The crisis of multiculturalism: Europe’s imaginary friend


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The live coverage of Anders Breivik’s trial in Oslo may be highly structured and subject to restrictions, but there is currently significant debate as to whether it nevertheless provides him with a political platform. Breivik has been clear, when writing in his ‘manifesto’ about any potential judicial process, that he would regard it not only as a platform, but also as an inverted show trial, an opportunity to confront a state rendered illegitimate through its surrender to ‘multiculturalism’. So while he plays his imagined part, free to fist-bump every morning with imagined Knight Templars, and to dismiss the execution of young Social Democrats as an act of goodness, analysis has turned to the nature of the media coverage. This piece in the LA Times gives a good summary of some of the arguments circulating concerning propaganda ‘effects’, censorship and radicalization, however the key point is that made by Tad Tietze;

Tietze said that the media haven’t really exposed Breivik, reporting too dispassionately on an attack that should be clearly labeled as fascism. “It doesn’t matter how much you let him talk, as long as it’s labeled correctly,” the Sydney psychiatrist said. “This is a modern variant of fascism.”

The problem, of course, is that while Breivik’s actions should clearly be labeled as fascism (the political murder of the ‘traitorous’ in the service of purging the nation of the ‘alien’ and ‘decadent’), institutional practices of media balance and impartiality shy away from such labels, content to limit categorization to the conventional spectrum of left to right. And while this runs the risk of depoliticizing political murder, it also opens a space for the normalization of Breivik’s ideological themes, not only as motives but also as dispassionate frameworks for understanding the ‘problem’. In particular, Breivik’s fixation on ‘multiculturalism’ as a form of treachery, engineered by unaccountable elites intent on transforming the ethno-racial and cultural character of the nation, has played into a variety of established agendas that hone in on something called ‘multiculturalism’ as a spongy and capacious signifier for anything to do with the politics of immigration and race, and legitimacy and belonging.

Brendan O’Neill kicked things off in the UK media, claiming in a Telegraph blog last week that Breivik is:

‘…not an implacable foe of multiculturalism, he is a product of it. He is multiculturalism’s monster, where his true aim is to win recognition of his identity alongside all those other identities that are fawned over in modern Europe.’

This Spiked-style, counter-intuitive argument only works if you discipline yourself not to think past the formal logic, and works best if you imagine yourself scandalizing an audience of secretly impressed liberals. But once you figure out that ‘winning recognition’ based on the expulsion and evisceration of the ‘self-hating’ and the ‘invaders’ from the pure nation is not the same as a ‘winning recognition’ as a limited tactic shaped by the circumscribed political options made available to ‘migrant’ communities in western Europe, all that was vapid melts into air. That state multiculturalism, such as it was ever actually practiced in European societies, is a national and frequently nationalist project of integration and control; or that the far-right has long appropriated and inverted the tepid recognition dynamics of liberal multiculturalism to claim the status of (white) victims in their own land, is of little interest to O’Neill in his crusade to emancipate all who read him.

I hope to return to a broader critical overview of how Breivik’s stated justifications are integrated into media coverage in a future post. Published below is a short article I wrote for the Finnish feminist magazine Astra Nova – hence the range of reference, which I have left mainly intact – a few months after the attacks, addressing the politics of hailing ‘multicultural crisis’. The original is here.

Trust me: I don’t mean what I say.

That there was something called multiculturalism, and that it failed, is an article of faith among a broad spectrum of political actors in Europe; from the resurgent far-right to centrist politicians, and to a range of excitable, liberal media commentators. In the blogapelago of networked, racial anxiety that so inspired Anders Behring Brevik, multiculturalism is seen as a project of civilizational self-destruction, plotting the replacement of Europe with Eurabia. Worse, it is regarded as an elite imposition, the work of an interfering middle class, or soi-disant cosmopolitans, or ‘Cultural Marxists’. If multiculturalism has failed it has failed because multiculturalists have encouraged problematic minorities by celebrating their difference and ignoring the unpleasant realities. Those courageous commentators who spoke the uncomfortable truth about these realities were ‘silenced’ with ‘accusations’ of racism. This is precisely the impasse that Breivik sought to violently fracture; the young Social Democrats he slaughtered were ‘engineering’ the cultural dilution of Norway and the civilizational sundering of Europe. Their silencing was real, and his actions exceptional, but his political logic is commonplace.

Following Brevik’s massacre on July 22nd 2011, and the subsequent analysis of his manifesto, a new theory of political language was rapidly assembled. A range of high-profile anti-Muslim bloggers and mainstream columnists rushed to argue that they are not responsible for being cited, and that they never encouraged violence. Of course this is true, but it’s not the real question. The post-2001 period in Europe has seen the mainstream acceptance of a violent language based on a polarised, imagined geography, and mainstream liberal opinion openly embraced perspectives that routinely cast ‘Muslims’ as threatening and illiberal subjects. Yet when a white European terrorist acts on the violent, manichean language of ‘war’ and ‘invasion’, white Europeans are not organised into ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. No one but Brevik was responsible for his actions, and he was insane. Language ceased to have political significance.

This strange new theory of language accompanies an equally strange onset of collective amnesia. It has been widely reported that Geert Wilders, for example, regularly jokes about plans to impose a ‘head rag tax’ on women who wear the hijab. It is less widely recalled that the French philosopher Andre Glucksmann described the hijab as a ‘terrorist operation’ that is ‘stained with blood’; or that his fellow nouveau philosophe Bernard-Henri Lévi described it as an invitation to rape, or that the German feminist Alice Schwarzer compared it to Jews being forced to wear the Nazi yellow star. Plenty of attention focused on what The Guardian termed Breivik’s ‘spider web of hate’ and its fantasies of forced expulsions and cultural and racial cleansing. Yet, at least in terms of excitable speech and punitive fantasy, it could have accomodated the novelist Martin Amis’s ‘thought experiment’ concerning ‘collective punishment’ for Muslims, or the former Dutch immigration minister Rita Verdonk’s plan to introduce ‘integration badges’ for migrants to wear in public space, or Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to ‘karcher’ the impoverished, racialised banlieues of northern Paris.

With language and memory restructured, it is an easy step to dissociate from the toxic triangle of problem-migrants, problematic multiculturalists and heroic actors that Breivik declared war on. Yet rhetorically, this political logic is near ubiquitous. The True Finns MP Jussi Halla-Aho, who is quoted approvingly by Breivik in his manifesto, wrote in his own blog in 2006 that as most rapes in Finland are committed by immigrants, he hoped that it would be Green Party women that were raped, as they were responsible for the multicultural madness. More generally, in societies convinced that they have transcended racism, ‘accusations’ of racism by over-sensitive multiculturalists are regarded as equally problematic as instances of actual racism. To understand this ‘through the looking glass’ political reality, we need to understand the ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ and its political impacts over the last decade.

Crisis? What crisis? That crisis.

If the crisis of multiculturalism is an article of faith, it involves an underlying mystery, which in this instance is the fact that no such coherent era of multiculturalism ever existed. Multicultural policies have never amounted to more than piecemeal affairs, and a normative multiculturalism has never been uniformly incorporated into policy even in countries, such as the Netherlands and Canada, that are widely associated with what David Goldberg calls ‘prescriptive multiculturalism’.

Multiculturalism has always involved conceptual messiness, spanning questions of policy, philosophy and rhetoric. Yet when it is denounced it takes on the hard form of a ‘failed experiment’ that requires correction through ‘integration’. A mix of social and political problems, from terrorism, ‘radicalization’ and ‘ghettoization’ to youth unemployment, sexism and homophobia are pinned squarely on multiculturalism. Why has multiculturalism been singled out for such exaggerated treatment, and why now, when ‘it’ has been in practical retreat for years? In my book with the sociologist Alana Lentin, The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, we argue that untangling contemporary investments in the idea of a failed multiculturalism returns us to the tangled question of ‘race’.

The crisis of multiculturalism is a complex political reaction to the fact that, due to postcolonial and globalized migration, European societies have become more noticeably diverse. Ironically, the idea of multicultural failure is a form of political correctness; a way of talking about issues of migration, identity, power and belonging while steering clear of a vocabulary associated with the history of a shameful, racist past. However, it has also become a license to reshape racism. As multiculturalism is held responsible for a vast range of social ills presented as symptoms of past mismanagement, it provides a short-hand for all that was wrong with the guilt-ridden, relativist, decadent West. And much like anti-Semitism does not depend on the presence of Jews, countries can have a crisis of multiculturalism without multicultural policy, or even very many ‘migrants’. This allows the True Finns, for example, to import the codes of crisis by pointing to sensationalised evidence of ‘multicultural failure’ in Sweden. Do you really want a future Malmo in Itäkeskus (an eastern Helsinki suburb), the argument runs, an argument that depends on an anxious imaginary of race: brown and black people together must result in a ghetto. To lament or desire the death of multiculturalism is, in coded fashion, to worry about race.

This begs the complex question as to how ‘culture’ and ‘race’ intersect. In the 1980s, the discourse of racism shifted from one centred upon a discredited biological basis to one that took culture as its focus. The success of parties such as the French Front national was enabled by a cooptation of the language of cultural relativism. Throughout this period, the far right enjoyed a newfound acceptability by speaking about cultural incompatibility rather than racial hierarchy. Central to this success has been a widespread assumption that, beyond extremist movements and ignorant individuals, racism is a thing of the past. The end of race pleased both the liberal-left, happy with its role in this triumph, and the Right, who from the 1970s progressively denied that racism existed, except as a tactic for making whites feel guilty. Yet race, as Charles W. Mills argues, ‘maybe socio-political rather than biological, but it is nonetheless real’. That African migrants drown regularly off the militarised shores of southern Europe, with little public reaction, is but one example of that continuing reality.

Liberal politicians and commentators regard far-right parties as beyond the pale. Yet as the violent descriptions of the hijab show, post 9-11, there has been a curious cross-pollination of ideas and arguments about the need for stronger integration, and the unwillingness of the racialized to integrate into the dominant culture. Yet significant differences exist as to what this ‘integrated’ state involves. For some it is a conventional idea of the ‘national home’, but equally powerful is an emerging vision of nationalized liberalism, the nation as defined by liberal values and ways of life. One of the most disturbing aspects of the reshaping of racism is the rallying of progressive causes to a politics of exclusion. Beyond the Neo-Nazi right, nobody is really against ‘diversity’. However, political energy is dedicated to disciplining what we term in the book ‘bad diversity’, and it is no accident that the most forceful framing of multicultural failure now involves issues of gender and sexuality.

The idea that too much relativism has allowed ‘bad diversity’ to endanger the fight against sexism and homophobia imagines a struggle between the West – the birthplace of democracy, human rights, and singular achievements in gender equality and sexual freedom – and the rest, most problematically those illiberal subjects who have been allowed to live among us. Multiculturalism – not the institutionalised sexism, patriarchal structures or homophobia that affects all societies – can be blamed for the persistence of domestic violence, or the violation of gay rights.

Proven multicultural failure therefore allows a new ‘honesty’ about race, where taboo-breaking is a necessary duty. The language reduced to meaninglessness after Utoya was long regarded as meaningful: not just communicating a message but also reshaping the open society, after the failed experiment. After Oslo we should recognize that the real failure has been to understand the continuing salience of racism in western societies.

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Dr Gavan Titley is a lecturer in Media Studies at the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies in National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

3 Responses

  1. Cynthia Martin

    April 25, 2012 4:01 pm

    This is an excellent article which deserves wider distribution, and to my mind, shows a profound understanding of what is going on. The UK is one jurisdiction which has ‘encouraged probelamtic minotiries by celebrating their difference and ignoring the unpleasant realities! For example, community leaders have suppressed dissent in terms of integration issues. It is clear that the left-right political spectrum should be widened to include ‘fascism’, and that academic and other writers need to engage with a language that moves beyond the academic construction of ‘cultural relativism’! The recent front cover of New Statesman stated : ‘The most shocking thing about Anders Behring Breivik? How many npeople agree with his opinions’. The expectation of analysis disappointed on every level. The media are not even on the blocks!

  2. Jen

    May 1, 2012 11:22 pm

    I’d love to know, and I wonder, if the writer ever had a racist thought in his life??? How do you get rid of racism? You stop talking about it, that’s how. Hollande needs to take the word “race” out of the French consitution for starters. That’ll put an end to racism in France. In time. (And soon hopefully it will catch on all over Europe). People prone to hate then will hate everyone equally and not immigrants MORE. And we may even see a bit of equality!! Breivik had probably been fantasising about this mass murder since he was a kid. He’s a loon and only used “far-right” as an excuse. Grow up Gavan Titley. You’re beginning to sound more and more like a Conspiracy Theorist – completely obsessed with what goes on the minds of far-right indivduals. Interview some FN supporters in France for Godsake and report back to us. They should be pretty approachable. A lot of them are students. Get REAL. Change the record.