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J. Carter Wood © 2001

 

 
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The International Conference on the History of Violence, at which I was a participant, had hardly ended when reports of the Bradford riots began to circulate. The television news at last interrupted its interminable coverage of Tim Henman’s then-presumed march toward victory at Wimbledon to show buildings alight, police in riot gear and a montage of white and Asian youths beating, kicking and stabbing each other. I watched the visuals spill by along with the immediate parade of interviewees Making Sense of It All, an echo of the previous few days of historians attempting to describe, define, quantify and, above all, explain violent behaviour. Not an hour’s drive away from this academic gathering’s Liverpool location, real mass violence was erupting, emphasizing the failure of decades of such earnest intellectual talk to have any social impact whatsoever. What followed in the media was another torrent of words that seemed to raise more questions than it answered, more rancorous debate and, finally, the fading of the issue as public attention moved on to other matters. But Bradford, and its fallout, stayed with me over the next weeks, and much of what I read or heard implicitly mixed attitudes toward national identity, violence, and a vaguely understood yet ever-present idea of multiculturalism.

One of the recurring themes at the conference was that of definitions: much like "violence" itself, what makes a "violent society" is mainly a question of where one looks, or does not look, together with the criteria applied. In this process of looking, and of not-looking, various stories we are told and which we tell ourselves -- about the kind of countries we live in, about our communities, and about ourselves -- become extremely important. For instance, a dominant sense of Britishness -- or perhaps more specifically Englishness, as the Scots and Irish were often left out of this pacifistic self-fashioning -- was for much of the last century predicated on a presumed love of orderly public spaces, a low propensity to violence and, in particular, a revulsion against the organized, political and racist carnage that has so plagued the European continent. Ignoring many elements of actual violence in British society allowed the British press and public to view their culture and society as peaceful, as opposed to "violent" country such as, in their different ways, Germany and the United States. (There have, of course, been, counterexamples, such as England's celebrated football hooliganism, but these have tended to be seen as aberrationsto the general pattern.)

Such narratives influence the ways that cultures are seen to integrate, or fail to integrate, by the dominant population in any country, and they shape numerous cross-cultural interactions, from the personal, as when Europeans do business or encounter each other on vacation, to the national, as when Britain periodically expresses concerns about German "domination" of the EU, or the United States attempts to block any discussion of reparations for slavery at a UN racism conference.

Mixed in with the images from Bradford was the question that seems to follow most outbreaks of violence: "How could it happen here?" It’s a line with which I’m familiar with, having been bathed in the media frenzy surrounding the last few years of high-school shootings and other violent eruptions in my native United States. It may surprise people who don’t live there that Americans too think of themselves as an exceptionally peace-loving and generous nation, despite what many might consider quite substantial evidence to the contrary. Perhaps people in all countries like to think of themselves in a similar way. Perhaps even the Taliban.

Those ruminations on national identity stayed in my mind as I returned to the small and relatively sleepy southwestern German city of Trier to which I have recently migrated. In a mirror-image of American and British attitudes, Germany appears to see itself as a threatening place -- almost hysterically so. Violence has in some ways become integral to German identity, despite a great deal of evidence to suggest that it is a no more violent nation than its European neighbours and is a country where, very relevantly, mass political racist violence has very little future, notwithstanding the existence of a small neo-fascist fringe. It is illegal, for example, to display Nazi symbols and parties that espouse Nazi programs can be banned. When incidents of ethnically motivated violence do occur -- and, as in every other country, they do -- the immediate question is not "How could it happen here?", but rather there is an assumption that there is something particularly dark and violent immanent in German society itself. Self-mistrust within Germany runs most strongly on the liberal-left: as is recounted in Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt, post-war leftist icon Günter Grass argued at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1990 against reunification on the ground that, because of Auschwitz, Germans could not trust themselves and would be a danger to their neighbours.

Since last summer, Germany has witnessed another episode of national soul searching following a small eruption of racist attacks that occurred mainly in the region that was formerly the DDR, echoing the far more violent wave of assaults and murders that swept the east in the immediate wake of reunification. Part of the response is exemplified in the recently articulated notion of Zivilcourage that expects individuals to intervene when minorities are publicly harassed or attacked. National press campaigns encouraging civil courage, featuring multi-page spreads in major newspapers, have followed the recently perceived extremist "crisis." Such social responsibility is, on the face of it, a laudable notion; leaving aside the problem that personal bravery cannot be officially mandated, however, the post-war context has made it a unique responsibility of Germans, specially tasked to show specific forms of anti-fascist valour. The encouragement for this campaign originated in the political heights, and its emphases conveniently formulate the issue as an individual problem, allowing both government policy and more intractable questions of social structure to evade accountability. Concurrently, other people in societies with as many or even more ethnic tensions appear to feel themselves exempt from such imperatives. The United States, for instance, from which much financial, logistical and ideological support for international neo-fascism emerges, feels no particular resulting sensitivity or responsibility, continuing to view it as a European, if not specifically German, problem.

In Trier, as in cities and towns throughout Germany, there are signs -- in large and alarming pseudo-Gothic type with plenty of exclamation points!! -- which are posted in the windows of various shops noting that "In Case of Nazi Terror" a person can enter the shop and expect to find help inside. Three points come to mind. First of all: why here? Trier is apparently a tolerant town, dependent upon the attendance of large numbers of foreigners, and where on the main streets one can easily hear the languages and street music of half a dozen cultures. The centre-left Social Democratic Party controls the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate in which it is located, and there have been no local demonstrations by the fascist Right or outbreaks of racial violence. Second, the phrase "Nazi Terror" brings to mind images of the mass rallies and torchlight parades immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, implying that minorities -- or, for that matter, homosexuals, Jews or Leftists --face a clear and present danger. Third, how much aid can, let us say, an interior decoration store really offer in the face of a genuine fascist upswing.

It is here that the place of violence in national identity becomes more clear. Would a racist attack in the United States, Britain or France -- where such things are by no means uncommon -- be constructed around the image of "Nazi Terror"? Will another British town far removed from ethnic street-rioting, Exeter, say, feel obliged to take part in a national preventive gesture as a result of what happened in Bradford? Anti-fascist campaigners in each country might answer yes to these questions, but their views would remain confined to these islands, far from the mainland of political discussion. What makes such issues different in Germany is the way that such rhetoric is central to political culture and social identity. This is not to say that Germans have found a solution to cultural integration, nor that their attitude toward racist violence is any more honest: the rhetorics of national guilt and Zivilcourage are screens of a different sort that conceal as much as they reveal. Such differences, however, suggest the alternative ways in which national narratives intersect with popular awareness of ethnic tensions and violence.

Interacting with such national questions is another word I heard and read a great deal during and after the riots. "Multiculturalism" is now a familiar narrative in all western post-industrial nations facing increased migration and globalisation. The term has many uses, but a popular and superficial version of multiculturalism argues both that it is "respectful" of other cultures and that it is "inclusive". In fact it diminishes other cultures by choosing what is emblematic of them -- alternatively celebrating or condemning isolated elements -- while at the same time failing to provide real assistance for people in actually living together. The events in Bradford, among other examples, raise serious questions about the worth of a vague and conflicted notion of multiculturalism that has been applied like a Band-Aid across the real social wounds which have been opened up by the frictions of cultural confrontation.

The nice, liberal version of multiculturalism was on display in post-Bradford television interviews. Some formulation of"We were all getting along fine until these outsiders came in and spoiled things", appeared de rigueur. I have no doubt that the National Front had been actively encouraging racial tensions, nor that Asian youths who don’t live in the area participated in attacks on whites, the police and local property. Such optimistic analyses deserve, as ever, to be taken with a pinch of salt; they are part of a common rhetoric that locates violence outside of our communities, our societies, ourselves. This narrative is convenient: it allows an easily-packaged explanation for why things go wrong and hides behind it what might be more difficult questions at the root of social relationships. For hardly had the fires been put out before it became clear that things were not as well within Bradford as this rhetoric would suggest. In another irony, the long-planned release of a report emphasizing that race relations within Bradford were not only troubled but deteriorating fell within a week of the riots. The report suggests that, "Rather than seeing the emergence of a confident, multicultural district where people are respectful, people’s attitudes appear to be hardening and intolerance is growing". Young Asians face a kind of "virtual apartheid" in schools and employment. Political leadership is singled out for being particularly "weak" in trying to deal with inter-community friction, preferring to "avoid ‘disturbances’ and to ‘keep the peace.’" One of the points in the report appears especially significant: both white and Asian communities seek out a kind of self-segregation and attempt to avoid each other as much as possible, even in that most British of institutions, the local pub. One might see this as regrettable, but I’m not sure why anyone finds it surprising.

There is a common deception in an anodyne multicultural rhetoric that pretends that, really, we’re all just the same and can get along if we just talk to each other and eat each other’s food. It is easy to laugh at Robin Cook’s declaration that curry is Britain’s national dish and evidence of a multicultural society. After all, even National Front boot-boys might set off for a night of ethnic terrorism after a stop at the local Indian takeaway. But what underlies Cook’s sound-bite cosmopolitanism is a widespread version of multiculturalism: that of the market, which picks and chooses the most easily saleable elements from various cultures and purveys them to a consumer base eagerly demonstrating a commitment to faux international unity by spending dollars, pounds or marks on the more easily digestible portions of the world’s customs. Saleability does not mean solubility, however, and it rests uneasily with the another notion simultaneously promoted: that of the importance of one’s cultural background in shaping one’s experience of, and notions about, the world. If we really believe that culture is something to be taken seriously then we have to abandon the idea that the mixture of various cultures is an unproblematic question of "understanding." In any specific place, these issues are tinted by the particular cultures involved, but there is a more general, perhaps universal, point to be made: people fear what is different, we are all capable of violence and there are parts of all cultures -- from religious and political beliefs to attitudes toward gender and public behaviour -- that do not combine very well.

Marketplace multiculturalism does what all things in the market do: celebrating only that which is un-offensive -- or, at least stylishly offensive, particularly if it will display a certain attitude of post-colonial hipness -- and which can easily be adapted into the dominant culture at large. From the dulcet tones of World Music to high street merchandising by the Body Shop, what is being sold are not merely CDs and cosmetics, but also a fiction that essentially all cultures are like "ours," only a little more "genuine" and, in the best of situations, somewhat more funky. But this really isn’t a way of taking any of these cultures seriously; it smacks of Western condescension, and at the same time it muddles the actual contours of accommodation and tension that define cross-cultural interaction.

The National Front and their sympathizers, clearly, represent one disgusting side of cultural antagonism, but it functions in other ways, too. One relevant item comes out of the furore surrounding the 1989 release of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In June of that year, Bradford saw a mass burning of the book followed by a spate of havoc and assault in the main shopping district. This was only one sign that fundamentalist Muslim leaders have been influential in Bradford, and there were further riots in 1995 and in 1998. To point out the more extremist elements of both the white and Asian communities in Bradford is not, of course, to give the entire story. Muslim fundamentalism and British fascism have many differences, and do not command the loyalties of most people living in Bradford. But the presence of already festering ethnic tensions within Bradford, apparently for more than a decade, point out the futility of trying simply to paper over these conflicts by seeing prejudice, resentment and violence as simply outside interlopers in an otherwise peaceful community consensus.

The dynamic of mainstream multiculturalism expresses a liberal tendency of old vintage, that of claiming inclusiveness while at the same time constructing a variety of new outsiders. This dynamic at the heart of liberalism is central to Edmund Morgan’s analysis of the history of American democracy in his book American Slavery, American Freedom. From its foundation, American-style freedom -- for its time a quite remarkable ideology -- not only coexisted with slavery but in fact was predicated upon the enslavement of vast numbers of people of African origin. It was the ability to draw a line between white and black -- and the fear on the part of whites of what lay behind that line -- that drew wealthy and poor white farmers together in creating American "liberty," a seductive vision of freedom that was in fact based upon severe repression. What is similar with ersatz multiculturalism is the way that the market takes what it sees as the "good" parts of various societies, none of which threaten the assumptions of the society into which they are imported, in creating an "international" style, while ignoring those elements it sees as "bad" or at least don’t fit easily into its marketing strategy. Any serious engagement with the positive and negative sides of any culture is denied by an overarching dynamic of selectivity that undervalues real cultural complexity and denies that any meaningful differences exist.

What follows is that, despite the widespread claims of a "multicultural" society, the reality for people actually from other societies is often a continuing story of isolated ghettoisation. This is, in any country, less true of a well-educated (and perhaps well-heeled) cosmopolitan élite. Not much further down the social scale, however, where one’s economic position is less secure and opportunities and resources are more scarce, a more clannish form of identity is easily adopted, and, with community pressure behind it, it is more difficult to cross lines over to "them."

Of course, there are exceptions. Nevertheless the isolation of communities into well-identifiable areas is an international phenomenon. For instance, my native Chicago, like many other American cities, prides itself on its multiculturalism. It is, indeed, a city of many cultures; yet to apply the "multicultural" label suggests something other than the very visible lines that separate its numerous ethnicities into various well-defined enclaves. Look a little more closely even at "integrated" areas, and one is likely to find subtle physical and social boundaries, along with evidence that the price of integration is often wholesale assimilation into a dominant culture.

Finally, what remains to be observed is the way that the current multicultural assumptions can conceal the fragility of the arrangements between dominant and minority cultures, particularly the dangerous plight of ethnic minorities when things go wrong. Bradford is only one example; another comes even more recently from Australia, where a small number of cross-ethnic sexual assaults in the Sydney area have led to a panic in white communities. This crisis is centred on Sydney, a city that has celebrated its "multicultural" credentials. Despite clear evidence that there is no racial tendency toward sexual assaults -- leaving aside the fact that they mostly occur between acquaintances or within families -- the press and political figures have seized upon distortions of the incidents for their own interests. The anti-immigrant Right are unsurprisingly most vocal about this, but as of yet there appears to have been no vigorous mainstream defence of minorities.

The foregoing critique of the current multicultural vogue is not an argument against the possibility of people of different cultures living together in a state of relative amity. What I suggest is that to demystify the current discourse of multiculturalism might be helpful in a number of ways. First, it might revalue actual, existing cultures, in all their complexities: simply to deny difference is not to make it disappear, but is rather to put it beyond the scope of serious interrogation. Second, honestly admitting that cross-cultural engagements inherently generate friction may actually be useful. Real interactions between cultures involve more than simply surface level accommodations and include conflicts over economic power and private and public resources; open debate is superior to the smothering of difference by a bland multiculturalism that in the end is really emblematic of the dominant culture’s power. Finally, it is essential to critique the national identities that allow us to be easily comfortable about our own societies (and ourselves) by relocating violence and prejudice somewhere "outside". For one example, the British self-image of peaceful tolerance helps to ignore the urgent need to confront the ethnic changes occurring in British society in a constructive way: an event like Bradford is mistakenly seen as an unfortunate aberration in what is otherwise a non-violent and successfully multicultural society. Similarly, the simplistic, and increasingly fraying, mythology of the American "melting pot" is similarly ripe for reconsideration. Facing the points is uncomfortable, but then again, so is reality, and if radicalism is to mean anything, it must be willing to accept the ambiguities and messiness of social life rather than building pleasant but unrealistic utopias, no matter how full of Turkish rugs, electric woks and native music they might be.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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