The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has written a book – The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society – which, to judge from the extracts printed in today’s Times, is calculated to raise the hackles of a good many people.
Dr Sacks’s targets are many, and he adopts the scattergun approach. Multiculturalism, he tells us, is a dead duck; it was a fine, even noble idea, but has led to segregation rather than the hoped-for integration. Whose fault this is, Dr Sacks doesn’t pause to inquire – there is scarcely a reference to Islam in the article.
Liberal democracy, says Dr Sacks, is in danger. “Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk, non-political institutions are becoming politicised, and a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society…..The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear.”
Again, Dr Sacks doesn’t point a finger at the obvious culprit – strident religious bigotry – but discerns a quite different and, for him, a much more convenient target – that tired old whipping-horse of reactionary right-wingers, “the permissive society”. All our social ills, he moans, stem from the wicked 1960s, when traditional Christian morality “conceived as the moral bond linking individuals in the shared project of society” was jettisoned overboard. The first crack came when suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961. This was “the beginning of the end of
“Collectively these changes represented a decisive move away from the idea that society had, or was entitled to have, a moral code at its base….Society was no longer conceived of in terms of a moral consensus. The law would intervene only to prevent individuals from harming one another.” The notion that this latter principle is itself a moral code more suited to modern times than inhumane antique biblical injunctions doesn’t seem to have occurred to Dr Sacks.
All this is stale, tired old stuff which was put far more eloquently and persuasively by the late Lord Devlin in his 1959 Maccabean Lecture The Enforcement of Morals, where he equated immorality with treason and asserted that “society cannot ignore the morality of the individual any more than it can his loyalty; it flourishes on both and without either it dies.” This led to a vigorous academic and public debate, and in view of Lord Devlin’s vigorous views it is all the more surprising that he ultimately came round to the view that the Wolfenden proposals for the limited decriminalisation of male homosexual behaviour were in the public interest.
According to Dr Sacks, we are living in an age in which people no longer have roles and duties within a stable social structure, morality is becoming a mere façade, and the only way to defeat opponents is to ridicule them – a favourite tactic, incidentally, of religious zealots these days, who are quite unscrupulous in their misrepresentation of the actual views of non-believers of other faiths or none. If there is no agreed moral truth, Dr Sacks continues, “we cannot reason together….On this account, Western civilisation is not truth but the hegemony of the ruling elite.” Who prevails will depend not on reason but on power. Again, it doesn’t dawn on Dr Sacks that to enforce private morality through the criminal law is a tactic based on power - not reason.
I agree with Dr Sacks in deploring the intolerance of ‘political correctness’ which, “created to avoid stigmatising speech, becomes the supreme example of stigmatising speech”. And I agree also that it was wrong that a Catholic nominee for the EC justice commission felt obliged to resign after saying that his faith compelled him to believe that homosexuality was a sin, although he did not believe it should be a crime.
Identity politics is deeply and inexorably divisive, wails Dr Sacks. I find this a richly comic remark, emanating from the Chief Rabbi of a faith which tirelessly asserts its exclusivity and superiority to non-Jews. While many Jews [unlike Muslims] are ardent practitioners of integration, if not assimilation, by no means all are. I wonder whether Dr Sacks has taken a stroll round
And I find it especially odd that the Chief Rabbi should ‘come out’ as such an ardent defender of Christian values – which, when all is said and done, differ considerably from those of the Torah. It’s also comic that, like so many backward-looking social conservatives, Dr Sacks dislikes the internet and the “tendentiousness” of blogs intensely. He resorts to the futile old ploy of blaming the technology – not the message - when he questions whether the new culture of instant global communication will weaken the nation-state. I find this a pathetic argument. Myself, I strongly believe that humanity would be far more peaceful and less crime-ridden if the art of kindling fire had never been discovered and the wheel and never been invented. Then, we would all be far too busy keeping ourselves and each other warm with our body heat, and trudging slowly and painfully a few miles a day, to get up to all the immorality, crime, and other mayhem which so appals Godbotherers like Dr Sacks.