Friday, December 16, 2005

Up to cockney, tarts and lager?


The recent race riots in cities dotting the Western map have launched a series of speculative commenting among columnists and analysts on what is the best way of integrating immigrants. Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in the Boston Globe, on the experiences that countries have traditionally had with their systems of governance and why, in his view, the American melting pot is the best of them all.

Different countries already had different attitudes to the idea of nationhood: German identity was founded on the Volk (the people) and the French republican version was founded on the patrie, ethnic as opposed to civic nationalism. German immigration law, dating back a hundred years, has been well-nigh racial in inspiration. Anyone can claim German nationality who can prove German descent, but it was very difficult indeed for anyone else to ''become a German."

In France the official attitude was quite different. France had a long history of migration and assimilation, and a melting pot kept on a higher flame than the American one. Reagan's ''you can't become a Frenchman" was not quite right. France believed in a mission civilatrice, and this meant among other things that little boys from Martinique to Senegal to Indochina might achieve the highest honor of all by becoming Frenchmen.

In England and Holland there has been another factor, what William Pfaff, the American columnist who writes from Paris, calls ''ghettoization through political correctness." People were encouraged to think of themselves as members of a specific community, black or Muslim, rather than as citizens of the country in which they lived.

That was the exact opposite of the American tradition, whereby immigrants were taught to identify with flag and constitution. It is more than significant that the Blair government has now deliberately adopted the American model. Those seeking British citizenship are for the first time expected to show some knowledge of British history and culture, and then take a pledge of allegiance to crown and country.

This move by the Blair government, disgracefully termed the “Patriotism test”, invited wide condemnation. What it demonstrates is a deeper malaise of the polity in not being able to identify rightful means that one can employ to prove the so-called “allegiance to crown and country”. Both sides have a certain merit to their argument, but leadership is ultimately about taking a nuanced stand, no matter the compromises involved. The patriotism test, to that extent, might be useful. Wheatcroft however contradicts himself by alluding to the discriminatory nature of the test:

So can anyone become British after all? Norman Tebbit, who was one of Margaret Thatcher's key lieutenants has proposed a new version of traditional loyalty oaths or badges of identity, in the form of a ''cricket test." When brown-skinned boys, second- or third-generation British, from Bradford or Luton go to watch England play Pakistan, which side do they support? It was a trick question, and a mean one, since (as Lord Tebbit well knew) they are often seen at Headingley and Lord's supporting their ancestral rather than their native land.

That is not in truth a fair test. We all have multiple identities and mixed loyalties, national, religious, political, social. As it happens, there are enthusiastic Muslim cricket leagues in Yorkshire. A very few of their players might become terrorists, but most don't. And yet the whole question of radical Islamism has muddied the waters of assimilation and identity, with that PC ghettoization playing a lamentable part.

I have blogged about the emasculation of the British identity because of the post-modernist political correctness that every civilized person and his uncle have been reared to accept/ follow. Why should a society accept the kind of split allegiance referred to above? Salman Rushdie’s recent essay provoked me to write a rejoinder on why the western world needs to lay down stricter guidelines about protecting its bastions of civility, which under the menacing gaze of the terrorists, have begun to look like dens of incompetent policy-making. Here’s an excerpt from my post:

In my opinion, he (Rushdie) oversimplifies the argument there a bit by suggesting that such riots spark off when the mitt of "white" patience is dislodged. That is not always the case. Indians have been living in the west for centuries; while cases of racism are common, they have never borne the brunt of the so-called supremacist fury. If it is really about retaining the authenticity/ purity of the white faith, how have Indians made, rather been accorded the privilege to make such a name for themselves in those countries? When Rushdie questions: "what does a society owe to its citizens?", he needs to be countered, how much should a society bend to accommodate those who are both cagey about returning to the dens of distress their forefather left long ago and adept at criticizing their acquired homeland for not doing enough.The issue here is that the world changed on 9/11. Western societies realized that the home and hearth they had been protecting for decades was not immune to the rage of distant tribes. It is the helplessness that they feel in not being able to locate, much less decimate, the enemy that has supplied fuel to the fire. Riots across the western world (count Paris and Sydney as the latest) have little to do with gilt-edged longings for erstwhile colonial identities. If that were the case, analyzing them would still be reasonably possible. That it is not is the real tragedy of post-modernism. Brownlow in The Black Album is its classic victim, too careful of being politically incorrect, considered a wimp by one and all.
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