A couple of years ago the British Academy, in its infinite
wisdom, decided to launch an annual book prize. The judgment
was to be made on two criteria: academic excellence, and
accessibility to the general reader. In this way the Academy
hoped to interest the general public in the very best of
scholarly writing published in this country.
Unfortunately, in its almost infinite
innocence, the Academy also decided that the prize would
be only £2,500. As this is so far below the level
of the Booker, Whitbread, Samuel Johnson and Uncle Tom Cobley
prizes as to deprive it of all news-worthiness in the eyes
of journalists and literary editors, the publicity has been
almost non-existent. Which is a pity, since the short-list
of titles for this prize has shown yet again that the production
of readable high-quality scholarship (especially, but not
only, in the field of history) is one of the few areas of
ever-increasing excellence in our contemporary cultural
For the 2002 prize, the judges (of whom
I was one) drew up a short-list of six books. Three of them
- by Eamon Duffy, Jonathan Israel and Jonathan Rose - had
been very widely reviewed on publication; the others much
less so. The award, which was announced last month, went
to Professor Stanley Cohen of the LSE, for his powerful
and original work, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities
and Suffering. As his subject-matter was the psychology
and politics of "turning a blind eye", it is not
surprising that the book itself had been rather neglected
by the public. People who do not want to know about other
people's suffering probably do not want to read about their
not wanting to know about it, either.
But in the case of one of the other short-listed
books, the failure to make a popular splash is more mystifying.
Brian Barry's Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique
of Multiculturalism is one of the most stimulating books
of political theory published in recent years; and the issues
it deals with are ones which all of us, as newspaper-readers,
citizens and voters, must come up against sooner or later.
Barry's target is "multiculturalism",
as defended by modern theorists and put into practice by
legislators and judges: a way of looking at society that
classifies people in groups, defines those groups by "culture",
attributes "rights" to such cultural groups, and
favours the granting of privileges (subsidies, quotas, legal
immunities, and so on) to them, in order to show respect
for "cultural difference".
People who follow the debates about cultural
politics in the United States will find this all too familiar.
They will also be familiar with the standard responses to
multiculturalism, which have come mainly from the Right
- whether libertarian and anti-statist, or "moral majority".
Professor Barry, however, approaches
multiculturalism from a very different direction: he attacks
it from a strictly liberal point of view. "Liberal",
that is, not in the vague sense in which the word is now
used in America (where it has become a synonym for "Leftist"),
but in the old-fashioned meaning of the term. He believes
in freedom, equality of opportunity and the prevention or
relief of suffering; and he thinks that the purpose of the
state is to create a framework in which those aims can be
From his obiter dicta about Reagan, Thatcher,
the monarchy, theology and foxhunting (to say nothing of
his major arguments on subjects such as taxation), readers
will quickly see that Barry's political sympathies are definitely
on the Left. But his barrage of arguments against the theory
and practice of "multiculturalism" is more powerful
than any attack that I have ever seen from the other end
of the spectrum. The logic is rigorous, the command of political
and judicial detail masterful. Here the multiculturalists
have an opponent whom - unlike their conservative critics
- they simply cannot affect to ignore.
Barry's attack has not come out of the
blue, however. At the philosophical level, it is a long
overdue counter-attack, not a dawn raid - more D-Day than
Pearl Harbor. For the multicultural theorists have had traditional
liberalism on the run for many years, claiming that it ignores
human differences and imposes so-called "universal"
principles (such as human rights) which are just projections
of Eurocentric values.
Barry mounts a robust defence of liberalism
against these charges. He argues that there are universal
values; he shows that the moral relativism of his opponents
is self-contradictory; and he dismisses as a canard the
claim that liberalism aims to turn us all into pure rational
beings with no local attachments or cultural differences.
On the contrary, he says, liberalism is a political theory,
not a cult of moral improvement; and the political problem
to which it frames an answer is precisely the problem of
how people who differ in all sorts of ways can live together
His quarrel, therefore, is not with multiculturalism
as a state of affairs - the mere fact that our society contains
people of different cultures. It is with multiculturalism
as an "-ism", the body of theory which advocates
such things as compulsory bilingual education for American
children with Hispanic surnames (an education so stultifying
that, as he puts it, they emerge illiterate in two languages),
the imposition of "ebonics" (an artificially theorised
version of black English) on black children, the right of
Gypsies to deprive their own children of a proper education
(something enshrined, in case you didn't know, in English
law), the claimed right of parents from certain cultures
to inflict genital mutilation on their daughters, and so
In case that "and so on" leaves
the impression that Barry has picked a list of easy targets,
it should be added that he also criticises the granting
of special exemptions to Jews and Muslims for ritual slaughter;
the English law permitting Sikh motorcyclists to dispense
with helmets; and the American laws exempting the Amish
from almost any civic duties you care to mention. For while
his primary concern is with the most disadvantaged members
of society (who, he believes, should be helped by properly
targeted social policies, not ones tailored for "cultural
groups"), he also cares about equality of treatment,
consistency, and fairness.
Conservatives will not agree with everything
in this book, such as his occasional statements of hard-line
social egalitarianism (attacking private education and healthcare).
And when he asks, in a memorable phrase, "If multiculturalism
is the answer, what was the question?", his purpose
is to remind us of other political and social problems which
the "multiculturalism" debate has tended to obscure.
But most readers - if they are believers in citizenship
and equality before the law, whether of the Left or of the
Right - are likely to conclude that, whatever the question
may have been, multiculturalism is not the answer.