Let’s declare the mainstream marginal

TheStar.com – opinion
Published On Fri Feb 25 2011.   Rick Salutin

The notion of multiculturalism is under coordinated attack, as Angelo Persichilli wrote on this page recently. Leaders in Britain, France and Germany have all declared it a failure for causing newcomers to “live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.”

Their key concept is that there’s a mainstream whose task is to unify societies against hostile internal forces sheltering under multiculturalism. As former Australian Prime Minister John Howard said, “You’ve got to have a dominant culture.” In Canada, since our mainstream can seem young and underdeveloped, they’d say it should be strengthened. It’s fine to build a cultural “mosaic” but you need that underlying pattern: your “mainstream.”

From India, where I happen to be this week, things look different. India is like the Ur-version of multiculturalism. Modern India’s founders, Gandhi and Nehru, saw it as a rich blend of all it contained, a synthesis of cultures like rivers, said Nehru, that “flowed in and lost themselves in the ocean of Indian life.” India was less the product of its tributaries than it was all tributaries and no mainstream.

It’s where Hindus, Muslims and others celebrated each other’s festivals and worshipped at one another’s shrines. For Gandhi, the 1947 partition into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan was horrendous, not only for the massacres that ensued, but because a divided India contradicted centuries of rich coexistence.

Since Nehru’s death, India has fractured internally along linguistic, regional or religious lines. Its total disintegration is routinely predicted. Yet, says author Ramachandran Guha, all the “churning” may have led to greater unity by giving diverse groups confidence they won’t be swamped by any one version of the Indian “mainstream.” Is it possible that its chaotic variety holds India together, reassuring people they can be different while remaining inside one country?

Take language. Pakistan’s founder, Ali Jinnah, said, “Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly.” But Quebec belies that. The more fully French it is, the more firmly it seems part of Canada. The fact it sends separatist MPs to Ottawa appears to reassure Quebecers that they can stay Canadian! There could be advantages to not applying a mainstream model.

It’s possible that the whole idea of a mainstream is flawed and mythical. Perhaps there are no real mainstreams. We worry that our underdeveloped mainstream will get overwhelmed or undermined by other currents — but that’s how cultures develop. They react to every influence they encounter. All cultures, including “mainstream Canadian” have been constantly undermined, “contaminated” and reshaped by encounters with others. It’s a fruitful, messy process.

So our own version of multiculturalism, which kindly allows distinct groups to set up little boutiques while they all genuflect to some unifying mainstream, is also unreal. At some point you need to have confidence that what you prize can hold its own, trust your fellow citizens, old and new, and hope something fine and hopeful emerges in the mix.

This is why the process of trying to define core or mainstream “Canadian values” is absurd. Many people think our public health-care system is an example of a core Canadian value. The CBC named Tommy Douglas The Greatest Canadian because of it. Yet before it arrived 40 years ago, a major argument against public health care is that it was “unCanadian.” Some core value.

The search for a Canadian mainstream should probably be left to the beer ads. (“You’ve worn a canoe for a hat. . . You feel kind of bad reclining your seat in an airplane. . . And you recycle!”) They do it well, don’t take it too seriously, have the ring of truth, and are unlikely to lead to sectarian slaughter.

The point is: even if there is some Canadian essence, trying to define it is a joke. Literally. You want mainstream — watch a beer ad. Or just order a beer.

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