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From the Observer today:

We love celebrity culture but loathe the unfairness of fame, seeing it as an excuse to ridicule the Britneys of our world. Julian Baggini explores our peculiar love-hate relationship with success

“If you want an insight into British attitudes to success, just think of Richard Branson. He’s rich, successful, philanthropic and a record-breaking explorer to boot. None the less, he’s also seen as a vain self-publicist who’s better at marketing himself than running things. No wonder he has featured both in lists of the 100 Greatest Britons and the 100 Worst Britons.

Branson perfectly illustrates a paradox in British attitudes to success. On the one hand, we specialise in sneering at it. Only a quintessentially British songwriter like Morrissey could have written a song called ‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,’ with such poisonous lines as ‘If we can destroy them, you bet your life we will,’ and ‘If we can hurt them, well, we may as well’. Building people up only to knock them down again is a national pastime.

But on the other hand, we do success rather well. The achievements of the United Kingdom are way out of proportion with its size. Only the much larger USA has produced more Nobel Laureates than the UK. Great Britain lies sixth in the all-time Olympic medal table, when it is currently only the 22nd most populous nation in the world. British literature, television and pop music are among the most highly regarded and enjoyed around the globe. In business, ours is the fifth biggest economy in the world.

What explains this combination of negative attitudes to success and high achievement? One clue comes from sport. Consider the case of the recently retired Tim Henman. Henman is the most successful British tennis player of the open era, who at his peak only had three men in the world ranked above him. Yet his image is of a plucky loser, an underdog we love to root for but don’t really expect to win.

We took Henman’s success for granted as we assume we belong at the top, and anything else just doesn’t impress us. The same bizarre logic ensures that only a World Cup-winning football team will ever satisfy the nation. Yet England does not belong to the elite club of only five nations who have won the world cup outside their own country. We believe we belong at the top of the tree, even though the evidence is firmly against us. So much for the famous British empiricism.

The British assumption of superiority is internationally renowned, and reiterated in our national songs. ‘Rule Britannia’ declares that we are sovereign over the oceans, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ declares our bounds shall be set wider and wider and that God made us mighty and is going to make us mightier yet. Humble we are not.

Britain on top

Underlying all this is an assumption about the natural order of things, which, put plainly, has Britain on top and everyone else underneath. But this same sense of the natural order extends to within our borders too, and is reflected in one of the most famous hymns to have come out of the Church of England. The third verse of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ tells us ‘The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them, high or lowly / And order’d their estate.’ It is a perfect encapsulation of the class system’s perceived naturalness and legitimacy.

The verse is rarely sung these days because we like to think we live in more meritocratic times. But class awareness persists. There is still a distinction made between people who were born into the upper echelons of society and those who clawed their way up. The latter are almost always treated with a certain degree of condescension. We are never allowed to forget that the likes of the Beckhams or Alan Sugar are not true blue-bloods but are, in all senses of the word, too vulgar for their late-found wealth. We may have become a more economically mobile society, but you are branded with your class identifiers at birth and you never lose them.

In contrast the US embraces, at least on the surface, a more dynamic view. The American Dream is that anyone can succeed, regardless of where you come from. Although the dream is too often just that, anyone who has spent any time in America will know there is something in it.

 For instance, 10 years ago Jeremy Stangroom and I started the Philosophers’ Magazine. At conferences in the UK, many academics would wander past our table, looking suspiciously at this unfamiliar upstart, judged non bona fide until proven otherwise. Their body language was at times quite extraordinary: I can picture some of them flicking through the display copies while keeping as physically far from them as possible. It wasn’t just academics. I remember one person seeing our first issue and asking sceptically whether there would be a second. Success is the impostor here: what we expect is failure and disappointment.

In the US it was completely different. People came to us enthusiastic about our new venture. They wished us luck, bought copies and told us what a good idea it was. The door was not just open to opportunity there, you were positively beckoned in. Back in Britain, the door was not exactly locked, but if you dared to enter a new room, it was up to you to make sure you fitted in.

 But then we return to the paradox: Britain has produced two successful, independent philosophy magazines; the much larger US hasn’t produced any. In America people may will you to succeed, but we do very well without such encouragement over here. Perhaps there is no paradox, perhaps it is simply the case that scepticism and suspicion are better friends to the ambitious than blind faith. Indeed, it is not entirely good that younger generations are beginning to adopt the ‘you can be anything you want to be’ mantra. Too many people are being told that if they want something enough, they will get it, as though desire is some kind of supernatural force that moulds the world to your fancy.

This is the kind of pernicious nonsense behind the runaway success on both sides of the Atlantic of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book which explains the ‘law of attraction’, a widely held new-age view that your thoughts determine your experience. As is so often the case, the irony of an apparently spiritual world view teaching such rampantly narcissistic egoism is usually lost.

The danger of such positive thinking gone nuclear is that it blinds people to hard realities. We already see thousands of people auditioning to TV talent shows convinced that they will be pop stars if they believe enough, even though they clearly can’t hold a note. Yet we seem to accept now that it is wrong to question anyone’s dream. We don’t only have to believe in ourselves, we have to believe in everyone else too.

 A little more American-style inculcation of the possibilities the world has to offer would be no bad thing, especially for children who miss out on private education’s greatest benefit: a sense that the world is your oyster. But perhaps it is better to meet new world optimism halfway, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, and keep it tempered with some sober realism.

The British way does have some other advantages over more ostentatiously pro-success cultures. For instance, there has always been room in British culture for freelancers, mavericks and outsiders. In many European countries, such as Italy, intellectual life is firmly the monopoly of the professoriate. We may lament the way in which Oxbridge produces so many of the ruling elite, but France’s Grandes Ecoles have an even greater stranglehold on the routes to power. There is a respect for difference and diversity here which again sits oddly with the general conservatism of class and tradition.

Our peculiar mix of convention and innovation is explained by the fact that Britain is the land of evolution, not revolution. We may be conservative, but unlike many traditional societies, we are not rigid in our social rules and practices. The Victorians, for example, invented the middle classes: people who were neither born to money nor destined to forever be employees, but entrepreneurs who provided the missing link between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate.

The comparison with the new middle classes in many of the emerging economies is revealing. People sometimes celebrate the bullish entrepreneurs of India and the far east and think we could learn something from their can-do attitude. Perhaps we can, but we need to remember that we are an old economy and the frontier spirit which sees every opportunity as a blank slate is simply not appropriate here.

British success is rooted in a collective experience of a rich, fruitful past. We are cautious and sceptical, but that means that when we do something new, it is more likely to be built on firm foundations, not just the utopian desire for a better future.

We may be quiet and even disparaging about success when it comes, but in our understated way, we’re well equipped to achieve it.”

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His most recent book is Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind (Granta)

Thinking more about the parables of Rabbi Johnathan Sacks in relation to the three models of integration of immigrants summarised in a previous post, I came across an article from Prospect magazine, written in 2005 by Bhikhu Parekh.  The article is based on a speech given in 2004 at the International Labour Organisation and published as “Unity and Diversity in Multicultural Societies”.  Lord Parekh, Baron Parekh of Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, holds the Centennial Professorship at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, and was previously Chair of the Runnymeade Commission on the future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.  In many ways Parekh’s article is a precursor of the themes developed in Jonathan Sacks’s more recent book.  His article deals not only with the obligations of the community towards new immigrants but also the obligations of immigrants towards their new society.  It is not just about rights, but also about responsibilities. 

Parekh begins by reminding us that most developed societies are inescapably multicultural in the sense that there is enormous diversity of belief amongst people.  Causes of this diversity include: 

  • The rise of moral individualism

  • A decline in the traditional moral consensus

  • Ethnic and religious diversity

  • Globalisation

  • Immigration

 In an article that focuses on the diversity introduced by immigrants and the responsibility of immigrants in relation to society, Parekh remarks at the outset that immigrants do not necessarily introduce any further diversity into a society and more often than not tend to share the views of the majority.  Of the three models described by Sacks in his parables – the assimilationist or “country house” model, the “thin” integrationist or “hotel” model, and the third most desirable model of shared ownership – it is unsurprisingly the third model that Parekh, too, recommends.  In this third view of “equal citizenship” there is a recognition that a political community is a voluntary organisation of free and equal citizens held together by principles of justice as embodied in the structure of public authority and a regime of rights and obligations.  In other words a political community is a “bottom-up” and not a “top down” creation. 

In order for this political community to have any meaning for the participants, individuals have to identify with, or own, the community, accepting responsibility for it and promoting its wellbeing.  Ownership will include a sense of history which builds past experience into the identification, and will also include a future hopeful projection that plans the extension of the identification.  It is this past/present/future sense of common belonging that Parekh wants to see developed in Britain, including a moral and emotional commitment. Parekh draws a simple analogy with a membership club: 

“Ordinary clubs and associations insist on rules of membership, and rightly expect their successful new applicants to join them in good faith, observe their norms and do nothing to undermine them.” 

Belonging to the club does not involve severing ties with the individual’s country of origin, but does involve affording the new country an intrinsic value as a “home” and not just a place in which they happen to live or a place to make money.  Nor does the club always remain the same: it is inevitable that a society will change as new members are admitted and it is this inescapable change that threatens existing members. Immigrants should, Parekh argues, express their commitment to their new home.  This may be in one of the following ways: 

    • Respecting the existing structure of authority
    • Participating in the common life of the society
    • Discharging their share of collective responsibility by being productive workers, not abusing available welfare provisions.
    • Explicit professions of loyalty and patriotic sentiments 

Participation in the public sphere of the new society does not, however, rule out a personal, private sphere of activity where the immigrants are free to carry on their lives as they wish.  This freedom is, after all, already enjoyed by their fellow citizens. In order to participate in the public sphere, immigrants will need to acquire a “cultural competence” by learning the majority language, understanding and observing norms of civility and behaviour and familiarising themselves with the “small morals” of society, that is, society’s traditions, history, moral sensibilites and habits of thoughts. 

As this cultural competence is acquired, there will be a tendency to internalise the majority culture of the society, even where the practices seem to have no practical meaning.  Parekh gives the example of standing up for the national anthem: 

“There is nothing insincere, hypocritical or self-alienating about observing them without endorsing them, for it shows respect for society and its way of life, and facilitates good relations with its members.  Being new,  immigrants are unlikely to fully master the complex cultural grammar of a society.  But unless they make a sincere effort to acquire a modicum of cultural competence, they show lack of respect for society and create serious difficulties for themselves.  Their commitment to society is likely to be questioned.  They would be unable to communicate their aspirations and frustrations nor understand why sometimes others respond to these with incomprehension or resentment.  They also remain at the mercy of their more articulate spokesmen and brokers who have their own political agendas.”

In return for the moral and emotional commitment of immigrants, the wider society needs to ease their transition, recognising that the immigrant is often up against the following difficulties: 

    • The likelihood of experiencing discrimination and hostility from some members of the society
    • Discrimination in significant areas of life
    • Disadvantages resulting from poverty and lack of the majority language
    • The trauma of transition from one culture to another
    • Anxieties about their children
    • A mismatch between their aspirations and the reality of their new life 

Whilst formal and institutional discrimination if fairly easy to manage, informal discrimination is more insidious and will wear down victims and build resentment.  Living together can provide immigrants with a sense of security which enables them to overcome these feelings of discrimination.  Once they feel personally and socially secure they are more likely to begin to reach out to the wider society and experiment with its ways of life and thought.  In other words, informal, voluntary segration may be a positive thing in the short term;

“immigrants tend to move out of ethnically concentrated areas when they feel physically secure, acquire cultural self-confidence, improve their economic prospects and feel sure that they will not face rejection.” 

Measures to combat discrimination and to foster this self-confidence will be most effective if carried out at a local level.  Local schools are particularly important and must strive to avoid the assimilationist ethos that immigrants fear.  A broad programme of multicultural education “should also reduce the demand for separate ethnic and religious schools, which sometimes stand in the way of a common sense of belonging”. 

Parekh warns of the danger of ignoring understandable fears of the majority as change occurs: 

“A common sense of belonging is easier when both the majority and minority communities feel at ease with themselves and each other.  If minorities feel threatened, besieged, and fearful of cultural extinction, they turn inward, become defensive and tend to avoid all but the minimum contact with the rest of society.  This is equally true of the majority.  If it feels it is no longer in charge of its future and that its way of life is subject to relentless erosion, it becomes defensive and intolerant and either tries to close its doors to immigration, or falls prey to the unrealistic and self-defeating project of assimilation or total integration.” 

A fair, transparent and publicly debated immigration policy is essential, and must address the legitimate fears about immigration whilst combating racist rejection of all immigrants.  To refuse to recognise the fears, or the distinction between reasonable fears and racism is to be politically irresponsible.  Equally, a new British identity must be capable of being expressed in a plurality of images and must be capacious enough to encompass not only the traditional literary image of a green and rolling landscape of “church bells, quiet Sundays, dreaming spires, emotional self-disclipline, and the art of understatement and irony” but must also embrace the newer images from immigrant writers of elderly gentlemen walking to Friday prayers, of Diwali celebrations in public squares, spicy food and saris. 

On the one hand a British identity must be strong and fulfilling enough to enrich those who currently feel alienated and lonely.  On the other hand there must be a strong spirit of mutual commitment between the Muslim community and the wider British society.