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Sep 2002 Journal

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The uses of illiteracy

Our current editorial focuses on the ignorance that exists across wide swathes of the Muslim world. Alas, Britain itself, birthplace of Caxton of printing-press fame, a country with possibly the highest newspaper readership in the world, is far from free of the taint of illiteracy. By illiteracy in the British context I don't mean the inability to read, but a deliberate rejection of knowledge and, alongside it, of thought and feeling.

A prime example of this deplorable mindset is the recent use of a Hitler 'skit' in the video put out by the anti-Euro campaign. To raise the Hitler bogey as an argument against European integration, when the very raison d'etre of the EU is the prevention of future Nazi horrors, is a trick that combines perfidy with coarse insensitivity towards all who survived the Third Reich.

Told of adverse European reaction to the video, Vic Reeves, one of the clown princes who appear in it, delivered himself of a memorable dictum: "Britain owes Europe nothing!"

Here speaks the voice of truly abysmal illiteracy. Almost from Stonehenge onwards, impulses emanating from the Continent - conquest by Rome, conversion to Christianity, Norman invasion, the Reformation, the accession of William of Orange, which sealed the triumph of Protestantism and constitutional monarchy - have moved English history forward.

However, it is not just the turning points of political and constitutional history which time after time turned the link with the Continent into a veritable umbilical cord. Something similar has long been at work in the less eye-catching sphere of economic activity. Wool was, pace the 'enthronement' of the Lord Chancellor on the woolsack in the House of Lords, the main source of the country's wealth in the Middle Ages. England's advance from a wool to a cloth producer - what we would nowadays term from a 'developing' to an advanced economy - was greatly assisted by the influx of Flemish weavers and dyers. The development of metallurgy over the centuries owed much to Germans from Gregor Agricola (Bauer) to Henry Bessemer. The Dutchman Cornelius Vermuyden cleared the Fens. French Huguenots founded Barclays Bank. The German Jew Ludwig Mond established Imperial Chemical Industries.

A similar picture emerges in the arts. In literature, the (admittedly dazzling) creations of the Tudor period drew heavily on Italian models. In music, the towering figure for two centuries was Georg Friedrich Handel - a German import. As for painting, a flourishing art form in late medieval Italy and the Netherlands, no major English figure arose before Hogarth and Reynolds in the 1700s.

For their unpardonable illiteracy, Vic Reeves and the other clown princes with street cred who appear in the video of the NO campaign deserve sentencing to an indefinite period of educational community service. And what more appropriate location for them to start serving their sentence than the Continental Britons exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, London NW1!
Richard Grunberger

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