Published December 8, 2005
“I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Most people think Voltaire said that. He didn’t, but I will defend your right to say he did. It’s a nice sentiment anyway, deployed by those who regard themselves as the unswayable advocates of Frank and Open Debate. But everyone has limits. Great Britain is discovering those limits now, as the government debates a law that would criminalize nasty jokes aimed at certain religions.
Beefy England has been sapped by decades of dole culture and dotty leftists, and it cannot seem to accommodate the desires of a few Muslim activists without selling its own heritage down the Thames. On one hand, these activists deserve the respect one must accord all citizens. Even those who aren’t citizens. Even those who advocate blowing up other citizens. On the other hand, some British sensibilities abrade the cultural values of some Muslims. What to do?
Why, cave in, of course.
Hence the Great Pig War of 2005. Two British banks have announced they will no longer give away piggy banks because they offend some Muslims.
An official for the Lancashire Council of Mosques applauded: “This is a sensitive issue and I think the banks are simply being courteous to their customers.” That customers might be courteous to the culture of most Britons is, of course, not considered.
Another prominent British Muslim sensibly called the move a mistake: “We live in a multicultural society,” said Khalid Mahmoud, a Labour member of Parliament, “and symbols of one community should not be obliterated just to accommodate another.”
But this is not the first example. Government workers in the West Midlands were ordered to remove or hide anything with a pig on it, including a tissue box that contained a picture of The Littlest Satan, Piglet. (One Muslim citizen had complained. One.) In 2003, a West Yorkshire school removed books from classrooms because they contained pigs. Out went Busytown volumes and Charlotte’s Web. In came cultural apartheid.
At the risk of alienating those who wish to pave the Middle East, Islam is not the problem. The Muslim Council of Britain, after all, opposed the pig-book ban.
The problem is Official England: a culture so terrified of asserting itself that it caves every time someone announces he’s offended. The proper response to anti-pig initiatives? Calmly reply that Britain is not ruled by Shariah, but is composed of many cultures, the beliefs of which occasionally conflict.
Multiculturalism is a fine and necessary idea. Cultures that seal themselves off wither and die. England is better for having ska and curry, just as Saudi Arabia is poorer for lacking, oh, women’s rights and a penal code that does not hand out amputation. So to speak.
But as an ideology, multiculturalism is not only predicated on a falsehood, but a lie even it doesn’t believe.
Multi-culti dogma asserts that all cultures are equal, but refuses to defend the dominant culture when assailed for insensitivity, no matter how retrograde or niggling the charge. Rather than assert the primacy of a generally shared idea, it simply eliminates any official manifestations of the idea. Problem solved! See also, Christmas.
Europe today, America tomorrow?
The concatenation of idiocies that binds Euro-progressives and the ever-aggravated Islamist contingent will no doubt appear on U.S. shores. You can expect PETA to join fundamentalists to protest a painted pig outside a BBQ joint if it’s in the same time zone as a mosque. Doesn’t matter if it’s a noisy minority; an earnest city council keen to placate will order a ban on certain kinds of signage.
Problem solved. Until the next retreat. Unless the perpetually aggravated folk heed an old man’s words: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” Nice idea. Tolerant and inclusive. Universal.
Voltaire, as it turns out.
James Lileks is a columnist for Newhouse News Service.
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