Since Woolwich, the place where I spent the greater part of my working and married life, seems to be making the RAI telegiornale news headlines today (for the very first time since I moved here in 2005) because of the brutal hacking to death – indeed virtual decapitation – of a soldier near the local Royal Artillery barracks
(the longest Georgian façade in London and ,one of the finest according to the architectural historian Pevnser) by a group of islamists I am devoting this blog to the memory of that soldier his bereaved and all those who have to live in that area of London.
Cultural relativism was the flavour of the decade in the nineties in my former part of the world. Basically it meant that everyone could practise their own cultural beliefs and way of life without having even to think about integrating into the nation as a whole. However, when the Spanish invaded “Latin” America back in the sixteenth century cultural relativism was the least thought on their minds: for the new world to become subjects of the old world the “Indians” would have to think like the old world – worship like the old world and that meant either baptism into the Roman faith or burning at the stake. Pope John Paul II apologized for these actions sanctioned by his forbearers and also for other actions against the Jews, against science (in particular, against Galileo), against the Valdensian and other protestant reformers, and even against the Turks during the period of the crusades.
It is fine to apologise for these actions but at the same time it is important to realise that a cultural way of life that extends back to Hellenic –Roman times cannot be discarded overnight. When one day back in 2003 one of my students entered my computer class completely shrouded in a face-mask I reverted to that Hellenic culture – with its representation of the human form with its emphasis on facial language, with its interpretation of divine spirit through the aspect a person gives you. I walked out of the class in silence and went to my department head who asked me what the problem was in teaching a student I could not facially see or even recognize with certainty –the department head being a refugee from Iraq. My “problem” was resolved by having the student put in another class under a female teacher who could see no difficulty and who remonstrated with me for having kicked up a fuss – after all it was the right of that student to dress as she thought fit – religiously or otherwise. Needless to say, my promotion prospects in that institution were thrown onto the woodpile (not that they were very favourable anyway) and I decided to keep out of the then raging arguments throughout the educational establishment for and against total female covering-up.
OK we should respect each other’s beliefs but sometimes this respect gets face-to-face (forgive the play on words) with tolerance. Are we to respect female mutilation as practised by certain cultures, or the eating of dog-meat by others? And are we to support the stoning to death of adulterers or hacking off of hands even if they belong to a thief (or banker – the same thing really). In a book published in 2011 (“C’e del Marcio in Inghilterra” – a take on “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark”) and not yet translated into English (I wonder why?) the Italian-born Gaia Servadio, who has lived in the UK for over fifty years, talks (among many other depressing topics, including youth illiteracy and political correctness) about the lack of integration in British society. Each immigrant population still appears to have their own district, their own way of life, even their own laws. This would be fine if it was part of government policy but is disturbing when considering the emphasis on British citizenship of the present Westminster lot. Watch Gaia’s (in Italian) interview here
Obama declares his country is different. America works its magic on all those who newly enter it and turns them into Americans above all other distinctions. Magari!
I am reminded of a book much in vogue in the seventies called “Homo Hierachicus” by anthropologist Dumont. He contrasts the traditional caste society of India with the egalitarian society first formulated by the French illuminists and enshrined in the American constitution. In a Homo Hierachicus society each new element or group that enters the sub-continent is added-on as a separate unit standing apart– thus the Aryan invaders set themselves apart from the original Dravidian inhabitants, who were relegated to a lower caste instead of being integrated into one whole. The British colonialists were also treated by the existing inhabitants as a separate caste and the administrators encouraged this with their own quarters in the “civil lines”, clubs, “retiring rooms” and so forth. Perhaps the Brits themselves with their still highly class-conscious society in which “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” as Irishman George Bernard Shaw said in his preface to Pygmalion, (the play that became my favourite musical My Fair Lady) could never create a “British magic” in the way that an “American magic” is created since society in the UK veers more towards a hierarchical rather than an egalitarian model.
Clearly, integration in the big smoke will be a only a faint hope – so faint, in fact, that it is possible for someone who has just decapitated a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces in a modest (let’s state it openly) area of London to pontificate in front of cameras about the rightness of what he has done while a dead man’s blood is reeking on his hands. All this is a far cry from this morning’s scene from my window here in Longoio, although my beautiful red roses are a reminder that a sanguinary atrocity has been committed in the name of a god – as Voltaire would have said: “que de crimes on commet en ton nom!” .