The slavish worship of diversity is not enough to keep our fraying social fabric from coming apart in these difficult times; we need symbols and rituals that unite us, and we must defend these symbols from those who wrongly portray them as divisive or exclusionary
Take three minutes to watch this beautiful video of the Kentucky All-State Choir giving a moving and pitch-perfect rendition of the US national anthem from the balconies of the Hyatt hotel in Louisville, where they are currently staying while participating in a conference and competition.
Now try to picture this scene, or anything like it, taking place in Britain. Laughably impossible, isn’t it? Overt displays of gentle patriotism, and by schoolchildren? If such a scene did occur at an inter-school competition anywhere in the UK, it would more likely make the news because a group of parents complained that their children were forced to take part in some terrible, jingoistic ceremony, the first step toward the formation of a new Hitler Youth.
There would be earnest think-pieces in the Guardian about how teaching or singing the national anthem at public school events was oppressive to those who live here while wanting nothing to do with our shared culture, or who harbour a seething dislike of the various symbols and rituals which represent the country that gives them life and liberty. The matter would be hotly debated on BBC Question Time. Change.org petitions would be started, Twitter memes created and MPs would take sides.
One can just imagine Cathy Newman then hauling the poor choir director in to the television studio for one of her famously objective and well-researched interviews on Channel 4 news:
Cathy: So what made you decide to force these impressionable young children, many of whom might not even be comfortable identifying as British, to sing an anthem which they dislike and show respect to a country about which they might feel ambivalent at best?
Choir director: Well, there is far more that unites us than divides us, and our thinking was what better way to show that all of our students are united by something deeper, something which transcends the differences in their race, national origin or religion than by performing —
Cathy: So what you’re saying is that you wanted to brainwash these children into mindlessly supporting UK foreign policy and worshipping the government, just like North Korea?
Choir director: No, I —
Cathy: Aren’t you just normalising the ugly wave of nationalism and bigotry which has swept over the country since the EU referendum?
Lord knows that overt displays of patriotism do not come naturally to most British people. Many on the Left in particular seemed to discover their inner patriot for the first time when they watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and only then because director Danny Boyle turned half the show into an all-singing, all-dancing Mass in worship of the NHS and centralised, government-provided healthcare.
But this needs to change. Cold, hard circumstances mean that the quintessentially British “softly softly” approach to patriotism is now inadequate when it comes to forging and maintaining a unified, vaguely harmonious society.
Even if Brexit hadn’t come along and revealed (not caused) a split right down the middle of the country in terms of outlook and values, high levels of immigration combined with a laissez-fair “integrate if you want to or stay in your own enclaves and ghettoes, whatever works best for you” attitude from the government mean that the United Kingdom is nowhere near as united as it should be. Throw in the recent Scottish independence referendum, the rise of Islamist extremism and the West’s failure to celebrate, defend and transmit our small-L liberal enlightenment values, and the net result is that our national body is very badly frayed indeed.
At times like this, unifying symbols matter hugely. Just ask the European Union, which has spent countless taxpayer pounds and launched dozens of initiatives in a desperate (and largely futile) attempt to inculcate a sense of European-ness strong enough to justify the vast institutions and creeping supranational government being built in Brussels. The EU has a flag and an anthem for a reason, and it has nothing to do with friendly trade and co-operation between autonomous nation states.
The United States, so long a successful melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, succeeds because it unapologetically promotes and celebrates its values and culture in a way that make new arrivals want to embrace the traditions of their new home, even while often carefully maintaining and cherishing their historical traditions too.
My wife grew up in a border town in south Texas, only miles from Mexico, where a huge percentage of the population are first and second generation immigrants, both legal and also some without legal rights of residency. Yet nobody in that town thinks twice about honouring the symbols of America, and nearly everybody considers themselves to be American and takes pride in being so. Everyone stands for the national anthem at sports games. All of the children recite the pledge of allegiance at school in the morning, and those first or second generation immigrant children do so without feeling that honouring America in any way diminishes their attachment to their other respective cultures.
In Britain, however, even displaying the Union flag causes some post-patriotic progressives to break out in hives or worry that they are about to get caught up in a BNP rally. And decades of constitutional vandalism by successive governments have resulted in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland rightly being given more devolved powers and space for home-nation patriotic self-expression while England has remained constrained in this regard, the result of which is that many British people outside of England no longer view the UK national anthem as “their” anthem.
Meanwhile, the Times Educational Supplement frets:
For schools, the problem remains of how to ensure that populist political initiatives to create shared citizenship are not be at the expense of embracing diversity.
In the US, courts notwithstanding, for years many children have had to salute the flag and recite the oath of allegiance every morning. The aim, supposedly, is to unify, yet it is inevitable that such exercises also exclude and exacerbate divisions. In France, for example, millions of children have family links to other countries including, of course, the UK. Are they supposed to renounce these links – or feel less “French” because of a failure to do so? Academics speak of governments imposing “societal cultures” and devaluing what they call, rather grandly, “differentiated citizenship”. They contrast the simplistic appeal of unity with celebrations of cultural diversity and philosophical values, such as equality of opportunity, that transcend nationalities.
What corrosive nonsense. The progressive blob would have us do away with E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one – and replace it with “out of many, even more”. They would have diversity be the only value worth celebrating, and practically discourage us from creating and celebrating deeper, transcendent connections between people of different backgrounds. And such is their faith in the god of diversity that they believe that liberal democracy can survive such a Utopian experiment.
The wonderful thing about these Kentucky school children singing the national anthem together is that they are E Pluribus Unum in action. Many may be native born, but some are doubtless immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many are likely Christian but others are of different faiths or none. Some are conservatives and even Donald Trump supporters while others are liberals who perhaps shed tears when Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech in November 2016. They are rich, poor, black, white, male, female, Caucasian, Hispanic, gay or heterosexual. And yet however important those identities may rightly be to them, still they are able to come together in harmony to deliver a beautiful performance of the Star Spangled Banner. All of them are American.
This is a lesson that we in Britain urgently need to learn. We do not need to copy the United States in every respect, nor should we. But we should recognise that unifying symbols matter deeply if we want to maintain a cohesive society built on the liberal values for which Britain has long stood. And if not the national anthem, we need to identify and promote other unifying symbols, and withstand the manufactured outrage of those who would have us frantically celebrate our diversity until our increasingly atomised society crumbles completely beneath our feet.
We must stand up to the post-patriotic progressives and their destructive motto Diversitas, Heri, Hodi, Semper and instead re-embrace E Pluribus Unum.
Note: The high school choir members who take part in the KMEA All State Choir Conference in Kentucky do this every year, a wonderful annual tradition. Here is last year’s performance at the same venue.
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