THE LIMITS OF MULTICULTURALSIM: HOW TO GET ALONG

January 31, 2010 – 4:22 am


Former Talking Head David Byrne has long championed multiculturalism, in the form of World Music. Taking a look at a New York rabbi who objected to bike lanes in the neighbourhood, Byrne looks at how, in the modern world or cosmopolitan city, different cultures live side by side and asks that basic but still problematic question, why can’t we just get along?

I was told that a powerful rabbi based in Williamsburg objected strongly to the bike lanes that run alongside their ghetto on Bedford Ave. We were informed that the sight of hipster girls, their heads uncovered and sometimes their lower legs as well, is just too much to bear - though it’s winter now, and surely the gals are bundled up this time of year? Well, that was what, we were told, was the problem initially.

So, the powerful rabbi insisted to the DOT that the lanes had to go - and shortly thereafter they did.Sure enough, some (Jewish) hipsters repainted the lane by hand, and the rabbi’s wrath was aroused once again - his neighborhood watch (vigilante) group detained the hipsters until the cops came. After no subsequent action against the perps was taken by the city, he demanded that the kids be re-apprehended, which they were - they voluntarily turned themselves in.

OK, on the face of it this is all pretty silly if you live in NY. Hasidic men are not supposed to see scantily clad women. (The man in the photo above has turned his head, but the gal is having a good long look.) In the past they’ve also complained about sexy billboards (ads for Sex and the City) on the BQE and elsewhere. How do they manage when they travel to Manhattan to deal diamonds and cameras? Are they blindfolded until they enter B&H?

In addition, that corridor alongside the Hasidic ghetto is just about the only way to cycle from Williamsburg to Dumbo, Vinegar Hill or Brooklyn Heights. The stream of sexy cyclists will therefore continue, though at greater risk to their own safety. Maybe there could be a service offering wigs and wraps for cyclists passing through the No Skin zone.

Some on the blogosphere claim it’s actually not about immodest dress at all - that it’s a ruse, and the real idea is to keep the number of car lanes in the ghetto intact, and to reinstate parking spaces that were cannibalized for the bike lane. The need for plenty of parking is due to the fact that the Hasidim often don’t travel with the rest of us on subways and buses, but in their own vans and bus services - and local transport (food shopping, etc.) is mostly done by private car as well.

School kids are dropped off in buses that park in what were, until recently, the bike lanes. This lifestyle requires plenty of parking - more than most other folks need. And I suspect that yes, at times some hipsters probably zoom a bit too carelessly and too close to the school kids. Well, bike lanes or no bike lanes, parking is scarce and getting scarcer in NY, so there may have to be some adjustments eventually. In Antwerp, the European center for Hasidic diamond dealing, the Hasidic kids ride bikes around town.

Although I might be expected to champion anything bike related, I think my problem with this situation is more general - how much do we allow ethnic and religious groups to not blend in and to not become part of the general social fabric, especially in a major metropolis? (We’re not talking about rural communes, where folks can wear what they like and be as freaky as they like on their own.)

In Holland, the most tolerant place on the planet, it is becoming accepted that tolerance has to go both ways. In other words, the Muslim immigrants are increasingly expected, even by fellow Muslims in Amsterdam, to become “Dutch” in some respects.

Multiculturalism, I gather, is the idea that we shouldn’t force outside cultures and immigrants to conform to the culture of the dominant ethnic group - we should respect the integrity of their beliefs and customs. More than just allowing halal or kosher butchers to move in, this idea implies that we might start to see things from the other’s point of view - and sometimes accommodate their wishes, even if they don’t conform to those of the majority.

This idea has met its match since 9/11 - Europe, previously a bastion of Muslim enclaves and ghettos of various types and ethnicities, has in recent years pushed back against multiculturalism, and a more nuanced idea is taking hold - sometimes. Other times intolerance rears its ugly head.

Likewise, cyclists, thus far a minority, might be seen in the same light - as a fringe culture that mainstream culture accommodates and tolerates as long as the cyclists don’t insist that the dominant culture bend to their specific wishes. This, in a nutshell, is the argument that some NY communities have made when Janette Sadik-Kahn throws a bike lane in their hood.

The argument might be valid, though often the local businesses discover that, for example, bike parking by their shop fronts brings in more customers, and there’s less of a chance that a van or truck will block the view of their windows. And in many cases, the complainers were outvoted by the rest of their own community.

Plus, in NYC, drivers and car owners might be in the minority - most of my friends who live here don’t own cars.

In Holland, the most tolerant place on the planet, it is becoming accepted that tolerance has to go both ways. In other words, the Muslim immigrants are increasingly expected, even by fellow Muslims in Amsterdam, to become “Dutch” in some respects. Which means they must accept that there is a long tradition of tolerance in Holland, especially in Amsterdam, and if one is to move to Holland one should expect to accept this typically Dutch way of thinking.

The Muslim community, for example, has to get used to the fact that there is a district with sex shops and scantily dressed women in the windows, same-sex couples might kiss in public, and coffee shops selling hash are a common sight. The implicit agreement is that living in Holland means you accept such things, as tasteless as you may find them. The Dutch, of course, allow the local Muslim population to maintain their own customs as well - as long as they fit in and don’t make lots of demands.

This is a change from a provocative attitude that, a few years ago, resulted in the death of Theo van Gogh. He had made a film, one that deliberately goaded and incited the Dutch Muslim population, in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who received death threats and is now protected by the government - and is involved with the American Enterprise Institute, a right wing US think tank. Their 10-minute film features a naked woman in a see-through chador, with Koranic verses justifying the submission of women written on her body. Like the Danish cartoons, this was viewed by Muslims as a deliberate provocation… and a crude one at that. One might view it as liberal fascism.


An image from the film - and van Gogh dead on the street.

Not that van Gogh deserved to die. The Dutch rallied and demonstrated after his death, and saw the killing as an attempt to stifle free speech - to imply that public expression and criticism has limits. Some free speech advocates insist that one be allowed to say and express anything, barring the encouragement of violence. Others saw the film as being offensively provocative - in a way, they viewed the incident as if the filmmakers were asking for it. Free speech advocates feel that it’s an absolute, and that people should be allowed to say anything, as it’s “only words.”

Ian Buruma, a writer of Dutch background, has written about this incident and the issues that arise from it. He argues that freedom of speech should not be considered absolute - and that thinking in absolutes always leads to disaster. He says we limit our own freedom of speech all the time - around family and relatives over the holidays, I am reminded - and we do it to get along, to allow society to function, for our own happiness and the happiness of others.

It’s not necessarily a lie to not blurt out the ugly truth whenever you think it. During the holidays we don’t tease Uncle Harry about his comb-over because we know it would just make the get together more tense than it already is - and who would gain from such insensitive honesty? Stifling free speech just a little, with some subtle self-censorship, makes life pleasanter for everyone.

A few years ago, Mamie Manneh, a Staten Island woman, was arrested for importing 720 pounds of monkey meat, including limbs, skulls and torsos, from baboons and green monkeys in boxes labeled “African dresses and smoked fish” [Link]. She argued it was her Constitutional right to bring monkey meat into the United States. Her lawyers claimed she needed to eat monkey during certain religious ceremonies for her syncretic faith, which merges Christian and African traditions [Source].

In my opinion, besides being disgusting, eating bush meat isn’t actually linked to deep traditions - it emerged as a food source fairly recently, out of hunger and dire necessity. And yes, it crossed the line among some people and was considered an element of ritual. I would argue that it’s not actually a healthy or acceptable food source in Africa, and if you immigrate to Staten Island that might be one of the things you compromise in the move.

Then, on the other side, there’s the recent Swiss minaret ban. Unbelievable! Zurich has decided to ban new construction of minarets. I foresee other countries banning steeples typical of Christian churches in retaliation. Tit for tat. The Swiss right wing reasoning, if you can call it reasoning, is that mosques are not Swiss, and when in Switzerland one must be Swiss.

McDonald’s isn’t Swiss either, and neither are a lot of other easily recognizable branded forms of architecture and décor. Who knows, maybe they even have a panel of guys in funny alpine clothes who decide if contemporary buildings are “Swiss” or not. Presumably, all banks are Swiss - except the ones with Arabic decoration.

Historically, erasing the culture of immigrants or ethnic groups within one’s borders has been attempted over and over. The Soviet Union tried to make all the groups within its massive borders Russian. Stalin shipped ethnic groups from one side of the continent to the other, to thwart any future ethnic unity and uprising. I’ve seen pockets of distinctly Asian-looking Kazakhs in the part of Russia that borders Finland!

“I don’t want to compromise my own activities, safety and way of life more than is reasonably necessary - but I can still accommodate somewhat. Where the line is might shift from time to time - it’s not fixed, or unchangeable forever. Adaptability and accommodation make us human. Absolutes are for machines and vengeful Gods.”

In Tajikistan they banned the Persian alphabet, erasing Tajiks’ literary history, and outlawed Islam. This intolerance often only partly succeeds - in many of those former republics, now no longer part of Russia, Islam and local pride have reasserted themselves with a vengeance. Ripping out people’s identities has frightening consequences. When Tajikistan became independent in 1991, the country soon became immersed in a bloody civil war.

One wishes for some kind of common sense to prevail. What harm does a minaret do to the neighborhood? Well, I guess some have a sense of Swiss purity - and purity seeking of any kind always raises a red flag. Some small Italian towns have banned new kebab shops - again, claiming they are not Italian. Hello? Neither were tomatoes! To me, this is all just as silly as the rabbi in Brooklyn claiming that the hipster babes must be discouraged from passing through his neighborhood. Prohibition would probably be preferable - though he doesn’t want to build a wall just yet…

When foreigners visit religious shrines, temples, mosques and churches in other lands, we - if we’re at all sensitive - abide by the local customs. And people from those lands can be expected to reciprocate when they are within our borders.

From a New York Times advice column:

“My husband was at Starbucks enjoying a coffee and reading the paper when about eight people sat down, opened their Bibles and held a group prayer. Then one of them began a loud sermon that my husband found offensive for its content as well as its sheer volume. I say the group was within its rights. My husband says they made inappropriate use of the location. What do you say?”

(The advice columnist said the evangelicals were within their legal rights, but their lack of social empathy was disgusting.)

Like Rodney King said - Can we all just get along? Can we tolerate difference, without taking toleration to the extreme, where everyone is expected to accept insults and provocations? Tolerance shouldn’t mean we have to let anyone with a different lifestyle boss the rest of us around. It seems maybe there’s no absolute dividing line between what we tolerate and what we insist is unacceptable.

The measure of how much we should tolerate is: does it help us get along? If it divides us further, then maybe it’s not a good idea. Granted we don’t want to have to compromise our own beliefs or ways of life - resentment will lie buried, festering, and will reassert itself in some form, later, maybe somewhere else seemingly completely unrelated.

I don’t want to compromise my own activities, safety and way of life more than is reasonably necessary - but I can still accommodate somewhat. Where the line is might shift from time to time - it’s not fixed, or unchangeable forever. Adaptability and accommodation make us human. Absolutes are for machines and vengeful Gods.

What we sometimes call common sense - not going by the book, whether that be the law or the Bible - might be how we survive. But being an ever-changing thing, it’s hard to define. It is learnt, I imagine, by living together, improvising, and innovating, not from a rulebook.

Note: David Byrne is a singer-songwriter and a former Talking Head. Visit his site at http://journal.davidbyrne.com/.

  1. 2 Responses to “THE LIMITS OF MULTICULTURALSIM: HOW TO GET ALONG”

  2. I basically agree with the text. But there are two things Mr Byrne hasn’t considered well enough from my point of view: That there are tolerant and less tolerant people in every ethnic / religious / cultural group. So conflicts like that may as well arise in your own culture (whatever that is). I will certainly get along better with an Arab who has an open minded, modern world view then I will with a German Nazi (or any Nazi).

    Then Mr Byrne - maybe unconsciously - sees people from “other cultures” as “visitors”. (quote: “When foreigners visit religious shrines, temples, mosques and churches in other lands, we - if we’re at all sensitive - abide by the local customs. And people from those lands can be expected to reciprocate when they are within our borders.”) But the question of “The Limits of Multiculturalism” arises, when people of non-european / non-christian / non-western backgrounds (or whatever “our” culture is) are *part* of this culture and not only visitors or people who recently immigrated.

    By Barbara Muerdter on Jan 31, 2010

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  2. Jan 31, 2010: David Byrne om hur vi kan komma bättre överens i blandkulturer « Anders bit för bit

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