Stoking the multicultural fire

The Times today carries an interview with the new Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, complimented by a leading article. He criticises the concept of ‘multiculturalism’, suggesting that it means a trumpeting of other cultures at the expense of Englishness.

The problem I have with his views, and the way they are reported in The Times, is one of language. The words used to describe the concept of culture are past tense. For example:

… the essential part that Christianity has played in the formation of modern British culture.


England is the culture I have lived in, I have loved…. My teachers were English. As a boy growing up, that is the culture I knew

I don’t think this is a minor quibble. The implication is that English culture (indeed, any culture) is fixed and homogenous for a given set of people, and that by being in and around those people, you become 100% part of it too. In reality, cultures are fluid, changing things. Worrying that a particular culture is being marginalised is a pointless exercise. They are all evolving, and the better parts of what he considers ‘Englishness’, such as parliamentary democracy are hardly on the wane.

What is odd is that Dr Sentamu seems to be the very proof of this positive cultural evolution. He was brought up in Uganda, and has done well bringing his African roots and Ugandan Missionary Christianity to the UK, and to London in particular, where he advised the MacPherson enquiry. It is precisely his dynamic, ‘fire-stoking’ approach, borne out of his alternative background, which has allowed him to contribute so successfully to public life. Dr Sentamu’s very existence corrupts ‘Englishness’, and the English are the better for it.

I am in agreement with him on ‘tolerance’:

It seems to me the word tolerance is bad, because it just means “putting up with it” … I was raised in the spirit of magnanimity. That is a better word than tolerance. If you are magnanimous in your judgements on other people, there is a chance that I will recognise that you will help me in my struggle.

Moving on from simple ‘tolerance’ is at the heart of the multicultural debate. It is not enough that we simply live grumpily side-by-side. If this is what multiculturalism has become (both Trevor Phillips of the CRE and The Times seem to believe this is the case) then Dr Sentamu is right to be critical. But a multiculturalism that runs deeper, and sees the constituent cultures merge into something greater than the sum of their parts, is worth supporting. Christian morality may be a part of what we become, but everyone needs to accept that other parts of their culture will be left behind. Talking of Englishness as something fixed and tangible will not help this come about.

Second Class

Never mind the controversy over Hindus on stamps, it seems the Royal Mail have made an even bigger faux pas.

At Famous For Fifteen Megapixels, Stef points out that there is a notable worrying difference between the people on the first class and second class stamps. I don’t for one minute think this is intentional or even some kind of corporate Freudian slip, but as Stef points out, the results of thoughtless tokenism can be counter productive.

Watching a TV show or ad where a Black actor has obviously been drafted in to play the token ethnic friend in a group of middle class white people is truly cringe-inducing.

However, I think there is a difference between the kind of crow-barring that Stef refers to (yoghurt adverts, sitcoms etcetera), and creative projects that have diversity as a central message. The Christmas stamps fall into this latter category, along with the aborted British Airways ‘world colours’ livery, which apparently I was the only person in the country to like.

Israeli Spring Clean

On the surface, the political overhaul in Israel looks like a positive development for the Palestinians. The split between Sharon and his Likud over his ordering a withdrawl from Gaza, means the creation of a new centrist party. Coupled with an emboldened Labour Party under its new leader Amir Peretz, perhaps the snap elections will yield a better political climate for the Palestinians.

But in the West Bank, the new developments are hardly a cause for celebration. A contact in Ramallah says I am being naive: “Sharon’s approach to the conflict with Palestinians is that of unilateralism. By its very nature, this approach cannot work for conflict resolution.”

He is in two minds about the effectiveness of Peretz too, and its difficult to predict whether he will be a friend or foe of the Palestinians. Although Peretz has said that the occupation is a moral and economic burden for Israel, and wants to resume negotiations with the PLO, he said recently he supports a ‘united’ Jerusalem, meaning he would maintain the occupation of East Jerusalem. Nor does the new Labour leader support the refugees right of return, to their homes in Israel.

“At this point, the situation is so stark, that Palestinians get excited by any Israeli politician announcing publicly that he is even willing to talk to us,” says my friend, cynically. A new government may bring a freshness to the Knesset, but it seems less likely that spring elections will clean up the mess of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The ethics of Tetley Tea Bags

a packet of teabagsEthical consumerism begins at home, and what could be more homely than a nice cup of tea? If we are to hold governments and big buisness to government, It’s important we question those every day things too. Otherwise we’re just a bunch of hypocrites.

Dear Sir/Madam,

In a moment of idleness as I waited for my cup of Tetley tea to perculate, I pondered the shape of your tea bags. If my memory serves me correctly, Tetley pioneered the round tea-bag, with a memorable animated advert based on a Beach Boys classic “I Get Around”. However, it occurred to me that circles cannot tesselate, and therefore the cutting of the bags must create some waste, where a square tea-bag would not.

While considering waste, I noticed that a whole new “50% extra” packet of 40 tea-bags was taped to the standard 80 tea-bag packet, rather than a new packet that would have used less packaging. Finally, I noted on the packet that Tetley tea is grown in India, Sri Lanka and Africa, but no ‘fair trade’ or environmental sysmbols are present on the pack.

By the time my tea was brewed, I had compiled a list of several questions for your team:

  1. How much paper waste is produced by Tetley in the manufacture of round tea-bags?
  2. Do you have a recycling policy?
  3. Do you have a strategy for reducing waste in your packaging? Do you think the excess packaging caused by your 50% offers are appropriate?
  4. What is your ethical policy towards growers in India, Sri Lanka and Africa? How do the wages they earn, and the prices they are paid for their tea, compare to the UK retail price?
  5. As an obvious market leader, why do you not have any Fair Trade or environmental accreditations?

I would be very grateful if you could provide answers to these questions. Your product is of a very high standard, but I believe your brand could be enhanced further by addressing the issues raised above.

Yours sincerley, etcetera.

I hope they reply. I should point out that Tetley do produce an organic range of tea-bags, but the method of growing is not relevant to the environmental impact of the packaging, nor to the way a company treats its employees and suppliers in developing countries.

PG Tips will be getting a letter soon too, but I don’t really trust those monkeys not to eat it or something.

The Blog Bubble

As Open Source Media launches as a huge aggregate of blogs, bloggers and journalists, and Tim Worstall’s book hits the shelves, the blogosphere is itself under the spotlight again. We are always told that the media likes nothing better than a story about itself. Perhaps the debates about the future and nature of blogging are a signal of a growing maturity of the medium.

In a three line post, Cynical Bastard suggests that one day the blog bubble might burst. I wonder what he means by that?

When the dot-com bubble apparently burst, it wasn’t the concept of web-pages that was discredited, or the concept of having a company web-page… or even the concept of doing business on-line. It was merely the idea that money could be made faster and easier online, without the constraints that business traditionally had to deal with. When it became apparent that the same rules of business applied to online services as to the other industries, people stopped over-inflating the value of these companies, and investments were made in a less frivolous manner.

Despite protests to the contrary, blogs can survive without huge financial resources. While many blogs have the ambition to be hugely influential nodes in the network, I suggest that part of the point of blogging is actually being one very small link in that chain. That there are so many bloggers out there can be a strength, not a weakness, because (just like the internet in itself) there is no central point that can be targeted, no bubble to burst and disrupt the system. To continue the analogy: the blogoshere is not a bubble – its a gigantic pile of foam, rising high over the bath-tub.

What might not be sustainable are the larger blog sites. If their size and influence grows, so they become more like the traditional media. The key bloggers (and their researchers) need a salary, and get some office space to manage the expansion, which costs money, which means adverts, marketing campaigns, subscription-only content and copy deadlines. There’s nothing wrong with any of this per se, but the difference between the pigs and the humans will become harder to discern. How long before we hear complaints: “Open Source Media didn’t publish my article, they’re control freaks!” or “Samizdata have smeared me!”. From there, it is a short step to ‘watch’ sites set up just to fisk these blogs… at which point we ask how much of an ‘alternative’ they really are. Perhaps it was better when everyone was alone, and in pajamas.

Library of Babel

Some friends of mine returned from the land of the Pharoahs with a beautiful blue vase. It was wrapped in newspaper, the page covered in curls I do not understand. The box below caught my eye.


I post it on these pages without the faintest idea what it says. It could be a short news report, a sports result, an obituary, a religious edict, or an advert for a washing machine.

My grandmother found the following inscription inside a notebook belonging to her brother, my great-uncle. Apparently the writer was a young Indian man, a student friend, who stayed with the family in Bargoed, in Glamorgan, for the summer.


It is signed and dated 1937, and we don’t know what it means.

Is it really necessary to find out? I think it could be a shopping list, but my grandmother hopes it is a message of kindness to her brother, from a young man who was shown hospitality in a strange land. My great-uncle was struck down by a heart attack thirty-five years ago.

It is as though these papers belongs to Schroedinger. Someone will be able to decipher them, but for my grandmother and me, the meanings are in our imagination, and perhaps we should keep them that way. Perhaps the true answers will throw up more questions than they solve.

Imagine the Arabic speaker, or the Urdu speaker, who cannot read English. They might stumble across this page, read the images that they understand, and be baffled by the words that surround them. What fantastic meanings might they believe my paragraphs to contain?

In Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastic Library of Babel, he imagines a vast library, which he calls The Universe. It holds every possible combination of letters, every possible book. It is the collected works of the infinite group of monkey typists, complete and unabridged.

If a number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but in other vocabularies library means bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are you sure of understanding my language?

So it is with my salvaged scraps of paper, hastily scanned and posted here. Those of you who are bilingual, and would translate them for me: please do not. Yours is only one possible language, and one possible interpretation. There are countless others, locking away their secrets, the ramblings of a people who may never have existed, yet whose history is chronicled meticulously, in some book in Borges Library.

Sports and National Identity

The quality of the articles on race and identity at Minority Report is consistently very high, so I have added the site to my blogroll. David’s latest post is titled Overlapping Circles, and highlights the curious world of national sports. A country’s sporting heros are usually its most famous citizens, held aloft as model citizens who exemplify the national character. And yet in the sporting arena, nationality is a very transient quality indeed.

Sport takes nationality fairly loosely at the best of times. Or rather, in order to cast the net wide, rules are relaxed. At one time it seemed that to play for Ireland the requirement was only that one of your grandparents had sipped a pint of Guinness.

Another stark example of this is in the world of cricket, where many members of the English side have been of Southern African origin (with Kevin Pietersen the notable, recent example). A lament at the talent drain from the Zimbabwean national side forms the beginning of Let’s Talk Cricket from ZimPundit. White players are alienated, if not overtly excluded from the side, as their race becomes increasingly at odds with their nationality (as defined by their government). Those that remain, black and white, are abused and disrespected by the authorities:

… if you want an idea of how well a society is doing, take a look at their sports.

Armistice Day

Pure blue skies. People in anoraks and kilts gather in a traffic island, next to a pub and a billboard that advertises insurance. Vehicles stream past, ignoring the throng.

Then, at one minute to eleven, the policemen step confidently into the road to stop the traffic. The pedestrians pause and look towards the gathering in the centre of the junction. A lone piper plays The Last Post. The traffic lights keep changing, from green, to red, to amber, and back to green again. But nothing moves.

Alternative currencies

Two alternative currencies from two African countries.

Listening last night to the BBC World Service programme Global Business, we heard from presenter Peter Day that mobile phone credit has become a currency. Apparently, SafariCom phones have the ability to transfer credit from one phone to another. A man can ‘top-up’ his own phone in Nairobi, and send some of the credit to his mother in the rural areas. She can in turn send that credit on to the phones of traders in the market place, in exchange for goods. Entrepreneurs place a high value on mobile phone credit, as the pricing and market information they recieve via their mobile phones is essential to their business.

Unfortunately, the presenter missed the crucial question in his interview with the SafariCom CEO. If their phone credit is being used as currency, what happens when the company decides to raise the cost of their calls? They will effectively devalue a common currency, which could ruin the smaller traders. Should a telecommunications company have this kind of power?

In contrast to Kenya, the economy in Zimbabwe shrinks further every day. Now it transpires that Zimbabwean prostitutes are demanding payment for their services in gasoline.