The Christian Response to Racism, Part 2:
the project of human solidarity
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


Theodore Dalrymple: “there’ll always be an England”
When we turn to Theodore Dalrymple’s article “Multiculturalism Starts Losing its Luster” (sic) we enter different territory.
In this country Dalrymple is probably best known among readers of The Spectator for his eloquent attacks on “emotional incontinence” – the widespread modern tendency to indulge in insincere gush, over-reaction and self-dramatisation – and for his patrician disdain towards all other expressions of modern folly and cultural decline. Among the innumerable absurdities of contemporary life, we now discover, he includes the concept of a multicultural society.
Multiculturalism, according to Dalrymple, is the “dishonest pretence” that “all cultures are equal and that no fundamental conflict can arise between the customs, mores and philosophical outlooks of two different cultures”. It aims to create a vision of society as a salad bowl, made up of a variety of different ingredients - “the more the better”, apparently, according to its devotees.
In Dalrymple’s view multiculturalism has encouraged immigrant minorities in Britain to remain in impoverished ghettoes and resist assimilation to the majority culture. Driving tests, government publications and airport signs all appear in a “startling variety” of languages: Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, practices which “send the message that newcomers to Britain have no obligation to learn English”.
The multicultural doctrine, he says is not only absurd and insincere but “dangerous”: “…inspiring policies certain to maintain minorities in their impoverishment, stoke their resentment, and exacerbate racial tensions – while providing employment for a growing number of bureaucrats”.
Against all this, Dalrymple conjures up older and loftier notions of national culture:
“Britishness has been a cultural and not a racial or biological, concept, with a tradition of tolerance, compromise, civility, gentlemanly reserve, respect for privacy, individuality (evident as far back as Chaucer’s time), a ready acceptance of and even affection for eccentricity, a belief in the rule of law, a profound sense of irony, and a desire for fair play: in short, the common decency that Orwell wrote of so eloquently”.
Dalrymple’s own mother, he reveals, arrived in Britain in 1938 as a refugee from Germany and noticed these characteristics immediately. His father too, the child of immigrant parents, was a testimony to “British society’s generous capacity to absorb”. Enlightened teachers introduced him to the great works of English literature, undeterred by his poor background or foreign antecedents.
“British openness,” he goes on, “is precisely what made it so attractive to immigrants. While by no means without blemish, Britain’s history of openness (compared with most societies) goes back a long way, and it has allowed many groups of newcomers to become national assets”. He concludes with some observations by a recent Iranian refugee who is only too grateful for the British institutions which now protect him and guarantee his freedom of thought and speech – unthinkable liberties under the clerical regime in his home country.
The first thing to say about these claims is that of course in practice multiculturalism has not been flawless. Insofar as it affected decision-making by local authorities, for example, the attempt to cater for distinct ethnic and cultural populations has meant that many authorities found themselves allocating funds for community projects on an explicitly ethnic or religious basis. Different groups within the same deprived areas have had to compete against each other for limited resources rather than pursuing shared interests together. In additon – as Dalrymple points out with bitter relish – a new class of bureaucrats sprang up with a vested interest in perpetuating a variety of groups with distinct cultural identities.
And yet this was not the original purpose of the multicultural ideal, nor has this been its only impact. Dalrymple is wrong to describe multiculturalism as a deliberate attempt to create a social “salad bowl” based on the belief that all cultures are equal and never conflict with each other. On the contrary, historically the idea arose to offset the possibility of cultural and racial conflicts during the period of large scale immigration after the war.
In the late 1940’s and after, millions of citizens in British colonies or former colonies had a legal right to come to live in Britain, however unlikely it was in reality that most would want to invoke it. Successive post-war British governments nevertheless sought to limit this right and to control levels of immigration. At the same time, during periods of labour shortage, they appealed to Commonwealth citizens to come to Britain for work.
The notion of a “multicultural society” began not as a deliberate exercise in liberal social engineering but as an attempt to foster appreciation and respect for different cultural and religions traditions and to promote social harmony in areas of Britain most affected by the influx of newcomers. It was an attempt to counter potential racial divisions by encouraging attitudes of pluralism and tolerance.
The fear of racist reactions was not ill-founded. Dalrymple’s picture of a tolerant Britain, generously welcoming and absorbing outsiders, is a selective and one-sided one. During the period he mentions there is another history of British attitudes to incomers, especially Jewish refugees who settled in England and the occasional waves of Irish migrant labour. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic sentiment were common, the latter combining with anti-Irish prejudice. Describing the situation at the turn of the 20th century the historian Norman McCord comments:
“By 1900 there were probably as many Jewish as Irish immigrant workers in London (about 140,000 of each). Manchester and Leeds acquired Jewish communities of a bout 25,000 and 15,000 respectively, with other centres receiving smaller contingents. The Jews were not universally welcome, and anti-Semitism was common…Resolutions against immigrant workers were passed at annual Trades Union Congress meetings in 1888, 1892, 1894, and 1895. Thereafter a more tolerant attitude seems to have prevailed in that body, though popular anti-Semitism was far from dead. Prejudice against Irish immigrants also lingered, with particular significance in areas of high immigration like South Lancashire and Clydeside”. [6]
Like other proponents of nationalism Dalrymple quotes George Orwell on the “common decency” of the English, but again this is only one side of the coin. Orwell never failed to note the backward elements in British society and carefully scrutinised Oswald Mosley’s attempts to manipulate the working-class communities which suffered most during the Depression. Enoch Powell’s baneful influence during the sixties and seventies has already been mentioned, and in more recent times the National Front, the British National Party and others have kept fascist currents alive, exploiting the misery of the poorest areas of the country, like Mosley, and frequently instigating racial violence.
At the moment it seems that ignorance and hostility towards black people, asylum-seekers, foreign workers and their families are growing and instances of verbal abuse, ostracism, racially-motivated hate campaigns, physical assaults and even murders are rising. Yet Dalrymple is more upset by the sight of a Hindi driving license and the supposed utopianism of liberal intellectuals than he is by the spectacle of widespread bigotry towards minorities.
His romanticised, narrow vision of British society resembles the fabled “One Nation” ideal of traditional Toryism, which always served to conceal disparities of class, wealth and privilege behind mythical images of the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, each perfectly content in his appointed station. In reality, in the context of modern Britain, there is little to choose between Dalrymple’s arguments here and those of the extreme right, which seeks, disingenuously, to blame multiculturalism itself for fostering racist attitudes. Writing in the European New Right magazine The Scorpion, for example, Michael Walker declared:
“Day after day we witness that multiculturalism and multiracialism, as sentimental as they may sound in theory, in practice invariably lead to racism, xenophobia and evil war. The main reason for such a course of events lies in the egalitarian dogma which sets out from the premise that culture and nation are flimsy superstructures, and hence assimilable by all”. [7]
To which the historian Roger Griffin aptly replies: “It is symptomatic of the deep gulf which separates a genuinely humanist vision of Europe from the one cultivated by neo-fascists that they blame the growing tide of hatred and violence which they themselves foment on the egalitarianism and multi-culturalism of those who oppose it”. [8]
Given the anger and rejection which confronts incomers to Britain at present, and the ignorance regarding the reasons for recent waves of migration, Dalrymple’s choice of targets and the timing of his attack can only be calculated to hasten the abandonment of liberal ideals to which western countries have been committed – however nominally patchily in practice - since the end of the war.
His distaste for multiculturalism shows some kinship with the position of the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, who portrayed himself as a defender of civilised Dutch attitudes and customs against the disintegrating effects of ethnic and religious pluralism. Whatever his personal intentions, at our present historical juncture he is merely providing intellectual ammunition and a cultured veneer for the BNP and their ilk. His agenda needs to be recognised for what it is and resisted.
The Christian project of “solidarity for all of humanity”
In the Old Testament kindness and hospitality towards the stranger or the alien goes back to the Israelites’ own experience as slaves in Egypt. According to the Code of the Covenant, which the book of Exodus relates as being revealed to Moses at the summit of Mount Sinai, the Chosen People must not “wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20). Variations of this basic rule – and the prohibition of cruelty towards foreigners - is repeated in several places throughout the Old Testament – Psalm 146:9, for example, Jer. 7:6-7, or Zech. 7:10.
At the same time it has to be admitted that the desire to value their distinctive religious identity and to guard the faith from corruption by pagan influences – a prime concern of the prophets, after all - often drove the Hebrew people into exclusive and chauvinistic attitudes.
In his time Christ went out of his way to challenge Jewish chauvinism and to champion a universal perspective. The gospel writers record Jesus on many occasions confounding the prejudices of his listeners by highlighting the faith and right conduct of religious "outsiders", e.g. the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28); the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:10); the Samaritan leper (Lk. 17:11-19).
Jesus apparently could not resist posing the paradox that frequently those who claimed God’s special patronage were poor examples of practising God’s Law, while those who could make no such claim had real faith and carried out God’s will in practice. In many of his parables of the future Reign of God Jesus declared that God’s offer of salvation was universal. Indeed he predicted that while many might glibly claim membership of a self-selecting in-group – “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets!” – they would be rejected by God in favour of those they had perceived as outsiders – “people coming from east and west and north and south” to join the banquet of the Kingdom (Lk. 13:26-30).
But it is Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:25-37) which provides the basis of a radical Christian humanism and universalism. As the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino pointed out many years ago, Jesus’ simple lesson in this parable is how to live as a human being. [9]
First there is the negative illustration: how to forego the human vocation. The priest and the Levite cling to self-serving notions of separateness and ritual purity and refuse to identify and sympathise with a fellow human being, suffering and in need. Then Jesus provides the positive illustration: how to fufil the human vocation. The Samaritan traveller exhibits sympathy and compassion and sacrifices his self-interest, transcending cultural and religious barriers to do so.
For Christ all divisions among human beings are secondary; our underlying unity with each other is primary.
This view was faithfully endorsed in September this year when Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, represented the Holy See at the Conference on Toleration and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination staged in Brussels by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Archbishop Fitzgerald reiterated the commitments, or, as he called them, the “major values”, which I had been taught almost forty years ago at primary school and to which I referred at the start of this article.
The struggle against the evils of racial prejudice, ignorance and hatred is fundamental, he said. Values such as “the unity of the human race, the equal dignity of all human beings, the solidarity which binds together all the members of the human family” must be presented to young people as part of their basic education.
Archbishop Fitzgerald also quoted article five of the Vatican II Declaration on the relation of the Catholic Church to other religions, Nostra Aetate, which stated that “we cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than brotherly fashion…No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned”. [10]
Similarly, Pope John Paul II, in his recent Encyclical letter, Mane Nobiscum Domine, has urged Catholics to see in the Eucharist not only an expression of communion in the Church’s life, but also “a project of solidarity for all of humanity”.
“The Christian who takes part in the Eucharist,” he has written, “learns to become a promoter of communion, peace and solidarity in every situation. More than ever, our troubled world, which began the new Millennium with the spectre of terrorism and the tragedy or war, demands that Christians learn to experience the Eucharist as a great school of peace, forming men and women who, at various levels of responsibility in social, cultural and political life, can become promoters of dialogue and communion” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, art. 27).
These are among the definitive and inescapable root principles of Christian faith and social ethics.
At the moment, with some noteworthy exceptions, the British political class is trying hard to manufacture a vicious consensus around the issue of immigration. The two main parties are both seeking to foster electoral support for themselves by scapegoating vulnerable minorities. By doing so they aim to conceal their own servitude to big business and to divert people’s attention from more significant sources of social divisions: the huge, widening inequality in the ownership of wealth and in the distribution of incomes.
In all discussion about asylum-seekers, refugees, immigrants and cultural and ethnic minorities, the burden of proof must be placed upon those whose arguments promote division, not on those who seek to foster racial unity and equality. If Christians have a contribution to make on these political issues we must begin by exposing the real, material “diversities” which are at work in our country and in the world. We must remain faithful to our own best traditions, challenge the lies of fascists, and promote the values of solidarity and equal dignity as the only acceptable basis for harmonious community living.


Notes and References
[5] http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_3_oh_to_be.html.
[6] Norman McCord, British History 1815 - 1906, Oxford University Press 1991, pp.435-436. A fascinating overview of Jewish, Irish, Caribbean and Asian immigration to Britain over the last two hundred years is documented at http://www.movinghere.org.uk/default.htm.
[7] Quoted in Roger Griffin (principal lecturer in history at Oxford Brookes University), Europe for the Europeans, Fascist Myths of the European New Order 1922 - 1992, based on papers given at conferences on The Radical Right in Western Europe at Minneapolis University November 1991 and on Images of the New Europe at the University of Bari, May 1992. Available on-line at http://www.alphalink.com.au/~radnat/theories-right/theory1.html.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Sobrino, J. (1989), Good News from El Salvador, Video Production, CAFOD, London: Trans Video Productions.
[10] Holy See on Tolerance and Fight Against Racism and Xenophobia, “Roots of Racism Found in Ignorance, Prejudice and Hatred”, 24th September 2004, http://www.zenit.org/english.