Different Strokes: If a multicultural immigration policy imposes no obligation on immigrant communities to acknowledge and ultimately embrace their host nation’s most cherished traditions and values, then how is that nation to prevent itself from being reduced to a collection of inward-looking and self-replicating ethnic and cultural enclaves?
THE COALITION GOVERNMENT’S new “Culturally Arranged Marriage Visitors Visa” offers a powerful demonstration of multiculturalism at work. It signals to all those persons intending to settle in New Zealand that their traditional cultural practices will not be forbidden or discouraged by the authorities of their prospective new home. Regardless of how jarring those practices might be to the native-born population, official tolerance is guaranteed.
The cultural phenomenon of arranged marriages is widespread in the Developing World – with good reason. In traditional cultures, the extended family and its resources – both social and economic – has for centuries been the most important means of protecting and advancing its members’ interests. In circumstances of crippling poverty and inequality, the institution of marriage not only regularises procreation, it also offers multiple opportunities for increasing family wealth and prestige. The personal desires of the man and the woman involved are secondary to the advantages accruing to both sets of parents (the groom’s especially) from these carefully arranged and fiercely negotiated family alliances.
Westerners find it difficult to accept the level of individual self-sacrifice which arranged marriages require of the young men and women involved. Our own culture long ago abandoned the notion that parents are entitled to expect the unquestioning obedience of their offspring. In traditional cultures, however, such expectations remain extremely strong. Defiance of parental wishes is not just frowned upon, it can lead to the offender’s expulsion from the family home; withdrawal of financial and emotional support; and, in the worst cases, to their complete disinheritance.
Historically, immigrant children broke free from the strictures of their parents’ cultural traditions by taking advantage of the host nation’s more liberal legal and cultural regimes to seek partners and establish families independently. One or two generations was usually all it took for the cultural traditions of immigrant communities to become more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Crucial to this process of assimilation was the host nation’s unashamed assumption of cultural superiority. Immigrants were told that they were joining a “modern” society founded on the principles of personal liberty, private property and human equality. Clinging to the ideas and practices of the “old country” was not the way to make “progress” in the new.
This “Melting Pot” approach to resolving the cultural tensions inherent in mass immigration worked relatively well in the age of “scientific racism”. This was because the diverse cultural practices of European ethnicities could be subsumed, in the racist ideology of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, by lumping them all under the broad category of “Caucasian”. In essence, the Melting Pot “worked” because the only peoples thrown into it were white. The populations constructed in this way – especially that of the USA – are, therefore, best described as multi-ethnic, rather than multicultural, societies.
It is significant that the assimilation processes which transformed Europe’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” into “Hyphenated Americans” – as in Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans and, more grudgingly, Jewish-Americans – were simply not equal to the task of assimilating either the descendants of former slaves or, until quite recently, immigrants from Asia. In this regard, New Zealand and the USA have much in common. In both countries the hatred for Asian immigrants – the Chinese in particular – was so intense that their respective governments were obliged to pass legislation which viciously restricted Asian immigration.
The scientific racism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries also accounts for the dramatic difference between the way Australians treated “their” indigenous peoples as compared to the way Pakeha New Zealanders treated the Maori. According to leading New Zealand historian, James Belich, a small monograph entitled The Aryan Maori goes a long way to explaining the difference in treatment.
Penned by Edward Tregear, a senior and well-respected public servant, The Aryan Maori purported to prove that the Maori were a far-flung offshoot of the Caucasian (or, as they preferred to say in those days, “Aryan”) race. Whether Tregear truly believed this claim, or whether he made it up for the express purpose of bringing the races together, is difficult to establish. The important point is that it worked. The idea that Maori and Pakeha were racially kindred was reiterated everywhere: in political speeches, newspaper articles and school textbooks. In Belich’s own words, The Aryan Maori “arguably ranks with the Treaty of Waitangi as a key text of Maori-Pakeha relations.”
Alas the Australian Aborigines had no Edward Tregear to soften the extreme racial prejudice of Australian settler society.
Influential monographs aside, the driving conviction of European settler societies was that they represented the distillation of all that was most admirable in the “old world’s” civilisation. In these far-flung outposts of the West, the “pioneers” asserted, all that was rotten in Europe had been discarded, leaving only its most wholesome influences in play. New Zealand’s national anthem asks God to “guide her in the nations’ van/preaching love and truth to man”, all in the name of “working out [the Almighty’s] glorious plan”. Or, to quote the Louisianan populist, Huey Long, in these “new worlds” it was a case of “Every man a king – no one wears a crown”.
Who wouldn’t want to assimilate themselves into the very point of civilisation’s spear? That’s the question a great many Pakeha still (very quietly) ask themselves. Scratch the descendant of a New Zealand settler, and the dull gleam of assimilationism, with all its vices and virtues, remains the most likely result. Much less common, outside the universities’ sociology and anthropology departments, is the deep cultural pessimism born out of twentieth-century Europe’s horrific self-immolation.
In the ears of post-war intellectuals, Europe’s claim to global moral leadership sounded obscene. What sort of civilisation could produce Auschwitz?
The First World War had raised all manner of questions about the moral endurance of the West – and the Second World War settled them. European “civilisation” had turned the world into a charnel house. And it refused to stop. In Vietnam, the New World appeared to have decided to carry on from where the Old World left off. Post-war Americans may have looked upon their country as a “shining city set upon a hill”, but non-European eyes saw only cities burning under American bombs.
The central moral question of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries thus became: by what right do Europeans pronounce upon who is, and who is not, “civilised”? After Auschwitz, and the Gulag; after My Lai and Srebrenica; who dares assert cultural hierarchies in which killers and colonialists occupy all the topmost places? And right up until the moment when the “wretched of the earth” started flying airliners into tall buildings and posting beheadings on Facebook, these were good – and fair – questions.
Here are some others.
In a world where no culture or ethnic group can credibly lay claim to moral superiority, is it not permissible for the citizens of a nation to demand that their government take particular care to nurture and defend its unique traditions and values?
If a multicultural immigration policy imposes no obligation on immigrant communities to acknowledge and ultimately embrace their host nation’s most cherished traditions and values, then how is that nation to prevent itself from being reduced to a collection of inward-looking and self-replicating ethnic and cultural enclaves?
Though the ashes of our fathers be scattered and dispersed; and the temples of our gods stand cracked and blackened; should not the voices crying out to save such treasures as still remain within – be heeded?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 November 2019.