We have often remarked on what difficult times these are for the art of parody. If he is to be successful, a parodist must be able to count on his audiences ability to distinguish clearly between the parody and the reality being spoofed. The triumph of political correctness has long since blurred that distinction. Whose ideological antennae are sensitive enough to register accurately the shifting claims of victimhood and entitlement? A mayoral aide in Washington, D.C. uses the word niggardly in conversation with a black colleague; the colleague takes offense because he thinks niggardly is racist; the aide promptly offers his resignation, which is accepted. True or parodic exaggeration? True, all too true.
Racism, of course, is something it behooves us all to worry about constantly, never mind that the word is a neologism so recent that it failed to make the 1970 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary. But what about ageism? There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when the term ageism, to the extent that one heard it at all, was used as a joke. No one took it as a moral failing. But that was before ageism was enrolled in the index of impermissible attitudes, and federal legislation was passed to prohibit it. When the culture of victimhood really took root in the early 1990s, one heard various wags complaining about the treatment of the vertically challenged, i.e., short people. Very funny that, until Smith College caught up with the jest and decreed that henceforth lookismthe heinous belief that some people are more attractive than otherswas prohibited. You see how hard things have become for parodists. Indeed, we begin to wonder whether they as a group might not qualify for endangered minority status, since they are clearly victims of an institutionalized prejudice that threatens not only their language, history, and tribal customs, but also their very survival. We hope that the next Congress, whatever its party complexion, will find time to address this important issue.
In any event, although this sort of political correctness initially seemed to be primarily an American phenomenon, it quickly spread to other countries. It took root most thoroughly in countries, like Canada, that exist essentially as appendages of the United States. (Of course, politically correct Canadians are reflexively anti-American, but then so are most politically correct Americans.) At first, habits of irony and common sense helped to inoculate Britain against the virus of political correctness. But Tony Blair, the least ironical prime minister in recent history, largely neutralized those defenses. For the last several years, Britain has been playing an aggressive game of catch-up in political correctness. Today, it rivals and perhaps even surpasses the United States in its devotion to all things PC. If there were an Olympics of political correctness, Britain would be in contention for gold in nearly every event.
But wait: let us apologize for using the term Britain. After all, a four-hundred-page report just issued for Tony Blairs government tells us that the word British has racist connotations. If irony were still allowed, it might be thought ironical that this report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, was prepared by a think-tank named the Runnymede Trust. After all, Runnymede was the meadow where King John, in 1215, set his seal to Magna Carta, a founding document in the development of that glorious, freedom-nurturing institution, British common law.
Well, we used to be able to think that it was glorious and freedom-nurturing. These days one cannot be sure. In any event, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain instructs us that if there is one thing worse than being British, it is being English.
To be English, as the term is used, is to be white. Britishness is not ideal, but at least it appears acceptable when suitably qualified, such as Black British, Indian British, British Muslim and so on.Rewritten history? Indeed, among the many recommendations made by The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain is the demand that British history be revised, rethought or jettisoned in order to meet the requirements of inclusivity. The report makes many other recommendationsit calls, for example, for race equality and cultural diversity inspections in schools, and suggests that television franchise holders be required to appoint a specified number of Blacks and Asians. Expanding on the recommendations after the report was released, Lady Gavron, vice-chairman of the commission, said It would have been great if Prince Charles had been told to marry someone black. Imagine what message that would have sent out. (Told to? What if Lady Gavron had been told to marry a Tory?)
There is one insuperable barrier: Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken, racist connotations. Whiteness nowhere features as an explicit condition of being British, but it is widely understood that Englishness is racially coded. The unstated assumption is that Britishness and whiteness go together like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. There has been no collective working through of the imperial experience.
The absence from the national curriculum of a rewritten history of Britain as an imperial force, involving dominance in Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, is proving to be an unmitigated disaster.
It is unclear exactly how Tony Blairs government will deal with the recommendations contained in the Runnymede Trusts report. Vigorous criticism in The Daily Telegraph and elsewhere has led the government to distance itself somewhat from elements of the report. But initially it was greeted with enthusiasm. This is a timely report, Mike OBrien, the Home Office minister said, which adds much to the current debate on multi-ethnic Britain. The Government is profoundly committed to racial equality and the celebration of diversity. We are a multi-cultural society.
Of course, Britain has always been a multicultural society. But until recently it has had the wit to subordinate questions of race and ethnicity to the common project of national identity. As an editorialist for the Telegraph noted, it is our common nationality that allows us to define Britishness in civic, rather than racial, terms. Bikhu Parekh, emeritus professor of political theory at Hull University and chairman of the commission responsible for the Runnymede Trusts report, has no patience with this sort of integrationist model. The term integration is misleading, he said, as it implies a one-way process in which minorities are to be absorbed into the non-existent homogeneous culture of the majority.
Leave aside the bad grammar and tangled logic of that sentence, with its misused as and spectacle of phantom absorption. What about the substance of Lord (as he now is) Parekhs recommendation? Any process of assimilation is a two-way street; but is the integrationist model, with its goal of fitting minorities into the language, customs, and values of the majority society, really such a bad one? What is the alternative? One vivid alternative is provided by Bikhu Parekhs native India, where the caste system dealt with the problem of different ethnicities and classes in a very different way from Britain. There are a lot of negative asides about Britains imperial history in the Runnymede Trusts report, but which was worse: Britains stewardship in India, which brought modern technology, education, common law, and an end to practices like suttee to a backward country, or the murder and mayhem that left a million dead after the Brits, under intense pressure, allowed the Indians to try to govern themselves?
One editorialist described The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain as sub-Marxist gibberish. It is that, but it is also a perfect example of what the journalist Minette Marrin calls the Indignation Industry at work. As Ms. Marrin notes, not only does indignationunlike its close cousin, guilt provide intoxicating floods of righteous excitement, even (oddly enough) when it is directed at oneself, but it also provides employment. Like America, Britain is now at the mercy of an immense army of commissions and quangos and workshops and quality assurance teams and guidelines committees and interdisciplinary evaluation groups and re-evaluation advisory bodies and joint consultative boards, all in hot and indignant pursuit of an ism of some kind heterosexism, racism, handicapism, anything. The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain is a perfect specimen of political correctness in action. Like all such products, it has the odd effect of making parody simultaneously more difficult and more necessary. It also makes unflagging criticism absolutely imperative.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 3, on page 1
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