Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of cell phones and flash mobs

I am not a fan of cell phones. Four years ago when I had to leave the apartment for extensive remodeling, I got one, but discarded it almost as soon as service on my land line was restored. Today like many other folks on the “wrong” side of the digital divide, I walk the city streets in dismay. I am disconcerted by the fetish-like attachment young people show towards the devices. Constantly yapping into them about nothing much at all, they seem desperate to convey the message: “See I’m not a loser; I have FRIENDS.”

Of course, there are exceptions. Two people I know have serious medical conditions, and require the cell phone in case of necessity when they are out of their homes. Significantly, these people are not cell-phone addicts, but use the instruments only when there is good reason to do so.

I do give cell phones credit for one thing: they have helped to cut down on street crime. When a mugging is threatened, either the victim or a good Samaritan standing by can call the police. The criminals seem to know this. But now they are adapting, as I will explain.

A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless collective act for a brief time, then disperse. These actions started as harmless pranks, reviving perhaps the long-dormant spirit of Dada.

Reputedly, the first flash mobs were organized in Manhattan in 2003 by Bill Wasik, a senior editor of Harper's Magazine. On June 3, 2003, som 130 people converged upon the ninth-floor rug department of Macy’s, gathering around an expensive carpet. Anyone approached by a sales assistant was advised to say that the gatherers lived together in a warehouse on the outskirts of New York City, that they were shopping for a "love rug, and that they made all their purchase decisions as a group. Subsequently, 200 people flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt Hotel engaging in synchronized applause for about 15 seconds, and a shoe boutique in SoHo was invaded by participants pretending to be tourists on a bus trip.

Ostensibly, this and other such events were designed to target conformity, but it has been observed that they also exhibit conformity, since the participants are acting according to a script devised by the convener. Flash mobs have also been hailed as a form of performance art. The resemblance to political demonstrations is only superficial, since there is no underlying agenda of social change.

About two years ago, however, the flash mob phenomenon morphed into something else: groups of young people, in numbers of twenty or more, would suddenly rush into a convenience store or other business and grab things, leaving quickly before they could be apprehended. In other cases, the mobs, usually consisting of people of color would attack white people.

Because of the racial element, the US media has been slow to cover these events. Not long ago, however, the outrage at the Wisconsin state fair in Milwaukee were too big to ignore. White people were simply attacked at random. The authorities seem reluctant to label the event a hate crime, though if it had been white people beating up blacks, there would have been no such hesitation.

For some time Philadelphia has been a major scene of these criminal outbreaks. Now, wisely, Michael Nutter, the city’s black mayor, has denounced them and imposed a curfew.

This sinister metamorphosis of the flash-mob phenomenon provides the immediate background of the outbreaks in London and other English cities where, once again, the gatherings were coordinated by the so-called social media. Here is one typical postings from Blackberry: "Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!)." Another read: "If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London."

It seems that there are issues of ethnicity in the British events, but it is not simple black-and-white ones. Instead, there is interethnic tension, with properties owned by South Asians, who are resented because of their relative prosperity, often being targets. Some white people have also been seen among the looters.

Nonetheless, the events cast a harsh light on the British interpretation of multiculturalism, which has encouraged ethnic minorities to evolve separately, sometimes under the influence of extremist spokespeople who sow anger and disunity.

To be sure, this is not an original observation on my part. In his recent commentary, prime minister David Cameron denounced thirty years of multiculturalism in Britain. He asserted that multiculturalism was incubating extremist ideology. More specifically, it was contributing to home-grown Islamic jihadism. He said,” We have failed to provide a vision of society [to young Muslims] to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and believe in can lead them to extremist ideology.”

Cameron is not alone in his strictures on multiculturalism and its failure to accommodate Muslims. In October 2010, Angela Merkel the German Chancellor, unequivocally declared: “The approach of saying, ‘Well, let’s just go for a multicultural society, let’s coexist and enjoy each other,’ this very approach has failed, absolutely failed.”

Not everyone will assent to these harsh remarks. Still, it is hard to deny that in Europe multiculturalism has not succeeded in delivering on the promises of its proponents. They envisaged that it would protect minority communities from the intolerance and discrimination perpetrated by society, while at the same time fostering a healthy sense of group identity.

In principle, multiculturalism is supposed to reflect respect for diversity and pluralism, ostensibly key elements of a secular society. Certainly, combating discrimination and opposing unequal treatment under the law were worthy efforts. Yet as time passed, left-leaning and liberal thinkers sought to extend the boundaries of pluralism, pressing for disadvantaged groups to be granted greater opportunities to enhance their religious and cultural identity in all aspects of societal life. In short the policy promoted separatism. Yet instead of reconciling the minority groups to society by recognizing their grievances, this approach served only to alienate them.

In Britain this trend has been traced to some seemingly persuasive remarks uttered by the politician Roy Jenkins in 1966. He said, “I do not think we need in this country a ‘melting pot’ which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one of a series of carbon copies of someone’s misplaced vision of the stereotyped Englishman… I define integration therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, coupled with cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

This became known as Jenkins formula. Policy makers adopted it to establish guidelines and laws for multiculturalism. In the course of the next forty years, this interpretation of multiculturalism seeped into almost every aspect of British public life. Yet it was tough going, for subsequently relations between the host and immigrant communities rapidly deteriorated. While many resist this conclusion, clearly there is a need to examine the wisdom and practicality of multiculturalism, British style. As a panacea for social cohesion, the approach has clearly failed.

Islam in particular does not subscribe to West’s notion of pluralism. Islam stipulates that life, honor, blood, property, belief, race, and mental functioning are to be protected and fostered by the Believing community. In such matters, Islam does not recognize individual rights: the community (ummah) is always paramount.

It follows that pluralism (or multiculturalism) cannot flourish if it is rejected by one of the major beneficiary groups. Thus there is a sad irony in the fact that Muslims were among the victims in the recent British riots.



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