Edinburgh residents: Don’t forget the FEAST performance this evening.

FEAST is a unique Chinese intercultural event to encourage greater understanding between Chinese and Scottish communities through a creative exploration of food, film and music.

Edinburgh-based band FOUND and Chinese composer / musician Kimho Ip will be giving a special performance at Eating Place on Castle Street (off the West End of Princes Street), Edinburgh on Thursday 30 August at approximately 6 pm. They will also present other performances earlier that afternoon. Read More

Chili Bowl

Anacronisms and Affirmative Action

The BBC are promoting a rather extraordinary artists’ bursary from the Oppenheim John-Downes Trust.

Successful applicants must be … Natural born British Subjects born within Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man of parents both of whom are or were British Subjects born within the British Isles and neither of whose parents was or is of colonial or overseas original subsequent to the year 1900 (Section 34 of the Race Relations Act applies).

(The relevant legislation reminds us that since these provisions do not make reference to race/colour, they can be followed in full).

I suppose Mrs Downes was entitled to place whatever restrictions she wished on how her own money was to be spent. But it is clear she had a very narrow conception of what it means to be British, and the criteria leave a horrible taste in the modern mouth. It is odd that the BBC should be endorsing this sort of anacronism.

The System Works (again)

I’m way behind the news cycle on this, but it is noteworthy that some of those people who incited violence in reaction to those Mohammed cartoons have been imprisoned. The PigDogFucker points out a useful statistic:

Now the judicial process has run its course, let’s see the final statistics: number of people prosecuted for disseminating said cartoons: 0; number of people jailed for several years for protesting about them: 4.

Mysteriously, the dhimmibollocks brigade has been silent about this. It’s almost as if it didn’t fit their paranoid conspiracist agenda…

Indeed. When the cartoons came to light and the argument ensued, many asked why we tolerated these illiberals in our mists. They claimed that this was evidence that our society and values were being undermined by outsiders. But in fact this was not the case: our legal system was robust enough to see off the challenge (perhaps, as PDF implies, a little too harshly). As I have said before, our values can easily see off fundamentalist challenges, without the need to tighten immigration restrictions, or create harsher laws.

Is multiculturalism conservative?

I’ve been re-reading a little bit of Andrew Sullivan’s book The Conservative Soul, in which he attempts to wrestle back conservatism from the theocons. By his analysis, Conservatism is the Politics of Doubt (and thus incompatible with fundamentalism, be it Christian or otherwise). This is outlined in chapters Five and Six. The pace of change for a conservative is necessarily slow, argues Sullivan, because conservatives are naturally skeptical of any change, and will endorse such a change only when his questions have been exhausted.

The conservative, unlike the fundamentalist or Marxist or any other adherent of a direction for a time, simply observes that this is the way the world is. He will confront the fundamentalist with a puzzled look, and ask him how he knows for sure that something beyond contingency and choice is at work in human history, that some other force is directing human action and ends. … He will enjoy pointing out the collapse of this great history or that one. And in the meantime, he will simply make the choices he wants to make and live.

Reading these chapters, it occurs to me that multiculturalism could be considered conservative in its temperament. By this analysis, multiculturalism is the realistic approach. It acknowledges that when humans move and mix, they are unlikely (and maybe unable) to change their culture overnight. It is surely unreasonable for a migrant to announce Year Zero on their arrival, and simply abandon their old culture in favour of the new one. Change will come, cultures will evolve, but slowly. To demand that new additions to our society simply equalise their values to our own is illiberal, unworkable, ignorant of human nature, and ultimately counter-productive.

The first critique of this idea is that some of the cultures we are asked to mix with are fundamentalist in nature. They may not change at all, and are the polar opposite of any Politics of Doubt. This may be true for a few people (and it is relatively few), and to give them the bulk of the attention is to willfully ignore the wider truth. As we see in the UK, the reality for most people is that the cultures do change, and the change is slow – often spanning generations. They achieve this precisely because, however annoyingly insular they appear to be, they are not fundamentalists. Liberal democracy is as much a part of their culture as it is of ours. In such cases I see no problem in respecting and actively celebrating their culture, its history, and its traditions. When this is done by the British it is often labelled ‘conservative’ or ‘Conservative’. It seems logical to give the same label to the act of celebrating other cultures too.

An alternative to Live Earth

A further problem with Live Earth is the much publicised waste of energy used to power the event. The Arctic Monkeys recently spoke out against the ‘hypocrisy’:

“It’s a bit patronising for us 21 year olds to try to start to change the world,” said Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders … “Especially when we’re using enough power for 10 houses just for (stage) lighting. It’d be a bit hypocritical,” he told AFP in an interview before a concert in Paris.

Large parts of the band’s hometown of Sheffield were flooded at the end of last month after a deluge of mid-summer rain that some blamed on global warming. Two people were killed.

But the band wonder why anyone would be interested in the opinion of rock stars on a complex scientific issue like climate change.

“Someone asked us to give a quote about what was happening in Sheffield and it’s like ‘who cares what we think about what’s happening’?” added Helders. “There’s more important people who can have an opinion. Why does it make us have an opinion because we’re in a band?”

Much of the Live Earth message is about changing our lifestyles, to cut down on planet spoling emissions. As well as reducing power consumption, we should reduce our carbon footprint by travelling by car and plane less, on foot and bicycle more, and through the purchase of locally produced goods with fewer ‘food miles’. Why, then, was the Live Earth event not concieved with these ideas in mind? Instead of highly centralised concerts, with artistes imported from all over the world, the Live Earth brand should have been used to promote dozens, if not hundreds, of more parochial concerts. Big Name bands could curate a gig in their home town, discovering the latest talent via MySpace and the recommendations from the local scene – an easy ask for the Arctic Monkeys, say. These big name bands would, of course, headline the gig, and the crowds that they attract would be able to walk to and from the venue. Beer would be supplied from the local pubs – and it would be the local economy that recieved a financial boost.

Instead of a distant and mythological Al Gore, local politicians could re-engage with their electorate by explaining what the council is doing to recycle, and on what day the blue bins are being collected. Instead of a Jonathan Ross and Kate Silverton overload, local radio journalists could host the concert, and perhaps inspire some of the community cohesion that many towns lack.

The Live Earth website, instead of being a promotional tool for Madonna and Bon Jovi, could instead carry YouTube clips from thousands of concerts from all over the world. The most popular, as voted for by the Internet viewing audience, would be broadcast on network TV. Sure, these would probably be mostly the big acts (the Sheffield gig for the Arctic Monkeys, the St Andrews gig for KT Tunstall), but this method would undoubtedly throw up some interesting, idiosyncratic acts with a little local flavour, which nevertheless prove popular with Internet users. Some exposure for these artists would be welcome change from the smooth-edges required of any musician who wants to go ‘mainstream’.

Such an approach would also mean than millions more people could actively participate in the event, rather than passively via the TV as some of us have done this weekend. This would still inspire a collective memory, even though individual recollections would depend on which concert you went to see. The question “Where were you for Live Earth?” would not be about which pub you chose to sit in to watch the TV, but about what bands you saw and which friends you went with – an altogether more interesting question, and one that could travel the world.

Identity Politics and Multiculturalism

Over at Pickled Politics, Sunny Hundal presents his essay on how the War On Terror has fractured the British Asian community along religious lines.

… a change has been taking place within minority communities in the way they interact with each other, identify themselves and become politically engaged… The atmosphere of distrust following 9/11 and 7/7 made it easier for Muslim, Sikh and Hindu religious extremists to openly express distaste towards other religious minorities.

For me, the a key feature of the post-9/11 politics, which includes the enigma that is ‘Britishness’ and the hammering of ‘multiculturalism’, has been a focus on differences between groups: How does the white majority interact with the minorities; how do the values of different groups differ, and can they be reconciled; what concessions does the State make to these groups, and does it ask for any change in return?

As we debate ad nauseum the conflicting identities within the State, it often seems as if other aspects of multiculturalism are neglected. Specifically, the different and conflicting identities that exist within the individual. This is a particular issue for British-Asians (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all) as well many people with dual nationality, and many people of mixed race (an exponentially expanding group). For these people, to suggest that notions of multiculturalism should be abandoned is nonsensical. For while a compromise with (or even a capitulation to) the behemoth that is ‘mainstream culture’ might be theoretically possible on a group level, this is not true on the level of the individual.

That is not to say that people, on an individual level, cannot resolve what conflicts they are presented with. Indeed, they seem to succeed much more often than they fail. At places like Pickled Politics I think the contributors manage to elucidate very well how they reconcile such differences, and what immediately becomes clear is that their solutions do not lie in their granting total supremacy of one culture over the other. That they can do this proves for me the value of multiculturalism. The most sensible commentators seem to be those who can say, for example, “I am 100% Hindu and 100% Asian and 100% British”.

And yet much of the political debate (from both the, erm, generic white majority, and also within the various interest groups Sunny highlights) refuses to accept that this kind of reconciliation is possible. Because these critics cannot make that reconciliation themselves, they smear those who can as either delusional or fake. In this dismissal, they fail to accept the idea that one may be changed by other ideas, fail to understand the value of multiculturalism, and therefore become a kind of fundamentalist. Its a shame that the post 9/11 political climate has exacerbated this problem too.

One cheer for John Howard

Dear old Melanie Phillips is correct in praising the Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to prevent the country’s cricket team from touring Zimbabwe.

Cancelling sporting fixtures, as we all know, is a powerful weapon to use against repressive regimes for which such recognition is all important. … What a difference, for example, from the behaviour back in 2004 of our own government, whose supposedly “ethical” foreign policy did not actually stretch to stopping the England cricket team from going on a similar tour of Zimbabwe.

Then, the English cricket authorities were reluctant to stop the tour because of the huge financial penalties that would be imposed for what would have been a technical ‘breach of contract’. In such a situation, it/we desperately needed a political leader to protect the players, and agree that the British taxpayer would underwrite any fines. As we know, citizens have no objections to footing the bill for such things, if they are persuaded that it is the morally right action. But Jack Straw provided no such leadership. Nor did Tony Blair.

But with 400 words still left to fill, Phillips veers off course.

Mr Howard, in sharp contrast, is entirely free of such absurd and crippling cultural cringe. He believes in Australia and its Western values. He thinks these values are superior to any alternatives.

And it is this total absence of equivocation in upholding the national interest which explains his robust defence of both Australian identity and Western civilisation against attack. … Understanding that the war against civilisation is being waged from within as well as from without, he abolished multiculturalism at a stroke by renaming Australia’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, turning it into the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

He has also called for a “root and branch” overhaul of the way history is taught in Australian schools, and said pupils should have “some understanding” of British and European history, the Enlightenment and the influence of Christianity on Western civilisation.

Melanie Phillips seems to forget about the plight of the Australian Aboriginies. It is precisely this narrow definition of ‘national interest’ which systematically destroyed their robust, sustainable communities. It is precisely this rhetoric of ‘civilisation’ which led to the indigenous people being forced off their land, which led to families being torn apart. It is precisely this assertion of dominance which led to the demoralisation of an entire race. Phillips’ delight in these assertions of supremacy, and her praising their increase under the leadership of John Howard, is a demonstration either ignorance or hypocrisy. A robust multicultural policy, which proudly asserts the value of the Aboriginal culture in the face of unrelenting attack, is a good thing and should be encouraged. What a shame the Department of Multicultural Affairs was abolished. There is nothing ‘crippling’ about a bit of cultural cringe in this case, and Australia could do with a little more of it.

Aspects of the multicultural debate

The common (some might say inevitable) response to my previous post is to suggest that I am mis-defining the term multiculturalism, and that it does in fact mean simply the idea that all cultures have complete parity. How else do we get the absurd defences of illiberal practices? Even if the the counter-intuitive work done in the name of multiculturalism is no such thing, why persist with a term that has been sullied by these actions. Far better, say the critics, to call the tolerance and change something like ‘melting pot’ instead.

But cling to ‘multiculturalism’ I do. First, because I question the extent to which the word has been discredited by its misuse. And secondly, because it just seems a better word, which better captures the ideas which I think are important. ‘Melting pot’ implies an all-consuming mass in which individual identity is lost. It has a whiff of homogeneity about it, and any new addition is barely perceptible. I want to emphasise the fact that change will occur within the majority population too. New additions are not just ‘spice’ but a whole extra ingredient…

Here are some areas of interest to me. First, the notion of group or cultural rights. Where they exist and are taken into account, I tend to the idea that they arise from a combination of individual rights, and tradition. Preserving (or at least respecting) a particular cultural practice will allow individuals to flourish. I suspect that this puts me at odds with what we could call fundamentalist multiculturalists, who hold that a culture is inherently valuable in itself.

Second, the extent to which multiculturalism is an off-shoot of western liberal thought. Is it simply a kind of legislated tolerance? Is it possible in other societies? Critics say that it is not, but I am less sure. India and the new South Africa are worthy of examination here. Clearly the impasse in Iraq, and between Israel and the Palestinians will only be solved when the various ethnic groups agree that there are things of value in different cultures they might encounter, and that these other cultures are not malign. Nation states with a single identifiable culture are not an option. But it is still an open question as to whether these solutions can succeed without an acceptance of basic liberal values. No wonder the theocracies of Iran and The Vatican feel threatened by multiculturalism – it is entirely incompatible with their claim to the absolute truth.

A third point about the multicultural debate is the extent to which it is dominated by religion, and religious obsession with sex and the sexes. Culture is of course more than that. It extends into those areas of life that are less contentious, where people might be more willing to engage in a dialogue, more willing to change. Cultural practices concerning not only food, but hospitality, leisure and ritual are all fair game for this kind of discussion. And how we evolve in these areas is as much a concern of multiculturalism, as the the ‘flash-point’ issues which periodically sweep through our periodicals like wildfire. It is perfectly possible to sit in a souq smoking a shisha pipe, without endorsing any of the pillars of Islam. Likewise, it is perfectly possible to visit the mosque in the morning and the football in the afternoon. Finsbury Park Mosque is a short walk from the Emirates Stadium at Ashburton Grove. When people talk of London and New York as the two truly multicultural ‘world cities,’ it is surely this kind of diversity that they are referring to.

Multiculturalism again

Johann Hari’s lazy column in yesterday’s Independent prompts me to pick up my old, familiar drum. Multiculturalism, he says, provokes domestic abuse, on the basis that some German authorities have allowed men to get away with violence against women, by claiming that it is ‘their culture’.

It is a wilfully petulant view of multiculturalism that allows Hari to draw this conclusion, in part because it is a similar warped view of multiculturalism which causes the ridiculous judgements that he cites. In the cases Hari mentions, and by his own analysis, the concept is defined to mean that all cultures in their entirety are of equal value. If he wishes to argue against this version of multiculturalism, he is welcome to it. Attempting to define something so nebulous as a culture in its entirety is an impossible task. Occasionally, we find jobsworths and fools (usually on the far left, it must be noted) who subscribe to this definition, and they leave themselves open to ridicule and condemnation.

But Johann Hari should know that this analysis has never been what most defenders of the concept, including myself, have been arguing for. To us, multiculturalism is the idea that change is inevitable and should be embraced. To us, it is the idea that one may be changed by other ideas. To us, it is a rejection of the view that the dominant majority culture is complete and perfect, and that it cannot be changed for the better by outside influences. Many people see these ideas as a threat to their entrenched status quo, and so they attack the entire philosophy by citing only its deformation. Hari is clearly pandering to this view.

The column noticeably focuses on problems within Muslim households, as if this is all that ‘multiculturalism’ concerns itself with. Hari forgets that a broader multicultural philosophy also encompasses positive cultural changes such as (say) homosexual rights. We acknowledge these rights precisely because we accept that not all alternative lifestyles and cultures are bad. If it turns out that a given cultural practice is damaging, this does not damn other cultural practices that originate in the same group. Nor does it prove that encouraging other cultures to flourish is an a priori Bad Thing. By railing against multiculturalism in general, Hari endorses both these logical fallacies.

He pin-points the abominable practice of domestic abuse, forgetting that such a practice occurs in our own culture (and endorsed by the Old Testament too, if anyone cared to ask).  More important in this context, he forgets it is multiculturalism – in its proper form – that is stamping out this practice.

One real-life example: An Indian friend of mine recently had to confess to her Pakistani boyfriend that she had been previously married. She had refrained from telling him about her past because, well, he is from a very traditional Muslim background. She feared a judgemental, angry reaction… but in the event, his response surprised her. Although he found her revelationd difficult at first, he made the effort to listen, and to understand… something that (he says) would be beyond the strict values of his parents.

This change of outlook is, I suggest, an inevitable product of his time in the UK. When we were interviewing young people for the documentary Sex Lies and Culture last year, we unearthed countless examples of formerly socially conservative parents changing their attitudes (much to the surprise of their children). The change had been brought about by their immersion in a different culture. Multiculturalism is a two-way process. It is not about the introduction of Sharia Law into the UK, as Johann Hari might claim, but in fact the slow yet inevitable undermining of Sharia Law by presenting alternatives (this is why Islamists are threatened by multiculturalism too). In a post-colonial and globalised world, multiculturalism is actually the means by which we export our values to new places and peoples. But unlike in colonial times, the values cannot be delivered to others via the tip of a bayonet, or indeed imposed via legislation. Nor are all guaranteed to survive. Instead, our values must compete and win out in the marketplace of ideas. They are doing so, and the unfortunate incidents Johann Hari cites are noteworthy because they are incongrous, not because they are the sign of things to come.

It is right to be vigilant, and it is right to argue against these mad German judgements. But its a mistake to attribute these tragedies to a failure of ‘multiculturalism’ And it is most certainly a mistake to think that a more insular approach would be a better response to something so fluid as ‘culture’. These debates will define the coming century, and we need to understand the complexity and subtlety of the ideas we are describing.

Celebrity Big Blunderbuss

Of course, I never ever watch Celebrity Big Brother, full as it is of vacuous has-beens whining about their personal life. However, yesterday evening I just happened to walk into the living room, when a freak bolt of lightning turned the TV over to Channel 4, at coincidentally the exact moment when I tripped over a wild hamster. Prostrate on the floor, I randomly caught sight of this strange TV programme out of the corner of my eye. I leapt up, and immediately turned it off after only an hour and half viewing.

shilpa shetty cryingI could not help rubber-necking the foreigners’ car-crash into the British class system. Neither A-Teamer Dirk Benedict, or Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, sees anything wrong in laughing at the poor diction of some of the other housemates. They did not seem appreciate that their comments are seen as snobbish. Nor did not understand when those ‘down-to-earth’ housemates predictably turned sour, mercilessly criticising Shilpa’s naive attempt at roasting a chicken.

It is a shame some of the comments flung in her direction were disparaging to India and its culture, prompting accusations of racism: apparently over 10,000 people have now complained.

Its interesting that the celebrity version of Big Brother should prove a microcosm of the country as a whole, an illustration of the race debate in the UK. What is crucial here is that the offenders (in this case, Jo, Jade and Danielle) genuinely do not believe they are racist. They are not picking on Shilpa because she is Indian. Her transgressions, such as they are, seem real to them, and crucially nothing to do with her race or nationality.

When so-called culture wars periodically blitz the media, the examples of cultural conflict are stark, dealing as they so often do with life-changing issues such as marriage, sex, or the role of religion in political decision-making. They are noticeable. What goes unremarked are the tiny issues, the little differences, than can turn two people off each other. There is nothing wrong with using spices in food, or using your hands to eat it. This is part of Shilpa’s culture. Jade, Jo, and Danielle, who are ignorant of Shilpa’s culture, do not understand this. When they criticise her, they do not for one moment believe their comments have anything to do with her being Indian. They think they are criticising her. They do not realise the subjectivity of their criticism. They do not even realise that they are actually criticising a part of Shilpa’s culture, and others by association. The ‘racism’, such as it is, lies in these ignorances (I would prefer to call it an ‘unwitting prejudice’).

Whether one has any time for the ‘racism’ charge depends on whether you believe the invective levelled at Shilpa was directed at her alone, or her cultural practices in general. Those who said them would passionately, genuinely argue that the former is true. Those who heard them, would say the latter. Neither would be completely correct, however. Like a blunderbuss, no matter how careful and ‘genuine’ the aim, you will always hit something you did not intend. The problem is caused by shooting the invective in the first place! It is a kind of second-degree racism: the Indian viewers of Celebrity Big Brother have been caught in the cross-fire of a domestic spat. They have a genuine greivance, even if the mens rea is absent.

The same argument can, I think, be applied to the remarks about the accents of certain housemates. You can appear to be a snob without realising it. But just like culinary practices, the way someone speaks is a matter of culture and upbringing. To laugh at it is to laugh at everyone who does it.

We’re all guilty of second order prejudice on some level, because it is impossible to know what is going on everywhere in the world, or how everyone lives. The key to reducing this, is to make an effort to learn more about the people who you live with (whether you live in a multi-ethnic democracy, or the Big Brother House). To avoid learning more about others, or to declare it unnecessary, is the real prejudice.

India actually has its own version of the TV show, called Bigg Boss. I haven’t seen it myself, but those who have tell me it is actually more interesting, with nudity and frolicking at a minimum, and the contestants getting stuck into political debates instead.

Perhaps I am being too diplomatic. Apparently slurs like “Paki Bitch” are being bandied about. That’s first order racism, and certainly didn’t make the cut yesterday evening.