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A Confusion of Tongues By: Theodore Dalrymple
City Journal | Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Fall of the Tower of Babel, by Cornelis Anthonisz (1547).
Fall of the Tower of Babel, by Cornelis Anthonisz (1547)

Acting recently as an expert witness in a murder trial, I became aware of a small legal problem caused by the increasingly multicultural nature of our society. According to English law, a man is guilty of murder if he kills someone with the intention either to kill or to injure seriously. But he is guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter if he has been sufficiently provoked or if his state of mind at the time was abnormal enough to reduce his responsibility. The legal test here is a comparison with the supposedly ordinary man—the man on the Clapham omnibus, as the legal cliché has it. Would that ordinary person feel provoked under similar circumstances? Was the accused’s state of mind at the time of the killing very different from that of an average man?

But who is that ordinary man nowadays, now that he might come from any of a hundred countries? The accused in this instance was a foreign-born Sikh who had married, and killed, a native-born woman of the same minority. The defense argued—unsuccessfully—that an ordinary man of the defendant’s traditional culture would have found the wife’s repeated infidelity particularly wounding and would therefore have acted in the same way.

For now, the courts have rejected this line of argument: though, by coincidence, the case took place the same week that the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested that adopting part of Islamic sharia as the law of the land “seemed unavoidable” and that people in a multicultural society like Britain should be able to choose the legal jurisdiction under which they lived. In contradistinction to such views, it was encouraging to see in the jury a man from a different minority group, one traditionally hostile to that of the accused. The right to challenge jurors without giving a reason, which in the past would have removed this man, has been curtailed in recent years because of a juror shortage. This is just as well, since the right undermines the jury system’s whole justification: that ordinary men, of whatever background, can suspend their prejudices and judge their peers by the evidence alone.

Problems with interpreting the law are not the only, or even the most important, ones that arise in an ever more diverse society. A feeling of unease is widespread, even among the longer-resident immigrants themselves, that Britain has lost its distinctive character: or rather, that the loss of a distinctive character is now its most distinctive character. The country that those immigrants came to, or thought they were coming to, no longer exists. It has changed beyond all recognition—far beyond and more radically than the inevitable change that has accompanied human existence since the dawn of civilization. A sense of continuity has been lost, disconcerting in a country with an unwritten constitution founded upon continuity.

London is now the most ethnically diverse city in the world—more so, according to United Nations reports, even than New York. And this is not just a matter of a sprinkling of a few people of every race and nation, or of the fructifying cultural effect of foreigners (a culture closed to outsiders is dead, though perhaps that is not the only way for a culture to die). Walk down certain streets in London and one encounters a Babel of languages. If a blind person had only the speech of passersby to help him get his bearings, he would be lost; though perhaps the very lack of a predominant language might give him a clue. (This promiscuity is not to say that monocultural ghettos of foreigners do not also exist in today’s Britain.)

A third of London’s residents were born outside Britain, a higher percentage of newcomers than in any other city in the world except Miami, and the percentage continues to rise. Likewise, migration figures for the country as a whole—emigration and immigration—suggest that its population is undergoing swift replacement. Many of the newcomers are from Pakistan, India, and Africa; others are from Eastern Europe and China. If present trends continue, experts predict, in 20 years’ time, between a quarter and a third of the British population will have been born outside it, and at least a fifth of the native population will have emigrated. Britain has always had immigrants—from the French Huguenots after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes to Germans fleeing Prussian repression, from Jews escaping czarist oppression to Italian prisoners of war who stayed on after World War II—and absorbed them. But never so many, or so quickly.

To the anxiety about these unprecedented demographic changes—a substantial majority of the public, when asked, says that it wants a dramatic reduction in immigration—one can add a reticence in openly expressing it. Inducing this hesitancy are intellectuals of the self-hating variety, who welcome the destruction of the national identity and who argue—in part, correctly—that every person’s identity is multiple; that identity can and ought to change over time; and that too strong an emphasis on national identity has in the past led to barbarism. By reiteration, they have insinuated a sense of guilt into everyone’s mind, so that even to doubt the wisdom or viability of a society consisting of myriad ethnic and religious groups with no mutual sympathy (and often with mutual antagonisms) is to suspect oneself of sliding toward extreme nationalism or fascism; so that even to doubt the wisdom or viability of a society in which everyone feels himself part of an oppressed minority puts one in the same category as Jean-Marie Le Pen, or worse. This anxiety inhibits discussion of the cultural question. In view of Europe’s twentieth century, the inhibition is understandable. One consequence, however, is that little attempt has been made to question what attachment Britain’s immigrants have to the traditions and institutions of their new home.

Apart from any such reticence that intellectuals have managed to inculcate in me, I admit to an ambivalence about the unprecedented diversity of British society. True, one feels a certain exhilaration seeing people of so many different origins going about their business in apparent peace. You find Indian shops specializing in Polish provisions. Young women in Somali costume speak English with broad regional accents. Popular music of many regions of the world—all of it much less horrible than its British or American equivalent—emerges from shops selling exotic produce. The peaceful mixture is a reassurance that our society is indeed open, flexible, and tolerant. And whatever other effects that the influx of people from every corner of the world may have had, it has dramatically improved the quality of food available in Britain.

Further, much in my family history weighs against any too-sweeping denunciation of immigration. I am the child and grandchild of refugees who met with precisely the same kind of anti-immigration arguments current today, and it would be unseemly for me now to deny others the immense advantages that I have enjoyed. In any case, it is clearly possible and even common for immigrants and their descendants to become deeply attached to the culture and institutions of the country that has preserved them from a terrible fate.

When I survey my own social circle, moreover, I discover an astonishing variety of origins (though doubtless Americans would not find it surprising). Recently, my wife and I received an invitation to a lunch party. I have already mentioned my own provenance. My wife’s paternal grandparents were Greeks from Smyrna, fortunate to have found refuge in France when the entire Greek population of the city was either killed or had to leave because of the war between Greece and Turkey in 1920. Our host was a Sikh doctor who had been on duty in a Delhi hospital when Indira Gandhi’s body was brought in after her Sikh bodyguard assassinated her; the doctor had to flee for his life from a Sikh-killing mob. His wife was a Greek Cypriot who as a child had fled the Turkish invasion of the island, during which her parents lost everything before coming to England. Thus all of us, either directly or through close relatives, knew the horrors to which too exclusive a national or religious identity might lead. And none of us had any doubts about the evils of dehumanizing those who do not share one’s national, cultural, or religious identity.

But we did not conclude that it was best, then, to have no national, religious, or cultural identity at all. The institutions that allow one to live in peace, freedom, and security require loyalty (not necessarily of a blind variety); and loyalty in turn requires a sense of identification. In a world in which sovereignty must exist, some kind of identification with that sovereignty is also necessary: too rigid a national identity has its dangers, but so does too loose a one. The first results in aggression toward and denigration of others; the second in society’s disintegration from within, which can then provoke authoritarian attempts at repair.

Love of country has never implied for me an unawareness of its shortcomings or a hatred of other nations. I have lived happily abroad much of my life and have seen virtues in every country in which I have lived, some absent from my own. I feel vastly more at ease with cultivated foreigners than with many of the natives of the land of my birth. Those foreigners usually have a much better appreciation of all that is best in British culture than many natives now have. If you want to hear beautiful spoken English these days, seek out educated Indians or Africans.

But nor can one deny, if one is honest (and this is true of every Western European country), that many in the unprecedented influx of immigrants, often poorly educated, have little interest in, or appreciation of, the society to which they have come. Many are not learning to speak English, or speak it poorly, and forced marriages and other practices foreign to British law and custom remain common among them. A government report several years ago found that Britain’s whites and ethnic minorities led radically separate lives, with no sense of shared nationality. And as is now well-known, a disturbing number of British Muslims have proved susceptible to the ideology of Islamism. A recent survey found that 40 percent of British Muslims under 24 wanted to live under sharia; 36 percent supported the death penalty for apostasy. Significantly, the figures for older Muslims were considerably lower. Another poll found that a fifth of all British Muslims had sympathy with the “feelings and motives” of the London suicide bombers. Only a third of British Muslims, a Guardian survey found, want more integration into British culture.

The doctrine of multiculturalism arose, at least in Holland, as a response to the immigration influx, believed initially to be temporary. The original purpose of multiculturalism was to preserve the culture of European “guest workers” so that when they returned home, having completed their labor contracts, they would not feel dislocated by their time away. The doctrine became a shibboleth of the Left, a useful tool of cultural dismantlement, only after family reunion in the name of humanitarianism became normal policy during the 1960s and the guest workers transformed into permanent residents.

Living in two countries, France and Britain, I have found it instructive to compare how each has gone about welcoming (if that is the word I seek) these immigrants. Each has gotten one thing right and one thing wrong: but the French situation, for all the urban violence that broke out in 2005 among the Muslim “youth,” is easier, at least in theory, to put right.

France has the easier task, perhaps, because it is an ideological, or at least a philosophical, state, while Britain is an organic one. The French state, unlike the ancient country it rules, is a new, reborn state. It has a foundation myth, that of the French Revolution, which ushered in the age of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. It doesn’t matter whether France has ever achieved any of those desiderata in practice (what political ideal ever has been achieved, at least unequivocally?), or that the storming of the Bastille was in reality more sordid than glorious. The terms “republican equality” and “republican elitism” (the second, the achievement of status by means of effort and talent, an outgrowth of the first) do in fact mean something, and they exert a magnetic pull on almost every mind with which they come into contact. And the exaltation of this myth, which supposed that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were every man’s birthright andthat France was a beacon shining the light of reason to the whole world, has meant that (in theory) everyone who makes France his home becomes a Frenchman tout court—not an Armenian Frenchman or a Malian one, but just a Frenchman.

This myth has actually guided French cultural policy. That France, as a result of the Revolution, has for a long time been a secular state de jure, rather than merely de facto, as is Britain (where religious tolerance is an outgrowth of custom, not law), enabled it to abolish headscarves in the public schools without incurring the odium of anti-Muslim bigotry. The ban simply accorded with the state’s secular founding philosophy. Multiculturalism, that is, is not compatible with the founding Enlightenment mythology of France; assimilation, not integration, is the goal. Everyone learns the same history in France; and nos ancêtres les gaulois comes to express not a biological but a cultural truth—and an easy-to-understand one, at that.

Britain’s situation is very different. It is not an ideological state; it has no foundation myths that are easy to identify with. The Battle of Hastings was too long ago and psychologically distant to have any resonance now; the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was too muted an affair, frankly not bloody or heroic enough. As for the English Civil War, its moral meaning is too equivocal: as W. C. Sellars and R. J. Yeatman put it in 1066 and All That, the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive, while the Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic.

The French state started with a philosophical big bang; the British state evolved. The French state prescribed; the British state did not forbid. The traditions of the British state, therefore, were much more favorable to multiculturalism, having always allowed people to form associations for their own freely chosen purposes. This lack of central direction served society well while differences among groups were relatively minor and while numbers of immigrants were small; but once there were so many different groups with nothing in common, each with numbers enough to form a ghetto—and worse still, some of them actively hostile to the overarching order of British society—then the laissez-faire approach was bound to run into difficulty. It is hard to oppose an ideology with a tradition.

Even absent multicultural doctrinalism, it would not have been easy to explain the advantages and philosophical underpinnings of the Burkean, nonideological state to peasants newly arrived from, say, the Pakistani Punjab and Bangladesh. The advantages and underpinnings are like the rules of cricket: one can with application and dedication learn them, but it is far easier to assume them as part of your mental and cultural heritage, to be born into them. What could you give the immigrants to read that would explain the British political tradition to them? Reflections on the Revolution in France, perhaps, or Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics? Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity is a slogan, and much easier to teach and to learn.

Making matters worse, in Britain, multiculturalism became a career opportunity and a source of political patronage. So-called experts on cultural sensitivity and equal opportunity—generally people whose ambitions far exceeded their talent, except for bureaucratic intrigue—built little empires, whose continued existence depended on the permanence of racial and other divisions in society. The hospital where I once worked recently sent a questionnaire to its staff, asking them to supply the personnel department with details of their race (17 categories), their sexual orientation (6 categories), their marital status (6 categories), and their religion (7 categories), so that discrimination against any of the 4,284 possible resultant categories might be eliminated. Clearly, there is no end to the work of the bureaucrats of equal opportunity.

It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that French Muslim immigrants are better integrated culturally than British ones. Pew Center research shows that six times as many Muslims in France as in Britain consider their national identity more important than their religious one: 42 percent versus 7 percent. (This difference may not result solely from cultural policy, since Muslims from North Africa, from which most French Muslim immigrants arrive, are much likelier in the first place to believe that Islam is compatible with Western citizenship.) Muslims in France also are much less distinguishable from the rest of the population by their mode of dress than is the case with their counterparts in Britain. In the Muslim areas in France, you may notice something different about the people, but you do not think, as increasingly you do in Britain, that the population of the North-West Frontier has moved en masse to the inner cities or suburbs. And this greater cultural assimilation is true notwithstanding the fact that Muslim areas in France, unlike those in Britain, are as physically separate from many of the towns and cities as the black townships were from the white cities of South Africa.

There is another major difference between the Muslim areas of France and Britain, however: this time, to Britain’s advantage. The relative ease of starting a business in Britain by comparison with heavily regulated France means that small businesses dominate Britain’s Muslim neighborhoods, whereas there are none in the banlieues of France—unless you count open drug dealing as a business. (This is one of the reasons why London is now the seventh-largest French-speaking city in the world: many ambitious young French people, Muslims included, move there to found businesses.) And since many of the businesses in the Muslim areas in Britain are restaurants favored by non-Muslim customers, the isolation of Muslims from the general population is not as great as in France.

However, increased contact between people does not necessarily result in increased sympathy among them. A large proportion of the indigenous Muslim terrorists caught in Britain are children of prosperous small businessmen, who have been to university and whose individual prospects for the future were good, if they had chosen to follow a normal career path. Cultural dislocation, the readiness to hand of an ideology of hatred that seems to answer their personal need for a fixed identity and an end to cultural confusion, and a disposable income—these, not poverty, account for their terrorism.

In France, the children of Muslim immigrants may not be as alienated from mainstream culture as are those in Britain; but the inflexibility of the French labor market results in a long-term unemployment that embitters them. In Britain, by contrast, relative economic success has not led to cultural integration: so you have riots in France and terrorism in Britain.

The solution (for which it may now be too late, despite post-London-bombing genuflections on the part of then–prime minister Tony Blair and then–chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown in the direction of the very national values they had done so much previously to undermine) would be a combination of French cultural robustness with British economic flexibility: something like the American ideal of the melting pot, in fact, which relied (and, to some degree, relies still) on a clear idea of what it means to be an American, combined with economic openness. The British notion that economic opportunity without a shared culture will result in a flourishing society is whistling in the wind; while the French idea that it is enough to teach Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity while obstructing the possibility of real economic advancement is asking for trouble.

Aware of the polls on immigration, Brown’s Labour government has just taken some hesitant but sensible steps, putting aspiring British citizens on “probation” to show that they can speak English, pay taxes, and avoid jail before granting them citizenship. Britain and France, though, have never been very good at learning from each other: the Channel might as well be an ocean.


Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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