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WILL SELF: A multicultural man on the new culture wars

Following a social media post by the far-right activist known as Tommy Robinson, members of far-right linked groups have gathered around statues in London. Here, one argues with a police officer. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

WILL SELF on the paradoxes and contradictions which make up multiculturalism

Years ago I had the misfortune to be seated at a fancy dinner next to Conrad Black, who at that time was a controversial – if ennobled – media tycoon. Throughout the meal we argued about everything, such was the divergence in our opinions, our beliefs, and our very weltanschauung. Then, at the end, as we rose to leave, he grasped my hand firmly in his and said: ‘Good! That’s settled then – we agree,’ turned on his handmade heel and left.

At the time I understood Black’s besetting character defect to be a need to be always in the right – and little that’s happened since, including his imprisonment for fraud and obstruction of justice, has changed my view. There are some people who will do anything they can to maintain a sense of self-righteousness – including arbitrarily enlarging it to include another whose views don’t accord with theirs whatsoever. And this leads me, fairly logically, to the culture wars currently consuming the British body politic.

As the two sides of the argument concerning Britain’s culture square off – in one corner conservative traditionalists, in the other post-colonial revisionists – so levels of self-righteousness are rising throughout the body politic, inducing a feverish state within which the greatest crime of all is to be neutral. Yes: you can tell when things really are falling apart because the centre not only cannot hold – but is actively under attack by partisans who claim that if you’re not with them, you’re necessarily opposed.

For the record: any essentialist judgement made about anyone by virtue of their race or ethnicity disgusts me, and I believe we should do everything we can – individually and collectively – to foster a society in which such judgements are entirely otiose. This being noted, a culture – as I’ve had cause to remark numerous times in this space – is a vector that carries through time (and space) commonly held values, together with their associated practices, including aesthetics in the form of taste – and the cultural objects (artworks and artefacts) born out of that taste and those values. The problem for multiculturalists is that they are caught up in a colossal paradox: in order for a culture to enshrine multiple value-systems it would have to cease being a culture, since it’s manifestly impossible to educate young people to, for example, believe in God and not believe in God at the same time.

The suppressed premise that lies behind both multiculturalism and liberal humanism more generally is that of world-governance: ‘human rights’ were a sequel to the establishment of the United Nations following the Second World War, and unless you believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God capable of enforcing divine justice, you must aspire towards a mundane authority that’s capable of doing the same for secular justice. Because no one has any rights purely by virtue of being human – as any of the chattel slaves currently owned in Eritrea and Mauritania could tell you, or the indentured workers in the UAE and China for that matter. There aren’t even equal rights in this country – something made abundantly clear by the disparity in death rates between the haves and the have-nots during the current pandemic.

Even if we did have an effective world government, able to ensure equal dibs for all groups everywhere, what could that possibly look like? Surely, in order to ensure that the God-believers could pursue their cultural agenda unfettered – including proscriptions and practices that liberal humanists find deeply offensive – their cultural space would need to be demarcated. So, this great progressive development would mirror the Biblical homily of the Tower of Babel: we would have built a great edifice exemplifying our commonality, only by that act alone to bring about still further fissiparousness.

Another way of grasping the paradox is that some people are currently passionately insisting on the absolute significance of cultural identities that they wish to be totally ignored when it comes to others forming judgements about them – whether this is their ethnicity, their religion, their sexual orientation or gender. Meanwhile, others of the formerly dominant culture are reduced to a literal rump: obese thugs, p***ing in public and beating up on the police. Both sides are intent on colonising the past (which is, indeed, another country), because neither party is capable of envisioning a viable future. The British culture which was based, entirely hypocritically, on the manifest destiny of white Europeans has foundered on brute geopolitical and environmental reality; the multi-culture that aspires to succeed it will founder on its own internal contradiction.

Of course, neither moiety will thank me for pointing this out – let alone indulge in the sort of radical critique of their own views that might lead to genuine clarity. For my part, I won’t commit the Conrad Black solecism and insist on an agreement where none actually obtains. As it is with Brexit, for me, so it is with this: a plague on both your houses. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

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