Here’s my speech at the British Future event on what makes Britain great. I was arguing for Literature as the greatest influence on British life.
There is feedback on this and the other pitches over at the British Future website. I was pleased that broadcaster Mark Easton and author Natasha Walter voted for my pitch, but it was actually Migration that got the most votes.
Having complained earlier this week about The Times reposting wire copy behind their paywall, its now time to point out that some writing is worth paying for. Despite his Toryness, I think Matthew Parris is one of the most honest and eloquent columnists writing today. Last Saturday he returned to the subject of burkas, and other religious and cultural uniforms, making an attempt to articulate why he and other British people might find such uniforms uncomfortable:
I wonder whether it really is only the burka’s particular capacity to hide the face that nettles us. I believe there’s something more: that we see the decision to wear a burka as an insult, however passive, to ourselves; that we take the wearing of this veil as an expression of rejection by the wearer, or her husband, of the culture and society in which they live. We think that they are trying symbolically to shut us out, to define themselves against us. We think we see the uniform of an alien grouping: a passive-aggressive shunning of the host country. Now this isn’t fair. Many burka wearers would be wearing burkas too in the countries from which their families come. But it is a fact I cannot deny that when I walk the pavements of Whitechapel in East London and pass women in the full black veil whom I sense do not want to acknowledge or speak to me, I feel very slightly affronted. I can’t help this. To any Muslim reader who may protest that I ought not to feel like that, I must, in all sincerity, give this reply: however you think non-Muslims ought to react to the full veil, this is how we always will. You’ll have to take it as a given. An accepted wisdom of modern sociology is that racial insult is to some degree in the eye of the individual offended, rather than the intention of the offender. If this argument cuts one way, it must cut the other too. On this page yesterday Hugo Rifkind argued that race and culture are sideshows, and it’s all about jobs and economic competition: a powerful argument that I flatly reject. Poles are taking our jobs; burka wearers aren’t. But Poles are quite popular in Britain. If I’m right about the wearing of religious or cultural uniforms that define the adherent against — as it were — the world in which he finds himself, then this would explain the slight hostility I feel (and must immediately combat in myself) on encountering groups of Hassidim with ringleted hair, in black hats, thick spectacles and heavy black coats. What is wrong with the rest of us (I hear myself mutter) that you want to separate yourselves from us in this aggressive-looking way? I feel it a bit with nuns, too. I feel it with stud-pierced youths with spikes on their lips: “Why do you hate our world so much?” I sense myself silently asking. Then there are the shouty crucifixes that seem to announce that the rest of us are on the wrong side of a sheep- versus-goats divide. I’ve not the slightest doubt that those orange- swathed Hare Krishna people you see on the London pavement are the most harmless creatures alive, but their uniform is telling me that they’re special, and I’m not; and I don’t react well to that. I’ve even felt this with the wearing of the Jewish skullcap in a secular, mixed and workaday environment: “Ok, but why do you need to wear that thing?” a voice within me says — to which another, fairer, one replies: “And why shouldn’t he? Must he justify to you what he puts on his head?”
Its also possible to feel the opposite. When I walk between the saris and sarwar kamises on Tooting High Street or Ealing Broadway, it makes me feel cosmopolitian, international, and worldly (although I would be lying if I said I was not similarly puzzled by Burkas). Regardless of my personal feelings, I appreciate Parris’s article because he acknowledges that we are intelligent animals, capable of introspection. We may have certain inate fears about ‘The Other’ (be they Muslims, Jews, or Hare Krishnas) but we are equally capable of some rudimentary self-psychoanalysis. We are not slaves to our fears or our gut instincts – we can transcend them in favour of a shared humanity. Acknowledging our discomfort over migrants is the start of a conversation about ourselves, our country, and our species. Contra to what both David Cameron and Ed Miliband seem to be saying, such feeling are not a legitimate reason to criticise immigration policy. Portraying white Britons as uniformly panicked and distrubed by the changing face of our community is patronising and simplistic, and may even legitimise the reactionary views of the Far Right.
Or rather, “State multiculturalism has failed” jumps the shark. David Cameron had made a speech about multiculturalism this weekend. When I heard news reports about his remarks, I thought to myself that this was probably nothing new. I have only just got around to reading the speech today, and unfortunately, I have been proved right. Cameron argues for the need to separate the concept of Islamist violence, from mainstream, peaceful Islam. He complains about public money being given to ‘gatekeeper’ organisations who claim to speak for all Muslims. He argues for a definition of identity that can encompass all British citizens, regardless of their faith or origins. Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal points out that these are issues that we thrashed out long ago, and a sensible consensus has already been reached.
I vehemently attacked “state multiculturalism”, as Cameron did yesterday, back in 2006. At the time there was a problem with the government funding “community leaders” to deal with integration and counter-terrorism. There isn’t now. Organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain haven’t received state funding for years.
Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society is equally scathing:
David Cameron said next to nothing new yesterday. Breathlessly briefed and largely received as one of his most important speeches as Prime Minister, I struggled to spot an original thought that he hasn’t been habitually been expressing for more than five years, from equating Islamist ideology with Nazism when running for Tory leader in 2005 or his frequent attacks on state-sponsored multiculturalism. Repeating himself as Prime Minister on the international stage gives it a certain status. Cameron’s core narrative claim – that “muscular liberalism” must now replace decades of a lily-livered refusal to articulate our shared values – does depend upon one very silly founding premise: that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, John Major and Michael Howard, and presumably Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit too, were rarely or never willing to articulate shared British values. This is patently absurd.
The Prime Minister’s suggestion that we forge a shared British identity is embarrassingly behind the times. The 9/11 terrorist attacks kick-started the debate. Wars in the Middle-East and terrorist attacks in Europe have kept the discussion spinning. Entire books have been written, published and reprinted during that time. Billy Bragg’s Progressive Patriot is one that springs to mind: it deals with far right extremisim, and how British people reconcile the fact that we all have (at least) two flags. Kenan Malik’s From Fatwa to Jihad is another obvious example, where state multiculturalism is impressively critiqued. David Cameron’s speech is soooo 2005. This isn’t leadership. He needs some new ideas… and some new speech writers who can articulate them.
And now for some semantics. David at Minority Reportmuses the problem of net nuetrality, and highlights a post over at Confused of Calcutta on the ‘un-national’, a word borrowed from a William Stafford poem. JP contrasts concepts like ‘global’ with apparent synonyms like ‘international’ and its derivatives. The former has an implied statelessness, the absence of a nation, whereas the latter implies that the thing we are describing (a person, or an organisation) does have one or more nations of origin, a liable jurisdiction that can control and curtail their activities. This chimes with Jay Rosen’s description of Wikileaks as the first ‘Stateless’ news organisation, an idea he expanded on in a recent edition of his Rebooting the News podcast (#76, I think), making the same point that ‘global’ and ‘international’ are not necessarily the same thing. In the context of net neutrality and cyber-dissidence, a ‘global’ organisation, with no final country of origin, is better protected against interference and attack, than an ‘international’ organisation which nevertheless has a home nation. Rosen recommends that Wikileaks adopts a similar model to Greenpeace, Amnesty, and PEN, with national organisations/chapters in many countries. My thoughts naturally turn to multi-culture and how these terms might be applied in that area. When cultural phenomenons, and pieces of art and cultural expression, become popular in many countries, are they international or global (in the senses described above). I would say that musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles (bigger, for a time, than Jesus) and Michael Jackson are all international. In each case, their music is a product of a particular time and place – regardless of where their fans are located, or where they play their concerts. However, I think cultural phenomenons like Islam or Football are clearly global. As they exist now, they seem to be a product of the human race as a whole, even if their origins can be pin-pointed accurately to a single country. You could even include things like World of Warcraft, and the graffiti aesthetic in that list, but not Les Misérables. What about LOLcats?
It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.
The phrase “the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries” sticks out and rings true. “Asserting our common life” is what the Dalai Lama suggested multiculturalsim means. Nevertheless I’m very aware that I push the term to its limits when I reference it in these terms. What Kunzru identifies seems to echo what Kenan Malik said at a South Asian Literary Festival event last month: That ‘state’ multiculturalism is a different thing to simply living a multicultural life. As I have said before on this blog, I fear to lose the word ‘multiculturalism’ to its detractors, because to do so would seem to concede defeat to the cultural conservatives Kunzru describes.
Last Thursday was International Translation Day, and I spent a little bit of time at a translation conference, hosted by English PEN and the Free Word Centre. Plenty of rabble-rousing for more international fiction to be translated into English. Our Director Jonathan Heawood did a great job noting the key points on Twitter, under the hashtag #ITD. We know that the use language can be ideological. My Welsh grandmother told a story about how my great-grandmother was punished at school for speaking Welsh in the playground… by teachers for whom Welsh was the native tongue: an act of class oppression, for sure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, South Africa’s Constitution provides for elevenofficial languages. It is a clear attempt to negate previous forms of oppression-through-language (perhaps at the price of confusion and cohesion?). Last week I watched an interview with Bollywood superstars Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor on a programme called Buzz of the Week. It was a very casual and undemanding piece of promotional puffery on a big red sofa, but the two actors different approach to language was striking. Priyanka insisted in answering all questions in English, even those that were asked mainly in Hindi. Meanwhile, Ranbir spoke nothing but Hindi. This was odd – both are clearly bilingual and laughed at each others’ banter – and I assume they are native Hindi speakers, yet both steadfastly refused to respond to the other in the same language! I am told that this has an ideological component too: Priyanka was “showing off” and putting on airs; while Ranbir was trying to be more down-to-earth. However, what really puzzled me was the interviewer, who jumped between Hindi and English with no apparent pattern – some clauses in one language, some in another. Moreover, the phrases she was using were fairly simple: It was not as if she was forced to use English for a complicated concept for which there was no Hindi equivalent. What was going on there?
I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person, without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the Single Story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Over in New York, an argument is blazing over the Cordoba Initiative, an Islamic cultural and community centre planned for downtown New York. Shrill critics have labelled it the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and called for the project to be cancelled, due to it offending the sensibilities of the families of 9/11 victims. However, a calmer look at the proposed centre reveals although it is in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre site, its hardly on top of it. Other mosques exist in the downtown area, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the project, has been praised for his interfaith work. This controversy has clearly been manufactured by those who seek to polarise American political debate. It is depressing and astonishing that the arguments against the centre have gained any traction at all. One might expect this in Europe, with its muddled and inconsistent relationship with secular ideals. Or in theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, with their blanket intolerance of other faiths. But for a country which explicitly enshrines human rights such as free expression and freedom of religion in its constitution, it is bizarre that the debate has advanced so far. Most ironic is that the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation set-up specifically to combat religious prejudice and anti-semitism, has led the calls for the plans to be scrapped. Their statement prioritises public outrage and ‘offence’ over freedom of expression, assembly, and religion – A dubious position indeed. Thankfully, the principles of tolerance appear to be waxing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave a fantastic speech where he reaffirmed the principles upon which the United States was founded. As a Jewish New Yorker, his words have a certain ‘rhetorical authority’ (as David Foster Wallace would call it). Let’s hope this argument becomes another ‘teaching moment’, a step away from the global war that Osama Bin Laden sought to provoke when he planned the September 11 attacks.
“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.
One of the highlights of WOMAD last weekend was watching a comeback performance by the Afro-Celt Sound System, who rocked the tent on Sunday evening with a tight blend of two cultures. The undoubted crowd-pleaser was a three-way drum duel between James McNally on the bodhran, Johnny Kalsi on the dhol, and Moussa Sissiokho on the tamma (‘talking drum’). Underlay a little bit of electronica and some pipes, and the result is something that cannot fail to move you, both physically and emotionally. Its great to see musicians do that to an audience – and its even better to be a part of such primeval happenings yourself. In such moments, the rising pace of the drums causes your mind to wander and wonder. Here, I thought, we have a group of disparate musicians bringing their different traditions together to create something new. Indeed, ‘fusion’ music is one of the festival’s specialities, and the Afro-Celt Soundsystem are very musch a creature of WOMAD. But in watching the McNally/Kalsi/Sissiokho three-way, I was reminded that such music only works if the individual members have a (shall we say) traditional music upbringing. Perhaps the discipline, and the distincitiveness of their separate musical heritages, are actually pre-requisites for their fusion music to work. If true, it is an argument for a fairly rigourous form of multiculturalism. Perhaps there is a value in encouraging not the fusion of cultures itself, but instead a promotion of the more traditional practices on which that fusion is based? Only with a mature understanding of one’s culture can you confidently engage with others, and thereby play a proper part in creating something global, transcendental. In a diverse country like Britain, this means supporting projects which pedestalise both the minority cultures, and the deeper roots of English and Celtic cultures. This approach implies division, and the creation cultural silos, and has come in for much criticism in recent years. But watching the talents of the musicians at WOMAD, you cannot help but percieve the long, accumulated embedded within each artist. When you do, its natural to want to preserve and protect that history.