Multiculturalism is no longer a celebration of the best that each culture offers the human community. Rather, it has become the separateness that defines and categorizes cultures, to the detriment of us all.
Technically, multiculturalism means the coexistence, celebration and recognition of the equal worth of diverse cultures; the acceptance that every culture has a contribution to make to humanity and that no culture is intrinsically superior or inferior to another regardless of its stage of development, history or sophistication.
In practice, it recognizes that we all have something to learn from one another and that as a society, we are better off when adopting the best each culture has to offer.
Nowhere is the benefit of multiculturalism more apparent than when it comes to food. Historically, food was one of the defining characteristics of cultural boundaries and norms. Greeks ate Greek foods. Italians ate Italian foods. Indeed, what foods were acceptable to consume and how they were prepared was an important cultural marker.
Until recently, the idea that someone would ask family or friends, “Shall we eat Chinese or Italian tonight?” was absurd. Everyone ate their own culture’s typical cuisine. Not doing so was the exception.
We now have a truly staggering assortment of culinary options. This is multiculturalism at its best.
We forget, however, that foods like sushi or pizza, now very much in the mainstream, were, a few generations ago, strange, exotic dishes – very much on the fringe, if not beyond it, of acceptable dining options. Or, as one southern friend put it upon being introduced to sushi a generation ago, “If you tell me I need to eat it, I will, but where I come from we call this bait.”
Today, however, the left has turned the concept of multiculturalism into an instrument of distinctiveness and separateness. Rather than unifying us, multiculturalism differentiates us and highlights what makes us different.
This view has reached its logical absurdity in the left’s notion of cultural appropriation. This theory holds that the adoption of elements of a culture to which you have no direct link somehow constitutes a form of theft and represents an affront to that culture and its people. This is particularly true if previously one culture was subordinate to the other, as in a colonial relationship.
Going back to our food analogy, then, as someone of Italian-Maltese descent, I should only consume Italian and Maltese food. Anything else would constitute an appropriation, or theft, of another society’s culinary legacy.
The good news is I like pasta. The bad news is that pasta came from the Arabs. Forget the canard that it was brought back by Marco Polo from China and perfected by the Neapolitans, who opted to make it using hard Sicilian durham wheat. Along the way, it benefited highly from being combined with tomato sauce, a legacy of Peruvian culture where the tomato originated, as well as from the dairy culture of northern Europe.
So technically, you should be an Arab-Peruvian-Italian with northern European roots to claim pasta as a cultural legacy. Anyone else would be engaging in cultural appropriation. I’m sure there are such people around but whether there are enough to keep a decent-sized Italian restaurant in business is unlikely.
The left’s view of multiculturalism translates readily into the politics of race and ethnicity. Of late, the American media has been obsessed with the idea that the emergence of the “alt-right” is indicative of widespread endemic racism among Caucasians. President-elect Donald Trump’s victory has been explained as a “whitelash.” Presumably, everyone of Caucasian descent, regardless of finances, education, age, cultural legacy, gender, religion, language or employment, all share a common political agenda based on their melanin count.
Even President Barack Obama has gone so far as to argue that the failures of his administration were the result of endemic racism in American society. So 40 per cent of Caucasians voted for Obama, not once but twice, only to discover once he had been sworn in that he was not the deeply tanned Caucasian they had mistaken him to be but actually an African-American?
No, Obama, America did not reject your legacy because you are African-American. They rejected your legacy because it was a failure. Whether you had been Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, Asian or polka dot would not have made a difference.
Isaac Newton, one of the great mathematicians of all time, famously declared that if he had seen far it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. He did not specify their ethnicity, only that they had been brilliant scientists and mathematicians. In fact, they were Arabs, Italians, Slavs, Greeks and every other race imaginable.
Let’s embrace multiculturalism not as one more ethnic box to choose from in a census, not as a measure of what makes us separate, distinctive and different, but as a measure of what we have learned and continue to learn from one another. Let’s celebrate multiculturalism as the common heritage and destiny of humanity, and not as an opportunity to segment and segregate the human race into neat racial and cultural pigeonholes.
Humankind has travelled, in 10 millennia, from the Stone Age to the Space Age – in geologic terms barely a wrinkle in time. We’ve done so because we’ve taken the best that man and woman can offer and built upon it.
It’s dinner time, sushi anyone?
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.