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Melancholic fare

Print edition : May 04, 2007 T+T-

A book remarkable in its defence of multicuturalism against accusations of failure.

AFTER Empire is both challenging and relevant at a juncture when racism and multiculturalism are subjects of intense debate worldwide. The subject is of deep interest to sociologists and post-colonial theorists as it leads to enunciating a theory on the hierarchical category of race and its terrible consequences on colonialism, post-colonialism and nationalism. Paul Gilroy, who heads the Department of African American Studies at Yale, endeavours here to locate and identify the processes and strategies by which "Britain's spontaneous, convivial culture - a culture that is flourishing in Britain's urban areas and in postcolonial cities around the world" - allows the public to "live with difference without becoming anxious, fearful, or violent". Nevertheless, the work reminds us penetratingly of the built-in dependence of Western modernity on the idea of racial hierarchy and hostilities between cultural groups. For Gilroy, while cultural nationalism is always reactionary, the struggles of subjugated peoples should have the support of all counter-hegemonic movements.

Gilroy's account focusses on the political debate surrounding multiculturalism, raising questions whether the institutions of liberal democratic government make room for the recognition of specific cultural traditions. These issues are taken up in pressing debates on nationalism and identity, on problems of recognition and the democratic constitutional state. Drawing on philosophy's long-standing concern with pluralism and relativism, his views signal the advent of a more inclusive, tolerant and genuinely democratic society. Gilroy largely succeeds through the inscription within hermeneutical and rhetorical systems to counter the hegemonic bias of centricism with the aim of abolishing racist presuppositions in the study of a society moving towards a post-Empire "convivial culture", but always with streaks of "melancholia".

Notwithstanding the considerable resources upon which he bases his case, Gilroy works with a lightness of touch and a style of reasoning that make the exercise of following his argument stimulating. Finally, it all boils down to the paradox of universalism and cultural autonomy, which needs to be taken into consideration so that the politics of recognition and difference forms the basis of a critical frame that would counter any cultural imperialism that fails to recognise the marginalised. One way out of this impasse can be a more accommodating liberalism, which cuts down a little on the universalist aspect.

Contrary to individual assumptions, cultures and persons define their identity in continuous dialogue with others. This argument is problematic for the practice and theory of liberalism, challenging most obviously the universalisms of political identity. With the collapse of social hierarchy and the growth of ethnic minorities as well as the re-emergence of nationalism, a reconception and redefinition of notions of identity and authenticity call for the recognition of equality and respect for the autonomy of the individual and cultural groups. In other words, a non-partisan middle ground between extremes of universalism and individual identity is needed.

Gilroy takes up the interesting case of Ingrid Nicholas, who was told that she would be fitted with a pink prosthetic limb that did not match her black colour and that if she wanted a matching prostheses she would have to pay 3000 with no contribution from the National Health Service. Her experience "was projected as a powerful symbol of the difficulties involved in nurturing a multicultural society and adapting its fading welfare state to the diverse needs of a multiracial patient body". The nationwide uproar sent the valid message of the pain and difficulties of adapting to "Britain's ailing body politic". The state's refusal to fix Ingrid Nicholas with a black limb was seen as an outrage against her self-esteem. Clearly, such a case varies largely from the traditional anti-racist features of criminalisation of the black community, racist murders or the violent behaviour of the police system. Gilroy describes such racial division and hierarchy as "melancholic fare".

There is no denying that in a post-imperial Britain the intrusion of immigrants has produced a certain mixture of "melancholia and several versions of race talk". Though the `anti-Nazi' temperament has been kept alive in the public by these debates on racism, there is certainly a predominance of racial discourse that is not far moved from the Powell doctrine. This has been further exacerbated by the 9/11 tragedy, which is used to underline "clash of civilisations" as a justification for the ideology of pushing immigrants out. Here lies a "powerful warning to the would-be architects of a multicultural future". Gilroy says: "The presence of British and other E.U. [European Union] citizens among the hooded and chained al Qaida prisoners in Caribbean detention has confirmed this judgment and tied it into the explanatory power of civilisationism." Many people would see these detainees as wrongful heirs to British citizenship, a result of the lax immigrant laws in the past. "They have been among us, but they were never actually of us." They managed to infiltrate through illegitimate marriages that were used to bypass immigration laws. Such Powellite harangues damn immigrants as aliens who will perpetually be `outsiders'. Turning to terrorism is a genetic fact with such `traitors'.

If this is a stand taken by many intellectuals in Britain, there arises a need to give a serious critical thought to the aims of building a true multicultural society. As Gilroy argues, "it has become necessary to take political discussions of citizenship, belonging, and nationality beyond the dual prescription of assimilation and immigration control; the leftover categories of the 1960s debate". Over the past many decades, there has been no consistent application of the state to the issue of racism, with the result that a fragile policy, which only emphasises English language teaching to disenchanted non-white youth or obtains mere loyalty pledges from them, has had no concrete results for the very reason that such steps have no locus standi.

Gilroy calls such rationalisations the "negative dialectics of conviviality", blaming the state for staying clear of social-democratic principles and adhering instead to market liberalism and privatisation, which achieve nothing but "strangers and aliens as the populist limit against which increasingly evasive national particularity can be seen, felt, measured, and then, if need be, negatively discharged". Gilroy is inclined towards making "resistance to neoliberalism as global as capital itself has become".

The idea of racism is deeply ingrained in the British character, more so in the "class-bound Britons". One notices the slogan of "equal opportunities" highlighted in recruitments at many levels, and yet inequality is so visible when surveys show the lack of positions for non-whites in the judiciary, in the police force or in Parliament. Ones sees blacks featuring in advertisements or on the sports field, but that does not mean racism is over in Britain. Gilroy perceptively draws attention to the periodic anti-Nazi day instituted by the government to recall the genocide of the innocents, a tangible pointer to the Nazi racism that is being castigated here. However, the triumph over racism is not because of any progress in "modernisation or an indication of national progress. There is no governmental interests in the forms of conviviality and intermixture that appear to have evolved spontaneously from the interventions of anti-racists and the ordinary multicultural and postcolonial metropolis." Undeniably, the building of a new alliance between feminists, marginalised groups, gays, lesbians, ethnic groups, teachers, doctors and nurses has led to the development of a new hegemonic outlook based on radical philosophical and moral ideas. Consciousness-raising groups among women and self-help groups have developed new forms of social change. Gilroy's book is remarkable for its defence of multiculturalism against accusations of failure and because of his undying hope in the natural conviviality of young people for whom a strong sense of `racial' difference is ridiculous.

In a racist society, cognizance must be taken of citizens who come together to form a community and who must grant one another equal rights. Habermas is right when he says that their "demand for respect is aimed not so much at equalising living conditions as it is in protecting the integrity of the traditions and forms of life in which members of groups that have been discriminated against can recognise themselves". Gender, race and ethnicity cannot be disregarded and cultural difference has to be respected though it opposes the West's anti-communitarian, self-centred individualism with its disproportionate focus on individual autonomy.

The white race knows it must stop the political fury against racism. But not many are ready to speak out against the establishment. Those who do succeed in empowering the cause of the minorities. There is an emotional aspect to this struggle for liberation and any serious infringement of mutual respect calls for a collective rage because it is only then that equality and justice can be won.

Forward-looking radicals should have the stamina to "talk race" but this is not easy considering the resurgence of white supremacist organisations that are oblivious to the traumatic effect on minority culture engineered through a system of beliefs and arguments that disparage non-white intelligence. Everywhere we see racial signs that dismiss pressing non-white issues and place the non-European at a racially inferior evolutionary level. To counter this biased discourse, the media, the theatre and literature must seriously engage in a radical and revisionist programme, to alter prevalent beliefs and racial stereotypes. Though it might hurt to talk about racial sentiment as the rage is so intense, it is vital to the cause of the politics of recognition that society does not delude itself into believing that racism has ended.