Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Good, the Bad & the Foreign

“Our laws and customs must be preserved,” so say many ‘descendants’ of the distant Anglo-Saxon tribes, fearing that the British or the American way of life would be altered by ‘outside’ influences. Despite their alleged adoration of their cultural heritage, they seem genuinely ignorant of how Franco-Normans, Germans, Dutch, Arabs, Jews, Huguenots, Hindus, Chinese, not to mention those from Africa and the Caribbean, have over a thousand years shaped the ideas and practices of Britain and her North American kin. If the old Anglo-Saxon way of life had been shielded from the rich and stimulating input from ‘outside’, it would have left us with a dull, primitive tribal existence.

But if automatically rejecting all things new to arrive from abroad is sure to lead to a stultifying dead-end, it would be no wiser to try to incorporate every belief or practice brought to these shores. Curiously, that’s exactly what the multi-cultural relativists want. Without making any distinction between good and bad ideas, so long as someone holds it dear, they want to find a place for it. “So where you come from, women have to take orders without question from men; homosexuals are routinely beaten up; children are prevented from learning about empirical reasoning; hatred of those who do not share your religious creed is normal; let us see how we can accommodate your precious cultural practices.” Anyone who challenges this mind-numbing crassness risks being charged with being intolerant.

Of course anyone not consumed by terminal irrationality can see that whether our laws and customs at any time should change or not depends solely on the legitimacy of the proposed changes. Would the changes correct prevailing injustice? Give help to people whose suffering has been neglected? Stop abuse of power which has gone on too long unchecked? Facilitate the objective enquiry for knowledge and tackle superstitions? Prevent the domination of vulnerable groups by an unaccountable elite? Enable more people to learn to appreciate each other as fellow citizens and not be blinded by prejudices? Proposed changes which, on the evidence available, are likely to deliver such tangible improvements should be considered for adoption, and those which are not, should be put aside. Whether the proposed changes originated from people who have long settled, or newly arrived, in the country concerned is neither here nor there.

Some may say that this progressive outlook on the basis for reforming society is precisely what characterizes Anglo-American culture, and should not be undermined by ‘foreign’ ideas. But while it is true that the progressive ethos has strong roots in the democratic development of both Britain and America, it is far from the case that it pervades all aspects of our intellectual, social and political life. Ideas which are dangerously reactionary, pro-exploitation of the weak, opposed to the fairer distribution of power, come not just from abroad but are sadly found amongst many native advocates who just as fervently detest the prospect of more progressive communities.

Furthermore, progressive ideas have long been embraced by individuals, groups, and countries outside Britain and America, and when they offer suggestions or criticisms in the spirit of helping us live up to the progressive vision, the geographical or ethnic origins of those proposals are irrelevant in considering their merits. It also follows that apart from our progressive heritage, and the development of laws and customs it favours, how any other aspects of our culture – music, cuisine, sports, festivals – mingle and change over time is something best kept away from any form of legal or political intervention. The worst fate to befall Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-American, or indeed any form of life, is for it to be arbitrarily frozen in time.

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