Loose Canon: Assimilation threatens the existence of other cultures
This week a doctor from north London was telling me about one of his patients, a lad of 20 who has lived in the borough of Hackney all his life. He was born here and grew up here. And he's a bright boy – yet he speaks only a few very rudimentary words of English. The language he speaks at home and at school is Yiddish. Some may be appalled by the insularity of the community in which this young man was raised. But I admire it. In particular, I admire the resilience of a community that seeks to maintain its distinctiveness and recognises, quite rightly, that assimilation into the broader culture would mean the gradual dilution, and the eventual extinction, of its own way of life. It is no surprise to me that the ultra orthodox are thriving, with high birth rates and predictions that they will be constitute a majority of the Jewish population within 20 years. They have refused assimilation.
It adds immeasurably to the richness and diversity of how life is apprehended that not everyone sees the world in the same way. It is mind-expanding to be challenged by those who commit to another way of life. What a miserably grey one-dimensional place it would be if the dominant model of middle-of-the-road liberal secular capitalism became the only acceptable way of living.
Louise Casey published her community report this week. "As a nation we have lost sight of our expectations on integration and lacked confidence in promoting it," she says. We must do more to challenge "regressive, divisive and harmful cultural and religious practices". As you might imagine, Nigel Farage loved it. "Excellent report out by Dame Louise Casey. Much of what I have been saying for years," he tweeted.
But why is integration such a self-evidently good thing? Casey doesn't say. She thinks it obvious that a community that keeps itself to itself and doesn't want to mix with others is an outrage. Yet the very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not. To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning. Yes these boundaries can admit to various degrees of permeability, but all community is necessarily and rightly exclusive to some. That absolutely does not mean that the "us" and the "them" have to be antagonistically related.
The communities secretary, Sajid Javid, takes the same line as Casey. "For too long, too many people in this country have been living parallel lives, refusing to integrate and failing to embrace the shared values that make Britain great." Javid is not the communities secretary, he is the anti-communities secretary. His approach reminds me of one of the great Star Trek villains: "We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile." The Borg have a hive mind, scouring the galaxy for people who think and live differently in order to subsume them into their own way of being. This is the essence of the Casey/Javid perspective.
For them, good community is little more than a dash of cultural colour at homeopathic levels: a calendar of exotic festivals, some religious fancy dress, a Christmas tree here, some Hanukkah candles there. It's all harmless fun – so long as its adherents don't take it too seriously or depart too much from the dominant cultural consciousness now dubbed "shared values". Which is actually another way of saying that all must be obliged to pay homage to the real god: the economy. And those of us who refuse to bend the knee are labelled extremists.
Of course, the barely concealed target of Casey's report is Muslims. They are serial offenders in their resistance to the hegemony of integration. They won't allow the Borg-like values of secular liberalism to corrode their distinctiveness. They seek to maintain their religious convictions and way of life. They refuse all that nonsense about religion being a private matter. They stand strong against the elimination of diversity. And we are all immeasurably richer for their resistance.