Tuesday, 23 October 2007

No such thing as a canon

I must say, I admire Jonathan Sacks - the chief Rabbi of the UK's Orthodox Synagogues. He's an intelligent and forthright speaker on national culture. Amongst his religious counterparts, he's the most erudite I think.

It goes without saying that I disagree with him on some fundamental points, however, my ears perk up when he's wheeled into Radio 4 as the religious pundit. Also, I take the time to read what he has to say in the press. He writes well and often makes me think.

Which says something about him perhaps...

His latest article in The Times however, has rather stuck in my craw. I expected more from him frankly. The piece, in my view, is nothing more than a middle class, middle aged diatribe of modern culture and all of its 'ills'. He has an obvious problem with multiculturalism, moral relativism and the democratisation of information that our digital age has provided for us.

I urge you to read it first, as he is a superb writer and thinker. Way beyond my amateur attempts... However, let me outline why he's pissed me off;

"Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on. It was a fine, even noble idea in its time. It was designed to make ethnic and religious minorities feel more at home, more appreciated and respected, and therefore better able to mesh with the larger society. It affirmed their culture. It gave dignity to difference."

" But there has been a price to pay, and it grows year by year. Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation."

No, the multiculturalist policy of the UK has led to the largest natural influx of migrants in modern times. These migrants, by and large, contribute positively to our economy and culture, as they always have. Of course there are pockets of separatism where cultures do not mix. We read stories each day of racist crimes and discrimination. What we rarely read about however, is how the vast majority of us rub along quite nicely thankyouverymuch.

This got my shackles up immediately;

"But there was something else happening at the same time, of great consequence: the slow demise of morality itself, conceived as the moral bond linking individuals in the shared project of society."

In every age of humanity, there have been naysayers decrying the moral decline of decadent society. Even in the age of Plato. What makes Jonathan think there's a dangerous decline? I'll tell you - it's the decline of Judeo-Christian morality in modern culture, that's what.

"In 1961, suicide ceased to be a crime. This might seem a minor and obviously humane measure, but it was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country; that is, one in which Christian ethics was reflected in law."

Damned right too, why should "Christian" ethics be the supreme moral order? I'm afraid Mr Sachs, you're simply afraid that the establishment you belong to is loosing its power upon us.

And so, he lets slip his moral absolutist sentiments;

"If there is no agreed moral truth, we cannot reason together. All truth becomes subjective or relative, no more than a construction, a narrative, one way among many of telling the story."

Ok, and the alternative is what? That we subscribe to an ultimate moral authority, formulated some two thousand years ago, in a culture where stoning was considered acceptable? Now I know that Judeo-Christian morality has developed, yet at its roots is the immutable, immovable truth of "God".

If morality comes down to a simple right or wrong, then how in the world are we to reason with one and other? I can only reason with you if we have an agreed moral truth? Surely not. How, if morality is relative, does this inhibit reasoned debate? Quite the opposite I say - if we appreciate that our own personal or cultural moralities are only understandable in how they're relative to another, then, and only then, can true 'empathy' occur.

"Right or wrong, one thing is clear: the new tolerance is far less permissive than the old intolerance."


" Ours is a transitional age, as revolutionary as the move from agriculture to industry. The growth of computing, the internet and satellite television will change life as much as any epoch-making development in the past."

Now he's making some sense.

"With the new technologies the idea of an autonomous national culture disintegrates. Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse. Until the early 1950s a politician could quote the Bible and expect people to know what he was alluding to. No longer."

Now, this is where he really began to piss me off.

His notion of a 'canon' of text in which a nation shares its understanding is nothing more than a delusion of the ruling classes. Frankly, for time immemorial, the masses have not given two flying fucks about Shakespeare, the bible and the great novels.

Culture is what it is, and has always been - The masses consume what is palletable and easy to digest, whilst the ruling classes bleat on about culture and "required reading". This shared canon of morality existed only within a small section of society. The only difference today is that the culture of the masses is more visible than it's ever been, what with the TV, radio and the wonderful Internet.

Mr Sach's article reflects I think, the fear of the ruling classes of loosing their control over us, the masses. A canon? There has never been, nor will there ever be, a true canon of morality and culture.

Moral absolutes have got us so far. Now is the time that we discard them, for they limit our growth as a society. Contrary to the belief of Mr Sachs et al, we live in the most peaceful and tolerant times that human kind has ever enjoyed. Things are not getting worse. Mostly things are on the up.

Rant over.


Holly said...

One thing that gets my goat: the term Judeo-Christian. As a Jew, this term confuses me. How the hell did we get lumped in with them? After hundreds of years of being enemies, how does our thought get mixed with theirs? Other than a few things in common (which they usually cock up), there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian ethic - this is a post-Holocaust PR/guilt construct that doesn't work.

And I love how he says multiculturalism helped minorities get "their" cultures recognized... uh... wot? Jews ARE a minority culture. Just because he's got white skin doesn't make him main stream. I hope he realizes this. Multicultural policies are policies that protects Jewish rights, not hurts them. But, then, as a right-winger, he likely is under the appalling effects of the neo-con wave that seems to be eating up every religion, these days. Sad. He doesn't remember that the 11th Jewish commandment is "Thou Shalt be Liberal."

Lordy - you managed to find the Uncle Tom of the Jews. Very nice.

jamon said...

Mr Sachs has dissapointed me, as he has you.

You see, he's always described himself as a liberal. This is out of character for him I think.

Or perhaps he's showing his true colours?

Anonymous said...

If the term "Uncle Tom" can be applied accurately to a British Jew, then I'd say there probably isn't enough multiculturalism in the world.

Of course, I'm saying this as a "Don't Call Me 'Yank' Because I'm From Ohio Not New York" American who, with the aid of the new technologies of the globalized world, has found that true love has a far greater meaning to life than any form of patriotism.

Of course, after reading that article, I get the sense there is an underlying non-sequitur: It begs the question, Why does one have to choose either one or the other, that is, why does Mr Sachs have to choose to be either Jewish or British? Or perhaps, why does he assume everyone must be making such a choice? Can he, himself, not be happy with both?

I'm starting to wonder if he is transferring his own personal mid-life crisis onto the world around him...