Sunday, August 27, 2006

Multiculturalism is dead; long live multiculturalism...

At least some of the weekend papers were making something of Ruth Kelly's comments about multiculturalism. This piqued my interest because I had just read my dad's copy of Londonistan by Melanie Phillips. I'll admit that I read it with the intent of 'knowing thy enemy' since I enjoy Daily Mail bashing as much as the next person, and the review following is therefore entirely biased.

Londonistan makes a several stranded argument. These strands range on the sensibility scale between 'quite right', 'that's interesting and I'm sure you're wrong but it's worth further investigation to find out why' right through to 'a clear ten on the tinfoilcoveredcolanderwearingometer'.

The book accuses the British government of allowing extremists like Abu Hamza (he who watched too much Peter Pan in his youth) to operate pretty freely within the UK. Further, Londonistan claims that the government has continued to pander to extremists even after 9/11 and 7/7, has been weak in defending 'western' values like freedom of speech, has pretended that Islamist terrorism is nothing to do with Muslims and any disagreement from this line has produced condemnation as 'Islamophobic'. Melanie Phillips argues that the government has done this for three reasons:

  • The misapprehension that if they let extremists do exactly what they pleased in the UK, they'd be so grateful they'd leave the UK alone. Certainly, they'd go and kill people but they'd be funny foreign people in countries most of the UK population couldn't place on a map... so that'd be ok then
  • The British culture has been hijacked by a 'victim culture' where all behaviour is acceptable if carried out by the minority group since bad behaviour is a reaction to oppression by the majority group. An example of this is the upwelling of anti-Israel/pro-Hizbollah feeling in the UK. The government dare not defend British values for fear of oppressing minority cultures and generating more terror
  • British culture is morally bankrupt and thus doesn't know what values it should be defending. Values have become universalist and secular, focusing on the equality between cultural norms, multiculturalism and minority rights taking precedence over majority rights. This is a result of a Gramscist (he who did for small glasses and big hair what Marx did for beards) takeover where minority rights are deemed to be superior to those of the majority in order to destroy bourgeoisie values and create the cultural conditions for the revolution. Gramscism has led to moral decadence.
Now some of this is interesting and requires further investigation, some of this is entirely agreeable to a sensible liberal... and some of this is really getting into 'pencil and underpants' territory with a hint of tinfoilcoveredcolanderwearing.

The first argument I found interesting. It definitely warrants further investigation to determine if the government/intelligence services were really that cretinous. So biorayometer readings are pretty low on this one.

The second argument varies in credibility. A major component of statist thinking is 'labelising'. Original socialism viewed society as a clash between classes. Contemporary intellectual statists deal with a wider range of categories than class such as race, sexuality and gender. If there isn't an existing category then one is created (fattism - I jest not). The problem with labelising is that, to quote Stuart Jeffries quoting Amatya Sen:

To consider someone simply as a Muslim, then, is to deny lots of other interesting things about them - nationality, locations, class, occupation, social status, language, politics, Frisbee skills, inside leg measurement. Worse, says Sen, simplistic classifications nourish terrorism: "An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorisation of human beings."

The solution is not to consider people as members of multiple, equally simplistic categories. People are fascinating and multi-faceted; not a travelling agglomeration of numerous labels like a parcel dispatched by a neurotic sender. Once you accept labels are a convenient tool to aid discussion and not a description of real people, you realise many debates in the media are absolutely pointless. What is the purpose of discussing what 'career women' should or shouldn't do if you accept that 'woman' is a simple biological classification of a large group of very different people.

So I accept Melanie Phillips' critique of these statist beliefs but I disagree with two things. First, after rejecting these beliefs she proceeds to do exactly the same thing herself. It is very hard to condemn the grouping of people into oppressed, homogeneous minority groups, accordingly reject a global Jewish conspiracy, yet implicitly claim a global Islamist conspiracy to subvert British culture. You can claim that some people have this agenda but overarching conspiracies require a large, well-organised and homogeneous group.

Second, some of her examples don't support her argument. I don't believe that the British government avoided making a direct link between Islamist extremists and Muslims to 'appease' extremists or because it was pandering to 'victim culture'. They were probably just trying to stop a riot. I'm happy to make the distinction between Muslims and terrorists and Melanie Phillips repeatedly makes this distinction, but there are a lot of people out there who don't. For your average mob, distinguishing between a terrorist and dark skinned bloke with facial hair is probably expecting too much... especially if they can't spell. There is real evidence that if you're a dark skinned, bearded guy you can get a tube carriage all to yourself just by wearing a padded jacket.

I'm also sceptical about Melanie Phillips belief in a 'delegitimisation' of Israel such that it is 'now seen on par with apartheid-era South Africa' and that this has 'settled on the British psyche as fact'. I think she makes the 'Westminster village' mistake. This is evident when she switches between talking about 'much of the media', 'the British public', anti-war marches and 'at a social level, dinner party conversation is now likely to throw up not just the same kind of demonisation of Israel but prejudiced remarks about Jews being too powerful...'. Many of the people who went on the big anti-war marches were marching against Blair. The pro-Palestine placards were brought by 'rent-a-mob'. The two groups are not ideologically connected. The British public are probably less ignorant about foreign policy than some of the American public since we're a small island and it's more likely we'll have left at some point even if that was on holiday to Ibiza. But listening to local radio phone-ins, discussion focuses on local issues, public services and anti-immigration rants. People are neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine. So however biased the media - they're talking amongst themselves. Conversation at dinner parties in London to which the Oxbridge-educated journalist author of several books is invited are not representative of opinion in Britain. They're not even representative of opinion amongst 'liberals and left-wingers' or 'the British intelligentsia'. Melanie Phillips has pretty much devoted an entire chapter to complaining about George 'leotard' Galloway and BBC staffers.

I've dealt with the 'moral decadence' point before: a 'liberal society' is one in which the government does not prevent you from drinking and shagging random people, not one in which you have an obligation to do so. Multiculturalism in the strict sense of 'multiple cultures' is, likewise, a no brainer. Britain has never been a single culture featuring:

long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist

Britain has a myriad of cultures: goths have a culture and chavs have a culture. The Welsh certainly have a culture with their own language and television programs. If multiculturalism is, as suggested on Wikipedia about an encouragement of art, food, etc. from other cultures then do we really want to kill multiculturalism? Is Vindaloo really THAT bad?

But she really loses the plot around Chapter 8 where she writes 'in America, the churches have been in the forefront of the defence of Western values'. She talks about the Judeo-Christian tradition which led to our belief in fairness, democracy, liberalism, free speech, etc. One of her suggestions for tackling 'Londonistan' includes reintroducing morning assemblies. Let us be clear here: British evangelical Christians I have spoken to cringe at any association with US politicised Christianity. This is because evanglical Christianity is about spreading the good news about God, encouraging others to be open to receiving God. US Republican bible-bashing defeats the entire point - evangelical Christianity encourages people to choose to have a personal relationship with God. If you try to force religion upon them when they're not ready, then they're unlikely to be open to the word of God and salvation anytime soon. For further details, see here or here or here. But really, all you need to know about the US 'culture wars' is google 'John Ashcroft' and 'statue'.

I'm even more incredulous at her claim that our western values such as tolerance or human rights arise from our Judeo-Christian heritage as she does here. If you want to complain about the excesses of cultural relativism, then you shouldn't be culturally relativist. If humans have non-culturally determined commonalities then there are only so many ways to organise a human society and these traditions would have arisen somewhere else if they hadn't in the western world. The question is then 'what is the best way to organise a society? and given that other humans share many of our fundamental feelings and experiences, how should we treat them?'. These are political philosophical questions. There are better and worse answers and these are what we should be defending. Religion should keep out of government. The purpose of government is to help create the conditions in which the light side of memes such as religion, art, culture and science can flourish. It is not to determine what these should be.

Once you accept that any survey of the British public will turn up unsavoury, scary and plain loopy opinions, that some Muslims are perfectly decent and some are as tinfoilhatwearing as parts of Melanie Phillips' book (just like any sample of the UK population) and that the purpose of government is to facilitate productive activity then the solution to 'Londonistan' is clearly to institute policies that apply equally to everyone, and vigorously defend this overarching framework that allows people the freedom to worship, exchange views and conduct their lives without violence. In order to make it perfectly clear that the state is not an appropriate forum to grandstand about personal morality or religion, I would be in favour of disestablishing the Church of England and ceasing state funding of all religious schools (whilst permitting private faith schools) [it's worth mentioning that I'm not a secular 'no headscarves at school' nut. I really don't get why headscarves and school uniforms have become a battleground - surely people can apply a bit of flexibility and common sense to this... you know, tucked-in headscarves ok, discrete necklaces ok, huge pink mohicans/enormous chains/trailing scarves so that the school bully can strangle you in the playground = not ok]. The enemies of western values are then simply defined as the people who don't want to see this framework. This appears to include Melanie Phillips.


  • At 3:33 pm , Blogger Julaybib said...

    Arkoun, I think, suggests that we would be better forgetting the Muslim/Wset divide, and seeing both as part of the same Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture. There has long been plenty of crossover. Most court doctors in Elizabethan England were trained in the Muslim world. Ibn Rushd and perhaps many Muslim falasifa was extremely important in preparing the West for the Enlightenment.



  • At 3:52 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    That's an interesting point that I didn't think of.

    I think some people forget that the library at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the world, our alphabet is 'Arabic letters', and that the Chinese were the first to invent gunpowder (although artillery and not guns).

    1421: The Year China discovered the World suggests that some of the Portuguese developments in map-making were Chinese.

    So, yes, you could say that there's been a lot of cross-fertilisation between cultures throughout the centuries and that attributing particular political traditions to any one culture or religion is a bit futile. As that guy said on the Channel 4 program about the human brain - one thing humans are good at is copying each others' ideas.

  • At 9:18 pm , Blogger Bishop Hill said...

    "our alphabet is 'Arabic letters'"

    Surely it's our numerals (except zero) which are Arabic. I thought our letters were Roman.

  • At 7:17 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    You are correct; my slip.

    Our letters are indeed Roman (which is why Latin is easier to learn than Ancient Greek). Roman numerals were not as suitable for counting large numbers as Arabic numbers.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home