Wednesday, 16 September 2009
The Defence of Old England
There has been much hand wringing about the English Defence League and their cack-handed attempts to defend an English cultural heritage that is deemed, somehow, to be at risk. I do think though, we are getting ourselves in a lather in the wrong place.
From what I've seen the EDL are merely the latest manifestation of an English culture that likes a bellyfull of beer, maybe a football match, but definitely a good old scrap. All of this, by and large, comes along loosely packaged with some woolly thinking on the right-wing political side of things. And of course the right wing extremists are only too glad to have foot soldiers eager to hitch their cart to a horse that guarantees them a bit of a ruck.
Add into the mix groups of young men who feel their way of life really is being undermined and their freedom to worship in a particular way threatened, and you have a cocktail that is bound to have a bit of a kick to it. But I don't think we should be too worried - like many cultural clashes, the reality is far more complex than something that can be sorted out with bricks, stones and fists.
First of all let's look at the culture the EDL are trying to defend.They talk about the 'islamification' of England, claiming that mosques in our towns are eroding our predominantly Christian culture. So where are the EDL when the dust has settled? Certainly not joining forces with local Christian communities to raise a new church hall; because that all-English christian culture simply isn't there.
So where do you go to find what English culture is really like in 2009?
Our parents were of the generation that still mistrusted immigrant communities in the UK, and my generation was raised hearing phrases that spoke of 'them', but as time passed 'they' became real people as second generation immigrants were educated and entered the work place. Where communities remained isolated it was, by and large, poorer communities with higher numbers of people out of work - this is true of both predominantly white and non-white communities.
In work we share the common goals of whichever organisation we work for and in the process learn how our varying cultures and faiths are worked out in practice during our daily lives. We don't often fall out over things, we are just different - but the thing is we aren't that different. We moan together about prices, we compare notes on the successes and failings of our children and we sometimes share recipes as we compare our lunches. Then on Friday some of us go to the mosque, or on Sunday to church - or maybe neither. Most of us socialise at the weekend, see family or play sport, then on Monday morning we compare our weekends together.
Work acts as a multi-cultural catalyst - we have the culture of our organisation to share and hold in common whilst retaining our own cultural differences and comparing with each other how they affect our shared work culture.
Maybe I'm painting too rosy a picture of multiculturalism - the point is for many of us that multiculturalism isn't a threatening idea or socialogical concept thrust upon us by well meaning politicians. keen on community cohesion, it is the natural result of being together. I accept that maybe people like me are an exception: at ease among others, eager to share and meet new people.
Where that sharing does take place, whether in work, school, university or elsewhere we don't generally fight over our differences; we grow and share, building a new culture that still retains the bits we are proud of from the old one, but also collecting and adding other bits - new words and new food, for example, but still retaining the essential values and spirit that are the true heart of England. The true values of our country are the same whether you go to Mosque, Temple Synagogue or Chapel.
I do worry that with fewer people working at the moment, there are not the opportunities for natural cultural sharing, and I accept that economic deprivation and disaffection among workless young people makes a breeding ground for extremists of any sort. But that is not the same thing as this cultural erosion that the EDL are so worried about.
I also wonder where people for whom social sharing is not natural and easy, can learn and experience other's culture. I don't see much of that going on on Facebook for example - these so called social networking sites seem generally little more that a gossip shop for pre-existing friends or way of passing time with trivial games. I don't see many cultural boundaries being stretched in the same way that natural social exchange in the workplace does.
So what of the future?
My instinct and experience is that we have far more to gain by sharing culture we are proud of and comparing and contrasting it with others' culture. History is littered with examples to demonstrate the benefit; and history is also cratered with examples where cultural difference has been allowed to develop into fighting.
So for my part I'll carry on encouraging people to share and I hope you do too. If there are waggons being hitched to horses, you'll find me sat in the one with people sharing their food, their music and their culture during the journey.
(By the way, you've probably guessed that I chose the image of British miners because once they are covered in coal dust you can barely tell what colour they are. The irony is that, browsing for a suitable image, I found it a web site supporting the BNP - I'll not dignify them with a link.)