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

The considerable intelligence, creativity and dedication of development professionals over the past half-century have not succeeded in transforming the large majority of poor, unjust, authoritarian societies. Where transformations have occurred, they usually either have been nurtured by cultures that contain progress-prone elements (e.g., the Confucian societies of East Asia) or have been cases where cultural change has been central to the transformation (e.g., Spain, Ireland or Quebec).

I want to stress that the Culture Matters paradigm does not present democracy and progress as being the exclusive preserve of particular nations. Even the West had to undergo a period of cultural transformation to discard the progress-resistant elements in its own culture. That transformation is still far from complete in some parts of "the West."4

The Iraq adventure has powerfully reinforced the lesson that cultural change must be led from within a society. A critical mass of native political, intellectual and religious leaders who recognize that some aspects of the traditional culture present obstacles to popular aspirations for a better life is indispensable. Efforts to encourage change from the outside are likely to be resented, resisted and labeled "cultural imperialism."

Cultural change is not easy, and the culture paradigm is not a magic wand. But adding cultural change to the array of other development-assistance tools should, in the long run, significantly accelerate the rate of progress in those countries that choose to take the paradigm seriously.


A Matter of Migration

WE OFTEN see these issues as only affecting other countries and only U.S. interests overseas. But what happens when we ponder the domestic implications? One issue largely overlooked in recent debates over immigration is the impact when an unprecedented number of people from "low-trust" cultures immigrate to the United States.

In 1990, 52 percent of Americans and a like percentage of Canadians believed that most people could be trusted. In 2000, the proportion of trusting Americans had dropped to 36 percent; of trusting Canadians, to 39 percent.

While there are doubtlessly many factors contributing to this troubling slide, multiculturalism may well be one of them. This is apparent in two senses: First, immigrants from areas like Africa and Latin America bring their native cultures' mistrust with them, and, second, the presence of significant numbers of "strangers"-people who may speak a foreign language, dress differently, behave differently-may leave people in the mainstream doubtful of their trustworthiness. Both undermine "social capital"-"a high level of trust and tolerance, an egalitarian spirit, volunteerism, an interest in keeping informed, and participation in public affairs."5 This point was recently made by Robert Putnam, one of the architects of the concept of social capital. It provoked a strongly negative reaction from multiculturalists.6

Canada's commitment to multiculturalism was initially driven by the birth of the country as a bicultural society. Biculturalism has been costly, and not just in the burdens that bilingualism imposes on any society. Until recent decades, for example, Quebec was far behind Anglophone Canada with respect to per capita income, education and industrialization. This gap bred resentment and led to claims of exploitation. The gap closed substantially after Quebec's "Silent Revolution" of the 1960s, which sharply reduced the influence of the Catholic Church. Yet, ironically, as the Anglophone and "post-Catholic" Francophone cultures converged, a large Québécois separatist movement emerged.

Quebec's history demonstrates a huge potential risk of multiculturalism-a divided society. Had British Governor Guy Carleton in 1774 chosen to push English and acculturation to British values and institutions on Quebec rather than enable perpetuation of the French language and culture, relationships between the two Canadas would surely have been difficult for a generation or two. But today, Canada would probably be a more unified nation.

So, should Canada's experience be emulated as a model for how the United States should cope with a growing Hispanic population? Hispanics now form the largest U.S. minority, approaching 15 percent-about 45 million-of a total population of about 300 million and are projected by the Census Bureau to constitute about 25 percent-more than one hundred million-of a total population of 420 million in 2050. Their experience in the United States recapitulates Latin America's culturally shaped underdevelopment. For example, the Hispanic high school dropout rate in the United States is alarmingly high and persistent-about 20 percent in second and subsequent generations. It is, of course, a good deal higher in Latin America, where popular education has had much lower priority than in the United States and Canada.7

Samuel Huntington was on the mark when he wrote in his latest book Who Are We?: "Would America be the America it is today if it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil."8 The Mexican Nobelist Octavo Paz had a similar view of the two Americas:

One, English speaking, is the daughter of the tradition that has founded the modern world: the Reformation, with its social and political consequences, democracy and capitalism. The other, Spanish and Portuguese speaking, is the daughter of the universal Catholic monarchy and the Counter-Reformation.9

In The Americano Dream, Mexican-American Lionel Sosa argues that the value system that has retarded progress in Latin America is an impediment to the upward mobility of Latin American immigrants in the United States. So does former U.S. Congressman Herman Badillo, a Puerto Rican whose book One Nation, One Standard is both an indictment of Latino undervaluing of education and a call for cultural change.

The progress of Hispanic immigrants, not to mention harmony in the broader society, depends, then, on their acculturation to the values of that broader society. Efforts-for example, long-term bilingual education-to perpetuate "old country" values in a multicultural salad bowl undermine acculturation to the mainstream-and upward mobility-and are likely to result in continuing underachievement, poverty, resentment and divisiveness. So too does the willy-nilly emergence of bilingualism in the United States-no language in our history has ever before competed with English to the point where one daily hears commercial enterprises responding to telephone calls with, "If you want to speak in English, press one; Si quiere hablar en español, oprima el botón número dos."

Because language is the conduit of culture, the perpetuation of Spanish as a second national language of the United States implies the perpetuation of Latino culture. There is no word for "compromise" in Spanish, nor is there a Spanish word that captures the full meaning of the English word "dissent." A prominent Nicaraguan educator with a Harvard Ph.D. once told me that for Latin Americans, "dissent" (disenso, disensión) is close to "heresy"-something that has been noted with respect to other languages, such as Russian. Moreover, as the Costa Rican psychiatrist Luis Diego Herrera points out in his essay in Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change, many Spanish verb forms are passive reflexive (e.g., "It fell" rather than "I dropped it." "It got broken" rather than "I broke it."), a verbal structure that may nurture a lack of a sense of accountability.

But while there is much to be concerned about with respect to immigrants from Mexico, and Latin America more generally, this is not true of all immigrants. The experience of immigrants from China, Korea and Japan contrasts strikingly with that of Latino immigrants. The Asians' rapid upward mobility is evidenced by their vastly disproportionate numbers at our most prestigious universities. Making up about 5 percent of the U.S. population, Asians constitute 41 percent of undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley, 27 percent at MIT, 24 percent at Stanford and 18 percent at Harvard. The success of Asian-Americans reminds us of the east Asian "miracles"-initially economic, but now also, in several cases, political. East Asian immigrants have found it easier to adapt in part because they are influenced by traditional Confucian culture, which, like Jewish culture (Jews may be even more disproportionately represented in elite universities), shares some central values with America's dominant Anglo-Protestant culture. Both cultures emphasize "progress-prone" values, such as education, the belief that a person can influence his destiny, wealth is the product of individual creativity and advancement should be based on merit.10

Among other elements of U.S. Anglo-Protestant culture relevant to success are the rule of law; fair play; individual rights; limits on governmental authority; a blend of individualism and sense of community; freedom, including freedom of religion; and an ethical code that breeds trust. These values are substantially shared by other countries of the Euro-Atlantic and east Asian communities; but this is emphatically not so in the case of the Islamic world, Africa and Latin America.

So far, the immigration debate in the United States has been framed largely in economic terms (although border security and environmental concerns are also clearly in play)-producing some odd pro-immigration bedfellows, such as the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Most policymakers have sparred over the questions of whether the U.S. economy needs more unskilled immigrants, whether immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens, to what extent immigrants are responsible for draining resources (e.g., with respect to education and health expenses), and whether or not population growth, importantly driven by immigration, is necessary for a healthy economy.

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