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Has ‘Multiculturalism’ Really Failed?

Germany's Angela Merkel stirred up a hornet's nest when she decried "multiculturalism," but that reaction suggests the hornets hadn't been paying attention.

Chancellor Angela Merkel must have been surprised by the international outcry after her mid-October speech to the Junge Union (a German young-conservative group), declaring multiculturalism to be a "failed" experiment in Germany — "absolutely failed."

The speech was "widely seen as a lurch to the right," according to the U.K. Guardian. It was used as a hook for a Ha'aretz piece about rising racism in Europe and Israel. And the showboating Islamophobe Geert Wilders didn't miss his chance to praise Merkel for "breaking a taboo" in public debates about Islam.

Of course she did no such thing. She expressed a blandly conservative opinion, which everyone knew she held, about integration policy.

Germans have had about a generation to adjust to their country's new status as an American-style destination for job-seeking immigrants. For a good portion of that time, they were in denial.

"At the beginning of the 1960s," Merkel said, "[we] actually brought guest workers to Germany. Now they live with us, and we lied to ourselves for a while — we said they won't stay, they'll leave. But that's not the reality. And, naturally, the approach we took, of saying, 'Now let's be multicultural about this, we'll live side by side and be happy with one another' — this approach has failed, absolutely failed."

She went on to insist that Germans should try harder to make outsiders feel welcome, which (as anyone who has lived in Germany can tell you) is still a lecture some Germans need to hear.

"Multiculturalism" is a wonderful word for politicians because it can mean almost anything your audience wants to imagine. The tone of Merkel's speech flattered her party's conservative wing, and it worked like a dog whistle on anti-immigrant feeling during a season of increasing hotheaded nonsense about Muslims in Europe.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

But the content wasn't new. It wasn't even very conservative. Merkel said immigrants should integrate, and Germans should help. She used the term "multiculturalism" to mean something specific and perhaps unfamiliar in America, where integration happens without much government effort: She said parallel societies, in Europe, aren't working.

The veteran liberal columnist for the International Herald Tribune, William Pfaff, has taken the same stance for years. After the London bombings in 2005 he wrote, "A half-century of a well-intentioned but catastrophically mistaken policy of multiculturalism, indifferent or even hostile to social and cultural integration, has produced in Britain and much of Europe a technologically educated but culturally and morally unassimilated immigrant demi-intelligentsia."

By that he meant the radical Muslim preachers and writers in Europe, who, "like the anarchists of the 19th- and early-20th centuries ... have no realizable goals and make no meaningful political demands, only Utopian ones."

Pfaff, by the way, was also known to level his charge of violent Utopianism at the Bush administration, for dreaming of a democratic Middle East brought about by American force of arms.

But the irony is that Germans, with their shiftless grudging acceptance of immigrants in certain "immigrant" parts of town, have created more comfortable space for outsiders than the French. Germans, until recently, have been too cautious about patriotism since the Second World War to insist on "German" values or to make high-flown promises of justice to their guests. The French, meanwhile, have foisted a bright notion of "Republicanism" and egalité onto immigrants without then offering them jobs or true equal treatment under the law.

The results were hard to miss in 2005, when Muslim ghettoes across France burned in response to the deaths of two teenagers in a Parisian ghetto. People wondered whether the riots would spread to Muslim communities in German cities, where mistrust and xenophobia were palpable. They didn't.

Racial mistrust and xenophobia have risen since then, across Europe as well as America, and the reasons will be explored in this column over the next several weeks. Angela Merkel's speech didn't help. But it's worth pointing out that integration is not a bad policy goal — even if the ways it comes about may be surprising to ideologues of any stripe.