Un buen articulo del "spectator"
- From: usenet <god@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 28 Sep 2005 22:25:47 +0200
RACE AND CULTURE: Fear and loathing on the Left
When I launched Prospect, the current affairs monthly, exactly 10 years
ago, I sometimes used to wonder what George Orwell would have thought of
it. I flattered myself that he would have approved of our ambition to
revive the essay form but I also suspected that he would have found the
overall effect rather tepid: no world wars, no clashing totalitarianisms
of Left and Right, not much at stake in our debates.
By contrast, Orwell would have felt at home in the thunderous
controversy which divided British intellectuals when it was discovered,
in 1967, that Encounter magazine, one of our monthly predecessors, had
been receiving an annual grant from a body funded by the CIA. Many of
Encounter’s left-wing writers refused to contribute to the
magazine ever again.
Such Cold War passions seemed passé 28 years later. Prospect was never
intended as a ‘cause’ magazine, like Encounter or the
political monthly of the Left Marxism Today (both now defunct), but
rather as a general source of enlightenment and intellectual
stimulation. Yet I also assumed that in time we would find our own
particular niche, and so we have in the dilemmas and unintended
consequences of contemporary centre-Left politics.
This being 2005 rather than 1967 many of these dilemmas arise from the
culture wars rather than the Cold War. And it was by drawing attention
to one particular modern cultural dilemma that Prospect had its own
‘CIA’ moment about 18 months ago.
I wrote a 7,000-word essay called ‘Too Diverse?’ for the
February 2004 issue of Prospect which tentatively explored the
‘progressive dilemma’ — the potential conflict between
social cohesion and the many kinds of diversity, including ethnic
diversity, that have flourished in recent decades. The essay was then
reprinted in full in the Guardian under the heading ‘Why too much
diversity could tear us apart’.
All hell broke loose. I was accused of ‘nice racism’ by
Trevor Phillips, ‘ignorant scapegoating’ by Sukhvinder
Stubbs and people even rang my wife to ask what it was like living with
the new Enoch Powell.
The response was divided, in part, along ethnic lines. Most white
readers and a good many non-white readers, while not agreeing with every
point I made, accepted it as a legitimate argument — part of the
growing consensus on the centre-Left expressed by David Blunkett, Trevor
Phillips (facing both ways at once) and others that we must reinforce a
There was another group of non-white readers who felt personally
affronted. They could not engage with the argument in abstract terms but
saw only some atavistic nationalist trying to exclude them.
My basic argument is that lifestyle diversity and sustained mass
immigration bring cultural and economic dynamism, but without a
compensating reinforcement of the ‘we’ of common citizenship
and values they can also erode feelings of mutual obligation. This in
turn may reduce willingness to pay for a generous welfare state —
diverse and individualistic America has a thin welfare state,
homogeneous Sweden has a fat one.
I also talked about the acute sensitivity of people on lower incomes to
welfare ‘free-riding’ and that while policy in this field
should not pander to tabloid myth, it should seek to reassure people
that Britain’s citizenship entitlements are not a free-for-all and
that we are in control of who becomes a fellow citizen. This led to
angry but misplaced claims that I was accusing immigrants of taking out
more than they put in and ignoring the disproportionate contribution of
immigrant Britons to the NHS.
Perhaps I was clumsy in a few of my formulations and these are,
unavoidably, emotional issues, but some of the responses just seemed
knee-jerk — as if I was attacking a religious faith, which is
perhaps what diversity has become to some people.
The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, whom I had once counted
as a friend, was the most distraught and irrational. She refused to look
at the essay when I asked her for comments before publishing it and then
attacked me personally with barely a glance at the argument in several
of her newspaper columns. She refuses to give up. This year at the
Edinburgh book festival she told 300 people that I had once said to her
at a Christmas party, ‘Don’t you think there are too many
people like you here?’ This is pure invention.
What lies behind this paranoia? At the time I thought it was the
historic connection, especially for people on the Left, between
anti-racism and support for the widest possible open door for migrants
into Britain. Anybody, especially a white person, who expresses concern
at some of the costs of mass immigration — as I did in one part of
the essay — is seen as in some way questioning the status of
existing ethnic minority citizens. But if we are to have a sensible
debate, we must decouple these two arguments, as most Britons in
practice do. It is possible to be passionately anti-racist and yet
favour a hard-headed debate about large-scale immigration.
But the cultural confusions of the liberal-Left go deeper than this.
Part of the punishment for writing my essay was to spend many hours,
over the subsequent months, attending conferences on race, immigration
and social cohesion. It was at these meetings that I became aware of a
series of myths or half-truths which undermine clear thinking on the
security and identity issues that increasingly dominate politics.
First is the belief that human beings are rational individualists with a
propensity to treat all other humans with equal regard. Humans are in
fact group-based primates. In economics and sociology the Left embraces
such group-based thinking, but when it comes to questions of culture or
national sentiment the Left tends to become hyper-individualistic,
seeing society as no more than a random collection of individuals with
no special ties or affinities beyond close family. This blank-slate
individualism creates unrealistic expectations about the ease with which
outsiders can be absorbed into communities. Of course the
‘them’ usually become part of the ‘us’ but it
takes time and can involve overcoming initial suspicion or even
Second is the fallacy that nationalism and national feeling are
necessarily a belligerent and negative force (at least for dominant
nations). National feeling has always been a Janus-faced phenomenon.
Alongside the hatred and aggression it has generated it is also
responsible for many of the most positive aspects of modern societies
— the readiness to share with and make sacrifices for
stranger-citizens, the strong feelings of belonging and membership
beyond one’s own kin group that it generates.
It was sentiments of national solidarity as much as class solidarity, a
feeling that ‘we are all in this together’, that helped to
build and sustain the welfare state. It is the core belief of the Left,
against the individualism of free-market liberals, that there is such a
thing as society — but in the modern world that always,
everywhere, means a specific national society. The Left is often in the
odd position of liking the idea of society in the abstract but disliking
the reality of specific national societies with their exclusive national
interests and ‘irrational’ national egoism.
The third fallacy, following on from the second, is the belief that
Western countries, especially those like Britain which have a colonial
past, are responsible for most of the ills of developing countries and
can best make amends by placing as few obstacles as possible in the way
of people from those countries coming to live in the West. In the case
of many former colonial countries (with the exception of some in Africa)
this exaggerates the negative impact of colonialism. It is, in any case,
only a dubious advantage to most developing countries to lose their best
educated and most energetic people to the West.
However there is no denying that behind much of Europe’s debate
about immigration, asylum and identity lies a largely unspoken imperial
guilt on the part of some of the grandchildren of the colonisers and a
festering, low-level resentment on the part of some of the grandchildren
of the colonised. We often forget how far we have progressed since the
time, less than 60 years ago, when Western domination was still
expressed in largely racial and moral terms. Today, not only is racism
the most reviled sentiment in political life but much of the political
agenda is dominated by debates about ‘fair trade’ and
attempts to speed up the development process for poorer countries.
We do have obligations towards humanity as a whole, and especially
towards the citizens of former colonial countries whose lands we once
exploited. But those obligations do not require us to sacrifice the
coherence and stability of our own societies.
The uncomfortable truth to many progressives — and something which
the universalism of the Human Rights Act sometimes blurs — is that
the modern nation state is based not on a universalist liberalism but on
a contractual idea of club membership. This is neither arbitrary nor
capricious. If we did not exclude most of the rest of humanity from
those national rights and duties, they would very quickly become
worthless, especially those welfare rights with a financial cost
attached to them that people on the Left value so highly.
How is solidarity to be re-imagined in societies with much greater
moral, religious and ethnic diversity than in the past? Can common
values replace ethnicity as a social glue? Do we still need the idea of
a dominant culture if we are to avoid fragmentation and anomie? These
are deep waters but a magazine of ideas like Prospect must feel free to
swim in them — even, Yasmin, at the cost of causing some offence.
Thinking Allowed: The Best of Prospect 1995–2005 is published by
Atlantic Books. To buy it at the special price of £14.99 (plus p&p)
please call 01903 828503 and quote ‘Prospect 01’.
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