Modernity versus Diversity

by John Derbyshire


You are of course right about Egypt. The progress of events there in fact tells us something large and horrible about the modern world, something I’ve been trying to get a handle on for a few years.

In particular regard to Egypt, I think I came away clutching a handful of the beast’s fur in the opening of my piece on Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in the current issue of The New Criterion.

My piece includes this quote from Michael Haag’s 2004 book Alexandria, City of Memory, a survey of that city’s literary life in the first half of the 20th century. Durrell’sQuartet is set in the cosmopolitan — diverse! — Alexandria of the late 1930s and WW2 years. Here an older Durrell is revisiting the city in 1977 for a TV documentary:

The city seemed to him listless and spiritless, its harbor a mere cemetery, its famous cafés no longer twinkling with music and lights. “Foreign posters and advertisements have vanished, everything is in Arabic; in our time film posters were billed in several languages with Arabic subtitles, so to speak.” His favourite bookshop, Cité du Livre on the Rue Fuad, had gone, and in others he found a lamentable stock. All about him lay “Iskandariya,” the uncomprehended Arabic of its inhabitants translating only into emptiness.

Counterintuitively, for some reason I have not been able to figure out, modernity and diversity are antithetical. A few well-advertised horrors notwithstanding, it seems to have been easier in premodern times for different peoples to live together at close quarters, in large numbers. Or perhaps it’s just easier today for them to separate.

In defiance of which (supposing I am right), our cultural and political elites will go on believing that the U.S.A. can take in any numbers of people from anywhere at all without negative consequences.

I confidently predict, for example, that we shall soon be opening our arms in welcome to eight million Egyptian Copts.

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