Geoffrey Blainey: Perils of Multiculturalism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Historian Geoffrey Blainey, in The Multicultural Experiment (Macleay Press, 2002).]

CULTURAL diversity can have great claim and vigour, but extreme diversity, as modern history shows, can also be risky to a self-governing nation.

A nation has two main functions. One is to maintain or foster a good life for its citizens: a good life, materially, culturally, socially and politically. The second function is to defend the citizens and, if necessary, their liberties and way of life when the nation is in peril. It is true that diversity can help foster the good life, whether in restaurants or the performing arts, but there are nations possessing such a level of ethnic and cultural diversity -- and disharmony -- that the quality of their national life suffers. Likewise, extreme cultural diversity can weaken a nation's ability to defend itself.

The celebrating of diversity within a nation is, by and large, a relatively recent trend. It is still an experiment, a Western experiment. The encouraging of large and inward-looking Muslim enclaves in Western nations is a bold experiment. It is not paralleled by the setting up, in Muslim nations, of Christian enclaves in which Christians have full citizenship rights.

These Western experiments may eventually serve a valuable purpose internationally. Within Western nations, the experiments could well succeed in the long term, though that is too early to predict. The terrorist attacks on the US, however, were a shock to those who had lauded diversity as an automatic recipe for harmony. Diversity is a two-edged blade. It seems appropriate in good times. In a national crisis, however, ethnic and cultural diversity can be explosive.

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