British Theatrical and opera director Jonathan Miller assesses the dangers of future cultural homogeneity and argues for a "decent society"
Do you think Europe is managing to hold on to its diversity, and is that a good thing?
Europe holds on to its diversity in some respects and loses it in others. Some of the respects in which it has failed to hold on to its diversity are regrettable. But there are a lot of exotic differences, which is one of the reasons why we travel. When I first took my holidays in France as a young man in the late '40s, I could recognize French children by their tabliers d'enfant as they came out of school and the funny, particular sort of satchels that they wore on their backs. Now when I see children coming out of schools in Florence, they look like children coming out of schools in Akron, Ohio.
Surely deeper differences remain?
Italian families have preserved a form of affiliation that is different from the forms of the British and the French and Germans. They have different ways of feeling for example, the attitude toward whom you can invite home is totally different in Germany. I would never be invited to the homes of people I work with in Italy and France, whereas here in England there is a great deal of inviting people home if you are colleagues. There are all sorts of micro-environments that seem to hang on to their identity over much longer periods of time. So I think you have to observe many different structures to see which ones outlast these decades and which ones seem to collapse every five years.
Even so, do you think Europe is losing one of its most precious assets, its connection with its past?
One of the most interesting things that has happened since the Second World War is that the past has been ruptured forever. Dante felt himself to be continuous with the literature of his antecedents in a way that no modern writer does today. Europe threw up those great artists Dante and Shakespeare, for example over the course of about 400 or 500 years because Europe was a European community, which some naive observers think was inaugurated since the Second World War. The cultural giants were deeply European cosmopolitan figures. They saw themselves as being continuous with, and companions of, Virgil and Ovid. Shakespeare may have known little Latin and less Greek, but he felt himself to be a colleague and a contemporary in some way of Virgil's and Ovid's and Homer's.
Japanese consumer products are triumphant in the West. Is Europe in danger of cultural complacency and self-indulgence?
We talk about being dominated by certain aspects of Japanese technology, but I don't notice a large number of British musicians learning the Japanese musical repertoire. The Japanese have totally dominated our techniques for recording and transmitting music and so forth, but what they're also doing is learning how to play Mozart and learning to play it a lot better than a lot of us can play it. It isn't that they are dumb and can't invent Mozart. They are smart, because they can invent sophisticated technology. It's a very complicated form of reciprocity.
The millennium is almost upon us. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I'm more pessimistic than I might otherwise have been. I see the outbreak of ethnic and racist violence in all sorts of volatile and unexpected and volcanic episodes, terrorism and just simply much more aggressive interactions between people in the streets. The streets are now filled with people who are on the edge of hitting one another in a way that I never felt before, even in London. I suppose road rage is the sort of curiously glib, journalistic phrase for it. Escalator rage is just as prevalent. I've seen it four or five times in the past 10 days. I've heard people shout violently and threaten each other on escalators when they simply collide with suitcases.
What should Europe be doing about it?
We've obviously got to tinker with some sort of moral commitment let's not call it ideological to the idea of fairness, for example, or just, to use the term of a friend of mine, a decent society. And there may be all sorts of disputes about what might count as a decent society. A decent society is one in which a large number of people are not humiliated, and what we want to do is not to engineer large-scale changes but, with the changes that we can put in hand without too much bloodshed, guarantee that people will not be unfairly humiliated by social arrangements. You want to make sure that secular modernism is efficient and humane.
Is Europe better placed than most societies to do this because it retains more of its civic institutions and is becoming more aware of their value?
We have done it, as it were, by historic accident. We happen to have extremely elaborately and organically grown civic institutions built around the great invention of the European city, for which there is no real counterpart in America. Yet I feel that already one sees the structure of European cities undergoing a curious deterioration. We have lost that sense of minutely structured neighborhood organic living, but it has lasted longer in Europe than in America because it's been here longer.
So what are Europe's prospects?
I have a very clear view of our situation here on earth, which seems to me to be that we are like that great Géricault picture "The Raft of the Medusa" that we are on this huge piece of floating wreckage. It's not going to sink, but we have the choice of cooperating with one another with the scarce resources on this piece of floating wreckage or of eating one another.