»  National Review Online

March 13th, 2001

  Lessons from an Asian Yugoslavia


The terrible ethnic and separatist violence currently racking Indonesia raises old, uncomfortable questions about the ability of different peoples to get on with each other as citizens of a single nation. Indonesia is a huge and diverse place: 210 million people sprawling across 17,000 islands, with 300 different ethnic groups speaking 250 languages. Javanese Muslims, Balinese Hindus, Portuguese-speaking Christians and Buddhist Chinese jostle together with head-hunting forest tribes. You like "diversity"? Indonesia has it, in spades. The national slogan is, in fact, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika — "Unity in Diversity."

The country was held together for 50 years by military dictators: first Sukarno, then Suharto, the latter deposed following the financial crisis of 1998. The subsequent cycle of events has been compared to the one in Yugoslavia following the end of the Tito dictatorship.

Indonesia's troubles offer yet another lesson in the problem of keeping together a nation of disparate peoples. In fact they offer the lesson twice over, for Indonesia is both multiracial and multicultural. Multiracialism and multiculturalism are confused with each other in people's minds, and often taken for the same thing. They are, in fact, independent variables, or very nearly so. All combinations of the two things are possible, at least in theory. You can have:

 •  Type 1 — A monoracial, monocultural society.  Japan, for example. There are some small, scattered pockets of different cultures in Japan (immigrant Koreans) and different races (resident westerners, the "hairy Ainu"), but no Japanese would think of his country as either multicultural or multiracial, nor would he ever wish it to be either. The Scandinavian nations provide further instances. Type one nations seem, on the evidence, to be the easiest to keep in a state of harmony, though harmony does not follow automatically from type one status — Japan has had a very violent history. The usual objection made against type ones is that they are dull, missing the fizz and excitement of "diversity." I have never heard a Japanese or a Scandinavian make this complaint about his country; but then, to be fair, I have known very few of either nationality.

 •  Type 2 — A monoracial, multicultural society.  Obvious cases are Lebanon and the old Yugoslavia. The people of Lebanon are almost all Arabs, but have numerous deep cultural divisions — most notable, those between Christians, Muslim natives, and Palestinian-Arab refugees. In old Yugoslavia the people were mainly Slavs ("Yugoslav" just means "south Slav"), with a large admixture of Albanians in the southeast. There are significant genetic differences between Slavs and Albanians (Cavalli-Sforza's The History and Geography of Human Genes, which I am relying on for these remarks, draws a "sharp genetic change" line between them), but I don't think anyone would say they are different races. Culturally, however, Yugoslavia was divided between Catholic-Christian Croats, Orthodox-Christian Serbs and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians, with results we have been seeing. Northern Ireland is another case, though this needs some slight qualification, too (see Jon Entine's book Taboo, page 113). Nigeria, with its Christian south and Muslim north, also fits here, I believe.

 •  Type 3 — A multiracial, monocultural society.  The U.S.A. is the outstanding example, with some qualifications noted below. Other nations founded by Anglo-Saxons — the U.K., Australia, New Zealand — are more or less Type 3, with pockets of exception like Northern Ireland. Brazil seems to be another (I confess am working here from scanty knowledge). Mexico, too: the social gulf between Mexico's tall, white, European ruling class and her squat, dark, Amerindian peasantry is apparently permanent, but they do share essentially the same culture.

 •  Type 4 — A multiracial, multicultural society.  Singapore. Malaysia. Indonesia. Sudan. Israel? India — an interesting case, where the most important cultural minorities (Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists) belong to the same race, even the same language group, as northern Hindus, while Hinduism provides a strong bonding force among the racially very different north and south Indians. China, still more marginally, though enough so to give that country major trouble in the future, according to many experts (see, for example, June Dreyer's contribution to David Shambaugh's new book Is China Unstable?).

Some people might say that the U.S.A. is closer to a Type 4 than a Type 3. (This nation is plainly multiracial, and has been since the very first European settlements, and will surely continue to be into the indefinite future. It can, therefore, only be either a Type 3 or a Type 4.) Is the U.S.A. multicultural? If it isn't, should it be?

You need some definition of terms to get very far with this one. On the strictest standard, I suppose the teaching of foreign languages in high schools could be called "multiculturalism." (I am surprised, in fact, that the question of what languages to teach has not been much politicized.) More substantively, a nation of immigrants has no choice but to tolerate such undoubtedly multicultural manifestations as Polka bands, Old Hibernian societies and Knights of Columbus chapters. My own kids go to Chinese school on Friday evenings, in the hope that they will grow up knowing something about the language and culture of their maternal ancestors.

These are all private endeavors, though. I think an important line is crossed when government gets into the mult-culti business. At the margins, as the point about teaching foreign languages shows, it has no choice. We must equip our children with some knowledge about other cultures, and if you have a system of publicly-funded schools, it is they who are going to be doing most of the equipping. When government moves any deeper than this into multicultural sponsorship, though, I think it should be resisted. There have been some worrying developments this past few years, but so far as I can see the U.S. is not yet truly, officially multicultural, and this is a very good thing.

It is a good thing because, as the examples I raised above show, multiculturalism is a much more serious enemy of social harmony than is multiracialism. Nations like Indonesia or Yugoslavia, which were stuck with major multicultural issues from the day of their creation, have no choice but to try to make the best of things. The government of Indonesia can hardly pretend that its Chinese minority, or the Dayaks of Borneo, do not exist. Luckier nations like Japan, which was never in any serious way multicultural, or like the U.S.A., which has always made a conscious effort to assimilate different cultures, to bring them under a common allegiance, would be foolish to voluntarily set out on the road to multiculturalism — the road to Indonesia. Foolish? They'd be crazy.

There are, in particular, three big indexes of cultural identity that governments need to handle — or refrain from handling — with utmost care if a slide into multiculturalism is to be avoided. The three big ones are language, religion and history. In the modern world, other cultural markers like dress, cuisine and kinship patterns are much more soluble. It's those three big ones that people come to blows over.

To resist a drift from mono- to multi-culturalism, it follows that a government needs to do three things:

  1. Conduct its official business in just one language.
  2. Give official recognition to at most one religion (that is, either to one religion, or to none).
  3. Promote a single view of history and discourage, by whatever means are available — most obviously through the public education system, if there is one — radically different views.

That third one seems a bit dictatorial — even, perhaps, to an America, a bit un-American. I do believe it's vital, though. Imagine, for example, that the states of the old Confederacy began teaching kids that secession was fully justified, that the Civil War was a war of Unionist aggression, and that the current authority of the U.S. government in those states is illegitimate. This is not, as it happens, an unreasonable point of view, and I know some sane, thoughtful, well-educated people who actually hold it. Can it be doubted, though, that teaching it to a generation of kids in all the public schools of the old Confederacy would be disastrous to U.S. nationhood as currently understood? It would be as disastrous as would be the establishment of Episcopalianism, Judaism and Sunni Islam as joint U.S. state religions, or the declaration that the U.S. would in future accord the Spanish language equal status with English.

I doubt the United States is in much danger of falling to Indonesian levels of instability, but you can never be too careful. To the degree that the "diversity" cant we are surrounded with nowadays is just a public effort to help multiracialism work, I don't mind it too much. I believe that multiracialism probably can work, and anyway I don't see any realistic prospect of the U.S.A. (nor any other of the nations founded by Anglo-Saxons, for that matter) ceasing to be multiracial.

When the promotion of "diversity" slops over into official support for multiculturalism, though, I think a nation is dicing with danger, and anyone who cares about social harmony should have something to say about it.