Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Greg Sheridan on Multiculturalism

In The Australian recently, Greg Sheridan recently wrote an excellent long piece on how he abandoned his faith in multiculturalism.

It's a very honest and sensitive piece as Sheridan started out as a strong supporter of immigration and multiculturalism, a view that grew out of his desire to support South Vietnamese boat people after the Vietnam War (a view that I'm sure I would have had a lot of sympathy for at the time, just like him). 

Sheridan walked the walk too, living in Western Sydney for 15 years. But he observed up-close what happened to places like Lakemba in Sydney when they experienced wide-spread immigration, including some of the attendant social problems which he describes. (In related news, is there any serious doubt that Malcolm Fraser may be one of the worst Prime Ministers in Australian history? He'd even give Gough Whitlam a run for the money).

Sheridan raises the very valid question that the differences in success of immigration programs in Europe vs Australia, America and Canada may have less to do with particular multicultural policies practiced by the host country, and more to do simply with the composition of where the immigrants came from. 
The US, Canada and Australia have far smaller Muslim migrant communities as a percentage of their total populations than do most of the troubled nations of Europe. Could this be the explanation?
He doesn't assert this directly, but to ask the question is to know his implicit answer.  

And Sheridan is very sensitive in phrasing his argument. He goes through all the required recitations first:
Discussing these issues is very difficult. It goes without saying that most Muslims in Australia are perfectly fine, law-abiding citizens. The difficulty with discussing Muslim immigration problems is that you don't want to make people feel uncomfortable because of their religion.
It's only a small minority - check.
Muslims are not only individuals, wholly different from each other, but national Islamic cultures are very different from each other. The Saudi culture is different from the Turkish culture, which is different from the Afghan culture. So generalisations are dangerous.
Lots of diversity in Islam, generalisations bad - check.
Then there is the ever present risk of being labelled a racist. No matter how calmly the discussion is conducted, that is a big danger.
It is, but good on you for having the stones to not worry about it. But then he gets to the point he wanted to make all along:
But the only people who don't think there is a problem with Islam are those who live on some other planet. The reputation of Islam in the West is not poor because of prejudiced Western Islamophobia, still less because Western governments conduct some kind of anti-Islamic propaganda.
Instead, it is the behaviour of people claiming the justification of Islam for their actions that affects the reputation of Islam. ...
To have concerns about these matters is not racism or xenophobia. It is reasonable.
It may also be that when young men of Islamic background experience failure and alienation they are much more readily prone to entrepreneurs of identity who offer them purpose through the jihadi ideology, which has a large overlap with what they hear at the mosque and what they see on Arabic TV.
This is simply not true for Buddhists or Confucians or Sikhs or Jews or Christians, and to pretend so, to make all religions seem equal, is to simply deny reality.
Exactly so. One thing I never, never understood about the "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins for sure, Christopher Hitchens less so) was the moral equivalence of how all religions were equally bad. In terms of their relative tolerance for womens' rights, homosexuality, separation of church and state, and all the other things that secular humanism apparently holds dear, there's simply no contest. In Utah, people may not like you if you practise abortion, open homosexuality, or start a different church, but the worst that happens is that you may not get invited to a dinner party. In Saudi Arabia, you'd be lucky to escape prison or worse for any one of these actions. All religions and societies may fall short of the humanist ideal, but they don't all fall short by the same amount.

On the other hand, the piece ends with what is, to me at least, significantly good news - at least privately, the government is far less clueless about these things than it seems in its public discussions:
And, finally, we simply should not place immigration officers in the countries with the greatest traditions of radicalism.
A few years ago there was an informal view across government that very few visas should be issued to people from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, as these were the three likeliest sources of extremism.
These sorts of discussions take place all the time among senior officials, politicians and others. But I have never encountered a policy area in which private and public positions are so different.
Phrases you do not hear often on this blog: the Australian government might be doing a significantly better job than I thought they were, and one which in some absolute sense amounts to 'acceptably sensible'!

In other news, The Australian remains my favourite newspaper in the world. Is there any US paper that would publish such a common sense article?

(Thanks to GS for the pointer).


  1. The author of this post has placed himself (and I'm willing to wager it's a he) beyond the pale of civilized society. The spectacle of an Australian national impugning the morality of more than a billion Muslims is not only offensive and borderline racist, but also devoid of any reasonable justification. Why don't we ask the Australian Aborigines, decimated under the murderous regime of the British army, what they think of the moral high ground that the author dares to claim? This disregard for historical perspective is the marker of the standard, dessicated, male-chauvinist and paternalistic state of mind that one would think (and hope) that has been placed irrevocably to the fringes of learned discourse. The author's worldview can only be used as a pastiche of the writings of the most socially reactionary elements of Western society. The fact is that Western thought can claim no moral superiority over heterodox, and equally valid, views and experiences. That the author seems unaware of any of the output of the social sciences and humanities in the last 40 years can only further inspire the struggle of progressives for the understanding of the cultural heritage of the global South.

  2. So I re-read over everything I wrote (as opposed to citations of what Sheridan wrote), trying to find out exactly what got you so ticked off.

    First of all, if you think I'm "beyond the pale of civilised society" (the hallmark claim of people who want to shut down debate rather than participate in it), let me suggest that you're reading the wrong blog, fella. The internet is a big place, and there's lots of websites where you'd feel more at home.

    But I'd like you to stick around, because I'm interested to talk to people who disagree with me. And I'm happy to discuss the specific arguments.

    "The spectacle of an Australian national impugning the morality of more than a billion Muslims is not only offensive and borderline racist, but also devoid of any reasonable justification."

    So would it also be offensive and racist to impugn the morality of the world's Christians (as lots of people seem willing to do)? Or is that acceptable?

    Additionally, I agree with all the qualifications Sheridan made. It is only a small minority that are problematic. There are huge differences in cultures and attitudes among different nationalities and Muslim countries. So I don't want to impugn all the world's Muslims. I think Sheridan's formulation is exactly right, so I want to repeat it - "it is the behaviour of people claiming the justification of Islam for their actions that affects the reputation of Islam.". That's not the same thing as saying that all Muslims are bad people.

    The point I was trying to make (albiet not clearly) is that there's a requirement to make all these statements before you can offer any criticism of Islam or Islamic countries, in a way that doesn't seem to happen with anyone else. Have you heard anyone say anything like that before attacking Mormons? I sure haven't. So what's the difference?

    As for the British being tough and murderous bastards, absolutely agreed. The colonial British were often very nasty to indigenous populations (something I wrote about, for instance, here when discussing the Irish famine). I think that the imperial project produced a lot of gains in welfare in the long run, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't often very nasty to be on the receiving end of at the time.

    As for your other points, they seem to be

    a) Morality is subject to different historical perspectives, and

    b) Morality is all relative anyway

    In terms of the first one, I agree! That's why I wrote about it here, noting that the attitudes of modern Islam towards women are not dissimilar from the past attitudes of western Christians towards women.

    As for the second one, that's something where reasonable people disagree, and a subject for a whole other debate. There's no shortage of philosophers who have argued for absolute morality, and no shortage who argue that morality is relative. But you're sure putting a lot of people "beyond the pale" if you're unwilling to consider the possibility.

    And in my preference ordering, I find the treatment of women, homosexuals and non-Muslims in several Islamic countries to be deeply problematic. This remains true, even though many of the people in these countries may not share the attitudes of the ruling class. (as an aside, quite why supporting womens rights in this regard makes me 'chauvinist' is something I don't understand, but I'll let that slide.)

    If modern Islam is similar to past Christianity on these issues, then so much the worse for past Christianity. And if morality is all relative, then that's the morality I choose.

  3. Love the use of the word "pastiche" in the first comment. Not quite sure about the feminist flavour of the critique, seems a bit off topic, but hey, bring on the shrill cries of outrage from Lezbollah.

    Ironic usage of "beyond the pale" as well when combined with giving a serve to the British Empire.

    I understand that origins of the phrase comes from "An Pháil", or "The Pale", being the part of Ireland that was directly under the control of the English government in the late Middle Ages. Good to see an implicit (although completely ignorant) acknowledgement that the British Empire did bring civilisation to the savages out there (potato farming, or otherwise). Idiot.

    And here's an interesting little bit of footage showing how Aboriginals and Lebanese Muslims feel about each other:


    Perhaps asking that big Koori in Lithgow Jail how he feels about Muslims isn't such a good idea.

  4. I will not even respond to such inflammatory comments. My sociology students would easily pick apart your arguments, but there's no point, really. It is obvious that this site is run by frenzied apologists of the most vile colonialism and avid proponents of shock doctrine policies. The fact that the blogger is in cahoots with Goldman Sachs (attributing the provenance of the article to it) does nothing more than reinforce my point.

  5. Well, you can't say I didn't try. But if everything I say is just so horribly hurtful and inflammatory, it doesn't leave much room for discussion now, does it? But maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since you seem more interested in trolling websites you disagree with so you can stoke your sense of righteous indignation.

    "The fact that the blogger is in cahoots with Goldman Sachs (attributing the provenance of the article to it) does nothing more than reinforce my point."

    Bwaa ha ha ha! GS isn't Goldman Sachs you moron, it's the person who forwarded me the article. Although I'm not quite sure what difference you think it would make even if it were from Goldman Sachs. I sure hope that your precious sociology students could muster something a little better than that in the argument stakes.

  6. I'm not very sensitive, but I suspect this is the wrong time for me to offer a Kipling quote, right?

  7. Personally I think there's never a bad time to offer a Kipling quote, but the restraint you show is jolly sporting given the circumstances. You're a better man than I am, Gunga Ken!