that this was a customary way of choosing a bride among his tribe. The court agreed that he had to be judged largely by his own cultural standards and sentenced him to just 120 days in jail.

Most multiculturalists would undoubtedly abhor such cases, and argue that they have little to do with real multicultural policies. Yet it is not difficult to see how the demand that everyone’s heritage should be respected and that public arrangements be adapted to preserve each distinct heritage would inevitably create situations such as these. Cases such as Jamilmira's are not unusual in Australia. The courts increasingly accept that Aborigines should have the right to be treated according to their own customs rather than be judged by 'whitefella law'. According to Colin McDonald, a Darwin barrister and expert in customary law 'Human rights are essentially a creation of the last hundred years. These people have been carrying out their law for thousands of years.' This is a central theme to many kinds of multicultural policies - that to preserve cultural authenticity, we must respect the right of certain people to do X because their ancestors also did X. Or, in Charles Taylor's version, that my descendants, through 'indefinite future generations', must do Y because I am doing Y. The demand that because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved, is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy - the belief that ought derives from is. For nineteenth century social Darwinists, morality - how we ought to behave - derived from the facts of nature - how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide. Today, virtually everyone recognises the falsity of this argument. Yet, when talking of culture rather than of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that 'is' defines 'ought'.

In any case, there is something deeply inauthentic about the demand for authenticity. The kinds of cultures that most multiculturalists wish to recognise, affirm and preserve are largely 'traditional' cultures, particularly those that they believe to be under threat from the steamroller of modernity and globalisation. They are however different in a significant respect from truly traditional cultures that existed in the premodern world. There was, in the premodern world, no sense of cultural integrity or authenticity. There were no alternatives to the ways of life that people followed. Cultures were traditional but in an unselfconscious fashion. Those who lived in such cultures were not aware that they should value their difference or claim it as a right. A French peasant attended church, an American Indian warrior painted his face not because they thought 'This is my culture, I must preserve it' but for pragmatic reasons. In the absence of some compelling reason for doing things differently, people went on doing them in the same way as they had in the past. Cultural inertia, in other words, preserved traditional ways because it was the easiest way to organise collective life.

Multiculturalists, on the other hand, exhibit a self-conscious desire to preserve cultures. Such 'self-conscious traditionalism', as Brian Barry calls it , is a peculiarly modern, post-Enlightenment, phenomenon. In the modern view, traditions are to be preserved not for pragmatic reasons but because such preservation is a social, political and moral good. Maintaining the integrity of a culture binds societies together, lessens social dislocation and allows the individuals who belong to that culture to flourish. Such individuals can thrive only if they stay true to their culture - in other words, only if both the individual and the culture remain authentic.

Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has legislated to forbid French speakers and immigrants from sending their children to English-language schools; to compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and to ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. 'It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it', he argues. Quebec is 'making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.' Its policies 'actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.'

An identity here has become a bit like a private club. Once you join up, you have to abide by the rules. But unlike the Groucho or the Garrick it's a private club you must join. Being black or gay, Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, requires one to follow certain 'life-scripts' because 'Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.' There will be 'proper modes of being black and gay: there will be demands that are made; expectations to be met; battle lines to be drawn.' It is at this point, Appiah suggests, that 'someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another.' An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.

'It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group', Joseph Raz has written. But what is to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia law, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galilleo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been ‘fully integrated’ into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses? Cultures only change, societies only move forwards because many people, in Kwame Appiah's words, 'actively resist being fully integrated into a group'. For them 'integration can sound like regulation, even restraint'. Far from giving voice to the voiceless, in other words, the so-called politics of difference appears to undermine individual autonomy, reduce liberty and enforce conformity.

Part of the problem here is a constant slippage in multiculturalism talk between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures and the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture. Clearly no human can live outside of culture. But then no human does. To say that no human can live outside of culture, however, is not to say they have to live inside a particular one. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue. To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference.

The relationship between cultural identity and racial difference becomes even clearer if we look at the argument that cultures must be protected and preserved. If a 'culture is decaying', Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue, then 'the options and opportunities open to its members will shrink, become less attractive, and their pursuit less likely to be successful.' So society must step in prevent such decay. Will Kymlicka similarly argues that since cultures are essential to peoples' lives, so where 'the survival of a culture is not guaranteed, and, where it is threatened with debasement or decay, we must act to protect it.' For Charles Taylor, once 'we're concerned with identity, nothing ‘is more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it is never lost'. Hence a culture needs to be protected not just in the here and now but through 'indefinite future generations'.

A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop, a point few multiculturalists would dispute. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’. The character of culture can change but such changes are only acceptable if the existence of that culture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character? By ‘character’ Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence. So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish they would always exist in the activities of people.

So, if a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, what does define it? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing. The African American writer Richard Wright described one of his finest creations Bigger Thomas, the hero of Native Son, as a man 'bereft of a culture'. The Negro, Wright argued, 'possessed a rich and complex culture when he was brought to these alien shores'. But that culture was 'taken from him'. Bigger Thomas' ancestors had been enslaved. In the process of enslavement they had been torn from their ancestral homes, and forcibly deprived of the practices and institutions that they understood as their culture. Hence Bigger Thomas, and every black American, behaved very differently from his ancestors. Slavery was an abomination and clearly had a catastrophic impact on black Americans. But however inhuman the treatment of slaves and however deep its impact on black American life, why should this amount to a descendant of slaves being 'bereft of a culture'? This can only be if we believe that Bigger Thomas should be behaving in certain ways that he is not, the ways that his ancestors used to behave. In other words, if we believe that what defines what you should be doing is the fact that your ancestors were doing it. Culture here has become defined by biological descent. And biological descent is a polite way of saying 'race'. As Walter Benn Michaels puts it, 'In order for a culture to be lost… it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.'

The logic of the preservationist arguments is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. There are echoes here of the concept of 'type' that was at the heart of nineteenth century racial science. A racial type was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics that were unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. These, of course, are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today’s multiculturalism talk. In a recent debate, the political philosopher Sir Bernard Crick, chair of the Crick report on British citizenship, wrote that he 'would accept… gladly' the description of multiculturalism as a society 'composed of a small number of organic cultures dancing around each other'. Multiculturalism, in other words, is driven by a concept of 'cultural type'. For all the talk about culture as fluid and changing, multiculturalism invariably leads people to think of human cultures in fixed terms. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how multicultural policy could conceive of cultures in any other way. How could rights be accorded to cultures, or cultures be recognised or preserved if they did not possess rigid boundaries?

Once membership of cultural types is defined by the possession of certain characteristics, and rights and privileges granted by virtue of possessing those characteristics, then it is but a short step to deny membership of a culture to people who do not possess those characteristics and hence to deny them certain rights and privileges. The language of diversity all too easily slips into the idiom of exclusion. In the autumn of 1951 the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay in the Jewish Chronicle putting the case for Zionism. Until the founding of Israel, he observed, no Jew had been free to live a purely Jewish life, free from scrutiny and repression. Berlin was particularly scathing about Gentile intellectuals, such as the poet TS Eliot, those 'souls filled with terror', who feared that a Jewish presence undermined Christian civilisation.

When Eliot protested that he was no anti-Semite, Berlin was sharp in his rebuke. 'Am I profoundly mistaken', he wrote to Eliot, 'that you thought it a pity that large groups of "free thinking Jews" should complicate the lives of otherwise fairly homogenous Anglo-Saxon Christian communities? And that it were better otherwise? And that if this could be done by humane means and persuasion and without coercion, it would be better for such communities if their Jewish neighbours, or a sufficiently large proportion of them, were put "beyond the borders of the city?".'

Forty years later Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, for peoples of different cultures, such as Arabs and Jews, to live together? 'When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures', Berlin replied, 'it is difficult for them to live together in peace... it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity.' Similarly, black immigration to Western Europe was 'a problem' because 'cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided'. These considerations, Berlin observed, had led him to question 'the 19th century [idea] that multicultural societies were desirable'.

Berlin has been hailed by many as the pre-eminent philosopher of modern pluralism. Freedom, for Berlin, lay in the acceptance of the plurality of society and of the incommensurability of cultural values. Pluralism, he argued, was the best defence against tyranny and against ideologies, such as racism, which treated some human beings as less equal than others. Yet, as his interview with Steven Lukes reveals, Berlin's liberalism all too easily gave way to a desire to exclude minorities. A cynic might argue that the difference between Eliot and Berlin was less about whether minorities should be put 'beyond the borders of the city' than about which minorities should be so excluded.

Nor is Berlin alone in making a multiculturalist case for 'keeping them out'. Will Kymlicka would undoubtedly be critical of Berlin's views on immigration and is anything but a xenophobe. Yet he too adopts the language of exclusion. 'It is right and proper', Kymlicka believes, 'that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its members'. But 'while it is one thing to learn from the larger world', it is quite another 'to be swamped by it'. What could this mean? That a culture has the right to keep out members of another culture? That a culture has the right to prevent its members from speaking another language, singing non-native songs or reading non-native books?

Kymlicka's warning about 'swamping' should, as Kwame Appiah has observed, make us sit up and take notice. It is, after all, the right that has long exploited fears of cultural swamping. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher told television viewers that she understood the fears of British citizens being 'swamped' by immigrants. It was a time of considerable racial tension when the far-right National Front was gaining support. Thatcher's comments played an important part in persuading potential National Front voters to switch allegiance to the Conservatives and in helping Thatcher win her first election. Twelve years later Charles Moore, the then editor of the rightwing Spectator magazine made a case for what he called a 'liberal and "racist" immigration policy'. 'You can be British without speaking English or being Christian or being white', Moore wrote, 'but nevertheless Britain is basically English-speaking and Christian and white and if one starts to think that it might become Urdu speaking and Muslim and brown, one gets frightened and angry'. It is both 'natural' and 'right', Moore argued, to feel 'alarmed' at the thought that you might be 'outnumbered' by people from another culture, such as Muslims. 'You ought to have a sense of your identity', Moore concluded, echoing Kymlicka, Taylor, Berlin and countless pluralists, 'and part of that sense derives from your nation and your race'.

'It's not our country any more', has become the common cry of those opposed to immigration. 'There are now substantially growing areas in many of our major cities which are in some important respects rather more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene', argues the Oxford demographer David Coleman, a leading figure in the British anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch. 'They're not parts of the country where most English people will want to go.' This has led to the 'dethronement' of what 'the ordinary people of Britain… take to be their national identity and their history'.

Kymlicka no doubt abhors the arguments of Thatcher, Moore and Coleman. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist such anti-immigration arguments. Herder, Alain Finkielkraut observes, has become the cheerleader for both sides of the political spectrum. ‘No longer silenced by post-World War II taboos’, Finkielkraut has written, ‘he reigns supreme inspiring at the same time… unyielding celebrations of ethnic identity and expressions of respect for foreigners, aggressive outbursts by xenophobes and generous pronouncements by xenophiles.’ The two sides have ‘conflicting credos but the same vision of the world’. Both see ‘cultures as all-encompassing entities, distinctly different, one from the other.’ Multiculturalists, like racial theorists, fetishise difference. Both seek to ‘confine individuals to their group of origin’. Both undermine ‘any possibility of natural or cultural community among peoples’. We believe we have discredited the concept of race but, Finkielkraut asks, ‘have we really made any progress?’

The irony in all this is that we’ve all become multiculturalists at the very time the world is becoming less, not more, plural. 'When I was a child', the Ghanaian-born American philosopher Kwame Appiah recalls, 'we lived in a household where you could hear at least three mother tongues spoken each day. Ghana, with a population close to that of New York State, has several dozen languages in active use and no one language that is spoken at home or even fluently understood by a majority of the population.' So why is it, he asks, that in America 'which seems so much less diverse than most other societies are we so preoccupied with diversity and inclined to conceive of it as cultural?'

The proportion of foreign born Americans is far less than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Intermarriage between immigrant groups continues to increase. More than 97 per cent of Americans speak English. Even among Hispanics, the one ethnic group defined by language, the proportion of non-English speakers is a quarter of what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then new immigrants did not simply speak their own language, but read their own newspapers, ate their own food and lived their own lives. In 1923, for instance, the Polish community alone, David Hollinger points out, published 67 weekly newspapers, 18 monthlies and 19 dailies, the largest of which had a circulation of more than a hundred thousand.

Today, not just language, but the shopping mall, the sports field, the Hollywood film and the TV sitcom all serve to bind differences and create a set of experiences and cultural practices that is more common than at any time in the past. Indeed, even before today’s immigrants set foot on US soil they are probably more American than previous generations of Americans. Even immigrants from non-European countries are, as Dennis Wrong suggests, 'probably less unfamiliar with the major features of the society than were, say, South Italian or Slavic peasants in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.'

Much the same is true of Europe. There has been considerable debate in recent years about the impact of mass migration, and in particular of Muslims, on social cohesion and national identity. Interestingly, both sides in this debate about whether Europe is becoming 'too diverse', to quote the title of a much-discussed recent essay on the relationship between diversity and solidarity, make a link between the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values. Multiculturalists believe that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples precludes the possibility of common values. Nativists want to limit immigration because, they suggest, such values are possible only within an ethnically homogenous society. And both sides suffer from a collective memory loss. The claim that European nations used to be homogenous but have become diverse does not stand up. At the time of the French Revolution, for instance, less than half the population of France spoke French and only 12 per cent spoke it 'correctly'. The historian Eugene Weber has shown the extraordinary modernising effort that was required in the nineteenth century to unify France and her rural populations, and the traumatic and lengthy process of cultural, educational, political and economic 'self-colonisation' that this entailed. These developments created the modern French nation and allowed for notions of French (and European) superiority over non-European cultures. But it also reinforced a sense of how socially and anthropologically alien was the mass of the rural, and indeed urban, population. In an address to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez considered the meaning of social differentiation within France:

Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry. Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form not merely one but several races so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classes below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

Victorian England, too, viewed the urban working class and the rural poor as the racial Other. A vignette of working class life in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the era, is typical of English middle class attitudes of this era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not yet quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and the comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

Of course the descendants of the Bethnal Green poor that the Victorian middle class viewed as a 'race apart' are now seen as part of indigenous British (or perhaps English) culture while a new generation of Bethnal Green poor, who only arrived there after the Second World War, are now regarded as not just a race apart but a culture apart too. Yet, the social and cultural differences between a Victorian gentleman and a farmhand or a machinist were probably greater than those between a native white Briton and a second generation British Asian or Afro-Caribbean today. Indeed a 60-something white Briton would probably find a 20-something white Briton more culturally alien than either would an Asian or an Afro-Caribbean of their own generation.

So, 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? Much of the answer lies in the narrowing of the political sphere. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness over the past two decades. By the last decade of twentieth century, the broad ideological divides that had characterised politics in the previous two hundred years had been all but erased. For the first time since the French Revolution, politics became less about competing visions of the kinds of society people wanted - most had come to accept with Margaret Thatcher that 'There is no alternative' to liberal capitalism - than a debate about how best to run the existing political system.

As the meaning of politics has narrowed, so people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms - as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves are not so much 'What kind of society do I want to live in?' as 'Who are we?'. The first question looks forward for answers and defines them in terms of the commonality of values necessary for establishing the good life. The second generally looks back and seeks answers and defines identity in terms of history and heritage. The politics of ideology has given way to the politics of identity. Stripped of a radical idiom, Russell Jacoby observes, robbed of a utopian hope, radicals retreated 'to celebrate diversity'. Multiculturalism, Jacoby concludes 'has become… the ideology of an era without ideology'.

The irony of multiculturalism is that, as a political process, it undermines what is valuable about cultural diversity. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, and make judgements upon them. In other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create more universal values and beliefs, and a collective language of citizenship. The narrowing of the political sphere makes such a process much more difficult to pursue. As a result diversity has come to be seen as a good in itself. Multiculturalism is not a response to a diverse society. Rather, the pursuit of multicultural policies has led us to imagine that we are far more diverse than we are.