On Optimism and Despair

December 9, 2016 | 2

“In your earlier novels you sounded so optimistic, but now your books are tinged with despair. Is this fair to say?” Zadie Smith‘s remarks upon accepting the 2016 Welt Literature Prize on November 10th, and the question of whether “multiculturalism” is a failed experiment. Read our review of Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, here.

is social media editor at The Millions. She lives in Brooklyn where she's currently working on her first novel. Find her online @kirstinbutler, and of course, on The Millions‘ feeds.


  1. Very few nations (barring, perhaps, North Korea, but I wouldn’t know, exactly) are monocultural. To the extent that metropolises have always worked, or not, Multiculturalism has worked, or not.

    It’s very popular, right now, for Editorialists to ask the leading question “has the experiment of multiculturalism failed?” because, for whatever reason, someone would like us to think it has. But in what way does this failure manifest itself (and in what sense are the manifestations particular to “foreigners” and their interactions with “natives”)? How many different languages are spoken in Manhattan or London or Berlin or L.A.? How many religions are practised thereabouts? How many styles of dress have we seen in these cities? How many types of music are heard? Consider the wide variety of cuisines. Have these cities, as “experiments”, failed? How far back were these cities *not* “multicultural”? Certainly, the villages, the backwaters, the tiny towns of cousins, verge on being microcosmic monocultures (or did before the advent of cross-connection-enforcing Hyper Mass Media)… but that’s why the word “provincial” has had the timbre of the put-down to it since long before any of us were born.

    As Smith puts it in her address, “At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind.”

    Regarding which comment I’d say that the “whither Multiculuralism?” question is being circulated, basically, by the people who are agitating to ban the Burka; who are these shears-wielding Carrie Nations of the changing room and the closet? The sartorial expressions of the Amish, the Sikhs, the Hare Krisnas… these doesn’t seem to trigger the crusading Editorialists quite the way the Burkas do. Maybe if the Amish were sitting on massive deposits of fossil fuel (which the US Gov didn’t have direct access to), the Amish would be under investigation for the multicultural provocation of their anti-Stripper look, too.

    I’m still curious about the results of various famous modern experiments in *monoculturalism* on a national scale. Well, there was the Third Reich, of course…

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