Another week, another inanity. If it's not Balls it's Hodge. Not schools this time, the Proms. New Labour, New Culture. Only for New Culture, read No Culture. Alternatively, Hodgepodge.
"Collective Cultural Belonging" is what the Culture Minister (don't ask) has been banging on about, a phrase a wise person would think twice before using in the aftermath of Stalin and Pol Pot. But Margaret Hodge sips from a poisoned chalice. Terrorism, immigration, integration, assimilation, identity, nationhood – all awaiting the salving balm of culture. If we can get everybody together – "associating their citizenship with key cultural icons", is how she puts it, which sounds like having your photograph taken with Elton John and pasting it on to the back page of your new British passport – all will be well. By which standard, whatever fails of inclusiveness must be viewed with suspicion. Inclusiveness will always bedevil a Labour Party. Inclusiveness was the argument for getting rid of grammar schools. And now, in the begrudging hands of Hodge, it's an argument for getting rid of the Proms. Or at least for changing their character. Which amounts to the same thing.
"Ease" is suddenly the criterion. The problem with the Proms being that they're "still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease in being part of this". I've tried counting the number of questions that broken-backed, shit-eating sentence raises, but this column is not long enough to enumerate them. So let's just stick with the begged assumption that a public event – we don't even have to call it a cultural event – just an event, cherished by some, not cherished by others – is obliged to put everyone, or even anyone, at their ease. What's sacrosanct about ease?
Nothing about this country has ever put me at my ease. I didn't feel at ease when processions of weeping Catholics passed my house carrying plaster saints. Didn't feel at ease at school when they sang hymns in assembly about famous men I'd never heard of, or accused "some boy" of stealing toilet rolls. Didn't feel at ease at university where hearties in blue blazers ran up and down the towpath of the Cam shouting "Olly, Olly, Jesus!" and moral tutors called me Abrahamson, Isaacson, Greenberg and Cohen. Don't feel at ease in the Athenaeum, or Glyndebourne, or the Courts of Justice, or any police station, race track, garden fete, rap concert or pole-dancing establishment.
Many are the ways a person whose family hasn't owned land on these islands for 1,000 years might feel frightened, discomfited, embarrassed, or just not 100 per cent at home. That will hold true for most of the population in one place or another, even those who do go back to the Domesday Book. There is always something to fear in the rites of others – whether older or younger, or of another class, religion, or colour – but alongside the fear might exist, if we allow it, curiosity, admiration, and why not the deep affection of the outsider looking in.
The experience of feeling ill at ease can be very powerful. A spur to emulation sometimes, but I don't doubt the cause of hostility, too, where the outsider is unstable. What doesn't follow is that, against such an eventuality, we are obliged to water down everything we do. Must a pole-dancer dress herself to spare my blushes? Must Judaism, Christianity and Islam make changes to their practice and liturgy to accommodate any unease I might feel in the synagogue, the cathedral or the mosque? The one thing we do know is that religion never looks more contemptible than when it forgets it's for its own elect and turns populist. The disaffected do not scorn our institutions for their strength but for their tepidity. It is with culture as it is with the bringing up of children: a strong clear message is always best, however copious the bedtime tears.
Behind the ease and inclusiveness assumption lies a highly indulgent ideology of selfhood – the right of any individual to feel the centre of the universe, or, to borrow a phrase I heard at a dinner party the other night, to have his or her "experience validated". A teacher of French literature was telling me how the mother of one of his pupils had objected to his teaching her daughter French drama of the 17th century. The girl was uneasy reading these plays. They felt old and foreign to her. (Corneille and Molière - foreign!) Her mother agreed. How were these works, she wanted to know, "validating her child's experience".
Because he was a charming man, the French teacher didn't tell her that the daughter's experience, if it was anything like the mother's, was the thing least worth validating in the entire universe. If her daughter felt at sea, so much the better. Study is meant to make you feel at sea. The self is not a precious entity that must be soothed and eased at every turn. Sometimes, the self is something you must learn to lose. Validation of the self, madame – again this is me speaking, not him – is what you might get from a finishing school, but not from a humane education.
I say something very similar to those pupils at a Jewish girls' school in London who recently refused to answer questions on Shakespeare in a national curriculum test as a way of protesting against the character of Shylock. Given the opportunity for some close textual analysis, I have no doubt I could persuade the girls that Shakespeare was not an anti-Semite, whatever that means in an Elizabethan context. But that's beside the point. Reading Shakespeare is not conditional on his loving Jews. The study of literature becomes no study at all if you read only writers whose attitudes chime with your own and with whom you therefore feel at ease. Encountering what is not you, indeed what might well be inimical to you, is one of the first reasons for reading anything.
So the Proms are more a problem for those who don't attend them, for whatever reason, than for those do. I wouldn't myself go to the Last Night of the Proms even if they offered to stand me between Cecilia Bartoli and Jitka Hosprova; but were I new to this country I would regard the Promenaders with the same degree of baffled awe that travellers experience when they behold a carnival in Rio, or Thaipusam in Kuala Lumpur. If cultural integration is the issue, there needs to be a culture to integrate with. And a culture that can't express its peculiar vitality without worrying how much upset it might be causing isn't a culture at all.