Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

What Happens to Truth in an Age of Delusion (Part 11)

Multiculturalism, the Road to Nowhere

April 16, 2014

Depending on stereotype, ensuring that ethnic groups will preserve their distinctiveness in a gentle and insidious form of apartheid, multiculturalism has done little more than lead an already divided country down the path to further social divisiveness.(Neil Bissoondath, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994, 2002, pp.82-83).

Among the many irrational ideas about racial and ethnic groups that have polarized societies over the centuries and around the world, few have been more irrational and counterproductive than the current dogma of multiculturalism. (Thomas Sowell, National Review Online, March 15, 2013.)

Canada is supposed to be the shining example of harmoniously merging a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious communities into a peaceful and unified nation. We pride ourselves on being so much superior to the American melting pot by fashioning a much more vibrant and colourful mosaic.

Here is John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail (February 6, 2004), gushing about the Aga Khan Foundation’s interest in establishing a global centre for pluralism in Ottawa. He writes:

[G]overnments around the world increasingly look to Canada as the world’s most successful pluralist state. We have found a way, despite many strains, of accommodating the founding French and English cultures, and have welcomed succeeding waves of European, Asian, Hispanic and African immigrants. Unlike the rest of the world, the more polyglot Canada gets, the more politically and culturally stable it becomes.

But reality is not quite that simple. To be sure, Canada has always been a country of immigrants. Most of us trace our roots back to other parts of the world. For some of us that requires a couple of centuries of backtracking. For many of us, the tracks from our countries of birth are still fresh.

After World War II a flood of immigrants began arriving in Canada. (My family was part of that flow.) How to accommodate this large number of people who increasingly came from non-Western countries? At the same time English-French tensions called for a fresh approach. Hence the appointment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, which published its voluminous report in 1969.

A New Definition

While its main focus was on the special status of Quebec within Canada, this Royal Commission went much further by proclaiming Canada to be a nation of not just two but many cultures. It did not take long before the concept of cultural pluralism, or multiculturalism, was elevated to the defining characteristic of Canada. And that’s how a process was put into motion that has left many people scratching their heads – or should have.

Not surprisingly, this outcome did not please the Quebecois, since they would prefer to keep the limelight on just the two founding cultures. But then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau became an enthusiastic booster of the newly discovered insight. (Could it be that this wily enemy of Quebec nationalism knew that multiculturalism would help dilute the special status of Quebec in Canada?)

On October 8, 1971, the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that the Liberal government had accepted all the recommendations contained in Volume IV of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. He explained:

A policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians. Such a policy should help break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies. National unity if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense, must be founded on confidence in one’s own individual identity…. A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all.

On the same day, the government adopted a statement of policy, “Appendix to Hansard,” that amounted to an unqualified endorsement of the Prime Minister’s comments. It noted that cultural diversity is to be treasured in contrast to what it called “assimilation programs forcing our citizens to forsake and forget the cultures they have brought to us.”

The government further assured us that Canadian identity will not be undermined by multiculturalism. It declared that “cultural pluralism is the very essence of Canadian identity….To say we have two official languages is not to say that we have two official cultures, and no particular culture is more ‘official’ than the other. A policy of multiculturalism must be a policy for all Canadians.”

In 1973 the Ministry of Multiculturalism was established. In 1982 the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was amended to say that it must be interpreted to enhance “the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”

In 1988 the Canadian Multiculturalism Act became law, proclaiming that the policy of the government of Canada is to recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society… [and that] multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future.” (CMA 3(1) a, b)

Much has changed since the 1960s. The old Canada with its strong Anglo-Saxon and broadly Judeo-Christian stamp has made way for a much more diverse population. How have the newfangled, “pluralist” policies worked out in practice? What has been gained – or lost? How do we truly evaluate the outcome of policies that are now more than four decades old?

We should all be able to agree that Canada’s welcoming and open policies to its new arrivals is admirable. The generosity and goodwill that exists among neighbours of different races, nationalities and religions is something to be treasured and safeguarded, which is the responsibility of every one of us. If this is what multiculturalism is all about, we should all be wholehearted supporters.

A New Dogma

But much more is implied in the kind of multiculturalism that has been declared to be the defining characteristic of Canada. As applied in Canada, this policy assumes the status of a sacred dogma that brooks no disagreement. And therein lies the problem.

One may dislike my use of dogma, because it has unfavorable connotations to be called dogmatic. But the language of the policies and legislation is loaded with words which suggest that issues of fundamental meaning and substance are at stake here. Though the term culture can mean different things, the language used throughout indicates that culture does not only refer to the arts, different customs, cuisine, social conventions, and other outward expressions. In fact, it refers to something much more fundamental, that is, a whole way of life and a way of being a nation. The absolutist-sounding language leaves little room for a different conclusion.

Multiculturalism is said to assure our cultural freedom, enhance our confidence in our own identity, help break down discriminatory attitudes, and so contribute “to a richer life for us all,” and so on. This is the language of the true believers.

Four Objections

I see at least four weighty problems with the assumptions and implications of multiculturalism as applied in Canada.

One. It is driven by a typically modern, or even post-modern, belief that all cultures are of equal value. Therefore, no single culture is better than any other. For example, we cannot say that the largely “Judeo-Christian” Western democracies are superior to other cultures. To make such a claim is now seen as cultural imperialism that is responsible for the injustice and oppression of the past.

The ideology undergirding this cultural equivalence, or relativism, makes it impossible to speak of better or worse, right or wrong. The practical effect is that we are living in a moral wasteland where no abiding standard of truth and goodness may be applied.

Two. This means that we now tiptoe around all kinds of political and ethical pressure points and no longer call a spade a spade. We change definitions or, as the late American Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has famously said, we have “defined deviancy downward.”

For example, instead of using traditional concepts of justice, we now declare equality to be the uppermost principle. If people of certain national or racial backgrounds display particular tendencies to turn to a life of crime or family breakdown, we are forbidden to say anything about such facts. If we venture to break that taboo, we are quickly denounced as bigots and racists. That’s what happens when you declare all cultures to be the same. It dispenses with the ability to make moral judgments. The main intended result is of course that it enables us to escape responsibility – or so we think.

The outcome is a culture of hypocrisy and doubletalk – and cowardice. That’s why there is so little honest discussion about immigration and refugee policies in this country. The irony is that it is now considered a sign of sophistication and broadmindedness to deny all universal absolutes, whereas at the same time we are busy inventing our own brand of absolutes. We then declare ourselves to be progressive. Multiculturalism is one of such new absolutes.

Three. A further bitter irony is that multiculturalism as government policy has undermined the very integrity and substance of Canadian culture. Instead of insisting that newcomers become acquainted with Canadian history and institutions, we tell them that there is nothing distinctive or excellent about Canada.

Then secretary of state for multiculturalism, Sheila Finestone, stated on a CTV panel discussion on January 31, 1995, “In my view there isn’t any one Canadian identity. Canada has no national culture. “ She received a lot of flack from the public. But she was only restating what Prime Minister Trudeau had said in 1971: “[T]here is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.”

Four. As a few brave critics have explained, multiculturalism has not led to more harmony and understanding but to the further fragmenting of this divided country. Let’s take a closer look at what a few commentators have said about this topic.

The Emperor Without Clothes

Neil Bissoondath, Trinidad-born, of East Indian descent, Canadian playwright and novelist, will have none of the self-congratulation about Canada’s success in building a multiculturalist nation. His Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada is a blunt yet thoughtful reminder that, as he puts it, the emperor of multiculturalism has no clothes.

Bissoondath encountered not just criticism but vilification. He found that his East Indian and immigrant background gave him no immunity against the charge of being a bigot and racist. To question multiculturalism is to question what he calls “a holy cow.” But he is unrepentant and has plunged into the thick of the controversy that many do not want to touch.

His skill as a novelist is evident in the sensitive way he describes his own roots and the challenges faced by those who leave their homeland to start a new life for themselves in a strange country. But Bissoondath has little time for those who insist on retaining their loyalty to the country left behind rather than making Canada their true home.

He has little good to say about the celebration of ethnic diversity that amounts to no more than sentimental celebration of ethnic stereotypes. He argues that multiculturalism that wants to hang on to the ancestral homeland, with its insistence that There is more important then Here,” serves to encourage the

This divided loyalty has led some born in this country to return to take up arms on the side of the Croatians during the war in Kosovo. More recently many more Islam believers have joined the jihad in places where open warfare has broken out.

The other side of that coin is that old feuds in the homeland of immgrants have been introduced into Canada – sometimes with deadly results. The advocates of multiculturalism do not honestly face up to the fact that many ethnic communities and races harbor deadly animosities within themselves. They refuse to face up to that ugly truth because it would expose a fatal flaw in their grand design of nation building.

Ethical Chaos

Bissoondath argues that the elevation of diversity to public policy is empty without setting out some limits. But where to draw those limits when some immigrant communities (at least their spokespeople) argue that female circumcision is part of their culture? Or what about the demand to adjust criminal law enforcement in the case of wife or child abuse in certain communities; or the demand for exclusive black schools; or polygamy, and sharia law for Muslims?

The author writes that we do not know how to answer these questions “because we have so blithely accepted the mentality of division, we find ourselves lost in a confusion of values. Multiculturalism has made us fearful of defining acceptable boundaries…. And so we find ourselves in danger of accepting, in its name, a slide into ethical chaos” (p. 139).

Ironically, multiculturalism has been exploited to feed the sense of alienation in many ethnic communities – inevitably coupled to, what else, the notion of victimhood. We now must be careful to avoid giving any offence to minorities, especially visible ones. This kind of anti-discrimination fetish has flourished especially in the academy and among the literati. Entire books and plays that do not meet the new standards of race and gender sensitivity have been declared to be unacceptable.

A vicious fight has been going on against writers who, like Bissoondath, want simply to write honest stories. The new racist and sexist vigilantes now insist that only blacks can write about blacks, women about women, Africans about Africans, aboriginals about aboriginals. And so on. Here is a case in point, one of many that could be cited.

University of Toronto professor Jeanne Cannizzo, some years ago was driven from her position after she curated an exhibition called “Into the Heart of Africa” at the Royal Ontario Museum. Some black groups denounced her as a racist and picketed the ROM, plastered confetti on her house, disturbed her classroom lectures, and threatened her with physical harm. She withdrew from teaching and left the country (p.152).

Where were the university leaders, her colleagues, the “human rights” champions, and for that matter the police, standing up for academic freedom, even the basic freedom from criminal attacks?

Bissoondath responded to an essay by Susan Crean who attempted to justify professor Cannizzo’s attackers. He wrote that the Crean article ”in the end, reveals the confusion often found in white left-liberal circles: not the exercise of intellect but the abdication of it, not exploration of ideas but conversation in a confessional.”

The vaunted tolerance has made way for hateful intolerance, and Bissoondath has had his share of the slings and arrows for his breach of the new orthodoxy. But he is unbowed. He says: “Any attempt to padlock the mind is a question of fundamental liberty. Any limitation of subject matter or point of view,… represents for us all a severe restriction on the free play of the imagination.”

You need not agree, as I do not, with everything in this book to find this a refreshing change from the doublespeak that appears to be endemic to the subject of multiculturalism. The bitter irony, which Bissoondath has the temerity to point out, is that the much-hyped multiculturalism in our country does not deliver what it promises..

The road toward a more healthy and vigorous nationhood begins with an acknowledgement of the truth about multiculturalism. That road is difficultt and treacherous. But Selling illusions is full of suggestions to make a start at least with the first steps on that road.

Mosaic Madness

Sociologist and professor at the University of Lethbridge, Reginald Bibby has joined the discussion about Canada’s dilemma in attempting to be all things to all people. His study of life in Canada published in 1990 bears the revealing title Mosaic Madness: The poverty and Potential of Life in Canada.

He is of the opinion that multiculturalism is really a form of relativism that puts a common basis for nation building out of reach. He writes that we want to be so open-minded (pluralistic) that we are not very loyal to anything except to a rather “tenuous willingness to coexist.”

The problem, says Bibby, is that in this country pluralism means that if someone dares to advocate a position on the basis of an ethical, moral, or religious principle - for example, on premarital sex, marriage structure, or homosexuality - such a person is typically considered narrow-minded -- if not a threat to the public well-being, I might add.

Bibby thinks that religion, which after all is concerned with what is true, should help us find a way of living together within one nation. But relativism means that truth is understood to mean something that is true for one person may not be true for another. And this is exactly the tar pit of modernity that lands us into what Bibby calls a “visionless existence.”

He describes religion in Canada as not very aggressive nor is it expected to be very demanding. Most Canadians have no strong convictions about religion, which at best has only a marginal place in their lives.

Bibby’s study of religion and its impact on society in Canada has caused him to believe that religion in Canada lacks authority and has therefore lost the ability to make a contribution to the creation of social cohesion. He concludes: “Sadly, religion, rather than decrying the excesses of individualism and relativism, has tended to embrace them. It therefore has lost both its message and its vocal chords.”

Conclusion

Selling Illusions is intense, bold, detailed with some helpful suggestions. Bissoondath takes on the advocates of multiculturalism right on their home turf - and has the scars to prove it.

Mosaic Madness does not go much beyond some well-meaning admonitions to keep on striving to do better. Bibby concludes that there is still much hope that “madness can yet give way to sanity.”

I am not so sure. One thing is certain: Christians who want to take their confession seriously and want to take part in the public discussion about the very foundation of our nation need to do their homework. The two books mentioned here, though quite different in tone, provide compelling proof of the urgency of that assignment.

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