I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. - Albert Schweitzer

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other. ... I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous – and people are not yet willing to pay it. - James Baldwin

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Willie Nelson has a remarkable ability to pick a line out of a song, wrap his voice around it, and deliver it into a microphone in such a way that, when it comes out of the speakers at the other end, it separates itself from the surrounding music and separates you from whatever it was you were just thinking about. It hangs there in the air long enough to sink in and register as something worth thinking about. I heard him do that the other night with this line:
“The world's getting smaller, and everyone in it belongs”.
 I've been thinking about it since.

Recently the BBC reported that Angela Merkel has declared that multi-culturalism has failed in Germany.

Here is Angela Merkel: 
“We are a country which at the beginning of the 1960's actually brought guest workers to Germany. Now they live with us and we lied to ourselves for a while saying that they won't stay, and that they would all disappear again one day. That's not the reality.

This multi-cultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other, this approach has failed, utterly failed.”
I know that there was a political dimension to this statement, but even allowing for that, I've got to say, and I don't mean to trivialize this, she doesn't seem like a very nice person. Perhaps that is too narrow and too personal. Let me say rather that she is giving voice to a spirit that is abroad in the world which shames us a species.

In the broad sweep of history, there seem to be ideas that we have of ourselves which gain ascendancy, explore their flaws and limitations on the stage of events, and are replaced in turn by different ideas. In the thirties, a tide of narrowly selfish, nationalist militarism swept a generation of young people into the maelstrom of world war. Advances in the technology of destruction have made a scenario of generalized all-out warfare unthinkable today.

The spirit sweeping the world today is a spirit of smallness and limitation in a time of unbelievable abundance. “Leave me alone” it says. “I'm having porridge now, and I don't want to be bothered with anything larger than my bowl of porridge.” You see it in nativist movements, both here and abroad, and in the tendency to ascribe poverty to the moral failings of the poor. The rich, by contrast, are intrinsically virtuous. This spirit of smallness divides, but does not conquer. It leaves us split into tiny principalities of identity, each with its own fortified castle keep. Each living in fear of encroachment by their neighbors.

Living in a multi-cultural society challenges us on many levels. We are conditioned from birth to ascribe right and wrong to almost all of the choices before us. How to do things, how we recognize personal space, grooming choices, cuisine, etc. These are the fabric of which cultures are constructed. It is natural enough that we should feel challenged when confronted by cultures other than our own.

But the truth is simple: Failure to find a way forward in a multi-cultural world is not one of the available choices.

For me, successfully multiculturalism can be summarized in two words: San Francisco.

I am a distinctly non-urban person. All of my instincts, all of my natural preferences are oriented towards rural living, but I absolutely love San Francisco. Going there is like finding an extra 300 horsepower engine under your psychic hood. It is the only place I know where you can get a taxi ride from a guy from Nairobi who has a Phd in psychology. He gave up a full professorship at Berkeley because he wanted a more direct and personal view of his subject for a book he is writing. He's married to a woman from Taiwan, who works down in San Jose as a semi-conductor engineer. Her gay brother has also come over from Taiwan. He works down on Market street as a stock analyst, but at night he plays pedal steel in a Texas swing roadhouse band.

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but that is how it always feels when I go there. It's got all the same problems as any large urban center, but it has a population that has become accustomed to discovering that in a city full of remarkable people with remarkable histories, it is a mistake to take anyone for granted. It doesn't matter whether they are selling you coffee from a roadside stand or performing brain surgery, everybody has a story, and everybody has a position of value. Concepts of class and role and 'place' break down and personhood reigns. It is a glorious, cacophonous jumble of humanity to be celebrated and enjoyed.  If we are to have any future at all, it is our future.
“The world's getting smaller, and everyone in it belongs”.
And so it is, and so they do.

I'll leave the last word to another old hippie song writer:
“Why on earth are we here, surely not to live in pain and fear?

Why on earth are you there, when you're everywhere?

Come and get your share.”


  1. If only multiculturalism wasn't so tiring. There's always the chance that your overtures will be rejected and your towers blown up. Many people are so risk averse that they just shut down in the face of all this diversity. They feel threatened by all the gays, or the Muslims, or the foreigners running the convenience store. That animus cause backlash and pretty soon there is real conflict where there originally was only one-sided fear. I don't know how to defuse this situation, or even how to communicate with the frightened Fox viewers. I feel separated by my acceptance of difference.

  2. Beautiful sentiment, beautiful prose, as usual. I'm so glad you started blogging.

  3. Russell,

    That is sort of the point. It is hard, or can be, but since it is unavoidable, we'd better start finding the upside, There is a hugh upside. Identity is a trap on many levels. In our personal lives it causes us to miss more than we see. It is also a much stronger determinant of our politics than any of our rational faculties. If we can begin to appreciate each other more directly as human beings, we open up the door to a more rational world. As to Fox and friends, let the dead bury their dead ... You know the rest.


    You are always so kind. In the future when I cause you to roll your eyes and wonder, "What in the hell was he thinking?", you must promise to share that as well.

    My thanks to you both.