Against Multiculturalism

"Be proud, do not apologize.  Do we have to go on apologizing for the sins of our fathers?  Do we still have to apologize, for example, for the British Empire, when, in fact, the British presence in India led to the Indian Renaissance, resulted in famine relief, railways, roads and irrigation schemes, eradication of cholera, the civil service, the establishment of a universal education system where none existed before, the institution of elected parliamentary democracy and the rule of law?  What of the British architecture of Bombay and Calcutta?  The British even gave back to the Indians their own past: It was European scholarship, archaeology and research that uncovered the greatness that was India; it was British government that did its best to save and conserve the monuments that were a witness to that past glory.  British imperialism preserved where earlier Islamic imperialism destroyed thousands of Hindu temples.

"On the world stage, should we really apologize for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe?  Mozart, Beethoven and Bach?  Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch?  Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and Darwin?  Penicillin and computers?  The Olympic Games and football [soccer]?  Human rights and parliamentary democracy?  The West is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom.  It is the West that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of inquiry, expression and conscience.  No, the West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies that keep their women in subjugation, cut off their clitorises, stone them to death for alleged adultery, throw acid on their faces, or deny the human rights of those considered to belong to lower castes."

--Ibn Warraq, "Democracy in a Cartoon," Der Spiegel Online, February 3, 2006; cited by Diana West, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007), p. 213.

Something to think about the next time you have to take off your shoes (jacket, jewelry) to go through airport security.  Why exactly are we the ones apologizing for being ourselves?

Comments

  1. This quote is just too polemical for me to take seriously.

    I think questions about the limits of cultural, political, and moral relativism are important, and deserved to be asked, but constructing a "multiculturalist" caricature only to level it with righteous indignation is hardly conducive to genuine thought and discussion. Since when has anyone "apologized" for Darwin or Dante? Anyone who demands such an apology is clearly not to be taken seriously, and as far as I know, the intellectual heavyweights of pluralism - scholars like Geertz or Said or Spivak - have never demanded a collective mea culpa for the Well-Tempered Clavier. To pretend that this is all there is to a multiculturalist critique of Western hegemony is to shy away from an engagement with the real substance of pluralist theory and, ultimately, I think this only weakens the case for Western values as universal values.

    The author's point is well-taken. It is indeed necessary to guard against the the vague emotional appeals by which everything British in India is dismissed as a relic of "oppression"; but by the same token, appealing to Neo-Liberal sensibilities (I use the term broadly here) with an unqualified laundry-list of British achievements is no less distortive. That an equally compelling list of British atrocities could be compiled to counter one of British achievement suggests to me that neither position holds much in the way of substance. The British legacy in India (like the Islamic legacy) is complex, and quite frankly I think it's irresponsible to treat historical evidence as something to be raided for cannon fodder rather than as clues to understanding that deserve to be reflected upon.

    I'm saying this not as a Subaltern-in-disguise cruising for easy prey, but as someone who thinks practices of genital mutilation are too horrific, questions of ethics too immediate, and interpretations of history too important to be pressed into such discursive rhetoric. Glib oversimplifications may provide a degree of self-satisfaction when preached to the coir, but does very little to answer the Geertzian challenge that meaning is socially, historically, and rhetorically constructed.

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  2. Ibn Warraq's article was written in the context of the backlash over the Danish cartoons. The polemic is purposeful and, to his mind as a former Indian citizen, urgent. Certainly, these situations are complex, but there has been a tendency in much academic conversation to make them overly-complex, to the point where it becomes impossible to judge a culture for its "values." To be sure, it is possible to describe cultures "neutrally" in this way, but it is harder to live in them.

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  3. I'm not sure how taking off one's shoes in airport security equates to offering an apology fo Goethe: your reasoning here escapes me. As for Darwin, one of the names on this list: the only people I know of who are asking for an apology for him are religious right-wing conservatives.

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Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

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