Sunday, February 19, 2006
Amartya Sen has an interesting piece in The New Republic titled Chili and liberty: the uses and abuses of multiculturalism. Sen's piece addresses the paradox in the interpretation of "multiculturalism" in some quarters where it implies separation of distinct cultures into a "plural monoculturalism." That is, a nation where separate ethnic and religious groups live apart within the same polity. A pre-modern form of this system would be the millets of the Ottoman Empire, where religious leaders would be responsible for and command their own particular community. A contrasting dynamic is the admixture of various particular traditions and forms into a new cultural complex, in Sen's case he points to the emergence of curry powder, a British colonial invention that has become synonomous with South Asian culture and now is a common part of the British culinary scene. Going back to the Ottoman example, the fez which Kemal Attaturk famously banned as an example of retrograde practice was originally introduced only one century prior and had little sectarian implication.
Sen's own biases seem to be quite obvious. He offers that reason and individual liberty are primary values, and when multiculturalism conflicts with them he clearly believes it has overstepped its bounds. Cultural innovation is all for the good, but the ossification and formalization of group barriers which is engendered by something akin to the millet system is not something Sen seems to favor. Sen asks why the British government legitimates particular religious leaders as community spokesmen when there are more progressive ethnic activists who also claim representative status. He seems concerned that religious identity has become a primary token for identification, and uses the case of Bangladeshis as a particular example where religious rather than linguistic affinities seem to be the manner in which they are classified.
Sen doesn't get into the details, but the example of Bangladeshis is quite instructive. Before 1950 the Muslim elite in eastern Bengal, what became Bangladesh, were the most stalwart supporters of the Muslim League which agitated for the partition of the Indian subcontinent so that Muslims did not live in a Hindu majority state. Before 1947 the Hindu elite of Calcutta agitated for partition of Bengal precisely because they feared being under the domination of a Muslim majority Pakistan. Yet by the 1960s the Bengali speaking Muslim elite of what was then East Pakistan began to emphasize their Bengali identity. The national poet of Bangladesh is a Hindu Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore (whose family had lands in what is now Bangladesh, then East Bengal). An emphasis on the Bengali language was a common tendency of many educated Leftish Bengalis raised after 1947, when the dominant oppressive elite consisted of Muslims from West Pakistan or other regions of British India. In contrast my grandparents lived during a time when many of the local notables were Hindus, many of whom fled to India after 1947.1 During this time period the Bengali speaking Muslim middle class felt marginalized by the predominantly Hindu capital and intellectual classs based in Calcutta.
The fluidity and multivalent nature of identity that Sen alludes to in his essay was a central theme of my post Clash on Crank, where I showed that the Muslim-Christian divide in medieval Spain masked differences of locality and class, and that when opportunity presented itself personal and familial interest easily superseded civilizational loyalty. The emphasis that one puts on a particular axis of an identity vector is contingent upon a host of situationally sensitive parameters. In one context someone might be brown, in another Muslim, in another a Bengali, in another a woman, and so on. The state, in its attempt to simplify the messiness of reality categorizes and deputizes, compresses and condenses. Though something like a French identity surely existed prior to the 1790s, the revolution did impose national uniformity. The French were relatively successful at forging a new identity where regional and local ties were subordinated, but various Third World nations have been less successful because they've had further to go with less social capital to start with. A plural monoculture is probably in many ways ideal for a governing and bureaucratic class. In this way individuals can be put in their boxes and managed and controlled with a precise set of heuristics determined by their identity. An admixed multiculturalism is a more amorphous and less governable situation.
Sen himself has a personal axe to grind. Though born in India, he has spent a great deal of time in England and the United States. His first marriage was to an Indian woman, but his second to a woman of Italian heritage, his third to classicist Martha Nussbaum (a convert to Judaism) and his latest to a woman of Jewish background (going by name). A nobel prize winning economist who emerged out of an elite cosmopolitan Hindu Bengali family, Sen started out biased toward social fluidity serviced by reason. Individuals like him do not benefit from a stable social order constained by familial and group buffers. To understate the situation, he is not the typical South Asian immigrant to England. When Tony Blair panders to some of the less progressive elements of the Muslim community it is not because he sympathizes with their viewpoints, rather, they are numerous and need to be taken into account as a practical matter. When progressives like Chris Bertram argue that Muslims should and can be treated as ethnic groups, it is no doubt out of pragmatic concerns. Progressives who are visibly of minorities who have their own individual interests at stake like Sen might argue that the imprimatur of primary legitimacy that this gives religious identities in the interests of short term pragmatism sacrifices the long term project of positive liberty toward individual choice and expression. Of course, the long term project of positive liberty toward individual choice and expression has already been attained for someone with the surname "Bertram," so the same weights are not given to all these individual issues as opposed to concerns about social stability. Identities do not emerge in a vacuum independent of other influences, the surrounding society has a large role, and what direction it throws it influence has not been determined.
In any case I do not believe that Sen's vision of an admixed multiculturalism is multiculturalism at all, I believe that he is slyly aligning himself with the Enlightenment Project, which fundamentally does stand for something aside from group autonomy. A cultural melange where ideas and fashions float freely in the soup of individual choice must be mediated by common standards and norms. A plural monocultural vision allows group identities and the leaders of these groups to arbitrate cultural evolution, but a unitary multiculturalist vision, where more peculiar admixtures (eg, half-black Jewish Buddhist) arise is simply too chaotic to be managed by a decentralized oligarchy, rather a central state with a monopoly of core values must organize the flux. From a purely utilitarian perspective Sen's vision is not necessarily optimal. If a democratic vote was taken within Muslim communities in Europe they might very well prefer to exist as self-organized and self-ruled millets within the superstructure of European-nation state. In other words, they would be in the nations, as opposed to of the nations. Regardless of what some progressives say and what their ultimate intent is in agreeing toward the crystallization of a Muslim "ethnicity," that is certainly one step toward this process because of the more immutable nature of ethnicity. Where does that leave people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Definitely in a difficult place. Though Sen is not from a Muslim background, he is a Bengali, and his allusion to the situation of Bangladeshis, with whom he shares ethnicity in a fashion (no matter the current tendency to conflate ethnicity with religion by the administrative and cultural elites), indicates to me that he is not comfortable with the possibility of his own identity being boxed in from the outside via collusion between well meaning politicians and intellectuals and rising ethnic rights activists who have their own specific vision. In the short term part of the multiculturalist debate must come down to whether the quality of life of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali is valued equally with someone whose lifestyle is at more radical variance with the Western norm. If you play it by the numbers the latter camp are certainly more numerous than Ali,2 and their rights in the face of censure and criticism from the majority culture should be safeguarded. Myself, though I tend to accept equality before the law, I do not accept impartiality in my heart, and people like Ali are thousands of times more valuable to the maintenance of the Western tradition than those who would temporize about the value of the Enlightenment or waver in their adherence to their nation of residence as opposed to a vague and utopian transnational civilization.
Update: The Guardian has an interview/profile of Sen up. It confirms many of my conjectures above on Sen's personal perspective shaping how he views the multicultural issue. For the record, one reason I support reduced levels of immigration for any country is because it allows the emulsifying power of human social interactions to work. In contrast, a mass volkswanderung simply alters the spatial relation of preexistent cultures.
1 - The flight of Hindus continues in Bangladesh, many who now live in India have deputized Muslim neighbors to watch over their properties and on paper remain residents of Bangladesh (they would forfeit their assets if they were no longer residents of the country).
2 - Actually, I suspect more accurately, more vocal and organized.