Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Khat Calls

Last Friday, one of the unexpected speakers at the opening session of the Right Online conference was Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak. As Saint Paul has already reported, Rybak’s appearance was cordially received by the crowd even as he lamely inveighed that while we may think conservatively, we should spend liberally while downtown. After providing a bit of historical background on Minneapolis, Rybak proudly mentioned that of course now we have much more diversity in the city. He mentioned that over a hundred different languages were now spoken in Minneapolis as if that in and of itself were an unqualified good.

A couple of thoughts come to mind on this. First, as Saint Paul noted at the time, is it necessarily a good thing to have all these languages being spoken in the same place? The Tower of Babel isn’t usually regarded as an example of a well-functioning society. Secondly, does Rybak really believe be that in the past Minneapolis was a monocultural city where everyone spoke English and that it only recently became a multi-ethnic melting pot? I wonder how many languages were spoken in Minneapolis in 1911 when German, Norwegian, Swedish, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Danish, French Canadian, and Slovak immigrants (and their descendants) called Minneapolis home.

But that’s not the sort of diversity that Rybak had in mind. Right after talking about all the languages that were now being spoken in his city, Rybak followed up by bragging that Minneapolis now has the largest number of Somalis outside of Mogadishu.

While there was no audible reaction from the crowd, you could tell that people were taken aback by that statement. There were quizzical glances exchanged and much head-scratching ensued. Really? And this a good thing why?

If Rybak had intended to use this as an example of the kind and caring nature of Minnesotans—we took in these refugees from a war torn land and provided them a new life—it might have been defensible. But no such connection was made. Instead it was stated as a simple matter of fact: we have a large number of Somalis living in Minneapolis and obviously that’s good. Because they’re minorities—good ones too since they combine racial and religious minority status—and we all know that the more minorities you have, the better city you have.

Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence that this is true. No one ever says that Minneapolis is better than say Milwaukee because we have more Somalis than they do. The quality of life ratings conducted by various groups don’t give you bonus points based on the number of Somalis you have living in your town. But none of that matters to RT Rybak and the diversity bean counters. Minorities of any sort are always good and the more the better.

And don’t even begin to ask questions about whether there are some cultures that might not really fit in all that well or if these cultures and the values and beliefs they bring with them really make your city a better place or not. Such talk is racist, bigoted, and hateful. Any evidence that supports these questions is to be brushed aside and ignored.

The idea of diversity as a good unto itself is not to be challenged or debated. Instead it is to be touted as evidence of the progressive nature of your city and it citizens and of your own personal good. That’s certainly how it came across from RT Rybak last Friday.