Multiculturalism and the politics of bad memories

Behind the recent attacks on multiculturalism is a false public memory of stable mutuality disrupted by the arrival of people of other cultures, writes Markha Valenta. A row over the absence of non-white characters in the English detective series “Midsomer Murders” says a lot about our fantasies of “home”.

You always know something is up when the leaders of Germany, France and Britain are in happy agreement. Their most recent cheery confabulation is that multiculturalism in Europe has been a failure. In quick succession first Merkel, then Cameron, then Sarkozy seized the limelight and declared diversity’s demise. They stated this as a truism rather than as an argument. Equally striking is that these political leaders seem more relieved than troubled: as if, for a while, western Europe had lost its bearings but now is regaining them. Diversity is out, they seem to say, and common sense back in.

But of course, given the diversity of our societies, it is diversity that is common sense.

Even as I say this, it is very much to be wondered if Europe, notably Germany and France (of all places), ever gave multiculturalism a real chance. To paraphrase Gandhi’s famous quip on western civilisation, European multiculturalism would be a good idea. With the exception of the Netherlands and Sweden, there have been no serious attempts in continental Europe at implementing comprehensive policies for accommodating the new cultural and religious pluralism. So in fact what Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy actually are saying is that western Europe’s response to immigration has been a failure. This we could perhaps discuss: but in that case as a failure of western European politicians, policies and imagination, rather than of an invented multiculturalism that Europe never tried (if by “multiculturalism” we mean a society that offers full possibilities, membership, and respect to all its members – regardless of cultural and religious differences – yet also creatively accommodating of them – in a fashion that is both morally persuasive and practically effective for the majority of society).

There is implicit in the current fashion for rejecting multiculturalism a deep wish that immigration had never happened. The political leaders’ message in fact carries within itself a deep yearning for an old, pre-immigrant Europe. What is forgotten is that this old Europe had just as much trouble with diversity as it does today. Only back then it had another name: colonialism. In other words, the yearning for the old pre-immigrant Europe is a yearning for a Europe that never existed: a Europe disentangled and distinct from the rest of the world. Too many of Europe’s political leaders and too many Europeans are today being swept up in this fantasy.

This brings to mind a talk that the inventor of behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman, recently gave for the TED foundation, in which he demonstrates how actual experiences and memories of experiences are very different entities. Experience entails an ongoing stream of moments, from which memory then selectively extracts some moments to create a story. The pleasure or displeasure a memory evokes in us particularly depends on how much change there was during an experience and on what the ending is. The ending is so significant that good experiences with bad endings will actually feel like bad experiences. So imagine a man listening to fantastic music, Kahneman tells us, who at the end of the recording hears a horrid screech. The screech will ruin the memory of the whole experience, even though for the entire time before that short screech, the listening man felt glorious pleasure.

Kahneman offers other striking examples of people having painful surgery and pleasurable vacations. These are all very personal experiences. What strikes me, however, is how closely this rather selective relationship between experience and memory relates to our current politics of diversity.

If we take Kahneman’s explanations and apply them to the nationalist populism we see arising all around us, what clearly emerges as the driving force is what we might call a “politics of bad memories” or perhaps a “politics of invented memories”. This politics of aversion works hard to convince us that we have had bad experiences with other cultures, religions and races. It presents us with a public “memory” of shocking change, where an imaginary life of stable tranquillity and mutuality was suddenly disrupted and scuppered by the arrival of people with values from other civilizations and cultures. This is the immigration-as-rupture memory.

In actual fact, Europe’s experiences of immigration have been largely unremarkable, characterized until recently more by indifference and ignorance than by any kind of sustained disruption and conflict. If anything – and notwithstanding the visible divergence of some immigrants from European skin tones, religions and styles of dress – immigrants have played an essential role in enabling what continuity and growth European societies have known over these recent decades. It is immigrants, after all, who do those everyday jobs that are essentially invisible and invisibly essential to our rich countries: cleaning our bathrooms and corporations, picking our vegetables, manning our factories, building our cities, and caring for our parents and grandparents when we are too busy and too autonomous to do so. Without immigrants, we might still have rich bankers, but our countries would fall apart. There is tremendous resourcefulness, ambition and innovation in these immigrant lives: but it makes hardly any appearance in our national debates, public narratives or politics. Certainly the political debates are full of the spectre of immigrants as social degradation, but the majorities’ actual experience of immigrants as lived presence is on the whole fleeting and unremarked, more figment than fact.

Rural titillation

The politicians of fear, however, distract and titillate their audience by pasting a bad ending on this experience. Terrorism, conflict, criminality and cultural dissolution, all of these will do the trick. Suddenly, voilà, like magic, these fantasies of bad endings turn a largely unknown history of post-war immigration, cultural adaptation and religious innovation in western Europe into vividly bad memories presaging future disasters.

This false memory is deeply dependent on another, which is its mirror image. This is the memory of the idyllic pre-immigrant community of trust and mutuality. Many people appear to be deeply attached this fantasy. Recently the executive producer of one of Britain’s most successful detective series, Midsomer Murders, created enormous controversy when he defended the absence of any people of colour from the show. The argument Brian True-May made was two-pronged. On the one hand, a realist one: in real life, he said, there simply are no people of colour in English villages. But strikingly, True-May also made a second argument, a deeply romantic nationalist one, namely: “we’re the last bastion of Englishness and I want to keep it that way”. In shifting from the realist to the romantic mode, True-May contrasted Midsomer to Slough, the most ethnically diverse area of Britain outside London. Midsomer is not and must not become Slough, just as Englishness is not and must not become racially diverse. True-May is defending what it is to be “English” as a local, racial category that will not go the way of “London” or “Slough”, those miscegenous urban hosts of the new and the global.

The irony, of course, is that viewers watch Midsomer Murders for the murders. Taken literally, one might think that the English must be among the most murderous races of people on earth. Yet it is the fact that it has a murder rate far in excess to that of any multicultural city that keeps the village of Midsomer from being dreadfully boring to its viewers (most of whom do not live in English villages). Ultimately, however, the series is not about the murders so much as about the restoration of idyllic harmony. The most important feature of each episode is that the threat to the fabric of the village is overcome. Again and again. In staging the survival of the village, the series stages the survival of “English eccentricity”, but at the same time also makes a more general promise: that the local, the circumscribed, and the secure will survive. In other words, it promises to keep intact our false memory of a sheltered world that never existed.

It is perhaps for this reason that both Cameron and Merkel are fans of the series. And perhaps also for this reason that the series is so popular with viewers far beyond England. In fact, it has been sold to more than 40 countries. All through the world this last bastion of Englishness has caught the hearts and minds of viewers who are anything but English. English-identified viewers in British society for whom it is perhaps a vital bearer of “Englishness” may little suspect to what extent the success of the series actually resides in its ability to sell eccentric village Englishness to an international audience. Not only is its “Englishness” up for sale to every buyer who so desires, but the fantasy it sells helps to sustain the international media circuit. Midsomer might well not be still with us, were it not for its international audience – this audience who identifies with it not so much because it is the last bastion of Englishness, but because it offers a fantasy that today is a global one: the survival of home in a swiftly tilting world. Carried throughout the world, Midsomer, whether it likes it or not, has become one of England’s most globalized and globalizing villages.

It is precisely this that the politics of bad memories would hide from us. Those who reject multiculturalism as the degradation and rupture of the European social fabric forget not only what immigrants have done for Europe but how intimately so many of them are becoming a part of this fabric. This, for some, is the deepest threat: that within our lifetimes, “England” (or “Europe”) may very well become as brown and black as it is pink. If we really want to bring in a bit of common sense, then we should face this second truth: not just that Midsomer is a fantasy of a past that never was but that it is one – just like Europe – that could not survive without the world all around us.

Published 25 March 2011
Original in English
First published by openDemocracy, 20 March 2011

Contributed by openDemocracy © Markha Valenta / openDemocracy / Eurozine



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