Who Lives Happily?

Here we go again, again, again. It’s odd that this argument never seems to do any work, it just keeps recurring. It’s like listening to someone with a car stuck in the snow late at night, somewhere far down the hill – you just hear that rrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrrrrr, rrrrrrrrr over and over, as the wheels spin and never bite.

Chris at Crooked Timber links to an article in the Financial Times (by far the best he’s read on the subject, he says) on the anti-Muslim backlash in the Netherlands after the Van Gogh murder. All eager for the treat, I hastened to begin reading. Alas, one problem with the article leapt out at me in the first paragraph, and then kept on leaping – to such an extent that I paused in my reading to go report the fact at CT, which meant criticising the article before I’d read a quarter of it. Well I’m an impatient bastard, always have been. But also that was kind of the point. It’s such a glaring problem and it’s so obvious right from the beginning – and yet people either don’t notice it or think it’s right and good.

Here’s that first paragraph:

Six weeks before he was gunned down in the street, the Dutch controversialist Theo van Gogh (pictured) sat on a panel in Amsterdam in a hall full of Dutch Muslims. The panel was organised by a group called “Ben je bang voor mij?” (”Are you afraid of me?”), which tries to bring together white and brown Dutch people.

And then here are a couple more quotes.

Suddenly many Dutch people see their country as a riven place, where Muslims and white people cannot co-exist, and which may be on the brink of disaster…Most of the 14m inhabitants of Europe’s most densely populated country were then white, but the Muslim population was growing fast.

Spot the flaw? Of course you do. ‘Dutch Muslims…white and brown Dutch people’ ‘Muslims and white people’ ‘then white, but the Muslim’. The guy seems to think that Muslim and brown are exact synonyms. Or, worse, he knows damn well they’re not but he writes that way in order to manipulate his less attentive readers into thinking they are. With, no doubt, benevolent intentions. Muslims in Europe (and the US) feel threatened and under attack, and racists can and do use criticism of Islam as a tactic. But obfuscation doesn’t help – or if it does it does so at the price of obscuring or concealing other problems. Religion is not race, race is not religion. Religion is a system of ideas which can and must be open to criticism. Race is not. Religions tell people what to do. Religions tell some people they’re entitled to rule and dominate others, and tell other people they are required to bow and submit to the dominants. Race doesn’t do that; it can’t; it has no ideational content, any more than hair colour or length of leg or shape of ear lobe has. That’s why one has to be kept permanently wide open to criticism and disagreement, and why the other can’t be. (What are you going to do, argue with someone whose legs are too short? ‘If they were longer you could run faster!’)

Kuper does make an attempt at dealing with some of the content-specific issues later in the article, but he does a very superficial job of it, leaving out the most crucial aspects.

According to multiculturalism, a society consists of blocs of ethnic groups each living happily within their own culture…Today the concept is going out of fashion in much of Europe. Critics say it locks people up in a fixed, imagined idea of what “Moroccan” or “Muslim” is.

It’s not just a question of fashion, and critics say a lot more than that (the best critics anyway). ‘[E]ach living happily within their own culture’ is a terrible oversimplification, or in fact simply inaccurate. Many women and girls don’t live all that happily ‘within their own culture’. Cultures are not monolithic; they don’t necessarily treat everyone equally; people within them don’t have identical experiences of ‘their own culture’. A culture may work in such a way that a dominant group lives happily while everyone else is subordinate and exploited. Pointing out that unpleasant fact is way more than a matter of ‘fashion’ – in fact if it were more fashionable, maybe reporters would do a better job of noticing and mentioning it.

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