March 17, 2019

What the Irish taught us about multiculturalism

Sam Smith, Shadows of Hope, 1993 - The new multicultural community will work because it is jointly and severally proud of itself, leaving behind the self-hate that so often accompanies the hatred of others. It will work because there are adequate jobs for people of every group -- thus eliminating one of the primary causes of ethnic triage, and it will work because our educational system will teach not a prudish diversity but simply the way the world really is, which among other things, is very diverse. Our children will learn to enjoy and incorporate this diversity and as they do so will undoubtedly find it odd that their elders couldn’t get any closer to the matter than a rigid and legalistic sensitivity.

Perhaps this is why ethnic restaurants are among the most successful practitioners of multiculturalism in America. Why is it so hard for universities to deal with multicultural issues while the Arab carry-out across from my office offers a "kosher hoagie?" It is, in part, because most of us are like Bismarck who said when offered German champagne that his patriotism stopped at his stomach. It is also that the ethnic restaurant offers a fair multicultural deal: a good living for the owner in return for good food for the patrons.

For multiculturalism to work, we need a willing suspension of our politics as well as the creation of places where this can happen, both neutral places and places where we can participate in another culture that will leave us feeling that something good has happened. Outside of restaurants and ethnic nightclubs, this is now rarely available in America. We are not taught the pleasures of diversity, only its problems and burdens. We are seldom invited to enjoy other cultures, only to be sensitive towards them and -- unspoken -- to feel sorry for them. Thus, inevitably, we tend to think of multiculturalism in terms of conflict and crisis.

The restaurant analogy is not trivial. Political scientist Milton L. Rakove, credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that "became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city." As one politician put it, "A Lithuanian won't vote for a Pole, and a Pole won't vote for a Lithuanian. A German won't vote for either of them -- but all three will vote for an Irishman."

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