The antidote of multiculturalism

Winner, 2008 Australasian Association of Philosophers Media Prize

A CRUEL IRONY has marked recent Australian social policy. Reconciliation between indigenous and settler Australians – which involves a concept and a process that are essentially symbolic – was made "practical", limited to policies aimed at improving Aboriginal living conditions that the government should have been pursuing anyway. At the same time, multiculturalism – a set of practical policies aimed variously at improving the absorption of migrants and harmoniously integrating a culturally diverse society around liberal democratic values – has come to acquire powerful symbolic significance in debates about what it means to be Australian. Indeed, so laced with symbolism has "multiculturalism" become that the Howard government is now considering its own symbolic gesture of simply removing the word from governmental use.

Multiculturalism is the most recent of four basic models that liberal democracies have adopted in responding to cultural diversity. The first seeks to exclude cultural diversity. The "white Australia" policy is among the best examples of this approach. The second model is assimilationism. It has featured in almost every modern nation-state. Indeed, the term "nation-state" presupposes this idea. That is, not the idea that "for every nation, its own state" – which is a common formulation of self-determination – but the quite different idea that "for every state, one nation". Australia and the other Anglo-democracies fervently pursued this approach to "nation-building" until the last third of the twentieth century. The third model is liberal pluralism, although it goes by various names. On this model, people are allowed to follow their traditions under their own steam, as it were, unassisted by government. Because this model turns on the distinction between public and private spheres, all liberal democracies, to some extent, have evidenced it, even when committed to assimilation. Officially, the United States exemplifies the liberal pluralist model. An institution like SBS, for example, is unthinkable in the US. However, American public law and policy make extensive allowance for cultural diversity, which makes the US in practice more like the fourth model: multiculturalism. Here, as we know from the Australian case, government not only allows people to express their cultural attachments; it seeks to accommodate, support, and even celebrate such differences in accordance with liberal democratic values.

Multiculturalism in Australia was perhaps destined to become embroiled in issues of national identity. The adoption of the policy in the 1970s followed more or less on the heels of the demise of the "white Australia" policy. But the controversy over multiculturalism is also fuelled by a perception that it threatens social cohesion and the political integrity of the state – challenges for which a robust national identity has long been seen as the necessary answer. As the celebrated liberal John Stuart Mill put it in 1859, "Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist."

The question is this: if Australia has changed from "an outpost of the British race", as it defined itself during the heyday of "white Australia", what exactly has it changed to? In particular, what does its commitment to multiculturalism – in policy if not in word – mean for its national identity?


SCHOLARS TEND TO debate these sorts of questions about national identity in terms of three vying approaches: "thick" or ethnic nationalism; "thin" or liberal nationalism; and "state neutrality" or post– or civic-nationalism. The three approaches also frame the public debate on Australian national identity. All three categories are relative to the context being explored: what today is considered a "thick" identity in Australia, for example, is likely to be considered a "thin" if not anorexic identity elsewhere.

On the "thick" conception, multiculturalism is considered to be damaging to Australian national identity. Australia is said to have a distinct Anglo-Australian character and identity, which has great capacity to integrate newcomers. Advocates such as John Hirst and Keith Windschuttle point to the fact, for example, that intermarriage rates across ethnic and mainstream Australians are high, increasing with each generation. Welcoming intermarriage in a post "white Australia" era indicates how the prevailing "thick" conception of Australian identity has changed since the days of the "white Australia" policy. Today, "thickness" is claimed not so much in terms of a strict ethnic nationality or a bloodline of ancestry – the "crimson thread of kinship" in Sir Henry Parkes' immortal words of 1890 – but as a cultural heritage open
to all.

"Thick" conceptions of Australian national identity have the virtue of recognising the deep and abiding influence of Anglo-Australian culture on the institutions and patterns of life in Australia. However, the accounts are problematic in that they tend to do what they accuse Australian multicultural policy of doing – namely, essentialise ethnic group identity and membership, rather than allowing for their internal diversity and dynamism. As John Hirst, historian and chairman of the Commonwealth Government's Civics Education Group (responsible for designing the civics and citizenship program taught in schools), put the accusation in his 2001 Barton Lecture: "Multicultural policy envisaged a world of distinct ethnic groups. This was more and more make-believe." The same claim is made today by the conservative commentators Janet Albrechtsen, Piers Ackerman and Andrew Bolt – albeit, ironically, with the shrill rider that multiculturalism has succeeded in making "distinct ethnic groups" a reality.

In fact, Australian multicultural policy is highly individualistic. From the early 1980s, the policy had begun to be framed in terms of addressing "all Australians" rather than only migrants or "ethnics". This phrasing – repeatedly used throughout the national multicultural policy statements – is deliberate and clear. It is each individual Australian who enjoys the rights (such as those to cultural identity and respect, and to access and equity) and bears the responsibilities (of abiding by Australia's liberal democratic institutions) under the policy. Lest there be any ambiguity, the National Agenda goes on to state that: "Fundamentally, multiculturalism is about the rights of the individual."

In contrast, it is Hirst who ends up treating ethnic groups monolithically, yoking the fate of members of ethnic groups to the choices of their co-ethnics. He cites figures to highlight the increasing assimilation of migrants across the second and third generations and thus the supposed pointlessness of multicultural policy. For example, among Greeks: "Ninety per cent of the first generation were Orthodox, 82 per cent of the second; 45 per cent of the third." Yet these figures also show how large proportions of this community in each generation wish to observe their faith and traditions. They beg the question of why these people should not be entitled to cultural consideration where necessary and appropriate. Further, why should the cultural interests of present generations be answered on the basis of the (anticipated) cultural interests of (some among) future generations? Indeed, even for those migrants seeking to assimilate, the extensive access and equity provisions and institutions covered by multicultural policy would still seem to be warranted. Those wishing to jettison their old identities no less than those who wish to retain them are entitled to protection from discrimination on the basis of their ascribed group membership.

Why does Hirst not see this? Why is he so concerned to dismiss multicultural policy as misguided even where it might serve the interests of many members of migrant groups? Perhaps the answer is that his thinking about multiculturalism – like that of many other advocates of a "thick" conception of Australian identity – has been based on the assumption that it necessarily denies the reality or importance of Australian culture. As he puts it: "The migrants were and are in no doubt that there is an Australian way of doing things, an Australian culture. This is the second way that the multicultural label for Australia is misleading. It suggests that there is simply diversity; that there is no dominant culture. Migrants who want to get on and be accepted know better."


IT IS THE post– or civic-nationalists who are most concerned to deny the reality or political importance of a distinct Australian culture and identity. In many ways, their arguments are the mirror image of the "thick" conceptions. Indeed, the two camps tend to provoke and sustain each other. Where the "thick" conceptions contend that multiculturalism undermines Australian national identity, post– and civic-nationalists believe that invocations of a national identity are antithetical to multiculturalism and Australia's cultural diversity. They reject the idea of a national identity in both ethnic and cultural terms. To this extent, they express the traditional tensions between liberalism and nationalism. They believe that Australia's commitment to liberal democratic values, together with its cultural diversity, requires that the state should be neutral with respect to ethnocultural matters, though they differ on what this entails.

Some argue that Australians should simply dispense with the idea of a national identity altogether. For example, in their book Mistaken Identity: Multiculturalism and the Demise of Nationalism in Australia (Pluto Press, 1988), Stephen Castles and his associates conclude: "We do not need a new ideology of nationhood ... Our aim must be a community without a nation." Others, like the late Donald Horne, argue that Australian identity should be grounded only in political or civic values, such as tolerance, individual liberty, equality, reciprocity and a commitment to democratic institutions. And still others – Laksiri Jayasuriya and Andrew Theophanous, for example – suggest that Australian identity should be centred rather on the principle and practice of multiculturalism itself. Ironically, this last idea found expression in the National Multicultural Advisory Council's report that prepared the ground for the Howard government's A New Agenda in 1999: "Australian multiculturalism will continue to be a defining feature of our evolving national identity." Former Labor Party leader Mark Latham also picked up on this idea in the 2004 election campaign: "The challenge is to modernise our multicultural policies, to make them relevant to our multicultural identity."

Post– and civic-nationalist arguments have the virtue of seeking an inclusive definition of Australian identity and culture that acknowledges the cultural diversity of the Australian people. Yet these approaches are flawed and seem destined to fail. First, as several liberal nationalists have argued, "civic nationalism" is a misnomer in that it ignores the many ways in which liberal democratic states already and inevitably endorse particular traditions. They insist on a particular language or languages as the lingua franca of state business and societal intercourse; organise their year in terms of a particular calendar; recognise certain public holidays; prescribe what narratives are taught as history; and draw on particular cultural motifs and stories for the official symbols, insignia, flags, and anthems of the state. Some have gone – and do go – much further than this in mandating particular cultures Moreover, the putative "political" or "civic" values of democracy have deep cultural imprints and a jagged, if not always a sharp, cultural edge. The reason that limits of toleration are often so controversial is precisely because liberal democratic values are anything but culturally neutral: they are friendly to some traditions, not so friendly to others.

Second, national identity can and does play an important role in generating and sustaining social solidarity and cohesion, a sense of belonging and a commitment to the commonweal. Such features are legitimate interests of democratic states, and would seem to be all the more imperative in culturally diverse democracies. In Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Ajume Wingo makes the case that universal values and even constitutional principles are far less important for motivating ordinary citizens to accept democratic practices than are the symbols – including, stories, rituals, monuments and memorials – that a polity draws on or develops. These symbols – or "veils" as he calls them – are typically the stuff of nation-building. To reject national identity as obsolete, then, or to define it as if it could be ethnoculturally neutral, is to forsake or ignore one of the most powerful political forces available for bringing people together as a community.


ATTEMPTS TO FASHION a new Australian identity on multiculturalism itself fare little better. On the face of it, this approach seems to be a category mistake – that is, it mistakes political and administrative measures that variously allow, accommodate and integrate the realm of diverse identities for an identity itself. Yet, as Benedict Anderson famously observed in Imagined Communities (Verso, 1983), all national identities are constructed and imagined, so why not an identity imagined around multiculturalism? The difficulty is at once semantic and symbolic. The American metaphor of the "melting pot" helps to illustrate what a national identity focused on multiculturalism is up against. The image of the melting pot misdescribes American society where, as Wingo puts it, "the U.S. population is increasingly a collection of distinct subpopulations, with more diversity between ethnic, linguistic, or cultural groups than within those same groups". Yet the fact that the "melting pot" is a myth is irrelevant, says Wingo; what is important is that it offers a powerful symbol of unity that well serves the legitimate interests of American democracy in creating a sense of solidarity.

Compare the Australian case. Australian society and culture are highly integrative – or so we are told. Intermarriage rates are high; the title of "new Australians" is or was eagerly bestowed on migrants; the nomenclature of hyphenated identities is still uncommon. "Multiculturalism", the proposed focus of Australian identity, is thus also mythic, on this account, in misdescribing Australian society. Yet, unlike the metaphor of the "melting pot" in the United States, the proposed national myth for Australia semantically conveys diversity and difference rather than unity and solidarity. "Multiculturalism" lacks the rhetorical force of the "melting pot" for nation-building purposes.

I stress that the difficulty here is more rhetorical than substantive. As a public policy based on liberal democratic notions, multiculturalism is indeed concerned with integrating a diverse society on fair and prudent terms. Nevertheless, while polls have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of Australians support multiculturalism, it is also the case that many Australians are unable to warm to the term. By the mid-1990s, even Jerzy Zubrzycki, one of the architects of Australian multicultural policy, was calling for the term to be dropped, although he continued to support the policies for which it stands. And, of course, now the Howard government reportedly is in the process of removing the word from government policy. For all these reasons, it makes more sense to construe multiculturalism as a set of principles, policies and programs in the service of an Australian national identity than as the locus of that identity itself.


THIS BRINGS US to the intermediate position of "liberal nationalists". Their "thin" account of national identity acknowledges both the legitimate national interests of liberal democracies and the need to make some room for cultural minorities. The debate at this level is largely about the precise calibration of the "thinness". For example, the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka argues in Can Liberal Pluralism be Exported? (Oxford University Press, 2001) that "nation-building" in liberal democracies is legitimate where it is limited to creating and maintaining what he calls a "societal culture": "I call it a societal culture to emphasise that it involves a common language and social institutions, rather than common religious beliefs, family customs, or personal lifestyles ... Citizens of a modern liberal state do not share a common culture in such a thick, ethnographic sense ... if we want to understand the nature of modern state-building, we need a very different, and thinner, conception of culture, which focuses on a common language and societal institutions."

Kymlicka allows that liberal democracies also engage in nation-building by developing a national media, national symbols and holidays, and majority group heroes and events. Yet others including Australian philosopher Chandran Kukathas draw the legitimate boundaries of national identity rather more narrowly.

To my mind, liberal nationalist approaches – for all their good sense – wrongly dismiss, or lose sight of, the place of national character in national identity. The inclination to do so is understandable enough given the obscene ways in which such notions have been politically exploited or socially expressed in modern history. However, as liberal nationalists know better than most, nationalism itself can serve both illiberal and liberal goals; the task is to distinguish its legitimate roles and uses. The concept of national character also is often challenged on the grounds that the attributes highlighted are stereotypical and contradicted by competing images and stereotypes. Consider one of the most celebrated portraits of the Australian character, Russell Ward's The Australian Legend (Oxford University Press, 1958): "According to the myth, the 'typical Australian' is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affectation in others."

Kukathas in his book Multicultural Citizens (Centre for Independent Studies, 1993) cites Ward's portrait and then Jonathan King's opposing assessment that Australians are "lazy, arrogant, racist, urban money-grabbers who have surrounded themselves with the myth that they are outback heroes". Like many other commentators on the subject, Kukathas notes the "difficulties in trying to tie down any notion of a 'national character'" and moves on.

And yet, as everyone knows, the French really are different from the Germans. Canadians are different from Americans, and Australians are different from the Brits and even the New Zealanders. As people are imprinted with their national cultures, they tend to exhibit distinctive habits. That many do not exhibit their "national qualities", and that there may be contradictions, is neither here nor there; in human affairs, the only surprise should be if it were otherwise. I suspect that liberal nationalists – who tend to travel a lot – might grant this much at a cultural level, while insisting that issues of national character should be separated from the state and quarantined from the business of liberal democratic government. But national character will perforce find expression through a society's governing institutions – how could it not do so?


ALL THREE SCHOOLS of thought misunderstand the place of national character. The crucial point about national character is not that it doesn't exist, or that it should be confined to the non-political sphere, or that it should be politically promoted. Rather, the point is that national character cannot be the object or intention of political administration without doing it violence. Any deliberate attempt to represent national character will wrench out particular aspects, and the accounts offered can, at best, bear a passing relation to it. The resultant image is bound to be a kind of grotesque.

If national character is not to become national caricature, then it must be left to its own devices. It will find its own expression. Consider, for example, the new Parliament House in Canberra. That ordinary Australians and visitors can walk up grassy banks and literally stand over and on their political representatives and leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives not only exemplifies a characteristic Australian attitude to authority and an egalitarian temper; it emerges from this attitude and temper. Or, still at Parliament House, take the public uproar that followed a regulation in 2005 requiring security guards to cease using the expression "mate" when addressing politicians and the public. A Member of Parliament taking umbrage at the informality had prompted the move. The public's sense that acceptable norms had been breached came only when the guards were told to be more formal. National character, because it is character, expresses itself just in and through what we do and find "natural" or acceptable.

A second dimension of national identity that liberal nationalists underplay concerns what may be called the crucible of civil society. Because they seek to render nationalism compatible with liberal democracy, and thus to make room for cultural minorities, they tend to focus mainly on the legitimate boundaries of state action and access to the public sphere. National cultures, as we have seen, are "thinned" out in terms of which ethnocultural aspects are deemed to be appropriate for government involvement. Other cultural aspects – regarding food, dress, speech, surnames, leisure activities and family size – some of which were once pursued by states in their more assimilationist days, are deemed to be the prerogative of ethnic groups or their individual members. Thus we are presented with two domains: a national culture that is the province of the state; and ethnocultures that are the province of migrant groups and individuals. The possibility that a national culture might also be constructed and fomented in civil society seems to be ignored or denied. Hence Kymlicka's comment: "The 'melting pot' image was never accurate. Immigrants do indeed integrate into common institutions and learn the dominant language, but they remain, visibly, and proudly, distinctive in their ethnic identities and attachments." Integration, let alone assimilation, is countenanced only in the restricted terms of the national or societal culture that is the compass of the state.


THIS PICTURE OF integration is just as unrealistic as the assimilationist model. In Australia, as in other liberal democracies, there are myriad interactions among migrant groups and between them and the dominant cultural majority that result in cultural absorption and integration of one form or another. For obvious reasons, this absorption is mostly in the direction of the patterns of the dominant culture. John Hirst cites the stories of a Greek husband rejecting his wife's request for the family to acquire a goat as un-Australian, and of a proud Sri Lankan, Bekaboru Kiyanahati Balapan Koyako, coming to the realisation, in meeting other Australians, that he badly needed a shorter name (he chose Kojak). These are great examples of how national cultural integration is mediated in civil society, beyond the state. There are many other examples of the inductive power of Anglo-Australian culture at work in civil society, including the norms governing queue-forming, social space, voice-raising, speech turn-taking, spitting and belching, and the polite reluctance to use the car horn on anything but the most urgent occasions.

The mistake, of course, is to think that the integration is always in the direction of the cultural majority. The impact of Aboriginal culture on AngloAustralian culture – including vocabulary, motifs and art – is clear, if too little appreciated. Anglo-Australian culture also has been changed in various ways by successive waves of migrants, from the rise of soccer as a popular sport, to so-called "new Australian cuisine", to the now national preference for coffee over tea and wine over beer. Judging by the entries in metropolitan telephone directories, the conventions regarding the complexity of surnames have also been greatly extended.

So a national culture is forged in the hurly-burly of civil society, as well as in the institutions overseen by the state. In Australia, Anglo-Australian culture remains dominant, and one cannot begin to make sense of Australian institutions and life without understanding this. Still, in many ways the Anglo-Celtic Australian culture of old is increasingly becoming an "Anglomeltic" one in terms of the general patterns of Australian life. That is, Anglo-Australian culture – while still dominant – is being modified.

The continued and overwhelming dominance of "Anglo-Australia" on the country's institutions and norms helps to explain, why the metaphor of the "melting pot" has had such limited currency here. After all, one might assume, given claims about the highly integrationist nature of Australian society, that the "melting pot" better captures the prevailing circumstances in Australia than in the United States. Indeed, Hirst concludes his lecture on exactly this note: "The marrying and partnering of people of all sorts across all boundaries is the great unifying force in Australia. The United States of America never saw such a rapidly melting melting pot. It will produce before too long a new people, who will have darker skins, much better suited to this place and our sun."

In its traditional meaning, as made popular in the United States in the early twentieth century by the English-Jewish immigrant playwright Israel Zangwill, the "melting pot" stood for a kind of democratic assimilation in which all the various immigrant cultures would combine to produce a "new American" identity. Hirst certainly suggests this meaning by his vision of a "new [Australian] people". And yet, while he entertains a changed skin colour, all but one of his examples of cultural absorption involve migrants accepting the established Anglo-Australian way of life. The one exception involves a Vietnamese busker in downtown Sydney playing the didgeridoo. Unimagined, and perhaps unimaginable, are true-blue Australians playing the sitar. As Hirst himself notes, "new Australian" was the standard term bestowed on recent migrants in the postwar period, and it presumed their acceptance of the Australian way of life as they found it. For Zangwill and the "melting pot", the idea of a "new American" involved a genuinely new identity; Down Under, being a "new Australian" meant that one was on route to becoming an "old Australian".

Multiculturalism in Australia has relaxed some of the pressures and expectations on migrants to travel this route. However, pace many of its critics, multiculturalism has not radically transformed the landscape of Australian national identity. If there are changes in the future, they will have little to do with multicultural policy, and everything to do with the thinking and feeling of Australians at the time. In the meantime, we would do well to remember – or learn – that national identity is multifaceted and has different domains.

Some years ago, the American political philosopher Michael Walzer (Political Theory, vol. 12, 1984) described liberalism as the "art of separation". We in Australia need to master this art a bit better than we have. There are aspects of national identity having to do with Australian character that will naturally affect the way we govern ourselves, but which we can scarcely do anything about without warping them. There are aspects of national identity which are duly the province of government, such as the inculcation and transmission of a national language, the teaching of the nation's history, and the establishment of national institutions, holidays and memorials. And there are aspects of national identity that properly belong in the realm of civil society and beyond the business of government, such as how people dress, call themselves, or spend their leisure, what languages they speak to each other, and even in what accent they speak their English. Here, among the myriad relations of Australians, will also be forged the habits and sentiments and character of the Australian people.

Most of the time, our political leaders intuitively respect these different boundaries of national identity. The recent campaign to tie Australian citizenship more tightly to English language proficiency, however justified or efficacious such a move might be, treats an aspect of national identity that is properly the prerogative of government. Too often, however, our leaders entertain ideas of legislating the Australian character rather than national identity, and thus brook corrupting both. Or, with shades of Orwell, they seek to dictate the cultural choices of Australians in civil society in the name of "our values" when they are decidedly not ourvalues. Multiculturalism, understood as a set of policies integrating a culturally diverse society based on liberal democratic norms, helps to preserve the liberal art of separation. It is the antidote and not the poison.

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