How can we preserve cultural biodiversity?

Lose any one of these communities, and something disappears from all our lives

THIS COLUMN has, so far, been a Viagra-free zone. However, the news that an elderly New York multi-millionaire has announced that he will donate his own money to encourage the elderly of that city to take the wonder drug, and presumably take advantage of its effects, tickles my fancy. Of all the philanthropic gestures of which one can think, this one seems to be the most genuinely selfless. Unless the gentleman concerned, who I believe is Jewish, has been studying the latest figures for the Jewish population in Britain, and is preparing to launch a campaign to keep the Jewish community up to the mark, as it were.

According to an authoritative survey this week, the number of British Jews has dipped below the 300,000 mark for the first time this century, down to just 285,000, as a result of assimilation ( or "marrying out"), emigration to the US and Israel, and just plain drift from the synagogues. It is not entirely clear how the numbers are estimated - how much is based on membership of a synagogue, how much is based on census numbers and so forth, but there is no doubt that the Jewish community in Britain thinks itself to be in numerical decline.

This, by the way, is not necessarily a mark of falling morale; one spokeswoman, with admirable chutzpah, observed that we should focus on quality rather than quantity, a fair observation given the astonishing success and self- confidence of this community. It is regarded by no less an authority than Bernie Grant MP as a valuable role model for other immigrant groups.

I don't intend here to get into the issue over whether or not a non-practising Jew ceases to be Jewish. The arguments seem to defeat the rabbis; there is no reason why an outsider should be able to shed new light. But what is certain is that there comes a point in any community's life when its numbers are falling so rapidly that it can no longer be a self-sustaining, distinct entity.

Two questions arise. First, should we care, and if so, what should we do about it? You don't have to be Einstein to work out that my own answer to the first question is yes.

The struggle to maintain the tribe is one of the most ancient in humankind. But there are moments in history when that struggle becomes critical. Entire peoples disappear without trace; who knows, for example, where the Etruscans went?

Today, the descendants of the Parsees, the Zoroastrian fire-worshippers driven out of Persia by the rise of Islam, are said to be fewer than 75,000 world-wide. It is an unusually talented and well resourced disappearing tribe; many of India's great industrial and commercial families are Parsees and their most famous living son, the conductor of the Three Tenors, Zubin Mehta, has become, in his own way, as much of a global figure as the late Firdous Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury. But within the next century it is almost certain that this will all be history.

Even larger, more distinctive groups, such as my own, the black Britons, are not as they were. Our numbers are more or less stable; but our character is changing, principally as a result of intermarriage. By the middle of the next century, the so-called "black" person will probably be a rare specimen in this country; most of our grandchildren will be of mixed race.

This has happened before. By the late 19th century, the entire black population of London - some 25 000 strong in Georgian times - had effectively disappeared. Today, the idea of calling yourself a Huguenot would seem ridiculous, though thousands fled Catholic persecution to settle here in Tudor times.

You could dismiss all this as simply a consequence of the march of time. Indeed, casting an eye to France now, it is arguable that the less historical baggage we carry, the less room there is for conflict. And as I have argued many times here, none of us wants to be trapped by our ancestral traditions. However, in our hearts of hearts, none of us wants our communities to disappear either. We may not want to be part of the ethnic or religious action, but we want to be sure that there is some action going on.

Even if we don't care about our own specific traditions, there is much to be said in general for human cultural diversity. Just as in the rainforest, there is an ecology in human affairs which we neglect at our peril. Our culture is built of many historical fragments, in many cases represented by the persistence of small communities; lose any one of those communities, and something disappears from all our lives.

Anybody can appreciate Jewish-mother jokes, or love Jamaican reggae, or thrill to Irish dance; but without the core of a community to sustain those traditions and constantly renew them, these elements of culture become stale, old-hat and ersatz. And without this rich array of authentic cultures, what is to stand in the way of the remorseless march of Disneyfication and McDonaldisation?

That is why, of course, it is in all our interests to sustain cultural diversity. But how?

No number of official receptions, Arts Council grants and essays on multiculturalism can match the influence of two key institutions: the temple (or church or synagogue) and the family. And these are the principal sites of the problem.

Family continuity is, for example, at the mercy of intermarriage. But the old ties are loosening; children insist on their rights and it is becoming almost impossible to legislate for the purity of your grandchildren.

So perhaps the temple needs to be the focus of our interest. But the temple has its rules which are themselves shrinking the communities. For those who marry into communities where the mark of belonging is passed on either through the father or the mother, the chances are that their children's interest in that community will be arrested pretty early; it is impossible, for example, to become a Parsee unless you are born to a Parsee father. Even today there are still many hours spent arguing about whether someone of mixed race can be regarded as "black" or not.

For many centuries, such defensive rules were vital to maintain the survival of the tribe. Today we need to look at these rules again, and reflect on the possibility that if we have an ethnic identity it may have to be shared with and kept alive by people who were not born into it, in order for it to survive. The disappearing tribes have to find a way to embrace those who come wanting to share their history and their traditions. The choice is straightforward: open the temples, or die in them.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform