This year Kathy and I have the pleasure of directing the Nottingham program. One of the joys and challenges of our work is teaching the Paideia 450 course which we've titled "Uniting or Untying the United Kingdom: Ethical Choices in the 21st Century."
The challenges the United Kingdom (U.K.) is facing are not unlike the challenges in the United States. In both countries a populist, nationalist movement has led to surprising results: the triumph of Donald Trump in the U.S. and of Brexit in the U.K. Brexit is short for "British exit" and refers to the referendum last year when a slim majority voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union after more than 40 years of membership in a common European community.
In light of Brexit, we are asking our students: will the United Kingdom remain united, or will it become un-tied? (We are well aware that the same question can be asked to some extent of the United States.) Part of what drove the Brexit vote was an anti-immigrant sentiment that also had racialist (if not racist) underpinnings. In our readings and discussions with local professors, we have come to see that the British, like we Americans, are struggling to achieve a diverse but unified multiracial society. Some white Brits who voted for Brexit did so out of their longing for a mythical Great Britain that was racially homogenous, unified by a common culture and common "British" values.
Related to this, UK citizens are wondering how Muslims and non-Muslims can live together, work together and trust each other in the wake of terrorist attacks perpetrated by self-proclaimed Muslim extremists. Polls show that while about three-fourths of Muslims believe their values are compatible with British values, only about half of non-Muslims believe that Muslim values are compatible with British values (whatever British values might mean to the person being asked!).
We live in a neighborhood that is largely composed of people of Pakistani and Indian origin. We rarely see and interact with our neighbors beyond a friendly hello. In light of the cultural differences between various religious and ethnic groups, and in the wake of fears spread by terrorist acts, I have come to wonder when, where and in what circumstances people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds can come together in this country and work for the common good. Last week I found the answer: parking.
Yes, parking. Two weeks ago, every home in the neighborhood received a letter from the city council saying that because of overcrowded parking on the local streets, it was proposing a scheme of residential parking permits. Residents could apply and pay (about $35) for a permit to park in front of their homes. Cars on the streets without the permit would pay a fine.
Within a day or two of receiving the letter we received a call from a local resident asking if we were concerned about the proposed parking scheme and if the Lutheran church hall, below our student flat, could be used for a meeting to discuss the proposal. We said yes on both counts (after checking with the church), and before we knew it we were also asked to chair the meeting, which I agreed to do. I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet my neighbors and pitch in for the democratic process.
Kathy and I set up about 15 chairs, expecting a meager turnout. By the time the meeting started about 40 people had shown up, packing the small church hall, with many standing at the back after we ran out of chairs. The group was diverse—as diverse as our neighborhood, about two-thirds Pakistani and Indian men and about one-third white men and women.
I began by simply reading the proposal, but before I'd gotten beyond the preamble a white woman spoke up from her seat in the second row: "What I want to know is, does this mean our friends can't park in front of our house?" A Pakistani man in a red beret jumped up from the front row and said he was their city council representative (I didn't know and neither did my neighbors) and wondered out loud why we were even having a meeting when the city was trying to act in the community's best interests. Then a man seated in the back stated that we were simply trying to gather information so that he, the city councilman, could act on the community's behalf.
Before I knew it, the meeting grew animated, even heated, and I struggled to make sure that everyone who wanted to speak had the opportunity to do so. Folks debated whether there was in fact a parking problem, whether the city should impose a parking scheme, and whether the city had the right to charge residents to park in front of their own home. After about 20 minutes I called on a short, middle-aged man in a turban who had been patiently waiting to speak. He rose and in a calm voice announced that he was from the city and had been deputized by a colleague from the Transportation Department to speak on his behalf. He cleared up many of the questions that had been raised, dispelled several rumors and offered wise counsel as to what we should do.
When, at the end of the meeting it was clear that the vast majority wanted no part of any parking scheme, my proposal that we take a vote was met by a chorus of approval. But the city employee said that people should not be pressured into a public show of hands and that we all had the opportunity to convey our thoughts to the city. The councilman in the red beret, who had begun by wondering if the meeting was necessary, was now quite eager to show that he was in fact the people's representative, and he vowed to carry out their wishes as vigorously as he could.
After the meeting, we stayed around and chatted with our neighbors, who, until that evening, we would not have recognized. The meeting seemed chaotic while we were in the middle of it, but the result was that a consensus had emerged. I left that meeting a bit frazzled but uplifted. In our own neighborhood, we had achieved something that seems all too rare these days on both sides of the Atlantic: a group of people from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds holding a civil, democratic discussion.