The Bigger Picture: The City in the Global Village


A Culture of Democracy

But what is, what are these 'national identities'? They can be nothing more than the history - invariably mythologised - of a population, of a territory, of a state, with which people identify. As Renan said, a nation is a daily plebiscite. As for immigrant communities, they have to be able to share those histories, otherwise they will remain foreigners. And in order to identify with a sense of the past, they must find acceptance in the present. This has to be a process of give and take between the host and immigrant communities.

Members of immigrant communities can respond in one of three ways. First, they can assimilate; that is, abandon their ethnic identity and become wholly absorbed into the host community. For example, an immigrant woman might marry a native-born Englishman and relinquish all ties with her own native culture - that is, if the wider host culture does not stand in her way. Assimilation, however, came to be frowned on as multiculturalism became the status quo. But even so voluntary assimilation must be the personal right of every immigrant.

The second response is integration - what we call multiculturalism. With the rise of multiculturalism, assimilation became a bit if a dirty word. It carried the overtone of forced absorption and the devaluation of an immigrant's native ethnic culture. To integrate means to become a part of the wider community, but to retain a sense of one's own ethnic community. There is nothing wrong with multiculturalism, provided it in itself does not become a means of browbeating those immigrants who want to assimilate, and an obstacle to their assimilation. There is nothing wrong - indeed, there is a positive good - in ethnic diversity set within a strong, overarching culture of democracy.