Forget diversity - we all want to build walls

It is not just the rich who separate themselves from difference, but whole social and ethnic groups
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The Independent Online

Integration and diversity: for as long as I can remember these two abstract nouns have defined, almost unchallenged, what constitutes a civilised society. Bringing people together and mixing them up - economically, socially, culturally, ethnically - is what the modern world should be about. We treasure these one-world images of everyone getting along - central London and Manhattan, the Sydney and Athens Olympics, the Coca-Cola and Benetton adverts - as images of the future. Tearing down walls, Berlin-style, is where we like to think we are headed.

Integration and diversity: for as long as I can remember these two abstract nouns have defined, almost unchallenged, what constitutes a civilised society. Bringing people together and mixing them up - economically, socially, culturally, ethnically - is what the modern world should be about. We treasure these one-world images of everyone getting along - central London and Manhattan, the Sydney and Athens Olympics, the Coca-Cola and Benetton adverts - as images of the future. Tearing down walls, Berlin-style, is where we like to think we are headed.

All too rarely does anyone stop to consider how very far the reality is from the ideal - even whether the world is actually moving in this direction. Take this week's tenth anniversary of the Northern Ireland ceasefire, honoured by the presence of that exemplary one-worlder, Bill Clinton. For the best part of the decade, British governments have preened themselves on this achievement. Around the world, Northern Ireland is studied as a model of how to tackle intractable disputes. Everyone forswears violence, everyone gets around a table, a few tantrums are thrown, and peace breaks out.

So why, we exclaim in self-righteous incomprehension, cannot everyone behave as sensibly? Why do Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnians and Croats, Serbs and Kosovars, the Kurds and almost everyone - why do all these fractious neighbours find it so difficult to take the first step? If the famously quarrelsome folk of Ulster can be reconciled, surely they can, too?

Except that the much-cited success of Northern Ireland is not quite as it is often presented. There is peace of a kind, but it is not reconciliation, and it incorporates very little of those two supposedly universal desirables - integration and diversity. It could be argued that even this uneasy peace has become possible only because all efforts at integration and diversity have been abandoned. Many Protestants and Catholics are now living more separate lives than they did during the Troubles. Walls have gone up, not come down, but these walls have at least allowed people to get on with their lives and feel secure.

Given this reality, it is hypocrisy of the highest order for Britain (and others) to treat Serbs and Kosovars - to take just one example - as racist bigots who seem congenitally incapable of doing the decent thing and living peaceably side by side. The enmities are, if anything, older and sharper than in Northern Ireland. There are many centuries of conflict, different cultures, different religions, age-old pressures on territory. Here, too, in the end, mediators may have to choose between marking new, clear divisions to facilitate secure coexistence and demanding integrity and diversity that will not endure.

This is why, too, those of us who have condemned Israel's "security fence" should perhaps have been more discerning in our criticism. Israel is, of course, defying the spirit of our post cold-war, one-worldist times by building this wall. If it is a pre-emptive land-grab, intended to shrink a future Palestinian state, this must be resisted. If, however, it is the most effective way, at present, that Israel can protect its citizens and foster normal daily life, is it so very bad? Yesterday's suicide bombs, it should be noted, came after one of the longest attack-free periods and in a place where there is no fence.

Our one-worldist hypocrisy goes further than this. People have a well-chronicled preference to live with others like them. In countries such as the US, and to a lesser extent, Britain, the better-off can buy this privilege. They can, if they choose, opt out of communal life almost entirely, retreating behind the walls of gated communities, dining in clubs, sending their children to private schools, being treated in private hospitals. To a European, one of the most striking features of the US, following the de facto racial segregation that persists more than 30 years after equal rights legislation, is the growing voluntary economic segregation, which can hardly be legislated for.

Segregation of the super-wealthy and well-paid foreign professionals is common in Latin America, in the Gulf, and, increasingly, in fast-developing countries such as Russia and China. In the US, and increasingly in Britain, however, it is not just the super-rich and landed aristocracy who separate themselves from difference, but whole social and ethnic groups.

When separation on strict racial lines was dictated by government, it was called apartheid and rendered South Africa a pariah. "Separate but equal" has similarly negative connotations, because we know, from the experience of America's black population, that it is a euphemism for segregation by race. But what should be the response to lives lived separately by choice? Might it not be time to revisit the unconditional primacy we have given to integration and diversity?

Preaching one-worldism is one thing; living it is something else - something increasingly left to those without the means to choose. Do those of us living safe behind our fences have the right to condemn those living unhappily together for getting into fights? Perhaps what is really happening in Northern Ireland is a more appropriate model for future harmony than we think.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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