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The British Deputy Prime Minister and coalition minority leader Nick Clegg has had a tough year. Like many advocates of his party, the Liberal Democrats, he probably thought that their new found popularity—popularity that gained them a seat at the government’s table, although not the head seat, for the first time since they were established—would cement the party’s status as a serious rival to its two main opponents. The coalition, with the Conservative majority that replaced the outgoing Labour administration, promised a new era of compromise after years of bitter partisanship and a check on potential Tory extremes. What transpired, for the Liberal Democrats at least, was an abysmal failure.
On top of a recent failed attempt at voting reform, they have proven themselves cowards, repeatedly turned back on pre-election promises. The most notable betrayal—and this is the only appropriate description—was Clegg’s defense of the Conservatives’ destruction of the higher education system. Having once proclaimed his unwavering opposition to increasing tuition fees, Clegg performed a staggering U-turn. He not only defended the decision to allow fees to triple and to execute savage reduction in government funding to universities, he practically forced dissenting members of his party to comply or abstain. A party that was committed to social liberalism has repeatedly gone along with Tory cutbacks, and because we expect the Conservatives to attack social welfare—even Conservatives that have done their best to appear progressive—the Liberal Democrats have borne the resulting wrath. In a stroke of either political genius or outrageous fortune, the Tories have been able to do what they wanted with a ready-made scapegoat to take the flack. Along with the future of the country’s once great university system, the Liberal Democrats’ newfound support, which included most students, has evaporated. In an attempt to hold back the seas of change, Clegg recently announced a new approach: a louder voice in the coalition, or, in his words, a more “muscular liberalism.”
But this phrase—an equally misleading piece of jargon as the current Tory buzzword “Big Society”—was actually borrowed from the coalition’s most senior beneficiary, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, in a speech given back in February. In it, Cameron announced “state multiculturalism has failed.” It was because of the passivity of multiculturalism that immigrants had failed to integrate and turned to extremism. The speech, ostensibly about national security, garnered justified criticism from Labor party opposition and the Muslim council of Britain. Otherwise, it largely crept under the news radar, especially the international one.
What received barely any comment at all was where the speech was given: Germany. The location is significant because that country’s leader, Angela Merkel, gave a similar speech—almost word for word in places—in November. The only significant difference was Merkel’s slightly more hyperbolic judgment of “utter” failure. In the light of its predecessor, Cameron’s speech becomes part policy, part diplomatic pandering; and both intentions are disturbing. Heralding a shift in government practice at home, he officially legitimizes suspicion, ignorance and even hostility towards people that seem different to any British citizens who take his words to heart. But this is not just domestic; while what he says is supposedly “drawn from British experience,” Cameron believes “there are general lessons for us all.” By invoking Merkel’s words in her country, he attempts to found a pan-European community on this new outlook. It seems intolerance in not just crossing national boundaries; it’s getting its passport stamped on the way.
In fairness to Cameron and Merkel, multiculturalism has always seemed a somewhat vague ideology at best. When vaunted, it is seldom accompanied with any explanation of how it is to be implemented in terms of social policy. Perhaps the best application I have yet heard is Will Kylicka’s argument for group-differentiated rights: a scheme that accounts for the different needs of different cultures when social policy is created and enacted. But this is more an ideal than reality. Moreover, as a friend pointed out recently, multiculturalism, like conservative claims of “colorblindness,” often undermine legitimate claims made by marginalized groups. Assumptions that we are multicultural—as common in England as anywhere in the United States—frequently weaken the impetus to locate and ameliorate structural inequalities. The emptiness of the term “multiculturalism” only reinforces the pattern.
But for all the systemic discrimination it obscures, it is the lesser of two evils. Because although multiculturalism disguises structural inequalities, it is at least a bulwark against overt prejudice and racist violence. I would never suggest that toleration of covert or institutional racism is justified if its more obvious, public counterpart is not present; structural racism should make us uncomfortable as blatant racism does. But I do not buy the argument that candid or violent expressions of racism fit the cliché of “better the devil you know.” It is not a relative absence of this explicit form (if such an absence even exists) that masks institutional inequalities, it is rather the belief that problems have been fixed, and the refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, that does. We can blame multiculturalism for many things, but until a better, more specific policy is posited, removing it will likely add an increase in overt prejudice to its more subtle manifestations.
Cameron isn’t offering a better solution. He hardly explains how policy should reflect his pronouncements at all. Instead, he seems to be talking more in terms of a mentality. For all multiculturalism’s lack of clarity in this regard, despite what Cameron might say, it has some value. Even if it cannot tell us in practical detail how to ensure different cultures can coexist, it supports, or should support, the intellectual attempt to find out. Which is why Cameron’s and Merkel’s seemingly shared decision to write its obituary is truly alarming. With the pronouncement of its failure—measured by an assumed reluctance of some immigrants (read: non-whites) to assimilate—the official impetus for social and cultural tolerance is halted in its tracks. While social practices at a structural level in either country have never resembled committed multiculturalism—if by that we mean equality and defense of marginalized groups—the statements of these two world leaders make its eventual achievement that much more unlikely. It is no longer a social aim, let alone a reality.
What is the alternative? It’s that phrase again: “Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.” “We must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home,” Cameron tells us. Multiculturalism is dead. Long live… “muscular liberalism”? With phrases like this and “stronger identities,” he leaves “multiculturalism” miles behind in the vagueness race. He makes a half-hearted—or should it be half-baked?—attempt to clarify:
A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.
Here come the contradictions: if obeying the law is no longer enough to justify membership of the British polity, why then insist that to attain British identity these groups follow the “the rule of law”? If this new policy is meant as a solution to the dangers of terrorism, why is law even being mentioned? Terrorism is by definition illegal. Arguing that that the government should prosecute illegal action is not just circular, it’s not even a departure from earlier practice. Moreover, when he champions “freedom of speech, freedom of rights” and “equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality,” aren’t these ideas already entailed in even the vaguest definitions of multiculturalism? They are there as rhetoric, if not as policy. At best then, Cameron’s solution is useless.
At worst it is exclusionary. Before talk of free speech and equality raises hopes that multiculturalism is not being undermined, that phrase “stronger identities” warrants unpacking. Because although Cameron fails to clarify what he means, the idea of a strong national identity is clearly separated, in his mind at least, from multiculturalism. So rather than an inclusive identity based on tolerance of difference, Cameron sees strength in an exclusive identity that demands not integration but assimilation. If the former is fraught with vagueness, the latter is an ultimatum: conform or perish. The national identity to which he refers is only a Conservative ideal. Cameron does make clear that “the ideology of extremism is the problem; Islam emphatically is not.” But in a speech about extremism, he only discusses the Islamic manifestation. The rise in popularity of right-wing extremism in the form of the British National Party and English Defense League is tacitly ignored. For all his protestations, Cameron’s lopsided definition associates Islam, and Islam only, with extremism. Whatever his intention, Muslims are distanced from what it officially means to be British. This separation is made all the more apparent by the decision to give the speech on the same day as an English Defense League rally. While there is a qualitative difference between them and Conservatives, the EDL would likely approve of such a stronger national identity.
Cameron’s argument relies on a conflation of multiculturalism with weakness. It’s ironic that in the political current climate, a climate that he and Clegg are helping to cultivate, multiculturalism is equated with passivity. Because the best potential of multiculturalism—the commitment to defend the marginalized rather than the assumption that we are already multicultural—is in need of a vigorous defense itself. Racialized anti-immigrant and/or Islamaphobic fervor is on the rise in Europe, from Germany, to France (see recent persecution of Muslim women), to Sweden (from shootings sprees to government policy). In the United States, Rep. Peter King’s Homeland Security hearings (which also define extremism in Islamic terms only), Terry Jones’ burning of a holy book and anti-Islamic protests in Orange County are just two of the most recent examples. The swing to the right and its accompanying attack on tolerance, on immigrants and on Islam, is a transatlantic phenomenon. In the absence of clear policy, the cuts to social welfare and dismantling of affordable education, and a definition of extremism that singles out a religion while ignoring right-wing violence, makes clear what an era of muscular liberalism really means. A more accurate phrase would be muscular neoliberalism. Nick Clegg would be wise to find a different rallying point.