A happy motley birthday

Cultural Diversity - Do Human Rights Travel? - Faith and Secularism - Growing a Bigger Europe - Identities on the Move - Intercultural Dialogue - Re-imagining Security - Trust Me, I'm a Scientist - What Is British? - What Would you Die for?
May 13, 2005

It is 70 years since the British Council was instituted by the Government to promote British culture in Bucharest or Cairo. A few years later, Lord Beaverbrook set his daily paper to calumniate the council whenever it could, to deride its extravagance, to belittle its undoubted gentility, and to accuse it of anti-Britishness, spineless indulgence of foreigners, Communistic vegetarianism, Fair Isle jumpers and straightforward treason.

The council not only bore up gamely, it throve. It always had a strong class identity. Pleasant English public schoolgirls came out from behind the reception desk to greet professors from home. And now, the council is active in 110 countries, spending half a billion pounds a year propagating the much-mutated version of liberalism that is the world-view of the cultivated but non-money-making fraction of the British bourgeoisie.

That world-view is probably the best we can call on for the future of our children. After the death of socialism and in the teeth of the myopic monster of US governmental self-righteousness, some version of the rather absurd, wholly decent and effortfully democratic liberal, in whose image the council is made, offers as good a version as we are likely to get of doing right and living well.

So, slightly baffling as these British Council booklets are, they deserve a kindly greeting. But what or whom are they for? Looking down the list, the most obvious thing is the conscientiousness with which the council has reduced conventionally British surnames to a minimum. In the pamphlet on Britishness itself, there is none at all. There is a volume on identities, of course, and another on multiculturalism, and another, weakest of the bunch, on cultural diversity.

The collective mind of the council, one might guess, decided to commemorate its birthday by symbolising the effacement of quondam Englishness, and celebrating its postcolonial embodiment as culturally multifarious, actively European, anti-nationalist, tolerant, unprescriptive, not very political, still less money-minded and earnestly and courteously put out by difficulties with Islam.

Within such a purview, the contributors are motley. Consequently, many of those asked to write adopt, as a substitute for thought, the knockabout routine of berating old Britain for stereotyping its newer members. In What is British ? even so intelligent an Englishman as Ziauddin Sardar throws cliched old tomatoes at his own familiar stereotypes: Kipling and Churchill (quite wrong about both), George Orwell, with whom he grotesquely associates "the Empire, the House of Lords, fox hunting" (Orwell!), and adds to the cartoon caricatures of 1066 and All That a new character named "good old Middle England".

Now without stereotypes of some sort it is impossible to think at all. They are a synonym for categories. But for careful thought to be possible, a category must first discriminate and, second, revise itself in tension with experience. It is dismaying to say so, but too many of these essays are hastily and patchily compiled; are void of thought itself, of live, disinterested grapple with fact and feeling; and readily fall into the accents styled by the immortal Steve Bell as "blah, drone".

Thus John Eade, on a Bangladeshi festival in Brick Lane: "The event was clearly presented as an inclusive cultural celebration that crossed the boundaries of ethnicity, generation and gender"; Dyab Abou Jahjah in the same booklet: "The Flemish... had become slaves of their own ambition, and in particular to the capitalist values of hard work and discipline" (poor old Max Weber!); Issiaka-Prosper Laleye, on diversity: "The homogenisation... of humankind's current cultures by the protagonists of globalisation inevitably constitutes a fundamental attack against the protection of the authenticity of culture and of cultural diversity."

These three sentences are couched in an idiom in which it is impossible to say anything. Those horrible polysyllables - globalisation, cultural diversity - are tokens of speechlessness. As a rule, we have not yet forged what W. H. Auden called "a sane, affirmative speech" for the global souk. A few have managed it: Clifford Geertz, Martha Nussbaum, V.S. Naipaul, Amartya Sen. They are mostly inaudible in these pages.

The difficulty comes out most bluntly in What Would You Die for? Roger Scruton contends that, like Tristan and Isolde, you can die for love.

Perhaps, but not like them. He writes as though you can truthfully live in the world as you want it to be. It was Clement Attlee who said that anyone who tries to do so is a fool, but one can only be glad that some people make the effort. Scruton is like a man talking to people in Latin. But when Ken Worpole tells us about the British way of (natural) death, his affecting encomium touches our mortal spirits.

The only moral discourse we have with which to comprehend a world-becoming-one is the language of rights. In Do Human Rights Travel? Helena Kennedy, heroine of the topic (and until recently chair of the British Council), tells us yes, and aims to dispatch the ghost of relativism, much heard throughout the series. But as she knows, rights are a first, not a last, step in the shaping of some kind of international ethics. It was Herbert Hart, 50 years ago, who concluded that the only natural right was the right to freedom; all others are humanly conferred.

Moreover, there is surely something slightly repulsive in insisting on one's rights in all circumstances. Simone Weil suggested instead that we start from the fact that "at the bottom of the heart of every human being... there is something that goes on indomitably expecting... that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being".

This is the ringing cue with which we turn to the several essays engaging with everybody's abrupt new awareness that Islam must be thought about. The larger context is of course the advent of new fundamentalism in most churches outside Europe. Susan Bassnett, in Intercultural Dialogue , is her usual sensible self in insisting on a conciliary pedagogy that would see what it is like to think in conflict with your own thoughts (most readily in someone else's language).

All the same, it is a relief to find Pervez Hoodbhoy, in Trust Me, I'm a Scientist , standing up for scientific rationality in Islamabad and against any belief in prayer as causally efficacious in bringing rain. Where the beliefs of others are such that they think prayer will irrigate the desert, then they cannot be said to merit respect, but only to be treated with politeness.

Pervez is followed by Steven Shapin, writing the best prose in the collection, speaking calmly of the necessity of giving authority to any form of reliable knowledge even at our hypertechnicised moment, and of the moral integrity that shapes those human natures who practise science and that it is the calling of the scientist to avow.

This is an attitude even the most well-intentioned British Council official might properly strike more often. These birthday cards to itself will adorn offices and review pages worldwide, and do credit to the council's ostensive values, as I have greeted them here. But it might usefully have taken a few more risks. The compilers might have asked their contributors less to commend old bromides about dialogue and diversity, not to berate the past for its frightfulness, rather to push beyond liberalism's list of negative precepts (don't interfere, don't tell people what to do) in order to discover, name and argue for those common values of the present that will bring out the best in us for the future.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University.

Cultural Diversity

Author - Jean-Michel Baer, Arjo Klamer, David Throsby and Issiaka-Prosper Lalèyê
Editor - Rosemary Bechler
Publisher - British Council
Pages - 70
Price - £5.00 each, £40.00 for set
ISBN - 0 86355 534 9

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