The policy options which have applied to immigrants coming to Australia have ranged from assimilation, through “soft multiculturalism” (which in this sense is no more than a superfluous post-modern code word for tolerance, or in the Australian argot, a “fair go”), to an extreme form of “separatist multiculturalism”.
To all reasonable Australians, assimilation has always meant no more than the expectation that migrants embrace the language, the core values and the institutions of the nation, particularly the rule of law, representative democracy, equality and freedom of speech.
It has never meant that migrants should abandon their cuisine, languages and culture. Australians have always learned and borrowed from these. And migrants are usually received with tolerance. Of course there have been and are exceptions as there always will be. Courtesy and tolerance can never be prescribed by legislation. But the elites had to put their stamp on what Australians had already achieved. So they searched for something new. And they found it.
Professor Emmanuel Todd is a widely published French historian and anthropologist. In Le Destin des Immigrés, Seuil, Paris, 1994, he observes that, rather than seeing racial and sexual differences as secondary matters, the ideology of multiculturalism was introduced to emphasise difference over homogeneity. Assimilation became a negative term. He writes that from the 1960s American academics - with a naive and perhaps devastating enthusiasm and at times working with both British and Australian colleagues - exported this new ideology to the world.
Yet as Professor Todd points out, the multiculturist wave spread over the European population of the United States at the precise time that there was “terminal homogenisation” of ethnic cultures in the US. Terminal homogenisation is when there is little left of any knowledge of foreigners’ cultural differences apart from perhaps their cuisine - and that is often reduced to one lone typical dish. In this soft and benign form, and if we were being mischievous, we could call this “cuisine multiculturalism”.
Unfortunately, multiculturalism was to take a more radical form, one which the population was not likely to endorse.
It is not uncommon for those with policy agendas judged unpalatable to the electorate to coat these under a word or term which is imprecise and can therefore have innocuous meanings and connotations, as well as meanings which have significant consequences on society.
One such word is “reconciliation”, which could mean little more in obligation than a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a sunny Sunday morning, and saying “sorry” with impunity, as inner city urban dwellers can.
Another word is “republic”, which in its minimalist form claims to mean no more than an increase in the independence we already enjoy, as well as creating the Australian head of state constitutional monarchists assert we already have. Others saw the 1999 version as a move to increase the powers of politicians.
Yet another word is “multiculturalism”, which is presented as meaning little more than tolerance of newcomers and interest in different cuisines, but which also incorporates an agenda for radical change.
When such a word enjoys the imprimatur of the academy, as it usually does, the great and good are almost guaranteed to join in what is in effect an aristocratic rather than a popular consensus for the underling agenda for change. This process has the additional advantage of providing to at least some of those involved a further assurance of their moral superiority over the masses.
As we have seen, in its soft form multiculturalism suggests no more than the proper toleration of pluralism within our democratic tradition. Such soft multiculturalism is a superfluous description of what Australians had already achieved before the elites decided to brand it, and transform it into a policy, sometimes even for political advantage. There was no need for the elites to take credit for this from the ordinary Australian.
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