Airport Angels

I was delighted to play a small part in the production of Roam, the latest offering from the Grid Iron Theatre Company. The show took place in Edinburgh Airport, with scenes taking place at the check-in desks, baggage reclaim, and even ‘Air Side’ at a departure gate. Our role as AV consultants was to take over the display screens for use in the show, conjuring up high-tech thought-bubbles for the characters.

“Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from the terminal ceilings announcingthe departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic self-consciousness, whose workman like casing and pedestrian typefaces do nothing to disguise their emotional charge of imaginative allure. Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

The play is a meditation on the process of air travel. It takes in themes of citizenship and national identity, and how different passports mark out fellow humans as either ‘them’ or ‘us’. One entertaining scene stages a revolution in Scotland, with hapless refugees fleeing to the ‘Cathedrals of Hope’ – the airports – to catch planes to the safe havens of Beirut, Kigali, and Sarajevo. While the unfortunate Scots are made to wait and fester, those with Rwandan or Bosnian passports are allowed to pass unhindered.

Seeing scenes from the play several times over, it was interesting to eventually let my eyes wander away from the action, to actual passengers and airport staff, who went about their business as the actors represented them:

“What makes an airport especially curious is that its look-alike settings are the scenes for the most emotional moments… people break down at departure gates, in racking sobs…”
Pico Iyler The Global Soul

It was very bizarre to see such moments of emotion reconstructed by the cast, and then repeated by real travellers, who were often totally unaware that a group of seventy audience members were looking at them. It is actually very easy to be so oblivious: one does not expect a play to be in progress at an airport.

The two quotes above are lifted from director Ben Harrison’s notes in the programme. He also says:

Multi-culture is for me the only way forward. It is an inescapable fact…

In the age of cheap flights and global communications, this is so true. This the notion of multiculturalism needs to be embraced, not rejected, and indeed reclaimed from those who have misdefined it as something wholly negative.

The run has now finished, the actors dispersed back to Beirut, Spain, Holland, via the same airport that they had been performing in for three weeks. I make no apology for not plugging the show before now: It sold out without my help, and received some pretty good reviews.

The show has also been nominated for several critics awards, which is pleasing.

My conversation with the Dalai Lama

The LIP Magazine has undergone a substantial re-design, and a set of new articles have been published there in recent weeks. The write up of my questions to the Dalai Lama is the latest offering:

“Actually, my rough impression is that in the UK, ‘multiculturalism’ means a society where there are people from different backgrounds: Multi culture, multi racial, multi religion. In this sort of society, it means we need harmony, respect each other, and recognise others rights.”

The Dalai Lama suggests that most cultures and the morals that underpin them are based on religious faith, so to talk of multiculturalism is really to talk of ‘multi-religious faith’… What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

Please head over to The LIP Magazine to read the full thing.


Here, as backup, is the full article.

A man at ease. Six million Tibetans and 380 million Buddhists look to Tenzin Gyatso for political and spiritual leadership. He seems to carry this burden lightly. As the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, raised from the age of seven to be not a man but a symbol, perhaps this is to be expected. Rooms fall silent when he enters, and entire concert halls rise to their feet when he appears. Politicians and journalists alike hang on every word. Being treated as immortal must do wonders for your confidence.

So, too, must the very earthly fact of having been a Head of State for fifty-six years – nine years longer than Fidel Castro. Since his formal inauguration soon after China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama has established and run a government in exile, welcoming thousands of his weak and bitter countrymen who have arrived in India after a treacherous journey over the Himalayas to join him. He has met Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Popes, and debated with Chairman Mao. He has campaigned for peaceful justice in Tibet before a comprimised and slothful United Nations. If this was not enough, he has the moral trump card of a Nobel Peace Prize on his mantle-piece.

Not an arrogant demi-God, his manner is more that of an ex-President, the easy nature of a man with nothing left to prove. This is not so far from the truth. “We now have a fully elected Tibetan Government-in-Exile,” he says. “They handle many negotiations, so I am in a position of semi-retirement.” Some retirement: the Dalai Lama continues his arduous diplomacy and fact finding missions, such as his recent visit to the Scottish Parliament to assess its success in operating autonomously from its big brother in Westminster.

The comparison between Scotland and Tibet is perhaps forced, but there are pertinent points. The Dalai Lama repeats the need for ‘justice’ in Tibet, by which he means the need for genuine autonomy in the region, especially over cultural matters. Chinese immigrants in Tibet now outnumber the traditional Tibetan population, leading to the erosion of native customs. Perhaps these could be preserved through Devolution, rather than full Independence? So far as governments are concerned, the foundation of a solid ethical system to underpin the administration is most important, rather than the type of democracy in place. A country and culture may flourish, he says, when a people take responsibility for their democracy. This is what the Tibetan people desire.

For those campaigning for Tibetan liberation, this is hardly a universally accepted solution, and many are critical of the Dalai Lama’s essentially fundamentalist adherance to peaceful negotiations, over any kind of armed response. He has never endorsed any of the various groups of resistance fighters that have grown and withered over the years, some of whom received support, for a time, from the USA.

“Violence always creates more problems than it solves. It always has side effects. The alternative is indeed a compromise through negotiation and dialogue.” Few people have the patience for this approach, which is probably why he won the Nobel Prize. It is as if the achievement of a partial goal, or a goal achieved piecemeal over a long period is preferable to a quicker and more violent solution with untold side-effects. If you have been reincarnated fourteen times, it’s easier to play the long game. Everything the Dalai Lama says suggests he considers himself just a part of an ongoing historical narrative – a chapter in a longer story, not a whole book.

An answer to the problem of Chinese occupation of Tibet is, he says the first of three main focal points in his life. The second is the promotion of human value. If we see the whole of humanity, indeed, the whole living world as one body, then violence is merely violence against oneself. These are common values which underpin all cultures and religions, and a focus on human value is gaining ground.

“Compare the world today, with the world during the two world wars and the cold war. Although there is a problem with terrorism and despite the war in Iraq, there is more peace than in previous years”, he says. “War is the mobilisation of large numbers of people to violence. It legitimises and legalises violence.” He notes the anti-war protests that arose in 2003, and suggests that the ideal and philosophy of peace and negotiation is gaining ground. He suggests the promotion of peace, negotiation and non-violence from kindergarten upwards: “the spirit of dialogue” could invigorate societies in which neighbourly compassion is on the wane. Indeed, by being loyal to humanity as the whole, then conflict becomes not only an appalling way to operate, but also a ridiculously inefficient way to organise things. What he is saying (and what there is not enough acceptance of in the world) is that since we have a shared humanity, then any war should be considered a civil war between humans. The concept of wholeness and unity within Buddhism, and especially within the Dalai Lama’s writings, is probably his most important message for the rest of us.

What advice does he have for The West? Do we begin by adopting a more Buddhist way of life? “Not necessarily,” is the surprising answer. “Different people find different religions and spiritualities effective. Religion is like medicine for the mind, and not everyone needs the same medicine. So there is no particular need to be Buddist.”

“My opinion is that the West has its own religious tradition, which is Judaeo-Christianity (and to some extend Muslim). So I always say it is better to keep your own religion, it is not easy to change your own religion. So I say that westerners should be sincere Chrisitians.”

What if you are not Christian? Even if there is a strong Christian tradition running through our culture, many people do not have faith and it could not be said that they practice any religion at all.

“Of course, if you have no interest in a particular religion, then OK, but be a good human being.” Most ethics and values, he says, come from common sense, not religious text or religious leaders. It is therefore possible for everyone to adopt the idea of secular ethics. “The meaning of secular has two different interpretations. My understanding of the English word is that ’secular’ means the rejection of religion. But in Indian, secular means the respect of all religions, including the non-religious approach.”

“People everywhere want a happier life, a happier family, a happier community and society. Our inner values, such as a sense of responsibility, a sense of compassion and the oneness of the entire humanity, are values that you can reach without religion as such, and I think these are the basis of values that will bring about a happier humanity. So, with secular ethics, we do not talk about God or the next life or salvation, but just about making this life a happy one.”

These ideas of a co-operation, and examining all faiths, seem to be the basis of interfaith dialogue, and in turn ideas of multiculturalism. What, I ask the Dalai Lama, does multiculturalism mean to him, and what should it mean for us? He says it is a difficult question.

“Actually, my rough impression is that in the UK, ‘multiculturalism’ means a society where there are people from different backgrounds: Multi culture, multi racial, multi religion. In this sort of society, it means we need harmony, respect for each other, and to recognise others rights.”

The Dalai Lama suggests that most cultures and the morals that underpin them are based on religious faith, so to talk of multiculturalism is really to talk of “multi-religious faith”. A religion has its own unity and consistency, offering different ways of live, so religion and variety of religion is important, providing a diversity of ‘medicines for the soul’. What is important is finding the common ground between religions and therefore cultures, identifying those common morals that can unite us all. Multiculturalism, then, is not so much about celebrating differences, but emphasising our similarities.

For the Dalai Lama, arguing over religion is pointless. “From a Christian view-point, I have a Godless religion, so strictly speaking, I am a nihlist. And from my view-point, since the Christian value system does not accept the concept of nirvana (among other things), I may call them nihlists. I might as well argue with you over whether to eat spicy food or not. There is no use in arguing like this. They have been doing so in India for three-thousand years and have not come up with an solution!” Religion is personal, and cannot be imposed on a plural society which has a heritage of many different religions. Multiculturalism is the acknowledgement of this pluralism. It is denying that other cultures are a threat, and instead seeking the earthly, secular common ground, on which we can all agree. And it is in the concept of secular ethics that we can find this commonality of purpose.

The Dalai Lama is fortunate that his fame has ridden the wave of advances in global communication. In his claret and saffron robes and thick glasses, he is a highly visible figure. The index specimen of a wise old eastern sage, he has written several books on self-help and spirituality. One half expects expects him deliver life changing words of wisdom with every breath. Perhaps it is inevitable then, that his sentences seem to finish early, before the life changing bon mot has been delivered. This is, of course, an unfair expectation on the part of the listeners – the Dalai Lama never claims to have answers, just guidance from a the perspective of Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, the broadness of his approach has drawn criticism. The oneness of humanity and the need for unconditional peace may be self evident for a monk who has studied nothing else. But convincing other people, especially those who have been born into suffering under occupation, is a somewhat harder task.

This sort of persuasion may be beyond the Dalai Lama. In any case, it is probably not his goal and not the point of his office. His symbolical nature stands for something longer. He is a cypher for the long-term. When he invokes ideas of unity, the Dalai Lama is very aware that he is advocating a paradigm shift in our thinking. These ethics, he says, must be impressed upon children from a very young age, so a new generation of leaders will be born with “the ideas of peace and human value at their heart”. He, and we, will not live to see these ideas bear fruit. As it is with Tibet, so it is with lasting peace – a long term project.

English Icons: Cliche and innaccuracy

english flagsThe Icons of England initiative looks like yet another attempt to define the undefinable, reducing culture to a set of simplistic cliches. The nominated symbols are a bizarre set, not least because many of them trivially do not qualify. The man who gave his name to the King James Bible was Jame VI of Scotland before he took on the English throne, so it is hard to see how his initiative is quintessentially English. The Spitfire won us the Battle of Britain, and seems to me a British rather than English icon. Likewise with the mini. The FA Cup takes in Welsh teams, and Stonehenge is made from Welsh stone. The Routemaster Bus has (a) just been abolished and (b) surely an icon of London, not England.

I think we have difficulty in defining Englishness precisely because it has for so long acted as a dominant culture. The English are the dominant group in the wider nation of Britain. The history of the country has percieved no cultural antagonist to guard against, and therefore there has been no need to exclude its smaller partners from sharing in the creation of ‘Britain’. Thus anything that we might hold up as an achievement for the English will invariably have hadsome Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Colonial input along the way (e.g. King James Bible, Spitfires) that makes ‘British’ an obviously more accurate description. Perversely, England’s history as the dominant part of Britain means that it cannot claim any icon or innovation as exclusively its own. If we search for icons local to a particular area, we find it difficult to prise ownership of the icons away from the locality (e.g. Routemaster Buses, Angel of the North).

Almost by definition, anything that is specific enough to be English and not British, but general enough to apply to the whole country and not a locality, is going to be an odd beast: The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ might fit the criteria we are looking for, although the flag waving patriotism associated with it alienates as many people as it inspires. It also suggests that we should make our green pleasant land more like an ancient city in the Middle-East, which should, I think, rule it out.

In the delightful Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this observation:

To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

Here in Edinburgh, I do not perceive any less enthusiam for a drink which is an infusion of leaves from a plant grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya… in fact, anywhere but England. Even the trusty old cuppa is more a British than English icon.

The post meridiem counterpart to the cup-of-tea is, of course, the pint-of-beer in a traditional pub. And once again, we find these icons too pervasive throughout the union to be simply ‘English’. In Notes From A Small Island Bryson also points out the physical proximity of France to our shores, something that the British tend to ignore. But visiting a pub in Inverness presents much the same experience as walking into a pub in Dartmouth, both very different to visiting a bar in Cerbourg. Again, ‘The Pub’ is British, not English.

The same logic holds true for fish n’ chip shops. We need not discuss curry.

Once more, the flaw is in the very design of the quest. ‘English’ is not in the same genus as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. By seeking actual things made and found in England we are looking in the wrong place for an English icon. We forget that since England has been a political force for centuries, the English language has persisted and grown in influence. It is the language, not the borders, that we should celebrate. In this sense, our net for English icons may be cast much wider. My nominations: The Gettysburg Address, Waltzing Matilda, The Simpsons… and The Indian Parliament.

Anyone else?

The system works

The Telegraph reports that a frenchman imprisoned four girls in his flat to ‘teach them Islam’ – His wife and children.

I found this story via G-Gnome and DK, titled ‘More Integration Fun’ by the latter. Some pertinent reasons for why the fanatic in question acted as he did are suggested there.

This will undoubtedly be heralded by some as yet more evidence that Multicultural Europe Does Not Work, and that somehow our values and laws are being undermined by the immigrants. I see it as evidence for the opposite viewpoint. This story is an example of how western values are alive and well in Europe. Here a man has failed to take into account the values and laws of his host country, and has been prosecuted as a result. Good. This is what we would demand and expect, as would the French taxpayers, I’m sure. Move along then, nothing to see here.

A clear example of failure to integrate this certainly is… though whether it is anything to do with the multicultural debate, I am not so sure. ‘Man Who Imprisoned Four Girls In The Name of Islam Not Prosecuted’ would be a more worrying story, as would ‘Arson At Mosque Shows Obvious Moral Depravity of Entire Host Culture’.

In an increasingly globalised world, immigration of people and cultures will increase, something we must come to terms with. During this process, there will be resistance from the incumbent culture, and a failure to integrate on the part of a few of the newer residents. But both cases will be examples of ‘bad apples’, not examples of the inferiority of one or the other culture. If the legal system holds them to account, in accordance with our democratically created laws, what’s the problem?

Chicken Yoghurt makes a similar point about the hypocrisy of political debate, only better. Spousal abuse in the UK amounts to 104 deaths per year, twice the number inflicted by the London bombers on 7th July 2005. Says Justin of violent men: These monsters live amongst us. Isn’t it incumbent on the male community to weed out the extremists in their midst?

Arsenal 4-0 Portsmouth

Ah, the great British game!

Arsenal Players in Purple ShirtsWe began in North London with a cappuccino from the bagel counter, and settled in to watch Lehmann from Germany, Lauren from Cameroon, Campbell from England, Toure and Eboue from Ivory Coast, Frenchmen Cygan, Pires, Henry and Flamini, Gilberto from Brazil, Fabregas and Reyes from Spain, and Bergkamp from Holland. They played against Ashdown, Griffin, Taylor and O’Brien from England, Priske from Denmark, Vignal from France, Cisse from Senegal, Vukic from Senegal, Todorov from Bulgaria, Viafara from Columbia, Hughes from Scotland, Skopelitis from Greece, LuaLua from the Congo, and Mornar from Croatia.

Despite all this hot international talent, we still froze our bollocks off.

Propaganda Pope?

Pop in a Santa HatThe Vatican has a good PR department. With half a billion adherents to the Christian brand, one might say this has always been the case. By the looks of certain papal headwear this festive season, a ‘merger’ with Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus logo seems to be on the cards, which could provide a further boost!

Their recent communication strategy may also prove an effective, if sinister ploy. From Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas message:

“Today we have vast material resources available to us,” he said. “The men of this technological age risk becoming victims of the successes of their intelligence and the results of their operative capabilities, if what they obtain is spiritual atrophy and an emptiness of the heart.

First, I think he is wrong to worry. The two largest technological revolutions are those of digital communications, and microbiology. Our capability for genetic engineering is certainly a potent force, but the furore surrounding GM crops is evidence that the scientists, the politicians and the public are acutely aware of the power we hold. Of course we need to take care, but the debate is proceeding slowly, precisely because of our ethical heritage.

I sense that the Pope is in fact referring to the advances in digital communications. In this case, the focus is on more people being able to communicate faster and easier. I would disagree that this will somehow lead to a diminished sense of soul. Indeed, these inventions have fostered entirely new types of community, ones that are not based on the accidents of geography or time. It allows people to maintain relationships with friends and family over long distances, and it allows communities to organise much more efficiently. Later in his address, the Pope emphasised the idea of a global family. Mankind is using these technologies to better itself – where is this threatening spiritual decline?

It is not our spirituality that is threatened, merely the Church and its outdated modus operandi. The Church does not deal in verifiable facts, but in the ideas we let into our minds. In the 21st Century, ideas flow so freely and cheaply that they are rebutted by a choir of voices almost as soon as they are aired. The Internet provides such diversity of thought and opinion, and the institution is particularly vulnerable to dissent and rebuttal. The Heiresarchs can no longer be silenced.

The Pope is free to tell us that our technological advances are threat to human spirituality. It is in fact only the Catholic Church that is under threat, but His Holiness uses his position to equate the two. He may well believe his analysis to be true, but it is a classic piece of propaganda and Christians should not fall for it. Instead, they should celebrate the growth in spirituality that the technology offers. Our new methods of communication allow minority voices to be heard, bringing new concepts of human value, and how people should spend their time. This may not be a new religion, merely an emphasis on (say) creativity and expression. The Catholic Church may “slip from their heart” but that is not to say that some other spiritual element cannot fill that void, even if it is simply concepts of kindness and happiness, which even atheists recognise as being a part of their substance. Who are you calling empty hearted, Joseph?

The casual Luddite attitude adopted by the Pope is designed to assert a superiority over other, competing voices. Paradoxically, it actually becomes a barrier to people attaining their version of spiritual fulfillment. Despite his white baseball caps, the new Pope’s pronouncements before and after his succession to the Papal throne hint at a hostility to the modern world. If this attitude does not change, then the Christian message will begin to wane. This would be a shame, as it is a creed that has so much to offer humanity. It is unfortunate that Christianity in its current form (along with many other religions too, I am sure) is obsessed with homogenising an aspect of life that is, by definition, personal. To do so, it must dismiss the possibility of other paths. Thus they warn us against technology, and the notion that spirituality may be a relative concept. As we use and embrace technology, so we announce that these alternative paths exist. The control that Catholicism exerts over its adherents, and those who happen to live alongside them is undermined.

Of course, it is possible my analysis of Pope Benedict’s strategy may be too complicated. Perhaps he is not as subtle as I give him credit for. He also spoke out against the proliferation of weapons. Perhaps the “operative capabilities” he refers to are in fact those conferred on the Saudi Arabian Air Force, now they have purchased 48 Typhoon fighter jets from the British Government! If it was this transaction that the Pope was talking about, then I can well believe in the spiritual atrophy he speaks of. The Saudi regime has a particularly warped conception of human value – Delivering these expensive killing machines to them will send our moral compass spinning.


In the aftermath of the Sydney riots, an speech published in Quadrant Magazine surfaces to chart the rise of Lebanese gangs in Australia. While the gangs battle (and subdue) the police, the suggestion that an immigrant population may be adversely affecting the area is rejected by the politicians, and the problem grows:

The amount of money spent on the multicultural industry beggars belief. It is a lucrative and sustainable position for many. Governments pay huge money to anything that bears the word multicultural. Indeed the police department, like other government departments, spends vast amounts on multicultural issues, multicultural jobs, multicultural consultancies, education packages, legal advice, public relations and the rest. Having expended large amounts of money on multiculturalism, they are hardly likely to criticise it. Those that feed off multiculturalism are not likely to question it.

riotsI get what Tim Priest is saying here, but his definition of multiculturalism seems to burn too many bridges. The social phenomenon he charts in Sydney is clearly undesirable: Communities living side-by-side, not integrating, becoming ghettos, that in turn become no-go areas for the police and ordinary citizens. Cultures and ethnicities living side-by-side without integration or communication is not what I would call multiculturalism… just antagonism. Multiculturalism has to imply a certain degree of integration, assimilation, and above all, a process of change for it to be something to value. I think a great many of the projects Priest vilifies are designed to promote just these things. That some of the programmes may fail can be a fault in design, implementation or personnel – There is no need to dismiss the values and the aspirations as a result.

Indeed, Priest goes on to describe the respect he has for the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta in Sydney, who expressed a desire to live peacefully alongside ordinary Australians (Melanie Phillips thoughtlessly refers to them as ‘indigenous’). Surely this is an example of an immigrant community playing a positive role in Australian national life – the very essence of multiculturalism.

The social problems faced by immigrant communties world-wide are real, but multiculturalism is the word I would use to describe the solution, not the cause of the problem. Immigrant communities can and should integrate with their host culture, but the process of change occurs on both sides. It is the acceptance of this fact, and managing the change in a positive way, which we call ‘multiculturalism’. Ignoring and rejecting it can only lead to further frustration, misunderstandings and conflict.

Creative Destruction

Isn’t it funny how everyone, everywhere thinks their culture is under attack, eh? The Islamic States fear the coming of Western Imperialism, while the Christian West complains that their time-honoured traditions are being undermined by an unjustified favouritism to alien minorities. (via CY).

I suggest this is because people know their own culture, with all its nuances and foibles, better than any other (indeed, that’s true almost by definition). They also see competing cultures as monoliths that could not fail to obliterate their own creed and traditions, given half the chance. They see themselves as the quaint corner shop, battling against a rampaging Tesco. For them, the idea of multiculturalism is an anathema. It opens up your precious culture – your soul! – to a barrage of attack.

Andrew Neil has some bad news for these people. Unfortunately, it seems the global economy we have made for ourselves has already ripped open our culture for all to attack. Our way of life is left as bare and as vulnerable to market forces as a independent high-street shop.

This week The Business publishes Neil’s lecture What China can teach the West. He says that Europe, Britain included, has a myopic and stagnant attitude to governance and economics. This will result in Europe being eclipsed by Asia, not only in the realm of economics, but of education and culture too.

It was Neil’s commentary on Hayek’s “evolutionary rationalism” that caught my eye. Institutions, especially governments and economic systems, should not be a product of deliberate design. Instead, systems should follow an evolutionary path, the product of countless human decisions. A free-market, left to its own accord.

Though Hayek clearly preferred evolution and the market to revolution and central planning, he was not a small-c conservative … [He] had no truck with those who sought to preserve the status quo, existing hierarchies or to block change. He supported the market for the very reason that it is disruptive; he relished Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”.

Neil’s implication is that economic and cultural influence are intertwined. Only the briefest glance towards the USA is enough to convince most people on this point. So presumably, these economic ideas can be applied to cultures too. In this sense, we can define multiculturalism as ‘the cultural marketplace’, a willfull encouragement of healthy competition. Give individuals a free set of alternative choices, and they will make their cultural and even ethical decisions. The societies and cultures to which they belong will mutate a little.

Should we be concerned that cultures are open to unfetterted attack from the marketplace? If you are confident in your culture, then there is no need to worry. It is a strong product and the marketplace will reward you with a thousand years of prosperity. But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive. Protectionism and regulation will not work, Hayek would say. Your culture will stagnate and adherents will fall by the wayside.

Concerned that your daughter is offending your family honour by having a boyfriend? (via DK). Well, change your honour system, because it’s not testing well with the target market. Bothered that people are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? Why not simply change the meaning of Christmas, to pull in the faithful? Better still, consider a merger. Take the best bits from both cultures, and sack any superfluous traditions that are holding you back.

Update: Over at The Thames, Jenks considers how our global business culture is developing. Considering how people choose to do business is a welcome bridge between the economic evolution proposed by Hayek, and and the cultural evolution I’ve been pondering here. Meanwhile at Pickled Politics, a debate rages about who, exactly, are the victims in the race riots that have plagued Sydney this week.

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.