Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Diversity


A lot of liberals are fucking cowards.  I take no (or at least not much) pleasure in this proclamation.  But, these are my people, so I have the right to say this.  Sometimes I complain about Russians.  I feel I have earned a little leeway in discussing a culture I’ve become so close to.  I’m careful though, I know that I am still, and always will be, an outsider in Slavic affairs.  With liberals though the gloves are off.  These are my people and I know the word “fucking” probably offends the delicate sensibilities of a great many of them.  Good.  American liberals could do with getting a bit more pissed off now and then. 

I have a recurring argument about “diversity” and it’s always with liberals, folks of various backgrounds, ethnicities and educational levels, but always liberals.  It tends to start something like this: 

“Where are you from?” 

“I’m Sudanese,” said with a distinct American accent.  

“Did you study in the United States?”

“Actually, I was born in the United States, but my parents are from Khartoum and we would go back for visits all the time.”  

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“Silver Springs, Maryland.” 

“College?”

“Columbia.”

“So you’re American.”

“Well…  I have an American passport.”

“Did you find it in a bus station?  Steal it?  Is it your passport?” 

“It’s my passport.” 

“So ethnically you’re Sudanese, but your nationality is American.”

“I’m Sudanese.”

I’ve had conversations of this type more times than I care to recount.  Often, with second-generation immigrants, but sometimes it’s a proxy argument with native-born (mostly white) Americans who feel they’re defending “diversity” – but, always with people who consider themselves liberals.  At its root, the argument is about citizenship versus ethnicity, but that’s not all it’s about.  It’s also about what citizenship means.  In multi-cultural societies there is a constant tension between ethnicity, religion and citizenship.  Our identities are wrapped up in all three.             

I happened to be in Kyiv during the tail end of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004.  The “Orange Revolution” was about a lot of things: the influence the Russian Federation should have in the former Soviet States (the so called, “near abroad”), the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and questions of ethnicity & citizenship.  Was Ukrainian a nationality or just an ethnicity?  The answer is it’s both, but that answer wasn’t (and still isn’t) so clear for a lot of Russians and Ukrainians.  Many Russians and Ukrainians think of themselves as “ethnic cousins” of a sort, and still the tension persists.  One thing the “Orange Revolution” helped convince me of is that nationality matters.  It’s more than just a passport.  It’s part of our identities. 

We black Americans have had our own struggles with what citizenship means.  The comedian Chris Rock said that black Americans view the United States like a rich uncle who paid for our college education, but sexually abused us.  Maybe.  But, I never felt my ethnicity or religion (or lack thereof) excused me from the responsibilities of citizenship.  And that’s exactly what the conversation with our Sudanese friend above is about.  By not acknowledging her citizenship she was excusing herself from the responsibilities associated with it.  And that, to me, is an awful act of cowardice.  Citizenship means different things to different people, but it shouldn’t.  For everyone it should involve responsibility and participation. 

When I have the proxy argument with native-born American liberals who feel they’re defending “diversity” it’s something different.  No less awful, just different.  These people aren’t just saying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities shouldn’t have to meet the same obligations of citizenship as the majority; they’re also implying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities are incapable of meeting these obligations.  It’s the quiet insinuation that (for instance) there’s something about Islam that makes it incompatible with being a patriotic American citizen, so American Muslims should be held to a different standard of citizenship.  We shouldn’t expect Muslim Americans to serve in the military or run for office or be too involved in our public discourse.  In the name of diversity we should accept the fact that Muslim Americans are just too different for these levels of responsibility and participation.  It’s the worst type of ethnocentrism, that of diminished expectations and it’s sugar coated so that we hardly notice it.        

Defending his appointment of a Muslim American judge, Governor Chris Christie, didn’t feel the need to mention any special considerations for citizenship as it relates to Islam.  What he said was the following:

“I nominated Sohail Muhammed because he’s a good lawyer and an outstanding human being.  The guy’s an American citizen, who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey and the constitution of the United States of America.”           

I imagine it’s not easy being a patriotic American Muslim.  But, hey, it’s no picnic being a patriotic American atheist either.  We are the most universally and publicly detested group of people in the country.  One good thing about being universally detested is that you get used to having your views questioned.  It doesn’t offend me.  Quite the opposite, I relish the opportunity to get on my soapbox about being a Godless commie.  Atheists are rationale.  We like debate.

Why is the discussion (or rather the challenging) of my atheist values fair game, but the discussion of Muslim or Christian values somehow sacrosanct?  When your religious views inform your political positions, guess what?  They become fair game in public discourse.  Why are we liberals so cowardly about holding legitimate debate about ethnicity, religion (especially regarding Islam) and citizenship?  The Republican Governor of New Jersey clearly isn’t.    

During the dust-up over Dutch cartoons back in 2005, the much-reviled Ayaan Hirsi Ali said,

“I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny.  Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad’s teachings should refrain from drawing him,” or, I would add, discussing how his teachings mesh with the American concept of citizenship, “is not a request for respect, but a demand for submission.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a lot of things, but a fucking coward is not one of them.  

2 comments:

  1. I just read your World Policy Institute article on racism and the Caucasus, then clicked here and found this. Thank you for your years of humanitarian/civic service and for sharing the commendable sanity of your thoughts. I have nothing constructive or enlightening to add, but consider yourself bookmarked. Please keep writing and blogging.

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    1. Jake,

      Thanks for reading and for your kind words. Sometimes I feel like I'm blogging to myself; receiving feedback is exceptionally encouraging.

      All the best,

      Dewiane

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