The writer Zadie Smith grapples with the meaning of the political lurch to the right in both Europe and the United States.
Does it mean that multiculturalism was a horrible mistake, the wrong road taken?
Her answer is beautifully addressed in a New York Review of Books essay. She explores how multiculturalism is simply part of the larger historical story that grows out of colonialism and other global legacies. There are many examples of diverse groups getting along fine, and other examples of the contrary.
It is wrong to think, she argues, that homogeneity of culture is any guarantee of peace and social acceptance. Think of the vitriol between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, who wear the same clothes and worship the same God while loading their bombs.
The alleged dream of 7 out of 10 Republicans to return to the idyllic decade of the 1950s and the homogenous white culture of the time is a false dream to Smith, because you can’t take only the good, you have to accept all the bad that went with it. Zadie Smith thus doesn’t believe in time travel: “Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.”
Zadie Smith reveres the incremental progress that since the 1950s has opened many opportunities, including the right to interracial marriage, the right to drink out of any water fountain, and the right to live where she chooses. “Such incremental change feels enormous,” she says.
Her conclusion is one that fits within pluralist and virtue ethics:
“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind…[and] there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”
[Thanks to Jack Fiedler for the link!]