Howard Jacobson: If only we could all be one big happy family of adulterers and degenerates

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am writing this in a pool of my own vomit, lying next to a total stranger. How I got here I am unable to say.

I am writing this in a pool of my own vomit, lying next to a total stranger. How I got here I am unable to say. Certainly I do not recognise the bed. But given the state of alcohol-induced paralysis to which I have allowed myself to be reduced, it is a wonder I recognise my vomit.

Readers of The Independent will note the striking resemblance of my way of life to that conjured up by the proud hejab-wearing Muslim lady from Ilford in her now famous diatribe against Western decadence, published in last Saturday's letter page. How she knows as much about me as she does I cannot guess, considering I have never set foot in Ilford. Uncanny – whatever the explanation – the prescience with which she foretold the degeneracy of my week.

"Serial adultery" – Monday yes, Tuesday yes, Wednesday yes. "Extensive health and social problems related directly to alcohol" – God, yes: my ruined liver, my gouty feet, the violence with which I lashed out at my podiatrist. "Teenage pregnancy" – no, but only because I'm no longer a teenager. "Lack of marital fidelity" – yes, of course, though I had thought that was covered by serial adultery. "Plastic surgery" – not this week, but for no other reason than that I have nothing left to fix. "Sodomy" – spot on, for the whole of Thursday, though only on the understanding that there'd be flowers afterwards.

And then, on Friday night, the vomit.

Unnerving, what the lady knows about those of us not living under the Ilford veil, but I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what exactly she's objecting to. Just going about our lives, are we not. Just muddling through. Just having a crack at some of the riches with which, for our behoof, the good Lord has furnished the planet. That some people find exposure to these riches too difficult to handle and seek shelter from temptation and confusion in the closed society of a monastery, or in the no-society of a cave, or in touch-me-not habiliments, or, most logically of all, in suicide, we have always known. Largely, we are tolerant and respectful of them. We do not, as often as we might, charge them with faint-heartedness, preferring to admire them for their self-sacrifice – which makes little sense, given that they do not desire what they forswear – and sometimes to fetishise them as holy. I see this respectfulness, however misplaced, as proof of the spiritual good manners and all-round magnanimity of the secular mind.

More than that, I see it as proof of the practical intelligence of the secular mind. We remain curious about what is different from ourselves. We acknowledge that we may have something to learn from it. Nothing is once and for all morally settled for us. Even in our vomit, we go on making accommodations.

Indeed, if we have a failing, we secular decadents – and those whose minds are entombed in one or other of the world's great faiths are never slow to take advantage of this – it is that we accommodate too liberally. That the Muslim lady from Ilford should fail of spiritual good manners in her letter we take as a matter of course; it is not up to her to be polite, it is up to us; and we would not dream of telling her what we think of the way she lives. Such forbearance has many names, one of them being multiculturalism.

Of those familiar things that we all agree will never be the same once the dust from the twin towers settles, multiculturalism, I fancy, will be the least samey of the lot. What is the lesson to be drawn from the spectacle of lads from Luton flying off to join the Taliban, dreaming of the destruction of the West (which must surely include Luton where their gran lives), or separatist letters from that purdah that is Ilford, if it isn't that multiculturalism is a busted flush. Busted not because ethnic Britishers don't want it, not because home-grown racists and National Fronters don't want it, not because fanatic Arnoldian decadents like me don't want it, but busted because those in whose name it is invoked, those for whose protection and happy inclusion in society it has largely been devised, those who were thought to be at risk of being marginalised and demonised – busted because they don't want it.

How's that for irony! All along we've been opening our arms to include people who, it turns out, would rather die in the snows of Afghanistan, let alone walk veiled through a shopping precinct in Ilford, than suffer the inclusiveness of our embrace.

I do not charge them with ingratitude. What, when all is said and done, have they ever been offered inclusion into? So solicitous have we been not to cause offence to any other culture by so much as alluding, even sotto voce, to our own, that we have forgotten what our own is. Writing in the Daily Mail on Wednesday, Manzoor Moghal, a leader of the Muslim community in Leicester, said it all, with deep regrets, on behalf of Muslims and non-Muslims alike – "multiculturalism... has failed to generate any feelings of national allegiance among some of our biggest ethnic communities."

Failed to generate any. Behold the perils of self-effacingness. Ourselves, suddenly, in time of war, we seek allegiance from Muslim kids to whom, until now, we have offered no compelling image of the country in which they live.

Myself, I always thought they were happy lying in pools of vomit, like the rest of us. But that just goes to show how ethnocentric I am.