Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adam K. Webb, What Colour Is the Village Green?

I confess I have never really understood the idea of “guesthood” and its converse, the ethnic “ownership” of a place. It is one thing to have a strong ethnic identity, a connexion with the cultural heritage and folkways of one’s forebears. The world has lost much ethnic diversity in its slide into cultural anæmia, and could benefit from a revival. I should never expect a Punjabi family in Somerset to “become” English; nor, for that matter, should I expect their English neighbours to think of them as “really” English when they probably do not. But that is quite different from calling them perpetual guests. In any practical civic sense, there should be no difference whether the English and Punjabi neighbours meet in Somerset or in Sangrur. After settlement, guesthood becomes a backhanded insult.

This might sound like postmodern multicultural claptrap of the sort that drives localists up the wall. But perhaps it is quite the opposite: perhaps I am not modern enough to appreciate a modern national identity. This view of diversity is pre-national as much as post-national. The wedding of territory and ethnicity as the nation-state is a relatively recent event. No one thought that time and space turned a Greek in the Ottoman Empire into a Turk. Likewise, today’s trends are severing anew the link between ethnicity, or religion, and territory. Even with a modest continuation of what we see now, these categories of belonging will become more rootless over the next two or three centuries. Sometimes this will mean hybridisation, other times merely movement. The world’s diasporas already give us a foretaste of what that looks like. Even a third of the humanity in such a transplanted or hybridised condition will make the global demographic unrecognisable by today’s standards. It will become hard to say that minaret-building Muslims in a Swiss village “own” that village any less than a neighbour whose forebears lived there for ten generations. And it becomes not just hard, but preposterous, to say that the Muslim villager should defer to someone three cantons away as an “insider” who defines “Swissness.”

How does this reemerging multiethnic tapestry square with the strong communities that we want to resurrect? We must, I think, drop a short-term nostalgia for the nation-state. But we also have to articulate an approach different from the false choices that both the liberal multiculturalists and the xenophobic sort of traditionalists would impose on us.

For one thing, the problem should be clear. When decent people bemoan social decay and then take a swipe at ethnic diversity, they are conflating two different trends. Unfortunately, the influx of outsiders into these societies has coincided with a breakdown of many of the small decencies. But that breakdown would have happened anyway, if the larger machine of liberal modernity had been bearing down with closed borders around it. Japan, which has remained notoriously insular, is a case in point.

In the texture of daily life, it is easier to see hundreds of African or Asian immigrants moving into a neighbourhood than to see the money-driven mobility or shifting morés of one’s own compatriots. The McDonalds opened on the village green is not usually owned by a Jamaican immigrant, even though he might take a job in it after the fact. It is hardly in the interest of the pro-market right to acknowledge as much.

The same conflation happens when traditionalists talk of cultural decay. A few years ago, a very elderly relative of mine remarked over dinner that Britain’s surge of immigration had “lowered standards.” A few minutes earlier, he had lamented the loss of high culture and that educated people today rarely read Cicero. Again, there are unfortunate but real correlations. Given what motivates cross-border migration, most of the influx is of two sorts. Either it is uprooted refugees from poverty, because global capitalism has not brought development of a humane sort to the countryside. Or it is a professional stratum pushing its way smoothly upward, disconnected from any tradition—including its own—and embracing of all the nice new-class orthodoxies. Neither group is likely to be seen as kindred spirits by anyone committed to an indigenous high culture.

I could understand where my relative was coming from in his disdain. When I asked him, he agreed in principle that the same decay was happening all over the world. But it was obviously an abstract point for him. This is because one of modernity’s less obvious ills is a loss of serious engagement across the great traditions. Ironically, Enoch Powell, whose 1968 speech made him the patron saint of British xenophobes, was a cultured and multilingual fellow. After studying classics at Cambridge, he learned twelve languages, including Hindi and Urdu. Likewise, one of the strongest voices against the minaret ban in Switzerland—and against the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad a couple of years ago—was none other than the Catholic Church. We have at our disposal, if we can cultivate it, a cosmopolitan moral clarity quite different in flavour from the liberal sort that destroys traditions.

If we want to preserve the village green, we must acknowledge that strong communities have very little to do with the nature and origin of their membership. They have to do with an ethos of participation and stewardship. Shoring up that ethos requires measures radical but colourblind: policies favouring local cooperative enterprises, land trusts, sustainability, decentralisation of decisionmaking, and the like. A lived community arises from the texture of responsibilities, not from drawing lines around one or another place. Many of the people who draw boundaries spend far too little time worrying about how to craft pro-community policies within them.

But how these responsibilities are lived are defined by rules specific to that community;these rules define all areas of life, not just commerce and the acquisition, holding, and selling of property. Should someone be excluded from membership in a community merely on the basis of race or appearance or ethnic heritage? But what about self-exclusion, when someone refuses to adopt the mores (and language) of a new culture? Refusal to give membership (or citizenship) is the appropriate consequence of that individual's choice. And then there is the question of religion and cult. What can be done now, when the elites have already opened the borders to peoples of other religions? What can local populations do to preserve the religion of the community, which should have a public character?

No comments: