Ustinov on Prejudice

One of my simpler joys while on vacation is reading a good book and reading more than just a few pages in a row. This time I brought along a book I had originally started because it does not require to be read in one go but is split in a large number of separate episodes. Now that I have come to spend more time with it, I am falling in love with it. The book is “Achtung! Vorurteile” written by Sir Peter Ustinov in 2003.

Achtung! Vorurteile

The title translates fairly enough as “Beware! Prejudice” and is very well chosen. In a large number of episodes Ustinov holds a mirror up to us and unmasks the mechanisms of prejudice in mankind in the most disarmingly casual and charming way ever. Where it criticizes, the book is not quite as sharp as it could be. I am beginning to think that this could be part of Ustinov’s wisdom which to comprehend I may be yet too young or impatient. Ustinov watched mankind with a keen but mostly friendly eye.

Let us look at two examples taken from the rororo paperback edition. The translations are mine. The first example is from page 89f.:

Sailing

It is very amusing to busy oneself with the religions of the world for they all have their quaint dogmata. However, it is less amusing when those religions force forms of life altogether not funny on people. Religions produce prejudice because they are based on dogmas, because they are closed systems. In politics, dogmas have always led towards bankruptcy. The Soviet Union broke down because it was based on dogmas. The ideology was not flexible enough to make a compromise with life.

I like to watch the Admiral’s Cup. Among sailors it is a well known fact that a mast too taut will snap. But if it adapts to conditions of weather and wind every day, yields, stays flexible, it remains unscathed. Dogmas are too taut, under certain conditions of wind they must burst. The city arms of Paris are among the most philosophical ones I know. It depicts a ship at sea and a motto: “Fluctuat nec mergitur.” — “It sways and does not sink.” Or, in other words: Because it sways, it does not sink. All rigid societies are doomed, and even the Pope has realized that. He has recently been more flexible and responsive to changing winds. In South America, for example, the Church faces completely different circumstances. One cannot assume Polish conditions. Basically, believers have taken the issue into their own hands. They are much less dogmatic, at least in Christian Europe, where the idea of ecumenism is very strong.

And women in the Catholic Church? I have never understood why women can only become a matron. Why should they not be an archbishop? I believe the Church would benefit from women, if we do need a Church. But even more firmly do I believe you can behave like an ideal Christian without believing in any specific Church at all.

(Note that the Pope here is still John Paul II.)

Or, from page 109f.:

Headscarves, or: I am a feminist

Today, when we look at countries of the Orient shaped by Islam, a certain kind of malaise creeps on us, especially considering the role women play. Also, our notion of democracy and human rights appear to find only few friends among the potentates in some places. There are numerous signs indicating that this is not just our prejudice. After all, it is to this that some supporters of military intervention in Iraq referred and refer, who under a banner moral and democracy feel as liberators in a just war. One could respond with the words of the French moralist La Rochefoucauld according to which nobody has yet been taught virtue by force. Some think many countries have not progressed as far as the nations of the West. There may occasionally be a grain of truth in that. But what is progress? The U.S. certainly is a very advanced, modern country with immense technological means. They have, this the war in Iraq teaches us, a machinery for propaganda which has at its disposal twenty times as many means of disinformation and manipulation as had been available in the times of the dreadful Mr. Goebbels. Only, this machinery is sometimes operated in a very amateurish fashion, and thus Mr. Bush and his friend Mr. Blair now stand there like liars caught red-handed. And another comment on the question of progress in the West: There are Americans, and the first to be named would be George W. Bush, who live in another century. They are completely under the influence of the ancient Romans or rather movies that used to be made about the Romans. At times I feel somewhat complicitous, for in my sleepless nights I sometimes have the impression, fifty years ago, I have not played Nero but George Doubleyou. The two have stunning similarities.

Now, I have always loved Ustinov as an actor but I had never realized how skilled a practical philosopher he actually was — all the more tragic he is no longer with us. Just a little research, however, proved I could have known this all along. Not only was he chancellor of the Durham University and researched the history of prejudice, he also established the Ustinov foundation with one of its primary goals being the fight against prejudice today. The book I would like to recommend here is a remarkable weapon in this fight through its humourous way. If only it were available to the people not speaking German, too.

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