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Can Sacks sack multiculturalism?

Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi (whatever that is), has come out with a book saying that multiculturalism threatens democracy. According to the article he defines multiculturalism as “an attempt to affirm … diverse communities and make ethnic and religious minorities more appreciated and respected.” If that’s the goal, it seems, then communities reap advantages from claiming they’ve been put upon, and compete with each other in doing so, so you end up with victimology, identity politics, self-segregation, suppression of free speech, and rule by judges, bureaucrats and expert therapists instead of democracy.

He’s obviously right that multiculturalism means the end of democracy, assuming democracy is rule by the demos, since its point is dethroning or dissolving any demos that’s coherent enough to do anything, let alone rule a whole country. That’s especially true if multiculturalism is combined, as it inevitably is, with acceptance of mass immigration from radically different societies. His analysis of the dynamic of multiculturalism and victimology also seems correct. The issue though is whether anything can be done about it within the limits of what basic modern political understandings find rational and morally decent.

I don’t think there is. He says he wants his book to be “politically incorrect in the highest order,” but I have my doubts. Does he propose that diverse communities shouldn’t be affirmed or that ethnic and religious minorities shouldn’t be appreciated and respected? That they ought to be suppressed, as Jewish communities were suppressed in the course of European nation-building in late medieval and early modern times? (In 1500 there were no Jews legally resident in the European countries on the Atlantic seaboard.) That everyone ought to be forced to adopt some constructed national identity? It seems not, since he also strongly supports Jewish schools in Britain.

If he doesn’t like multiculturalism, but doesn’t support outright ethnic and religious suppression in the interests of social unity, then it seems the alternative is a society that doesn’t aspire to an overall order that’s just and rational in the modern sense—that is, that’s comprehensively ordered in accordance with clear equal principles that all legitimate groups in the society can accept as justified by their own standards. Presumably you’d have what’s generally existed in the past, a public life based on some particular understanding of man and the world, and thus some particular religion, and some particular set of inherited standards governing conduct and mutual dealings, and thus some particular ethnic tradition. Minority groups would more or less keep their heads down. In other words, you’d accept ethnic and religious hierarchy and discrimination as legitimate. You’d shuck off points now generally accepted as minimally necessary to avoid the extremes of oppression that have supposedly characterized and disfigured the past.

I haven’t read the book, but somehow I doubt he does anything of the kind. He’s a respected public figure who appears on TV a lot and that can’t be by accident. He’s given interviews on the book but hasn’t been James Watsoned. Multiculturalism may be patently irrational and destructive, but it can’t be gotten rid of without radical change in the ways of thinking about human life and social order now demanded. At a minimum, you have to get rid of the idea of a unified and rational social order, and thus of social justice, or else the idea that social justice involves a regime of equal acceptance and respect for ethnic and religious differences. I can’t believe that a man in Sacks’ position could do so and retain that position.



Well, none of the English Jews I’ve ever known struck me as a kind that in any possible numbers would be a threat to Englishness. Assimilation in most things is their norm, and some of them are positive anglophiles with much greater interest in national traditions than many of those of older English blood. It’s not surprising in a country which used to be well-rooted in the Old Testament. So, while I think you may well be right about Sacks (I don’t know much about the man), let’s not assume that a defense, e.g., of Jewish schools need be a sign of today’s standard multiculturalism. The Jews, after all, are fundamentally a part of Western culture and they don’t impose their religious culture on the public life of their non-Jewish nations. I can imagine ways for an Englishman to defend Jewish schools while questioning, say, Islamic ones.

But, whatever the exigencies today of pragmatic politics and public life that you point to, I imagine that there are many serious conservative Jews who, in intellectual moments, would agree with your conclusion: “Multiculturalism may be patently irrational and destructive, but it can’t be gotten rid of without radical change in the ways of thinking about human life and social order now demanded. At a minimum, you have to get rid of the idea of a unified and rational social order, and thus of social justice, or else the idea that social justice involves a regime of equal acceptance and respect for ethnic and religious differences.” The fundamental idea of Judaism, after all, is that the universal God makes a covenant with a particular and peculiar people, and few thinking Jews would deny such a self-understanding to other nations. A national covenant need not be racially based: it is perfectly rational to argue that a nation can draw people from many pasts into a shared compact that is based not on any model of the social order, but on a sense of loyalty to recognize and serve the shared imperatives of defending and growing national freedom.

So the real question for such a man in public life is how to mix pragmatic and fundamental truths, keeping in mind that anyone who doesn’t sign on to an idea of a “unified and rational social order” must have a keen regard for the pragmatic exigencies involved in living up to the imperatives of a shared national freedom, and so he must not put all his eggs in but one true basket. For example, it’s fine to say multiculturalism can’t work, but it’s unlikely the Brits are going to want or be able to deport millions of people who are the present interest of their multiculti politics. So, what are the ways of bringing such people into a new national covenant without alienating them? Would you agree that there must be some room for muddling through this, which means not being too concerned with public leaders defending “radical change in ways of thinking about human life”? To some extent that kind of thing now has to come from the more decentralized arenas of social life and only when it is common can national leaders really make a show of it.

I intended to use the Sacks situation more as a hook to say something about multiculturalism as part of the general lobster-pot of liberal modernity than to discuss the situation of the Jews in Britain or elsewhere, but the latter’s certainly an issue.

So far as I can tell, a fully assimilating Jew would stop being a Jew. It seems that if you’re a Jew and take that at all seriously then you distinguish yourself from the nations and believe you have a different destiny. With that as background it seems that the situation of Jews in a non-multicultural society would turn out however it turns out. Until recently England has been more humane than many other places but it seems to be barbarizing so who knows. In the past I believe the situation of Jews has varied but there have usually been problems and sometimes blowups although none so catastrophic as the one in Nazi-occupied Europe. Modernity does things more thoroughly and on a larger scale.

It’s also my impression that multicultural society is likely to be very bad for them. Some Jews seem to have a sort of messianic hope that multicultural society means the nations will dissolve in a universal order of freedom and justice so the mission of the Jews will be accomplished and Jew and gentile will become one or some such. That seems utopian, and utopian dreams are totalitarian in practice. “Totalitarian” means there’s no practical room for distinctiveness. One way or another everyone gets crushed, the Jews along with others, and since they have lots of talent and energy at some point there’s likely to be a specially focused effort to crush them especially since totalitarian society makes thought and therefore action stupid and brutal.

A social contract is a social institution and as such requires a society that’s already there because of prior connections and commitments. It can help order and support social life but it’s a mistake I think to treat it as altogether fundamental. Also freedom can’t be the basis of social order because the concept of freedom can’t be meaningful and stable without a prior concept of the good toward which freedom is directed. If freedom is understood as one desirable thing along with others then a spirit of moderation, mutual respect etc. can make for a lot of freedom in a social order ultimately based on something else. It can’t be ultimate though.

I agree that in practice lots of muddling through is needed. Sacks may for all I know be a great stateman. Still, there’s something added by background discussions of whether it’s all a muddle and what the real issues are.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Yes, I think you’re right about the fully assimilated Jew, and about the social contract. Social contract theory makes little sense because it presupposes the ability to contract as the basis for the human society that must first exist for the ability to contract to exist.

I might quibble with the idea that freedom can’t be the basis of the social order, because it is, though I agree that valuing it alone is vain. Yet any concept of the good presupposes freedom, and we can found our vision of society on a concept of freedom in which freedom always presupposes the good, without ever fully knowing what it is.

Freedom exists to create human order. If social contract theory doesn’t make sense it is because society is based on an original and renewed collective acts of faith, a communal leap into some new kind of order, one that entails both a pressing necessity (say, an animal pecking order that is collapsing) and freedom. Order is built when we are free to offer our fellows a transcendent sign that they can agree to share and use as a basis for a new kind of order. Freedom and the good, or at least an orientation toward it, come into existence simultaneously.

To suppose the good must exist before the human or divine freedom that orients toward it risks the utopianism of that mode of thought obsessed with finding correct methods for action. How can I be free if I (or anyone) know what I am going to do? The way that can be spoken of is not the eternal way.

I agree freedom is an essential aspect of social order, so one could say it’s part of the basis of social order. It can’t be the basis, the sole ultimate standard, though, if only because freedoms conflict. Freedom to carry on family life conflicts with freedom from social expectations regarding family life, for example. Such conflicts can’t be decided except by reference to some authoritative conception of the good, so social order requires the latter. The need for a particular authoritative conception of the good does not, of course, mean we know the good fully. It just means we know enough about it to decide basic issues that have to be decided.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Freedoms conflict, but I think Freedom is ultimately one, something shared by a community as a whole. We never get freedom from society, but freedom within it, or for it. An authoritative concept is a sign of the degrees of freedom within a given society. Freedom is always limited, but that is why it is the basis of social order. I have no freedom unless I have others with whom I negotiate to grow this freedom; and so freedom means having responsibility and not always getting what I want. When we feel most free, at one with the world, on the cusp of something new, it is a sign that we are renewing authoritative concepts but don’t yet know how to put this in systematic language. So maybe we write a poem instead. The drop out is free only as long as he is thinking about how to get back in…