Thursday, 25 July 2013

Civilised Bigotry

Nell watches Frieda as she enters the room, walks across it, and goes out through the French windows.  She tries faintly to say hallo to a woman who appears neither to see nor to hear, nor to notice anything; stiff and silent Frieda is acting like the zombie she indeed is; all the life sucked out of her by the prejudices of this family who have rejected her in a time of crisis.  For a few moments Nell is confused, and remains seated in her chair.  Then curious and uneasy she gets up, goes to the open window and looks out onto the snow covered-countryside, where she sees Frieda walking towards the river.  Nell has a revelation: she is going to jump in!  After a few seconds of hesitation she goes back into the room, draws the curtains, and slowly returns to her comfortable armchair.  It is an extraordinary moment, which the photography turns into brilliant images: a series of shadows vanish and emerge again and again out of the folds of the curtains as Nell moves across the room towards the camera.  A crowd of ghosts is following her!  Real psychological demons - of guilt, of shame, of national fanaticism and of populist politics – that refuse to leave her alone, despite her inflexible will and ideological obduracy.  For Nell has decided, as she herself will later say, that it is for best – for Frieda, for Robert (and of course for Nell Dawson) – that this young German should die.



It is settled.  She sits in the chair, and waits for it to end, knowing the deed must be done.  But the doubts rise up inside her like water breaking through cracking ice until... like a geyser shooting in the air she shouts out, “Robert!  Robert!”; who rushes out to save his betrothed.  Too late!  Frieda is under the water, where she is literally surrounded - the film is double exposed - by images of her past.  They look like a cocoon, and are a shroud. 

Frieda is an ordinary woman, with the ordinary guilt of ordinary people - that passivity in the presence of evil.  She is no hero.  That is her problem.  She is too normal for the inhabitants of Denfield, who therefore treat her as she if were exceptional: for them Frieda represents a nation, and includes within her own being all the bureaucrats, soldiers and psychopaths in that large and multi-various land.  To those who have not met her, and that is everyone at the start of the film, she is simply The German.  Themselves ordinary they lack the experience and sophistication to separate out the individual from the community that shapes but does not determine a person’s ideas and actions.  It is their ignorance - “ordinary people” can be defined by their lack of knowledge and their limited outlook on life – that determines their attitude to Frieda who could, for all they know, be a charismatic angel; which in a sense she is – she did save Robert’s life, which entailed some risk to her own.  However, Frieda is not a conventional heroine who has openly rebelled against her own society.  She is an ordinary person, largely conditioned by her upbringing, who has by accident fallen in love with an English soldier.  She cannot therefore be given the benefit of sanctity that is awarded to “real” heroes; oddballs in the main, who most people wouldn’t like if they knew them.

The ironies of ignorance!  We know we are right when we know nothing at all, lack of knowledge instead of increasing our doubts relaxes us into certainty; so that for this community all Germans not only must but do conform to their limited ideas about them.i

Frieda is innocent.  She is not like her brother, who is the cause of her suicidal crisis.  He is a real Nazi who does believe all Germans are alike, camouflaging his moral ugliness, he was a concentration camp guard, and elevating his social weakness, war is the only thing he knows, by celebrating a culture that he believes is absolute and totalitarian.  A German is a Nazi, according to him.  Richard Mannsfeld thus confirms all the prejudices of this English market town, whose inhabitants have gradually befriended Frieda; casting aside her nationality in favour of her simple humanity, which they recognise as her most important characteristic; her German culture a background presence they have come to ignore.  Mannsfeld’s arrival slows down and then stops this peaceful evolution into banal acceptance.  We first see it reflected in Robert, who is ruffled by Mannsfeld’s confidence and general manner, which confirms the stereotype of the boisterous, arrogant and insensitive German.  Like a defeated army straggling back from the battlefield the simple ideas are returning to this town.  They arrive with an explosion!  A British soldier Mannsfeld disfigured in a POW camp recognises him in the local pub; the scene now of a culture clash, where decency and tolerance, and the belief in the individual identity, is punched out of Robert Dawson as he fights with this believer in national absolutism.  “We are all one!”  Mannsfeld says again and again and again.  This phrase marches into Robert ears like the sound of jackboots on a Parisian boulevard and stamps the good sense out of our British hero; who becomes irrationally and violently prejudiced against Frieda.  Robert Dawson turned into a maniac by her brother’s fascism.

Richard Mannsfeld is a brute.  His sensibilities and that of the Nazi regime are identical; they are thugs one and all.  Their essence is set for all time, even though the details of their beliefs may change with the intellectual fashions.  They have the power of fanaticism, that faith in a few simple and fixed ideas, which takes away much of their humanity; whose fundamental essence is flow and change, and an essential mental vagueness – life tends to put ideas into the background, which are generally seen as unimportant or irrelevant (except in times of crisis, as here).  A fanatic is someone who takes ideas seriously, and tries to apply them to daily life.  This can turn them into a powerful person, in large part because they are so obdurate - their notions will not be changed -, which usually negates their interlocutor’s identity that requires that at least some of their opinions are recognised and accepted.  Their power also comes from being a member of a movement whose very existence suggests an independent truth – we think Mannsfeld is a Nazi and not mad. 

The fanatic is unlikely to change the views of an ordinary citizen but they can confirm that his prejudices are true.  The new ideas of the good German which Frieda has instilled in the town are too shallowly planted to overcome the stereotypes that have been buried deep into its psyche; ideas often more powerful than feelings, which can take a long time to seep into our being; they are also more variable and vague than a prejudice, which is immediate and very concrete.  Common ideas are simple and quickly learnt, and they are an easy defence against thought, the one mental activity that could destroy them.  Even love is not strong enough to overcome an embedded idea that is actualised before one’s own eyes.  Indeed such passion may encourage it.

Richard Mannsfeld is a classic example of how stereotypes are often misunderstood.  They do exist in real life, and can have powerful effects because they are so one-dimensional; seeming to embody the total culture in their character.   This is because we know so little!  The rich variety within a nation - its nurses, its Prussian officers, its pharmacists, its Jean Paul, its Stifter, its Kirchner – can hardly be glimpsed through the thick gauze of our ignorance.  We know so little about Germany, and then we expect all Germans to fit into our silly ideas about them.  It is why Richard Mannsfeld is a godsend.  He proves we have been right all along.

In reality most Germans in their character and spirit will be little different from the population of this provincial town.  Frieda is a perfect example.  It is the reason she fits in so quickly.  Her deeper humanity - her feelings and her reflexive behaviour – can easily overcome the language differences, the cultural references, and some of the national prejudices that she shares with her brother.  She is an ordinary person who has the right balance between life and ideas; the former being more plastic than the latter helps her to modify and change, and even destroy, those notions that conflict with the civility she regularly encounters in Denfield. 

The ideas of a culture are mistaken for the people inside it.  This is exactly what we would expect from those who have no experience of a country and know it only through abstractions.  To befriend an individual, an Ernst or a Gisela, is to gradually strip away their culture until they become just another human being, “like me and you”.  This is not so easy for an ideologist.  They use abstractions, which are often simple and formulaic, to protect themselves from such influences and change.  It is the reason why very intelligent people can often be so stupid.  Nell Dawson, who hates the thought that her brother will marry a German woman, is a wonderful example of this tendency, where ideas, because inflexible and “total”, very quickly become prejudices, because they will not adapt to changing circumstances.  Nell’s reply to an innocuous remark of Frieda’s, “just like a German, you want to control everything”, also shows another aspect of their nature – there are reflexive and habitual, and require no thought.  That Nell is the most consistently prejudiced English person in the film is both revealing and true, and highlights one common and highly destructive aspect of the intelligent mind, and which differentiates it from the average intellect: its tendency to turn ideas into facts, that then have the obduracy of granite.  The result: their ideas can be changed either with the greatest difficulty or not all.  Here is the source both of their unnaturalness and also their religious beliefs: their ideas have a concrete reality which tend to be represented by some eternal and omnipresent god –the Christian deity, Marx’s Class Struggle or Darwin’s Natural Selection.   They are either atheists or believers, agnosticism they find hard to accept.  And this can create curious effects.  Clever people can be so attached to their ideas, which they use to filter out much of life, that they are often left grounded, like a yacht after the tides goes out, when their theories go out of fashion: after six months Nell is the only person in Denfield that dislikes Frieda.

Cultural prejudice is the mistake of confusing the interior decorations of a house with the people who live in it; as if the lilac walls and Biedermeier furniture rather than palely reflecting the character of its occupants actually determine it.  Only experience will tell us about the connections between taste and personality.  Indeed we may learn that the three-piece suite was acquired from an aunt, while the rooms were painted by the previous occupants; the current owners having no interest in changing them; preferring Tolstoy and Elizabeth Taylor to sofas and wallpaper.

Mannsfeld, in the way of stereotypes, talks in clichés.  He even forces Frieda to do so in the set piece scene where two iconic Germanys battle it out: the country of poets and peace against that of social pathology and war.  Clichés reduce thought, and compel us to live inside a few very simple and intractable ideas, which can quickly cause conflict when they come into disagreement.ii  Stereotypes cannot allow the original concepts to grow and mutate for such changes would destroy them.  They have to be protected, which of course strengthens them through passionate commitment - we argue to prevent other people from convincing us.  When ideas are in the full vitality of new life, as when a new religion or movement is born, they have the force of truth and reality.  However, when the vigour of the religious revival declines their advocates are seen as eccentric and old-fashioned; no longer expressing some natural certainty but stuck to an illusion that has lasted too long.  And this can happen suddenly; within months it is Nell who begins to look odd, preferring to treat Frieda as a German rather than the human being to which the town has grown accustomed.iii

The power of Richard Mannsfeld is that he can make other people be like himself…

Robert defeats Mannsfeld in a fight, the symbolism of which is obvious.  Its effects, though, are surprising and true: like a virus Mannsfeld’s words have infected Robert’s mind.  Sick with bigotry he believes he might produce a Nazi son and so renounces his betrothed; the cause of her despair.  The brutish behaviour of her brother has brought Robert’s own prejudices to the surface, which accounts for some of his earlier behaviour, which was stiff and distant towards Frieda. 

A mean, hateful, and very limited man reproduces himself in others…

Living in ignorance of their enemy, when they first meet a sympathetic German these Englishmen and women are full of tension and doubts.  A conflict then very quickly arises between their preconceived ideas and their feelings as they are forced to engage with Frieda, who thinks and acts like just them.  In the ordinary course of events this tension will slowly resolve itself; Frieda gradually accepted within a community from which she was originally ostracised.  Through interaction and experience their fixed ideas break down and the locals see her as a person little different from themselves; her national character nothing more than her style of dress or the love songs she sings; one particularly lovely moment when she sits on top of a haystack Robert is driving through a (very) traditional English village. 

Frieda is about the humanity of commonplace people, whose prejudices will wither away when the superficially strange is converted into the profoundly ordinary.  Frieda is too nice and too human to hate (at least for long).  This is captured very early in the film when Frieda on finding Robert’s younger brother scratched and bruised tries to help him.  She discovers that the fight was about her, and yet she cannot understand why, since she believes Tony hates her.  It is a moment of realisation: his standoffishness, that rigidity that seems to affect all the characters at the start - even Robert, who doesn’t love Frieda, but is marrying her because she saved his life – exists not because of dislike but its opposite.  Tony is trying to resist liking her!  He wants the original prejudice to remain, but his proximity to her kindliness, her evident qualities as an attractive and conscientious woman, is too much for him to withstand.  The abstraction, which itself has changed, from being a natural mistrust of what is strange it has become a self-conscious act of prejudice (and so made brittle), is beginning to crumble…  Suddenly Frieda realises that he likes her, but does not want to admit it.  It is a sign that Denfield is changing. 

In the typical English way of the countryside, the natural tolerance of the culture is asserting itself, and Frieda will (indeed does) become an ordinary member of this market town.  Then her brother arrives, carrying in his luggage the ultimate symbol of fanaticism - the swastika.  He has come too soon, when Frieda has not been fully naturalised, so that a crisis can resurrect the ideological barricades on Denfield’s streets.

It is a calm and superficially stable situation which Mannsfeld enters.  He shatters the peace like the Luftwaffe over London.  All the doubts that had disappeared now return, like fires after an air raid, and in an outburst of passion Robert rejects Frieda with extreme bitterness: all Germans are the same, he says.  For a moment her humanity is blasted away, to leave only the shell of her personality, the bomb-damaged brickwork and ripped wallpaper of her Germanic culture.  Like the wrecked houses of the Blitz only the ravaged skeleton of her identity remains.  Once again she is The German.  Only another crisis, another emotional outburst, can destroy this ideological carapace.  She knows this.  In despair she jumps in the river.  Robert runs after her… too late!  He pulls her out… she is unconscious…they call the doctor….  

As they wait for nature’s verdict Nell resists Judy’s praise – the family think she may have saved Frieda by calling out to Robert.  She cannot bear to live with such a lie, and so tells the truth.  “I was going to let Frieda die”, she says.  Judy insists that she has been wrong.  Nell at last agrees.  She has realised that if you treat people inhumanely you too become inhumane.  It is the central message of the film.  We must not let fixed opinions get in the way of human feeling.  Instead we should let individuals emerge out of the received idea and live their own independent lives.  

Nell is the last person in the town to submit to Frieda’s charms.  She is an intelligent woman who is running for parliament.  Nell also has a visceral dislike of the Germans.  She has to articulate this dislike during the election campaign so as to win votes, although she does so reluctantly (she is a decent person); her prejudices different and more civilised rather the febrile hate of the crowd that demands she sacrifices her civility.  Expediency and her own intolerance thus combine to make her obdurately opposed to Robert’s marriage.  Nell is an ideological person, and someone who is bigger than the town in which she lives – she transcends it by going to Westminster.   Nell is not, therefore, an ordinary woman.  To a much greater degree than is usual her life is governed by abstractions, which are as important to her as her feelings (and there are times, such as during the election campaign, when they will be more important).  Where the other family members have doubts and unease about Frieda she has certainties.  She knows she is a German and therefore bad and that Robert should not marry her. In this respect Nell is like the crowd that forced her to voice anti-German sentiments.  However, unlike them she intimately knows the woman she attacks.  This is a critical distinction, and makes her far more inhuman than the people in that crowd, because she must directly deny Frieda’s humanity (to them she is still an alien abstraction).  This distinction is later confirmed when we see the reactions of these same men and women when they have got to know Frieda: they absorb her unselfconsciously into the New Year’s Party.  Nell cannot accept such an easy reformation.  For her Frieda will always represent The German, no matter how long she lives in England.  And this idealisation carries a strong moral weight: she needs the Germans, all Germans, to be evil, to justify her attacks on them, which includes her support for the bombing campaign.  Nell is the mirror image of Mannsfeld: culture comes before individuals, nations before human beings, and abstractions before the concrete particular.  Here is the texture of an intellectual’s mind.  It is also the necessary utilitarianism of politicians and bureaucrats who have to treat society in general terms in order to make it work.  They are worthy qualities, knowledge and civilisation is impossible without them, but they can be quite inhuman when they confront specific cases and deny them their particularity.  In such cases a different set of standards are needed, which require a balance between the justice of the general rule and the justice of the individual person.  The specific event, the meeting of the abstract and the concrete, the intersection of the general and the particular, must be thought out anew each time…  Nell must accommodate the tensions between her experiences of Frieda with her prejudices against the Germans.  She only does this after she has momentarily lost her humanity; prepared to let a woman die for a stupid idea.  Only then, in a moment of extreme crisis, can she see that her theories are flawed, and they must change.  It is this that differentiates her from Mannsfeld.

Civilised behaviour and intolerance are a unity, the former tending only to camouflage the latter – Nell seems less bigoted than the election crowd although in many ways she is more so.  Nell Dawson is a person who empathises and thinks of others.  She has an intuitive understanding of her family, and quickly recognises that Robert doesn’t love Frieda.  There is much more instinctive humanity in Nell than in Richard Mannsfeld, and this is reflected in the rigidity of her posture – she has to constantly hold herself in control - when she meets Frieda, so as to prevent herself from softening.  She is a warm human being whose ideas and intolerance make her cold; freezing her into a fixity that goes against her natural character, which is essentially liberal and progressive.

In the early stages of this film this “fixity” is shared by Robert, who finds it hard to unselfconsciously react to Frieda (who loves him deeply) because he has little feeling for her: she exists as an idea only - the victim he has saved.  He is far more responsive to Judy, who he used to love, and who married his brother.  A complex triangle is developing where Judy becomes oppressed by her feelings for Robert, because she literally sees Alan when she looks at him.  It is a brilliant metaphor.  Showing how an abstraction, here the memory of a dead person, entirely replaces the living individual who exists in all their quotidian humanity.  However, Judy, unlike Nell, recognises this is a sign of poor mental health, and moves to London where she is eventually cured of her idée fixe.  Frieda is all too aware of this flow of affection.  Unfortunately this complicated relationship is not pursued; a failure in a film that had discovered a wonderful symbol but which refuses to develop it.  With Judy gone Robert gradually falls in love with Frieda, until that cathartic fight with her brother, which in large part is our hero fighting with himself – he wants his prejudices to destroy his feelings, unable now to live with the coexistence of both his love and the ideological hate Mannsfeld has created.

This film resembles Nell’s mentality; more concerned with a theme than the individuals who elucidate it; the reason why the love triangle is not properly explored.  Too often these characters seem stock types, although their characterisation is rich enough to allow them to change and develop.  Nevertheless, an opportunity has been missed.  Frieda, to give the film more art, had to be as complicated as Nell; while the complexities of the relationship between Judy and Robert needed to be examined in more detail.  Instead, Frieda is turned into another abstraction, “the good German”, and the English have been made into typical Whigs; Nell recognising her mistake in the end confirms the evolutionary tolerance of British culture, which can safely absorb all alien elements, thus even parliament can survive a majority Labour government.   Of course, if the simple moral boundaries are blurred this makes it more difficult for us to like Frieda, and there is a danger the central message could be lost.  It is the risk of any work that wants to have depth.

It is a risk Nell couldn’t take, until forced to concede her mistakes in the end.  She couldn’t respond more openly to Frieda; because Nell would have risked losing her identity, which for intellectuals is founded on their ideas, and for a politician on her electorate.  And it is the same with a popular film, which like an election campaign needs its simple certainties with their wholesome conflict that is resolved in a satisfying way.  Such movies have to be condensed into very obvious ideas which the audience can both understand and effortlessly repeat outside the theatre.  Of course this means they are too crude to be real.  The politician has triumphed over the artist, even though the message of the film suggests it should be the other way around.  Frieda is flawed by its good intentions, although it remains in places a powerful and prescient film: set in the 1940s it could have easily be made in any of the following decades, with West Indians, Bengalis, West Africans and Eastern Europeans replacing the exiled Germans.

Prejudice is never simple, and except for the obdurate minority, it is always open to change.  But such an obvious truth is easily ignored on the politicians’ platform or in the community development departments of our local councils. Prejudice is a natural human quality; and is acceptable, providing it is neither virulent nor fixed for eternity; plastic enough to be melted in the warmth of individual human interaction.  Distrust of strangers is a natural human reaction that today is often ignored by the guardians of our culture who tend to equate notions of free trade with personal relationships.  This produces some very strange effects.  Thus we are expected to love abstractions – The Pole, The Vietnamese, The Zambian – of which we know very little, and most of that bad: the media, the source of much of our information, tends to concentrate on foreign countries only when they are in trouble. 

We have come a long way from 1945, and yet we suffer the same problem, although the polarities have been reversed.  Instead of hating the Germans now we are expected to love them because they are German.  I must like Marianne not because she is clever and has some odd ideas about Gogol, but because she comes from Düsseldorf.  Ansgar may be handsome and funny but Heidelberg is the reason why I should praise him.  And the beautiful Brigitte!  I must not like you for your love Frank O’Hara.  Oh no!  More important is your address, somewhere near the Tiergarten in Berlin.  I must have no prejudices (often mistaken for judgements) about the Germans.  Even Karl, who is the stereotypical Prussian bureaucrat who believes rules must be followed down to the last full stop, must be welcomed with a smile; his nationality purposively ignored when I criticise his arrogance and inflexibility.  All cultures are equal.  I must love you all!   Our natural feelings, which will attach themselves to those images and facts we know of a country, must be suppressed, and we are expected to be judgementally positive about somebody we have never known – love Heinrich, even though he is a fool and likes a fight when drunk. 

It is never articulated in this way.  Instead, we are invited to eat each other’s food, visit the famous tourist sites, and buy mementos of a nation’s heritage.  It is kitsch – there is no “hard” meaning in the foreign cultures that we consume, and which we expect to understand after three days with a guidebook or a few conversations with the locals.  There is an innocence here, which is based on ignorance and encourages it.  All depth and all meaning has been removed from a culture to leave only the decoration.  It is then assumed that all cultural differences are essentially benign; except, curiously, our own, which a surprisingly number of bureaucrats view as authoritarian – thus the occasional demands that Christian festivities should not be celebrated.iv  Such a view ignores those aspects of a culture that are normative, and that enforce discipline and national differences; it also mistakes Britain’s Christian past for its state capitalist present, the latter determining contemporary British mores.  It is one of the reasons why liberals have such a hard time with Islamic fundamentalism: by rights it should not exist in the 21st century – Microsoft and Ford should have destroyed it.  Everyone should be like us!  The assumption behind this idea is that the West no longer has a culture – it is the modern world.v  Of course, such a view denies a nation its own validity; and tacitly erases all those meaningful differences that define a community’s uniqueness.  All cultures must have a measure of intolerance if they are to exist, otherwise they will be subsumed within the globally dominant empire in any given period (which is exactly what is happening at the present time).  Even then they may disappear: the extinct culture a common feature of human history.vi

We have a right to be suspicious.  We should be encouraged to be sceptical, testing our ignorance - and who is not ignorant of most of humanity? - against the realities we personally encounter.  This film shows us why.  The prejudice against Frieda is wrong, and cruelly exposes her to six months of hate and exclusion.  But then the good will she creates is automatically extended to Mannsfeld, who does not deserve it - he is an evil bastard, and a stereotypical Nazi.   Cultures clearly have effects upon people, and only through close contact and experience, through a kind of social testing, can we establish how much or how little has been its influence.  For Mannsfeld it has been overwhelming.  He embodies the Nazi culture within himself.  Frieda, however, is just an ordinary woman, who has only been minimally affected by the regime’s conditioning.  To return to my earlier metaphor: when she takes over the house she will paint the walls with different colours, and buy her own furniture to replace what she has been given – it will, we surmise, be mostly English and comfortable.  However, such knowledge can only be established through our own experience, which, like the Dawson family here, requires the overcoming of ingrained prejudices, together with a willingness to learn and act with justice and humanity.  We need, in short, a kind of cautious and conflicted liberalism, which recognises the essential uncertainty of the social world.  To assume everyone is like us is to take too much for granted; causing us to be misled or to impose our own narrow views on others who cannot resist the culture that forms us (our cultural complacency is parasitic on Anglo-American imperialism).  For we must remember that the “soft” liberalism of today is just as authoritarian as the “hard” liberalism of the 19th century that many progressives have abandoned as racist and socially arrogant.vii

It is here that the value of the film resides.  It shows us the complexity of these simple ideas.  Perhaps this does make up, and I’m sure it does, for the simplicity of its relationships.  Sometimes the truth has to be as stark as an academic treatise.

(Review of Frieda)




[i] For a very interesting example of this process and how it changes over time see Sylvain Cypel’s Walled: Israel Society at an Impasse.  The book shows how as Israel separates itself from the Palestinians both populations become more prejudiced as their ignorance increases.
[ii] This is beautifully brought out by Colin Thubron in his The Lost Heart of Asia, where in one scene he self-consciously reflects before a small of crowd of the ignorant and curious that he has to represent all of European civilisation.  It forces him to be constrained, very simple, and not altogether truthful – to properly explain something requires a reasonable level of complexity, and at least some understanding in the interlocutor.
[iii] Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is a wonderful metaphor for those that are consumed by a fixed idea.  Even the possible cause of his malaise, a lifetime spent with dead letters, is suggestive – once ideas become fixed and immovable they have died.
[iv] I have worked in an organisation where this has actually happened.  This also creates strange effects.  The same people who would abolish Christmas would happily email about Diwali and Ramadan!  These views seem to arise from a mixture of motives: an instinctive anti-imperialism and a sense that the host culture, because dominant, is oppressive.  The latter viewpoint is true – the host culture will be the most powerful influence in the country, and it will lay down certain norms which it expects its population to accept and follow.  The critical question is how flexible and tolerant are those norms. The history of the last fifty years shows clearly how plastic such cultural rules can be; especially in a country like Britain.  Curiously, it is those that want to abolish Christmas who are the most intolerant, giving it a fundamental meaning it no longer has for the majority, who see it as an essentially secular festival.  One possible explanation is that they do not understand the nature of a British culture which is now largely indifferent to Christianity, and so project their own meanings onto it; such Islam, Hindu or atheism.  The result is that they ignore the real cultural power in the society: the corporate culture that is structuring all our lives; and which even “formats” the religions so that they become like it (see Olivier Roy’s brilliant Holy Ignorance.  Formatting is his term.  It means the emptying out of the particularity of religions so that they conform to the legal requirements of the western corporate culture).
            If one believes David Hawkes (see my Can I have a Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?) this holy ignorance is the result of the cultural terrorism of the Left in the 1970s, which believed that by “deconstructing” the culture the society would collapse.  As Roy shows such a view is overly simplistic, but Hawkes is surely not altogether wrong: such criticism has had some effect on the mainstream culture, which has then been filtered down into our institutions.  Although such filtering will necessarily change the original message, which today is about language equality – we must say that all cultures are equal.  That many people don’t actually believe this can be tested, although it is difficult – there is a fear of being accused of racism, which is pervasive in particularly the larger social organisations. 
It also creates its own curious effects.  I have witnessed an incident where two people were alleged to have abused each other.  The black man accused the white man of theft and when this allegation was investigated he alleged that he had been racially abused.  In my view both accusations were of equal seriousness.  However, the council officers more or less disregarded the thieving allegation as irrelevant, and were only concerned with the alleged racist remark; even though in the community the rumour that someone was a thief would have been devastating.  This is related to a legal culture where characteristics like race and gender are protected by law, but class is not; even though one’s class origin is the most likely determinant of social success or failure.  This leads to some bizarre paradoxes, such as that a white working class male is seen as privileged by the law, but a black middle class lesbian is not.  My guess is that such anomalies are the result of inertia – legislation introduced in the seventies to combat discrimination has simply been added to rather than amended in line with changing social mores, such as the decoupling of race from culture (today there is no distinction between being black and being British).   Where culture is still a decisive factor, such as in religion, both conflict and prejudice can be rife.
[v] I once had a very interesting discussion with a left wing academic who argued that there was no escape from Western state capitalism.  For him it was all-pervasive, and as such had become a universal reality.  He was shocked when I pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism is a conscious rebellion against a culture it does not accept, and wishes to destroy.  Even now there is more than one culture in the world!  But how difficult for people to see this, especially as Western liberalism is forcing the great religions to resemble itself.
[vi] A point clearly brought out by Thubron – a significant part of his time is wandering around the relics of civilisations that have been obliterated.
[vii] We see this in the current fashion to promote diversity.  And yet it has a prejudice against communities! 
If a community is opposed to some of the assumptions of the local council, such as women’s rights or homosexuality, it is condemned as intolerant and unlawful.  For example: in a training session about diversity I created a thought experiment about three women sitting at the same table: two were discussing their daughter’s abortion, and the third was an evangelical Christian.  The latter was discomforted by the conversation and asked them to stop.  According to the trainer she was prejudiced.  That is, her views have no validity at all!  What interested me most was that the trainer (a diversity expert) couldn’t understand what I was trying to get at – that someone’s religious views are as real to them as the right to work and the right to be treated with respect.  For him alternative cultures are acceptable only when they don't have any alienating content.
The assumption is that only individuals matter, providing they agree to follow the “corporate” rules (the latter never properly articulated).  I’m not necessarily opposed to this idea but I am shocked by the intolerant and unthinking way it is applied.  It is a bureaucrat’s paradise: everyone must be the same as themselves.

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