A Letter On the Difference Between Culture, and Multiculturalism

Some time ago, I wrote what follows to a friend and Professor of French Literature at York University who, like me, was struggling with the term “multiculturalism.”

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Thank you so much for the nice lunch and the convivial conversation. I have missed that, living, as I do out in the country. I have reflected on the slogan on your new book (in my loose translation of your French), which you float under the label “transculturalism.”

Peace is the genuine meeting with the Other, it is the total acceptance of difference.”

It is a moving dedication to some of the best impulses of the human spirit – to neighbourliness. But I respectfully disagree with this sentiment, and to its “multicultural”  implications.

First, there is hardly anyone I know as pro-culturalist as me. And deeply so. I feel that there are aspects of culture that go so deep we are never actually fully conscious of them, or of their effects in our personal lives, or of their real-world effects on our evolving history, the nature of our particular civil society, and on our way of thinking as a whole.

The official government “multiculturalism” policy that I oppose, however, is something else entirely. It is a fabrication of governments that are attempting to quell intra-cultural tensions by dissolving all deep cultural affiliation, and appealing instead to a shallow, T-shirt conception of culture as something you can put on, or discard, at will.

In other words, official multiculturalism is a concept that dilutes true culture, which, if it is a real culture, must have real-life philosophical, economic, and political consequences. And it attempts to replace or rather, to dislodge that reality with a kind of sentimental cultural tourism. You know: exotic food and travel, dabbling in foreign languages, admiring all other races as beautiful and fascinating people, etc.  But going no deeper. This skimpy notion, however, has little to do with any real, deep culture that has, and as I say, must have, real world consequences. It is just recreational, skin-deep culture.

One effect that government multicultural policy has had in the Western democracies – and a dangerous one, I believe – is a leveling of all deep cultures, as if, in historical, political, or economic terms, all cultures were equally valuable – which is what your slogan suggests. The aim all the modern Western states is to slowly convert all deep cultures into equally ineffectual skin-deep cultures.

That is why I must modify your slogan, above, to read as follows”

“Peace is understanding the Other, and  the acceptance of differences that do not threaten or diminish the strength and value of one’s own deep culture.

Here are just a few reasons why this is a better slogan …

For example, I do not accept that socialist culture, as practiced or theorized anywhere or at any time in history is equivalent morally, politically, or economically to the cultures that have produced political freedom, and free-markets, and that protect the historical rights of individuals to own real property, to freely create and exchange whatever goods they may have, and much more.

I also believe that those of us who are presently enjoying the fruits of the Western world – its wonderful universities, libraries, hospitals, unparalleled great music, arts, literatures, and great charitable institutions, are living off the “moral surplus” of these things as the gifts of our ancestors. These are all resolutely unique and specific cultural gifts, and not multicultural ones, and we are failing to nourish and restore them.

Not to put too fine a point on the argument, but there is actually no such thing as a multicultural culture; and therefore multiculturalism can produce no gifts. It can only diminish the value and importance of real cultural gifts, replacing them in the process with a kind of international cultural amnesia. And that is what it is slowly doing.

But most other cultures have simply never developed social, political, moral, legal, or historical institutions as significant as ours, and in some cases – for cultural reasons of their own, or for manifestly ideological or theological reasons – have rejected them in principle.  Islam, for example, rejects entirely the notion that the good and the true can be determined by democratic voting.  For them, only God determines the truth, not “the people”. So, for them, the  long-standing Western notion, heard as far back as the 15th century of Vox Populi, Vox Dei : “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” is simply false, and possibly a blasphemy. People from such a culture can never fully accept a democratic way of life, because their underlying assumptions and our own as to how truth may be discovered, are fundamentally opposed,

Obviously, many feel as I do, and that is why many Third World nations are crawling with Western professionals and NGOs trying to teach them how to do what we have done for ourselves. It is also why so many millions of foreigners want to come to the West – even if it means crashing our borders!

For this reason, I accept the loving nature of your saying wholeheartedly in the proper cultural sense of our need to embrace all people as human beings. But its core sentiment should not mean trying to convince ourselves that all differences are equal: that socialism, say, is as good as freedom, or that an oligarchy or a dictatorship is as good as a parliamentary system, or that Beethoven’s great work is just a German variation on Indian drumming.

Alas, if you ask any young Canadian today to explain the importance of Magna Carta, or to explain our British inheritance of parliamentary democracy, they will likely stumble. This is true, even with the stirring (but little known) example of one of our own Founders – the French-Canadian Etienne Taché – who was so fond of the British system, as compared to the chaos of all the French systems of government he had witnessed, that in 1867, the year of Canada’s founding, he swore that “The last cannon which is shot on this continent in defence of Great Britain, will be fired by the hand of a French Canadian!” In other words, as a Frenchman, he publicly recognized and conceded the superiority of the British system of government, and proudly said so out loud. There was a difference that implied he superiority of one system over another.

At any rate, that is why I resist the term “multicultural”. Real, deep culture must be defended, and the skin-deep substitute promoted under international policies of multiculturalism, in the sense I have outlined, resisted.

I know all this goes against the orthodoxy these days, and I hope I have not bored you with it.

I look forward to seeing you again.

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