For those unfamiliar with the cultural landscape of a more traditional Britain, the Proms are an annual, eight-week long celebration of classical music, but for a mass audience. Since 1927, it has been broadcast live by BBC. It culminates in a boisterous Last Day where flag waving audiences join in the chorus of popular patriotic songs such as Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, songs that are undeniably associated with the British Empire. This year, in the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter campaign that began across the Atlantic, the BBC took the unusual decision of discarding the vocal element from both songs and merely playing the tunes. The decision was allegedly taken by the Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska and approved by the BBC, apparently in view of the songs’ perceived links with a past that has been deemed contentious.
The result, predictably, was outrage as angry citizens berated the woke culture that had permeated the BBC. Prime Minister Boris Johnson chipped in with his dismay at the “orgy of national embarrassment” that has infected some sections of the country. “People love our traditions and our history with all its imperfections. It’s crazy for us to go around trying to censor it.” A contrite BBC took popular feelings into account and has assured that it will be back to normal next year.
The assault on national symbols — what an Australian historian once described as the “black armband” view of history — has become an epidemic all over the Western world. The sharp Left turn of the Democratic Party may well be a short-lived phenomenon, but it has contributed sharply to the growing polarisation of American society. When vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris argued that “the reality is that the life of a black person in America has never been treated as fully human”, she was collapsing the past and the present, quite ignoring the appeal of the ‘American dream’ that also benefited those who were not originally part of the Judaeo-Christian inheritance. Shrill rantings against ‘white supremacy’ cannot obfuscate the reality of the two top posts in the British cabinet being occupied by Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak — persons of colour.
The awkwardness of history, be it colonialism or slavery, cannot be dealt with by challenging the entire basis of nationhood. Nor can the reality of a dominant culture be incessantly vilified and replaced by a contrived woke culture based on thought control, bans and, in the case of the US, an endorsement of street violence. The guilt-tripping that the BLM has involved and silly moves such as putting Gone With The Wind out of Netflix has, inevitably, generated a sharp reaction. In the US Presidential election campaign, President Trump has tickled these impulses when, at the Republican convention, he asked: “How can the Democrat Party ask to lead our country when it spends so much time tearing down our country?”
In India, these trends pre-dated the BLM. The bowdlerisation of Vande Mataram has a long history and to this has been added the rubbishing of the patriotic impulses centred on Bharat Mata. A bid to read history backwards and project religious minorities as permanently persecuted half-citizens has resulted in trying to put a gloss over the depredations of medieval invaders. A concerted attempt to create a new historical imagination has led to a frontal clash with popular historical memory and divided the ‘intellectuals’ from the average Indians’ sense of cultural nationhood. Likewise, a legitimate endeavour to remove caste-based iniquities has produced a fringe that seeks to project an entire inheritance as warped and unworthy of respect.
The culture wars that clutter contemporary politics are almost exclusively a confrontation between those who see modernity as something that is moulded exclusively on universal principles of correctness and those who see society — and, for that matter, the nation — as an understanding between what Edmund Burke identified as the living, the dead and the unborn. In this contest, the upholders of ordinary decencies invariably prevail.