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Customer Review

on 18 November 2007
I cannot be the only one who was somewhat nonplussed to read the extract from the new book by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in Saturday's Times ("The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society").

The extract begins with a declaration that multiculturalism has outlived its usefulness. True, but it's hardly a revelation. Trevor Phillips said it more than three years ago and it quickly became accepted wisdom among professionals in the race relations field and at the Home Office.

There follow a string of assertions with little justification. Argument by assertion is not on, even from Chief Rabbis. "Liberal democracy is in danger"; "Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk"; "religious groups are becoming pressure groups"; "boycotts and political campaigns are infecting professional bodies". I'm only four years younger than Sir Jonathan and yes, some things have got worse but I just don't buy these ex-cathedra judgments (maybe not the most felicitous adjective in this case). Yes, there are those who would prefer that we didn't have democracy but why doesn't Sir Jonathan name them? It's Hizb ut Tahrir and their ilk, isn't it? By failing to be specific, he only succeeds in losing credibility. Hizb ut Tahrir and the rest who want to establish a Caliphate are hardly a majority, are they Sir Jonathan? As for religious groups becoming pressure groups, `twas ever thus. Has he forgotten the role played by Churchmen in CND? CND was founded in the rooms of Canon John Collins and Bruce Kent has of course been a major force in CND over the years.

The Chief Rabbi then asserts the "slow demise of morality itself". Well we all know about the need for ASBOs and the hoodie-culture but has Sir Jonathan been on the Northern Line at rush hour recently? If he has, the number of people offering seats to the elderly and to women can hardly have escaped his notice. Compare this with 30 years ago, when it was a rarity. And smokers are no longer allowed to foul the air for the rest of us. Surely these things are an advance in morality, not a demise.

And why have we all become so amoral? Sir J: first we decriminalised suicide in 1961 (did we try and imprison suicides before then? - I seem to have forgotten). This was "the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country". Then in 1967 we legalised abortion and homosexuality. Run that past us again, Sir Jonathan. We no longer force teenage girls to have children they don't want and we allow gays to live free of stigma. In what way is that amoral? As for "the end of England as a Christian country", am I mistaken in thinking that the Church has not yet been disestablished?

Stick with us a while longer. What happens when we have as a nation mislaid our moral compass? Well "morality is reduced to taste. `Good' and `bad' become like yum and yugh". You mean that Parliament can debate moral issues such as abortion, gay marriages and euthanasia and come to an informed decision, rather than base civil society on the Bible? Is that such a bad thing? Presumably Sir Jonathan would regard France - where under the laïcité convention, religion plays no role in civil society - as morally degenerate. Agree, Monsieur Sarkozy?

The word that's missing from the 1700 word Times extract is "democracy" (Ok it appears - but only once). "In a debate in which there are no shared standards, the loudest voice wins. The only way to defeat opponents is to ridicule them." Well no actually - we vote. More interesting by far would be to learn from the Chief Rabbi how young people - notoriously unwilling to vote - might be made interested enough in politics to participate.

And so on. "Western civilisation is not truth but the hegemony of the ruling elite. Therefore, it must be exposed and opposed. Western civilisation becomes the rule of dead white males. There are other truths: Marxist, feminist, homosexual, African-American, and so on. Which prevails will depend not on reason but on power. Force must be met by force. Lacking a shared language, we attack the arguer, not the argument". It's called debate Sir Jonathan and the advance of education since you and I were born 50+ years ago equips many more to participate in it. Long may that last.

It's nearly your turn but seeing as how you are all glued to your screens (well the ones who have not nodded off yet), you maybe need to know the Chief Rabbi's views on the Internet.

You'll need to concentrate for this bit. Here goes. We used to have a set of texts which defined our nationality. In the UK these included "the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels". That meant that we shared "a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse". And we only had a small choice of media: the newspapers and two TV channels (yes Sir Jonathan and I both remember when BBC2 began in 1967). So things were simple, he thinks - people could not have got their views from anywhere else (eh?) so they had a variety of views but only a limited variety. You knew where you were then - the guy you were speaking to either read the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Express or (if he wore a coloured shirt) the Grauniad. Real toffs read The Times. But now - how's a guy to know from whence came the views of the guy opposite at dinner? It could be from any one of a zillion websites - even (heaven forfend) Harry's Place! And he might even be so narrow-minded as to only watch or read media with which he agrees: "If we see the world one way we will watch al-Jazeera; if another, we will watch Fox. We can filter out the voices with which we disagree. We are exposed to a selectively edited version of reality. This is massively amplified by the phenomenon of blogs, which often present the news in highly tendentious ways. The result is that our prejudices are confirmed, and need never be disturbed."

Nearly finished. Now onto nationalism. Sir Jonathan has already told us how the nation state is a force for good, strengthening our moral compass. (Funny, I thought the two World Wars of the last Century were caused by nationalism and that worthy organisations like the Federal Trust were founded to try to stop it happening again). So now he tells us how the Internet is destroying nation states. "The new technologies, by uniting people globally, divide people locally. They strengthen nonnational affiliations. They can make people feel more Hindu or Muslim or Jewish than British. They turn ethnic minorities into "diasporas", people whose home and heart is elsewhere. The nation state was brought into being by one form of communications technology - printing. It is today endangered by another". So we should throw away our computers and become less Hindu/Moslem/Jewish and more British? The two are mutually exclusive then, Sir Jonathan? Norman Tebbit's loyalty test was right? You'll stop emailing us "Covenant and Conversation" each week then? And will you tell the Burmese bloggers, without whom we would never have known about the brutal repression suffered by the monks, that they should turn off their computers and become more Burmese? Or shall I do it? And can Christians keep their computers?

I don't mean to be disrespectful. I feel a bit like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes". Maybe the rest of the book is different.

Today we get `how to rebuild the national home' (apparently it's all about signing covenants). But if the home doesn't need complete demolition, why not just make the best of the one we have already?
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