City Journal Summer 2004
Oh, to be in England: Multiculturalism Starts Losing Its Luster
Multiculturalism rests on the supposition -- or better, the dishonest pretense -- that all cultures are equal and that no fundamental conflict can arise between the customs, mores, and philosophical outlooks of two different cultures. The multiculturalist preaches that, in an age of mass migration, society can (and should) be a kind of salad bowl, a receptacle for wonderful exotic ingredients from around the world, the more the better, each bringing its special flavor to the cultural mix. For the salad to be delicious, no ingredient should predominate and impose its flavor on the others.
Even as a culinary metaphor, this view is wrong: every cook knows that not every ingredient blends with every other. But the spread and influence of an idea is by no means necessarily proportional to its intrinsic worth, including (perhaps especially) among those who gain their living by playing with ideas, the intelligentsia.
Reality, though, has a way of revenging itself upon the frivolous, and September 11 has seemingly concentrated minds a little. Some signs indicate that in Blairite Britain the pieties of multiculturalism, for years an official orthodoxy, are beginning to face a challenge.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, for example, recently declaimed that immigrants to Britain should learn English. Blunkett made this heterodox suggestion in response to riotous clashes in northern England between white youths and Muslim youths of Pakistani descent. Liberals predictably decried his comments as tactless at best and proto-fascist at worst. Didn’t they give succor to the vicious xenophobic elements in British society, perhaps even portending a new dark age of intolerance?
In fact, Blunkett’s remarks were both on and off the mark. Doubtless, all of the rioting Muslim youths spoke English. Hardly any British-born young men and women of South Asian descent do not speak it -- though some, given the undemanding British school system, speak it poorly. So it is not true, as Blunkett implied, that a failure to learn English was to blame for the rioters’ aggrieved sense of being unequal citizens in British society.
Yet Blunkett was right in other respects. Though the rioting youths could speak English, the brides they would bring back from Pakistan would not -- and, furthermore, never would. Many women I have encountered as patients who came to Britain from Pakistan 30 years ago, at 16 or 18, still know little English -- but not from any unwillingness to learn. Their husbands actively prevented them from learning the language, to make sure that they would stay enclosed in a ghetto and not get any ideas above their station. The same rioting youths who protested British society’s failure to accept them as equal citizens have themselves sought to reproduce the unequal social patterns of rural Pakistan, half a world away, because it suited them to do so.
Multiculturalism encourages this stance. If all cultures are equal, and none has the right to impose its standards on any other, what is wrong with the immigrant ghettos that have emerged, where the population (that is to say, the male population) enjoys, de facto, extraterritorial rights? If it is the custom of their ancestral culture to keep girls out of school and force them into marriages that they do not want and to confiscate the passports that the British government issues them for their personal use, what can a multiculturalist object without asserting the superiority of his own values?
Giving further weight to Blunkett’s remarks is the silliness of the government language practices that multiculturalism has spawned. For example, one can take the driver’s license test in Britain in a startling variety of languages. Spoken instructions come even in the various dialects of Albanian, Kurdish, and Lingala. For the written part, test takers need not know how to read the Latin alphabet (that would be discriminatory): officials provide the questions in the script of your choice. Never mind that traffic signs are still in English.
Nor is the driver’s test anomalous. Government pamphlets, including those concerning health and social-security benefits, now routinely appear in myriad languages -- at public expense. When I went to vote in the local elections not long ago, I saw notices in various Indian languages and in Vietnamese explaining how to cast a vote. And at my local airport, the sign directing travelers to the line for returning British passport holders is written not only in English, but in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu (each with its own script): proof that the granting of citizenship requires no proficiency in the national language.
These practices send the message that newcomers to Britain have no obligation to learn English -- indeed, that the obligation is the other way around: that the British state must make itself clear in Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Somali, Swahili, and many other languages. British officialdom doubtless does not know that the confusion of languages after the Tower of Babel fell was meant as a punishment.
In today’s multicultural climate, the general population, it seems, has the duty to be familiar with the immigrant tongues, too. My local public schools now teach Bengali and Urdu, so that the “local” (i.e., white) population may learn to mix better with the immigrant population. While I have no objection to the children of immigrants speaking their parents’ native tongue at home, or to the private decision of anyone to master any language he chooses, a private choice is very different from the government’s ideological decision to offer such languages (of minor global importance) in the state schools. How not to see such a decision as deliberately subversive of belief in the primacy of European culture -- with which, after all, the immigrants have chosen to throw in their lot?
Clumsy as Blunkett may have been, then, he has drawn attention to an important issue -- one that makes clear what an absurd and at heart insincere doctrine multiculturalism is. Yet it is also a dangerous doctrine, inspiring policies certain to maintain minorities in their impoverishment, stoke their resentment, and exacerbate racial tensions -- while providing employment for a growing number of bureaucrats.
Another Blairite who once uncritically espoused multicultural pieties has recently undergone a conversion: Commission for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips. In an interview with the London Times, Phillips, a black born in Guyana, argued that England should abandon the whole concept of multiculturalism, since it was doing more harm than good. Officials should even stop using the word itself, he added.
Phillips noted that Britain has a long and mostly distinguished history of accepting people to its shores and integrating them into its national life, while at the same time deriving benefits from whatever skills they may have brought with them. Britishness has been a cultural, and not a racial or biological, concept with a tradition of tolerance, compromise, civility, gentlemanly reserve, respect for privacy, individuality (evident as far back as Chaucer’s time), a ready acceptance of and even affection for eccentricity, a belief in the rule of law, a profound sense of irony, and a desire for fair play: in short, the common decency that Orwell wrote of so eloquently.
Utopian intellectuals, including the theorists of multiculturalism, deride many of these now-weakened British characteristics, on the grounds that they were never universal among the population (but what characteristics are?) and had more drawbacks than advantages. But Britain’s common decency proved self-evident to generations of immigrants and refugees, among them my mother, who, arriving in Britain from Germany in 1938, noticed them instantly, to her relief and great admiration.
My family history attests further to British society’s generous capacity to absorb. My father, whose immigrant parents never learned to speak English well, attended a slum school during and just after World War I, with classmates so poor that they went hungry and barefoot. Despite his background, my father found himself inducted into British culture by teachers who did not believe that the ability to understand and appreciate Milton or Shakespeare, or to make a contribution to national life, depended on social class, or required roots in the soil going back before the Norman conquest. His teachers had the same faith in the liberating power of high culture, in its universal value and appeal, that many British workers then shared. As historian Jonathan Rose has beautifully demonstrated in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, many ordinary English workingmen, who led lives of sometimes numbing toil and financial hardship, nevertheless devoted much of their little spare time and tiny wages to improving their lives by strenuous reading of good literature, of whose transcendent value they had no doubt—a faith borne out by the success many of them attained in later years.
My father’s teachers were the only people I ever heard him mention with unqualified admiration and gratitude. And he was right to do so: their philosophy was infinitely more generous than that of the multiculturalists who succeeded them. They had no desire to enclose my father in the world that his parents had fled. And they understood that for society to avoid bitter internal conflicts, everyone had to share important elements of culture and historical knowledge that would result in a shared identity. Not by chance did Trevor Phillips regret 80 years later that teachers were instructing children less and less in the great works of English literature, especially Shakespeare -- a deprivation wrought not because teachers were complying with any spontaneous demand from below, but because they were implementing the theories of elite educationists, especially the multiculturalists.
Phillips rightly pointed out that English literature is the perfect vehicle for promoting a shared identity. Not to teach Shakespeare or other giants of British culture is to provide no worthwhile tradition with which the increasingly diverse population can identify. Without such a tradition, nothing deeper than the ephemeral products of popular culture will be on hand to unite that population, even as profound cultural differences divide it. A shared culture consisting of nothing but pop ephemera will likely arouse the justified contempt of immigrants and their children, driving them into ethnic, cultural, or ideological enclaves in search of something more mentally and spiritually nourishing -- thereby increasing social tensions, sometimes disastrously.
The shared identity that my father’s teachers believed in was not an imposed uniformity, as present-day critics allege; they did not seek to turn out mental clones. Far from it. Part of that shared identity -- a source of pride -- was inventiveness and freedom of thought, the permission for the mind to voyage forever on strange seas of thought alone (as Wordsworth described Newton). And this shared identity relieved those who participated in it of the need to cling too strongly to other, potentially conflicting, identities. The national identity was strong but loose, permitting a great deal of personal freedom and give-and-take -- much more so, usually, than the ethnic identities that immigrants bring with them. Freedom of religious belief was complete, as was practice, provided that it complied with the law and claimed no special privileges for itself. Induction into British culture did not fetter or circumscribe the immigrant, therefore, any more than speaking English determines what anyone has to say.
Britain’s openness is precisely what made it so attractive to immigrants. While by no means without blemish, Britain’s history of openness (compared with most societies) goes back a long way, and it has allowed many groups of newcomers to become national assets. The Huguenots, for example, immensely enriched British cultural and economic life. Before their arrival, all silk in Britain came from France; after their arrival, most French silk came from Britain. In time, the Huguenots became intensely British -- is any writer more British than De Quincey? -- but for many years they had their own churches, and some spoke French at home until well into the nineteenth century.
It was this tradition of integration that Phillips eloquently invoked in his interview. Since the chairmen of quasi-governmental bodies such as his are not known for speaking courageously out of turn, his words most likely reflected the thinking of the government, alarmed at the extent of sympathy in the Muslim population for the September 11 terrorists.
Phillips failed to mention one vital difference between previous and contemporary influxes into Britain, however. The relative tolerance and flexibility that he praises were spontaneous, informal, and undirected, without official interference. It simply never occurred to anyone in my father’s day that the children of immigrants should or would have a fundamentally different culture from that of the larger population, or that they would have any cultural peculiarities or sensibilities that needed catering to. They would be British without qualification. These immigrants, of course, arrived during a prolonged era of national self-confidence, when Britain was either a rising or a risen power. The generosity of my father’s teachers grew out of pride in their culture and country.
Since then, much has changed. We live in a time of deep mistrust of spontaneous, undirected social processes -- a mistrust of which Phillips’s organization is one symptom. The Commission for Racial Equality that he chairs believes that racial prejudice and unfairness can only be eradicated if the government ceaselessly monitors racial statistics for inequalities (several organizations that I belong to repeatedly try to extract from me my “ethnic” group, though I refuse to answer). Paradoxically, the commission simultaneously denies, at least in theory, any underlying reality to the racial and ethnic categories into which it divides people for monitoring purposes, since it takes for granted that any low levels in achievement among the monitored racial groups must result from prejudice alone, not from any differences in the attitude or behavior of those groups. Without official bureaucratic interference, in this view, society will remain mired in racial prejudice. Minorities will stagnate or even retrogress.
In addition, confidence in Britain’s historical and cultural record, as embodying anything worthwhile, let alone uniquely valuable, has all but vanished. Those things that the nation once glorified it now derides and satirizes. Not so long ago, the prime minister attacked the very notion that the British past held anything worth preserving, the “forces of conservatism” being for him a synonym for evil. Reality has, belatedly, taught him otherwise.
No doubt the shift in attitude partly results from the collapse of British power and the nation’s long retreat from world importance. But it also results from the growth of the intellectual class, whose livelihood depends on ceaseless carping. Thanks to the intellectuals, for instance, the teaching of history has become an ideological minefield, with grievance groups demanding that their ancestors’ suffering enjoy special status in the narrative. And if British history and culture are nothing but the story of internal and external oppression, of injustice and exploitation, why should those who come to these shores learn our national traditions and culture? Much better for them just to keep their own. One professor of race relations, Bikhu Parekh, has even suggested that Britain should change its name, which has so many negative historical connotations for millions around the world. Now that Britain has become so ineradicably multicultural, he says, there is no justification for it to be “British” any more.
Such fatuities are likely, and perhaps are intended, to produce an extreme reaction from the native-born population, demonstrating that the original contention was correct: that the British tradition is simply one of violent intolerance and oppression -- from which we need such luminaries as the professor, wielding coercive administrative powers, to deliver us.
A new mass immigration to Britain from every region of the globe, in which the differences between the immigrants and the host population are profound, has occurred precisely at the moment when the multiculturalists have helped undermine the capacity of British culture to absorb them, in the hope that “a community of communities” (to use Parekh’s phrase) would emerge: in short, that the lion of the Somali tribal ethic would somehow lie down with the lamb of the British law.
To be sure, many people flee their homelands to live under our rule of law. Among my patients are some refugees, most of them people of intelligence, drive, and clear-sightedness. They have no doubts about the benefits of the rule of law, having experienced the opposite in their own flesh and blood. They know what a relief it is not to fear the nocturnal knock at the door and to pass a man in uniform without trembling with anxiety.
They know also that the rule of law is an historical achievement, not the natural state of man. It is a pleasure to hear my refugee patients descant on that great historical achievement. Because of their own experience, they do not take it for granted. They know that it arose from a long philosophical and political development, one unique in world history. They know that it is a fragile achievement and easily destroyed.
Recently, a highly intelligent Iranian refugee consulted me. The medical part of the consultation over, we began to chat about Iranian affairs. He was a political philosopher not by training or inclination but by experience and necessity. He felt that, in the end, the clerical regime had done an immense service to the cause of political secularism in Iran, because even previously religious people now deeply opposed clerical rule. The clerics had done more damage to the cause of Islam among the Iranian population by their brutality and corruption than the infidels could ever inflict. His problem, of course, was that he lived in the personal short term, not the historical long run.
He appreciated deeply the British institutions that now protected him. He had experienced occasional hostility from individual Britons, but he realized that it was the product of ineradicable human nature, not of official malice. Above all, he said, Britain had a different history from Iran’s -- of struggle no doubt, but also of compromise -- which allowed us to take our liberty for granted (a dangerous thing to do). It was, he said, a very valuable and inspiring history. What impressed him first when he arrived was how everyone just assumed that he could say what he liked, without fear of retribution -- a freedom above price. But he recognized that he could only be part of that worthy society if he chose to fit in, abandoning any aspects of his Iranian culture incompatible with it, which he was only too happy to do. The fundamental demands and responsibilities, he felt, were upon the immigrant, not upon the host country.
It would be vain to suggest that all immigrants are as conscious of these demands and responsibilities as he. And if we are to avoid violently disaffected and resentful ethnic enclaves in our midst, we need to teach immigrants that the freedom, prosperity, and tolerance that they enjoy result from a long spiritual and cultural development, not to be taken for granted, and that they have a magnificence and grandeur.
In the modern multicultural climate, though, there is no quick way of doing this. Because of the ideological cacophony that drowns out this cardinal, though obvious, message, it is impossible to relay it unselfconsciously, as my father’s teachers had done. Nor would one wish the message to harden into an official dogma: the answer to a false orthodoxy is not another orthodoxy that denies contrary evidence. We must persuade, not coerce or indoctrinate, and to do so we must first disabuse our intellectuals of the notion -- frivolous but damaging -- that society should be a cultural salad.