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The Not-So-Great Divorce
Multiculturalism and liberalism look toward splitting up.


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John O’Sullivan

What follows is an expanded version of my article Friday in the Evening Standard–again with thanks to the editor–on the debate on multiculturalism which in the U.K. is still very much in its infancy. It takes off from the newspaper photographs that appeared earlier in the week in several papers–and caused much innocent amusement to millions.

If a picture is usually worth a thousand words, the photographs of former Labour MP and friend of Saddam Hussein, George Galloway, now leader of the leftist multicultural party, Respect, cowering in his car while Muslim fundamentalists threatened his life and invaded a moderate mosque, were more valuable than all three party manifestos put together. For it was the latest sign of the impending divorce between multiculturalism and the cultural liberalism that has reshaped modern Britain. And that divorce will be a bitter one.

It may be objected that George Galloway and the fundamentalists are unworthy representatives of liberalism and multiculturalism respectively.

Maybe so. But all change occurs at the margin. And these marginalized figures revealed in their clash that multiculturalism and liberal values are incompatible.

Multiculturalism is easy enough to grasp. It is the doctrine that all cultures are equal and must be given equal respect and protection by government. It was fueled by the arrival in Britain of immigrant groups with different religious cultures. And it has led to such social changes as rewriting British history and allowing strict Muslim dress in school.

Cultural liberalism is a larger and vaguer concept. Its essential meaning is that people should be helped to free themselves from irksome traditional moral customs and cultural restraints. And in the last 30 years it has affected a quiet revolution in Britain–in religion, family life, national identity, and moral values.

Religion has declined; fewer people go to church; the national (Anglican) church has less social and political influence. But its place has not been taken by any other denomination. Public life is increasingly and aggressively secular. In one revealing incident, Tony Blair was bullied by his subordinates out of ending a television address on Iraq with the words “God Bless you.”

Family life has been devalued: Fewer people get married; more get divorced; more children are born out of wedlock. All in all, “alternative” lifestyles from gay couples to cohabiting ones compete with the traditional family.

Patriotism is no longer a simple virtue. It is seen as a problem for a “diverse” or multicultural society, unwelcoming to immigrants, and an obstacle to Britain’s full commitment to a European identity. All too often it is treated as synonymous with xenophobia. In another minor but typical incident, magistrates refused a pub owner’s request for a late license to celebrate St. George’s Day–the English equivalent of the Fourth of July–because it was an unimportant occasion.

And a whole battery of long-standing moral restraints–on idleness, gambling, public drunkenness, drug-taking, pornography, illegitimacy, profane language, and sexual coarseness–have simply evaporated.

As a result Britain is generally freer and more relaxed, especially for prosperous and self-reliant middle-class people (though the new liberal morality imposes its own stern prohibitions on them–on smoking, ethnic jokes, fast food, and, er, “judgmentalism”). In a welfare state, however, greater freedom can also promote greater irresponsibility. A combination of cultural liberalism and welfare has produced its own human sacrifice in the form of a growing underclass, victims of crime, and children with fewer opportunities because they are brought up in homes without two parents.

Society is also cruder, more disordered, less gentle, and less neighborly than in the past.

Cultural liberalism also changes the terms of trade for political parties. For the Tories it makes politics more difficult. When young men felt obliged to marry their pregnant girlfriends, they paid for their children’s upbringing; when they don’t, the government picks up the tab, public spending rises, and higher taxes follow inevitably. When patriotism was an uncomplicated virtue, the party of One Nation benefited. And when religion shaped political attitudes, it encouraged people to be law-abiding, self-reliant, gratification-delaying, and generally conservative. (American conservatism is stronger precisely because American Christianity is stronger.)

Conversely Labour, as the party of bureaucratic compassion, tends to benefit when people are dependent on government aid and when religion stresses welfare rather than salvation.

Such political effects were probably not consciously intended. But cultural liberalism was intended to benefit, among others, immigrants. From the Sixties onwards, alongside restrictions on immigration (that have now been abandoned), social reforms were very deliberately introduced to ensure equality for the immigrants already here.

No great social transformation was needed on behalf of Caribbean immigrants who spoke English, who were Christian (often devoutly so), and who thought of themselves as British. But as immigrants from different cultures and different religions arrived in significant numbers, especially Muslim immigrants, somewhat deeper changes were proposed. Instead of seeking to acculturate these immigrants into British life and values (on the assimilationist “melting pot” model), however, a policy of multiculturalism was chosen. In other words British society had to change and adapt to enable these new cultural minorities to preserve their language, culture, religion, and other traditions.

For a long time, it seemed that multiculturalism was simply one ingredient in cultural liberalism. But this was a delusion resting on three errors: First, it did not take into account that a nation, society, or community is held together by a common culture and common moral values–often values that its members are not conscious of holding until they are challenged. That common culture had already been subtly undermined by cultural liberalism; it was now directly assaulted by multiculturalism. An official report even concluded that the very concept of “Britishness” was racist. And one of the most frequent complaints of voters in this election (at least as reported by the newspapers) is that their country has been stolen from them.

Second, it did not take into account that some of these cultures and multiculturalism itself were incompatible with liberalism. Multiculturalism holds that all cultures are equal; liberalism is the doctrine that all human beings have equal rights; so if a culture holds that some human beings, (e.g., women) have fewer rights than others, then liberalism has to confront that culture and reject the multiculturalism sheltering it. On some issues liberal society can reach a modus vivendi with other cultures–for instance, by designing school uniforms that conform to Muslim views of female modesty. On really important questions such as “honor killings,” however, liberal society has to impose its own values without apology, if necessary in condign ways. In practice it has been nervous of doing so, and the authorities have until recently turned a blind eye to such things.

And, third, liberals have failed to persuade these other cultures that the liberal theory of universal human rights is an entirely secular one posing no threat to their religion. Muslims in particular persist in seeing it as an expression of Christian civilization–which, historically, it is certainly is–and thus tainted at best. They also trace what they see as the moral decadence of Western society–the cultural liberalism described above–back to this Christian heritage. They accordingly seek to protect Muslims from both cultural pollution and the political results of such liberal heresies as free speech.

At the urging of mainstream Muslim leaders, for instance, the Blair government recently introduced legislation to restrict criticism of religion. Since no other religion was seeking this protection, the bill was reasonably seen as a sectarian measure to protect Islam from the robust British traditions of free speech. (The bill fell by the wayside when parliament was prorogued, but it will be reintroduced if Labour wins the election.)

The reductio ad absurdum of these developments was the scene in Bethnal Green where the Muslim fundamentalists threatened to murder George Galloway for encouraging pious Muslims to commit the “sin” of democratic voting.

How should we deal with this conundrum? Conservatives can argue–though they are nervous of doing so–that these problems arise because of immigration and that therefore immigration control is part of the solution. Immigrants should arrive only in such numbers, at such a rate, and in the right cultural “mix” to be assimilated naturally into the common culture and values of a liberal society.

That still leaves the question: What should those values be? Some liberals such as Christopher Hitchens want to defend secularism against both Islam and Christianity. They regard liberalism as a rebellion against Christianity rather than a secular development of it. They treat all religions as potentially oppressive and disruptive–and see the specter of theocracy in every request for prayer in school.

Even from a narrow political viewpoint, it seems unrealistic of liberals to take on Muslims and Christians simultaneously. It also ignores the cultural truth that debates between secular liberals and Christians in the West are arguments within the family. They almost never involve first-order differences such as honor killings. They are debates in which it is possible to live with defeat.

Besides, how many divisions does secular liberalism have? Would a liberalism divorced entirely from religion and its own cultural heritage have the numbers and morale to resist what looks likely to be the proselytizing force of growing numbers of Muslims in Europe? Liberal multicultural Holland–which simply dithers in the face of Muslim terrorism–offers very little assurance here. Many Dutch liberals are now worrying that their multiculturalism has an ethical vacuum at its heart that ultimately disarms them in matters as necessary as punishing murder and protecting critics of Islam.

The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, proclaims that Europe can resist multiculturalism and live with Islam without surrendering to it–but only if it recovers its own Christian traditions of moral behavior. Given that some of the fruits of Britain’s cultural liberalism taste distinctly sour, secular liberals might be persuaded to examine this prospect sympathetically. They should be at least half-encouraged by the Pope’s acceptance of the mutually stimulating role of religion and secular liberalism: “To this extent we must grateful to secular society and the Enlightenment. It must remain a thorn in our side, as secular society must accept the (Christian) thorn in its side.”

Most people in Britain today, however, would place their bets on Hitchens rather than the pope. Most politicians are embarrassed by mention of religion, morality, or God. And though the prime minister and his two most likely successors are all serious believers–Blair an Anglican, Brown a son of the manse, and Howard a practicing Reform Jew–they have shied away from anything that smacks of a culture war. But with both multiculturalism and cultural liberalism in crisis, generating more social problems than they solve, that may no longer be an option.



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