So multiculturalism failed. This is the theme of the moment. It all seems a bit odd to me as I wasn’t under the impression that multiculturalism had been tried out yet.
Yes, a few people got jobs as community leaders and schools started celebrating Diwali. But this country has never really been able to present the story of itself as being a place of many intermingling and changing cultures.
Instead, it poses as a kind but firm host who has a fixed set of traditions but who allows in bits and pieces of other peoples’ ways of life as time goes by.
To get a better handle on this, let’s look at this word “culture”. In this context it’s a word borrowed from archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists meaning the sum of beliefs, rituals, language, art, artefacts, patterns of life, behaviour and relationships of any group of people.
In theory, the word can be used to describe the life of, say, Maoris, English middle class suburb-dwellers, Rastafarians, or indeed, a bunch of archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists at a conference on culture.
But we don’t need to be studied in order to express ourselves. Every human being both produces and is produced by several cultures.
Take any individual and you’ll find that that person’s culture owes its nature to many influences from a wide range of sources that intermingle in that person’s behaviour and outlook.
Whether it’s food, music, language, family patterns, rites of passage, attitudes to authority, what will emerge is an “intercultural” identity, a sharing of many cultures.
Good old English Christmas pudding and brown sauce have a link to the Crusaders who plundered and pillaged the Middle East and set up trade routes along which came foods and recipes new to the tastes of western Europeans.
The “flattened seventh” in Western rock music owes its origins to African-American slaves, ex-slaves and before that to the peoples of West Africa. It appears in songs that have their origins in Ireland, English music hall, Spain, Brazil or wherever.
If all this intermingling went on in some kind of egalitarian melting pot, there would be very little to argue about. In reality, the whole matter is shot through with class and politics.
The story of Britain is one where waves of conquest and colonisation have produced deep-seated ideas about the superiority of the “English way” and the inferiority of millions of people throughout the world.
In December, as British troops continued to be part of an illegal occupation of a country thousands of miles from Britain, Tony Blair had the cheek to say to incoming migrants, “If you come here lawfully, we welcome you.
“If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us. The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means.”
But integrate to what? Blair was quite explicit, “our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage”. Well, democracy isn’t British.
This country tried to delay the vote for all for as long as it could. The rule of law is always up for instant suspension.
Think of the use of informers and assassins in Northern Ireland, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the invasion of pit villages during the Miners’ Strike, the deaths of Joy Gardner, Mikey Powell and others in police custody or from police sharpshooters.
If there is a “shared heritage”, it’s pretty clear from this speech, Blair didn’t mean the ongoing, unstoppable sharing of world cultures. This is represented by, say, how the English language has absorbed and adapted the languages and dialects of the world or how the zero in maths came to us from India in the writings of Arab mathematicians.
He was referring to a culture that he wanted to claim as being “ours” not “yours”.
This usually means cathedrals, fish and chips and Shakespeare. But England’s cathedrals were part of a Europe-wide plan and design, Shakespeare was an internationalist in his sources and fish and chips was probably invented out of a mixture of French and Jewish influences!
In other words, the very notion of “culture” is used as an arm of the state.
Small wonder, then, that culture also becomes the way many people show that they don’t want to be part of the state’s actions or culture, whether that be through dress, music, poetry, language, new home life patterns or whatever.
There is also the form of resistance that “reclaims” parts of the culture that the state wants to claim for itself.
This is usually “high” art – opera, painting, classical music, theatre. It’s all ours to enjoy, remake and share. I’m not kidding myself that these culture wars are a substitute for the mass action we’ll need to resist the barbarities of this unequal world.
But in times of crisis, the fact that we can share each other’s cultures and create new ones, without despising each other, without racist descriptions of each other, is an important part of the struggle for a better world.