The post-colonial era is slow coming

“It seems like the ragheads and the Pakis are worrying your dad, but your dad’s favorite food is curry and kebab,” sings Lowkey, summing up the multicultural dilemma facing quite a few white Englishmen.

Peyvand Khorsandi provides another multicultural vignette:

Golborne Road, on the outskirts of Notting Hill in west London, is home to two Portuguese cafés, Stella McCartney, and my favourite burger van, run by two Moroccan men. I’ve been a regular for almost 10 years – the van offers no ordinary fare. A ball of meat goes splat on the griddle as it’s evened into shape while onions sizzle.

Money and Arabic banter are exchanged – when the meat is crispy brown an egg is cracked open, stuffed alongside the patty into a heated bun with a sprinkle of chopped salad, fries and some warm, homemade, tomato sauce (fried prawns optional).

I am usually finishing off my second bowl of soup – they do a mean bean, lentil and pea – when the beaming parcel of beefy goodness is handed to me, smiling as a good burger should.

On Fridays Mohammed and Aziz repair to a mosque in the converted building opposite – customers find the van shut from around 12.30pm to 2pm. Caterers should hold these hours sacred but Mohammed and Aziz, as their prices testify, are not about money. The van’s closes for Ramadan.

The punters are largely Moroccan men but you do see Bohemian non-Moroccan women and men of all ages stopping off for a bite, too.

In the background the magnificent Trellick Tower — a hive of different people and cultures living next-door to, and on top of, each other — literally looks down on the rest of us.

If German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration this weekend that multiculturalism has been an utter failure, was to be reduced to a motto, it might be this: we don’t want you, we just want your stuff.

That stuff includes all kinds of things from food, to cheap labor, to exotic artifacts, to land. But the one thing it excludes is non-native culture in the form of people.

If multiculturalism has failed it is only in as much as it has been conceived as a method for grappling with the legacy of colonialism. The problem with that notion is that colonialism hasn’t ended; it simply can’t be delineated on maps as clearly as it once could.

Meanwhile, out in the state that views itself as the most dangerous outpost of Western civilization, the old-fashioned colonial land-grabbing mindset was never more clearly expressed than it was a couple of years ago by Uzi Arad, currently Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser. When asked whether it was time to abandon the two-state solution (and by implication for Israel to annex the West Bank) he responded: “We want to relieve ourselves of the burden of the Palestinian populations — not territories. It is territory we want to preserve, but populations we want to rid ourselves of.”

If there should be any doubt that we in the West remain shackled to mindsets shaped by colonialism, just look at the ever-widening chasm that separates Barack Obama as the embodiment of hope from Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States.

The only chance that our multicultural president could be enticed to take an action requiring only a modicum of political daring during his upcoming trip to India — to visit Amritsar’s Golden Temple where head coverings are obligatory — would have been if the Sikh religious custodians of the temple deemed a baseball cap acceptable. The don’t. (As a reader here suggested in jest: “Why can’t he just wear a kippah? It would fulfill the requirement, and he loves sucking up to the Israelis.)

Tunku Varadarajan asks:

[W]hat does this decision to avoid Amritsar tell us about how this White House feels about Americans? Does it feel that ordinary Americans will pillory their president for having associated himself with “ragheads” in Amritsar? Is this a variant of that elite condescension for ordinary folks who are “bitter,” and who “cling to guns and religion”?

That Obama can’t find a way to explain the symbolism of a little square of cloth on his head — placed there by enthusiastic, welcoming Indian hosts who wish him and America well — suggests that he has lost confidence in his own intellect, his own charisma, his own eloquence. A man once celebrated for his promise of change now allows a state visit to be shaped by his fear of the blogosphere — and by his fear of abuse that might come at him from an ignorant subset of the American population. Let’s just call it the pygmification of a president, and lament the gutlessness of this White House.

The operative fears here no doubt include all those Varadarajan lists but he omits the most obvious one, the one that was probably decisive: the reasonable expectation that images of Obama with head covered, showing his respects at a foreign domed temple would feature in GOP attack ads during the 2012 presidential campaign. The political value of such images suggests that the “ignorant subset” this commentator dismisses, penetrate much more deeply into mainstream America than he cares to admit.

Obama’s failing — and it is unforgivable — is that rather than challenge prevailing prejudices he has chosen to accommodate them.

When he meets India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — note that he is a Sikh in a majority Hindu nation — will Obama muster the courage to put his hands together and say namaste?

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6 thoughts on “The post-colonial era is slow coming

  1. Christopher Hoare

    That America suffers from a colonial legacy, without ever having many colonies (just Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii) to garnish an imperial crown would probably amuse Queen Victoria. It’s all in the mindset, not the flag.
    As for the Brits — I’m sure Kipling never dreamed what the legacy of the “White Man’s Burden” would be. I’m all for the curry and kebabs, but you mean the little shack that used to serve meat pies, chips, and baked beans under the Hungerford railway bridge has gone? Sic transit gloria triclinium.

  2. Norman

    There is a solution, one that takes courage, but apparently “O” doesn’t possess! He wore the little scarf that the Jews wear, but can’t summon the stuff to wear the one for the Sikh people. So, how does he explain to the Right his meeting with India’s P.M. Singh? The easy answer if for “O” to be a 1 term P.O.T.U.S., thereby avoiding any further debate as to who or what he is. He’s gotten his fame, the first of his race, even though he’s of mixed ethnic heritage, which seems to be lost by all the Bigots on the Right.

  3. Alice

    In this political atmosphere, it really doesn’t matter what any Democrat, Independent or fair-minded individual says, it will be seized upon, distorted and displayed as evidence of evil intent.

  4. delia ruhe

    “the “ignorant subset” this commentator dismisses, penetrate much more deeply into mainstream America than he cares to admit.”

    I was thinking exactly that this morning when I read the headline at TPM “Dick Armey: Dems Are Voting Early To Commit Voter Fraud.” Like the “death panel” thing and the “birther” movement, unbelievably stupid things are said by GOP politicians because they know their base will believe them. I’m a political junkie and I usually enjoy elections, but I can’t wait for this one to be over. When did America get so stupid?

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