Tag Archives: multiculturalism

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French Unity and American Multiculturalism: Contested Grounds of Identity

In defiance of what the founders of the nation feared, factionalism has become an American norm.   But official France still gravitates toward the idea of a defined culture that immigrants must embrace. 

French government leaders and cultural affairs officials frequently express intense interest in preserving their culture, usually noting with alarm the rise of tribal identifications now common in American life. Both sides of the Atlantic now have activists working under the banner of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and new revelations exposing historic figures who condoned slaveholding and colonialism.

Although there are clear exceptions, French advocates asking for more social justice can face stiff winds of resistance from high profile protectors of the nation’s identity. Many, such as President  Emmanuel Macron, are vocal in affirming the core principles of the Republic over the particular claims of identity groups. For example, it was not long ago that the actress Catherine Deneuve and other influential French women signed a letter claiming that #MeToo was a “puritanical overreaction.”

According to reliable news reports, behind some of this wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be French is a fear of American cultural hegemony.  There is a broad concern that the young in “immigrant communities” have taken a page from American politics and are insufficiently grateful for their French citizenship.

Political currents especially on the American left now run in the opposite direction, favoring recognition for the separateness of various identity groups. But official France still aspires to be a single great society. Nationalists often see threats against “unity” in dire terms, feeding off memories of domestic terrorist attacks in and around Paris over the last decade.

In France, official secularism is a national virtue.

Even the broad political center in the Fifth Republic gravitates toward the ideal of a single great culture that all must embrace. For example, the National Assembly just completed debate on legislation that would oblige all organizations, including religious groups, to adhere to key secular values, specifically, the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and respect of human dignity.” Though not stated, the primary goal of the legislation is to combat Muslim “separatism,” especially where religious practices veer into the public sector. For example, hijabs (head coverings) for Muslim women are banned in French schools. By contrast, North Americans are more likely to see the denial of the right to wear a head covering as an infringement on a person’s religious freedom.

Defining and embracing national identity is a tricky game of perceptions. Many in the United States now think that the once simple invocation of the “national interest” is now bridge too far, as the hardening of political differences in the last election so clearly demonstrated. In defiance of what the founders feared, factionalism is becoming an American norm. And with it, interest in identity has shifted to communities that want to define their own practices and preferences, including having a say about what others may appropriate as their own. It is now more routine for Americans to ponder whether a straight actor should portray a gay character in a play or film, or whether a special condition such as autism can be suitably represented by non-autistic actors. These samples are representative of groups asserting authority over the use of what they see as their unique community property, whether it is particular experiences, cultural products, names or sensibilities. Who should wear tribal clothing or jewelry?  Can a sports team use an anglicized version of a name for an indigenous group?  In short, who gets to tell a specific community’s story?  These are now frequent American questions, where the pronoun “our” is tribal as much as it is nationalistic. That’s a different emphasis than is common in French thinking, where the pronoun is more or less meant to cover the entire culture: a nation of 67 million souls set apart from the rest of the world.

It is an irony that one of the guiding forces shaping the American experience was France’s commitment to its ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” But to many in Europe, America’s twin embrace of right-wing politics as well as progressive multiculturalism looks like a descent into destructive separatism.  When exported, these impulses seem like unwelcome intrusions imported as newer forms of American cultural imperialism.

Musical Bridges

French-Lebanese trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf at the Montreux Jazz Festival, July 13.     REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

The nation’s political culture is as barren as a dry lake bed. Luckily we have better models.

Those of us who congratulate ourselves on the serious political issues we address may not be doing our mental health any favors. There are clearly risks to investing too much time in a news agenda that has largely been set by an incompetent Congress and a clueless White House. The issues matter, of course. But their public rhetoric is devoid of nuance and substance, a notable contrast to private lives filed with more generosity, acceptance of differences, and pleasure in the talents of others. They remind us that the nation’s political culture is as barren as a dry lake bed.  When did our politics get so small? We need better models. Fortunately they are around us if we take time to look.

I’m always struck by the interpersonal richness that is all around especially in summer music festivals. Music re- energizes depleted bodies. And festivals seem to flourish everywhere, including the mainstays in Austin, Montreux, Southern Ontario and the Berkshires. What they all have in common is what our politics misses: a regard for different traditions, nationalities and sensibilities. Attend the jazz festival in stunning Montreux next to Lake Geneva and you will hear musicians from South Africa, Sweden, France, the US, Britain, Japan, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. The festival sometimes features a killer band of players from the Swiss Army (!) performing the arrangements of Count Basie and Quincy Jones. The freshness of these collaborations is as bracing as the air from the nearby Alps.

  When did our politics get so mean and small?

Music does what our national politics can’t; it easily melds differences, synergizing them into something better. Music is transcendent. It makes differences irrelevant. I have a CD of the George Frideric Handel’s old war horse, Messiah. This familiar 18th Century oratorio was written by a German who lived in London and premiered the work in Dublin. My Swedish recording features a Japanese chorus with British singers: the same kind of crazy-wonderful mix of nationalities that would be familiar to both opera-goers and visitors to festivals in various corners of the world.

The quintessential Italian composer, Giaglomo Puccini couldn’t resist setting one of his operas in gold-rush era California. That landscape would later groom its own group of immigrant composers and eastern European musicians giving voice to the quintessential American art form of film. Franz Waxman (Poland) , Dimitri Tiomkin (Russia), and Miklós Rózsa (Hungary) were only the most visible members of an international group of composers and players that set up shop in Culver City. Who knew that one of the most “American” of films, Friendly Persuasion (1956), was scored by a Russian? The pattern continues, with music for recent films like La La Land (2016) with a score by Justin Hurwitz (Milwaukee) building on the influences of Michel Legrand (French) and Nino Rota (Italian). And for the record, the Prague, Czech, and the Royal Philharmonic have done definitive concert versions of many American film scores.

Of course music is non-stipulative; it evokes feelings more than the prescribed meanings of ordinary communication. We easily get tripped up when the world we articulate is not necessarily reflected in what others know. Even so, we need to embrace the virtues of pluralism and transcendence made possible by innovators who started life on the other side of our borders. Music is always a good place to look if we want to see how divisions are bridged. It offers the kind of cultural permeability we ought to cherish.

We are told “America First.” Why?