The End of Multiculturalism

January 2, 2008 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Multiculturalism

The End of Multiculturalism

Mini Teaser: From its Iraq policy to immigration, the Bush Administration fell victim to multicultural thinking. Until policymakers take culture seriously, we'll continue to make mistakes.

by Author(s): Lawrence E. Harrison


FUTURE GENERATIONS may look back on Iraq and immigration as the two great disasters of the Bush presidency. Ironically, for a conservative administration, both of these policy initiatives were rooted in a multicultural view of the world.

Since the 1960s, multiculturalism, the idea that all cultures are essentially equal, has become a dominant feature of the political and intellectual landscape of the West. It has profoundly influenced Iraq War policy, the policy of democracy promotion, international development agendas and immigration policy, with consequences for the cultural composition of societies.

But multiculturalism rests on a frail foundation: Cultural relativism, the notion that no culture is better or worse than any other-it is merely different. That's doubtlessly good advice for cultural anthropologists doing ethnographic studies in the field. If one's goal is full understanding of a value system quite different from one's own, ethnocentrism can seriously distort the quest and the conclusions. But what if the objective is to assess the extent to which a culture nurtures values, attitudes and beliefs that facilitate progress toward democratic governance, social justice and an end to poverty, the goals of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The idea that some cultures are more nurturing than others of progress thus defined-and that this assumption can be measured and assessed-challenges the very essence of cultural relativism.

The idea also has major implications for a variety of domestic and foreign policies, from the ability of a country to absorb large numbers of new immigrants to the ease with which one expects to export democracy and free-market systems. Why, for example, have free-market economic reforms worked well in India yet poorly in Latin America (Chile excepted), where socialism, even authoritarian socialism in the case of Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, appears to be alive and well?

Cultural factors do not wholly explain political, economic, and social success or failure, but surely they are relevant-as more than two decades of research, some of it published in the pages of this magazine, has demonstrated.1 Yet many policymakers are uncomfortable addressing cultural differences, even when there is clear evidence that culture matters.


Multiculturalism and Foreign Policy

IF CULTURE matters, then, by influencing the degree of receptivity of a society to democracy and free-market institutions and the degree to which the society is just and produces and encourages entrepreneurs, what are the implications for a foreign policy, a fundament of which is the doctrine that "These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society?"-this implies that any culture in the world is capable of sustaining a functioning democracy. The Bush Administration has staked huge human, financial, diplomatic and prestige resources on the doctrine's applicability in Iraq. It is now apparent that the doctrine is fallacious.

What were the chances of consolidating democracy-not just elections, but also the full array of political rights and civil liberties-in Iraq, an Arab country with no real experience with democracy and with two conflict-prone Islamic sects, Sunni and Shi‘a, and an ethnolinguistic group, the Kurds, seeking autonomy? And why did people think that this would ignite a "democracy wave" that would sweep through the region, when many of the preconditions associated with a successful transition to democracy-including societal openness and literacy, particularly female literacy-were lacking? The accompanying table (next page), based on information gathered by Freedom House and the 2004 UN Human Development Report, makes this particularly apparent.

The Arab world is not fertile soil for the rapid cultivation of democracy.

A key component of a successful democratic transition is trust. Trust is a particularly important cultural factor for social justice and prosperity. Trust in others reduces the cost of economic transactions, and democratic stability depends on it.

Trust is periodically measured in some eighty countries by the World Values Survey. Four Nordic countries-Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland-enjoy very high levels of trust: 58-67 percent of respondents in these countries believe that most people can be trusted. By contrast, 12 percent of respondents in Zimbabwe and South Africa, 11 percent in Algeria, 8 percent in Tanzania and Uganda, and 3 percent of Brazilians believe that most people can be trusted. There are no survey data for Iraq, but the data from the other Middle Eastern states are not particularly encouraging.

The high levels of identification and trust in Nordic societies reflect their homogeneity; common Lutheran antecedents, including a rigorous ethical code and heavy emphasis on education; and a consequent sense of the nation as one big family imbued with the Golden Rule. In sharp contrast, Cameroon's Daniel Etounga-Manguelle points to some of the cultural factors that help explain the low levels of trust in Africa and the propensity of the region for corruption and strife: fatalism, authoritarianism and a communitarianism that suffocates both individual initiative and economic rationality. One can point to many of the same factors in Iraq-to which the current ethno-sectarian conflicts vividly attest.


If nothing else, the Iraq adventure demonstrates the enormous risks that attend a foreign policy predicated on President Bush's view, expressed when he met Indonesian President Yudhoyono in November 2006, that "freedom is universal and democracy is universal." But it also underscores the need to appreciate the role culture plays in all aspects of foreign affairs-and the cultural competence necessary in all foreign-affairs agencies, including the Department of Defense.


Multiculturalism and International Development

ANOTHER AREA where the sway of multiculturalism is apparent is international development. Development of poor countries in all its dimensions-political, social and economic-has been a priority goal of the advanced democracies, motivated by both pragmatic (e.g., reduced international strife, increased trade, reduced illegal immigration) and humanitarian motives.

But most development-assistance institutions have thus far failed to address cultural obstacles to progress and the need for cultural change. Their avoidance of culture is in part attributable to culture-blind economists-and anthropologists and other social scientists committed to cultural relativism-who have dominated policy. The four UN Development Program Arab Human Development Reports are courageous exceptions.

Cultural relativism fits very nicely with, and reinforces, the predilection of many economists to assume "that people are the same everywhere and will respond to the right economic opportunities and incentives"-a point made by former World Bank economist William Easterly when he reviewed my book Who Prospers?2 How, then, would Easterly explain why, in multicultural countries where the economic opportunities and incentives are available to all, some ethnic or religious minorities do much better than majority populations. This has been true, for example, of any place the Chinese have migrated, from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand-all the way to the United States and Canada.

Or what about differences that emerge between countries in the same region of the world, with similar geographical attributes and populations of the same general ethnic stock? Haiti is the poorest, least literate, most misgoverned, most corrupt country in the Western Hemisphere, substantial aid from the United States, Canada, the World Bank, and other bilateral and multilateral donors notwithstanding. The dominant belief system, Voodoo, is based on sorcery: Hundreds of spirits, very human and capricious, control human destinies. The only way to gain leverage over what happens in one's life is to propitiate them through the ceremonial intervention of the Voodoo priests and priestesses. What you do, whether you live your life ethically, is irrelevant to the spirits; what matters only is that they be, in essence, "bribed." Voodoo is thus a major contributor to the high levels of mistrust, paranoia, sense of helplessness and despair noted in the anthropological literature about Haiti.

Voodoo's roots are in the Dahomey region of West Africa, whence came most of the slaves the French imported into "Saint Domingue", Haiti's colonial predecessor. Dahomey is today the country of Benin, where the indicators of income, child malnutrition, child mortality, life expectancy and literacy are strikingly similar to those for Haiti. But we see a far different picture when we examine Barbados, another Caribbean island that, like Haiti, was populated largely by slaves from Dahomey. Barbados was shaped by British values and institutions-it was a British colony until 1966; Haiti won its independence from France in 1804. Barbadians are sometimes referred to as "Afro-Saxons" or "Black Englishmen." Barbados is a prosperous democracy, number thirty on the 2005 UN Human Development Index, ahead of the Czech Republic, Argentina, Poland and Chile. It is approaching First World status.

These divergent outcomes are not accidents. Culture does matter. Race doesn't.

To be sure, the World Bank, USAID and other development institutions have been employing anthropologists at least since the 1970s. But, consistent with cultural relativism, their role has been to assure that projects adequately address culture as it exists, not to facilitate change. Symptomatic of the multiculturalist environment at the World Bank was an encounter I had after having made a presentation on culture at a World Bank Poverty Reduction Conference a few years ago. (I assume that I had been invited to speak because of the popularity of Culture Matters?3 at the World Bank bookstore. I had had several prior contacts with the bank that had sensitized me to the institutional hostility to anything that challenged cultural relativism.) During the question-and-comment period, an African employee of the World Bank said, with some fire in her eyes, "I thought we had put ‘blaming the victim' explanations behind us long ago."

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