Commentary: Diversity isn't easy, but it's necessary

The Miami HeraldOctober 24, 2010 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Multiculturalism has completely failed.

That's the assessment of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, in a recent speech before the youth wing of her conservative political party, the Christian Democratic Union. The idea that disparate peoples can ``simply live side by side and live happily with each other'' has failed, she said. ``Utterly failed.''

Merkel insisted that Germany still welcomes immigrants, particularly those whose high-tech skills make them valuable workers. But she conditioned that welcome upon a warning: ``We feel bound to the Christian image of humanity -- that is what defines us. Those who do not accept this are in the wrong place here.''

To put that another way: Muhammad go home.

Merkel's words have yet to gain much traction on this side of the Atlantic, but they have roiled the political landscape in Germany which, like much of Europe, is struggling to manage an influx of immigrants of Arabic origin and Islamic faith. The U.S. State Department reports that Germany is now home to 3.5 million Muslims.

So there are mosques where there were not before -- along with women in scarves, people with foreign accents, ghettoized poverty and a fear that some core aspect of the nation's character, its very ``German-ness,'' is under assault.

Last year, the head of Germany's central bank published a book, Germany is Destroying Itself, arguing that the influx of Muslims was lowering the nation's intelligence. He was censured and fired, but the book was popular and the country seemed to agree with its thesis. The Guardian newspaper of London reports that, according to one recent poll, a third of all Germans believe their country is being ``overrun'' by foreigners.

And if Merkel's declaration has received scant notice in the United States, that will likely change soon. Her words will surely be manna to the constellation of xenophobic bloggers and pundits for whom it is an article of faith that Muslims -- and Hispanics -- are agents of ruin. They would laud her contention that multiculturalism is unworkable and undermines national character.

Of course, America isn't Germany. America's mainstream culture is already made, and has always been made, of other cultures. So that if apple pie is quintessentially American, well, so are burritos, borscht, sauerkraut, paella and sweet potato pie.

That said, proponents of multiculturalism should concede this much: It is not easy, being diverse. To the contrary, it's a challenging thing.

Diversity raises questions that are thorny and defiant of easy answers. From the Muslim woman whose religious sensibilities required her employer, Disneyland, to design a uniform with a head covering, to arguments over a schoolbook some American Cubans thought painted too rosy a picture of that island, from debate over whether and how to dismantle the ``don't ask, don't tell policy'' restricting gay service in the military, to arguments over how and when Español es hablado in public, managing diversity often means managing a delicate balance between accommodation and coercion, between expectation and fear, between reverence for what was, then, and sensitivity to what is, now.

The only thing worse than living in a nation that seeks to achieve that balance is living in one that does not.

So with due respect to Germany, it is impossible not to consider the source here. We should all be alive to the grim historical resonance of a German chancellor declaring the idea of disparate cultures living peaceably side by side a failure. What, after all, is the alternative? Shall Germany officially declare itself a nation with room enough for one culture only?

For the record, that's been tried already. And it didn't work so well, either.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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