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Why is Glastonbury so white?
More needs to be done to stop liberals having fun
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never been to Glastonbury festival, and as the years go by, the likelihood of ever going is starting to recede (although I’m not that older than the average attendee, who is 39). Inevitably I would end up feeling like Mark Corrigan in the episode of Peep Show where he goes clubbing and in the early hours explains how ‘there are systems for a reason in this world, economic stability, interest rates, growth’ and how ‘it’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying in your own shit, dying at 43 with rotten teeth.’
I feel like I just wouldn’t fit in, as if they’re not my people. In fact, a few years back I remember a photograph taken at Glastonbury which better than anything else summed up the sort of person I imagined going there. It showed a banner bearing the slogan, ‘No borders’, or something to that effect, perhaps with ‘no one is illegal’ or ‘we are all migrants’ underneath. The banner was hung on the fence, the fence which every year is erected around the festival to keep non-ticket holders out. Almost like it was some sort of ‘border’, to ensure there was safety and order within.
I’m not sure if this was the same year when everyone was crying about the Brexit result, or singing ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’. I don’t know what the political theme will be in 2022, although I imagine that most Glastonbury goers would be rather critical of the Government’s Rwanda flight policy, or indeed any policy that dealt with illegal immigration on the scale we’re seeing. But I guess they might not be so relaxed if 30,000 mostly young men turned up at their festival without tickets, and without any security checks.
I’m not the only person averse to going to Glastonbury, however. Most non-white people are not keen on attending the event, as Lenny Henry said earlier this month.
‘It’s interesting to watch Glastonbury and look at the audience and not see any black people there,’ the television grandee said in a Radio Times interview. ‘I’m always surprised by the lack of black and brown faces at festivals. I think, “Wow, that’s still very much a dominant culture thing.”’
Glastonbury is indeed very white, just as it is also very liberal — and those two things are not unconnected. It’s a link that exists across a range of social settings, and as Scott Alexander has noted, most of the scenes with the lowest non-white representation are very liberal or leftist.
These include the Occupy Wall St movement, American Buddhists, birdwatchers, atheists, vegetarian activists and yoga enthusiasts, fanfiction readers, Unitarian Universalists, furries, BDSM enthusiastic and polyamorists (‘sex people’, in Alan Partridge’s words).
From time to time, some website will commission a writer to argue that ‘yoga or vegetarianism or bondage or xx has a race problem’; but it’s not that it has a race problem, its members are quite unusually un-racist, it’s just that only white liberals are generally interested in berating people for eating meat, or dressing up as animals, or for that matter hanging out in a field in Somerset getting rained on while Coldplay perform in the background. The people actually involved in these organisations would love to see some non-white faces, but supply doesn’t match demand.
The same is true in Britain. Take the Liberal Democrats, for instance. Or the New Atheism movement. Back in 2010 I witnessed the Protest the Pope demonstration in Piccadilly, which was exactly as you would imagine: lots of self-consciously geeky science types, twee placards saying ‘down with this sort of thing’, and almost 100% white.
Up the road, in Hyde Park, a Catholic Benediction took place that same evening with Benedict XVI, and it was a genuine smorgasbord of humanity. Demographically, it looked like one of those magazines my local council sends out about ‘the community’, or how Hollywood films likes to portray liberal milieus, a perfect mixture of every kind of person.
Catholicism has a broad appeal, with a message that resonates with people everywhere — it literally means ‘universal’, even if the Italians basically designed it. New atheism is a particularly niche thing that only really attracts a certain type of person, the vast majority of them white.
It would be the same if you compared Premier League football matches with Glastonbury. The former will have more black and brown faces, even if the median football fan is more racist than the median Glastonbury goer; indeed there once was a time that racists made most grounds very intimidating. That’s not to say that the average football fan is especially racist; they’re just quite representative of the country as a whole, whereas Glastonbury goers aren’t.
The reason that liberal cultural niches tend to be very white is that white liberals are in many ways the whitest of white people. Liberals have the most WEIRD personalities, inclined to be, as Joseph Henrich put it ‘less tightly bound by norms, less conformist, less enamoured with tradition, more individualistic, less distrustful of strangers, stronger on universalistic morality’ and ‘more cooperative in new groups with strangers’.
These ultra-WEIRD traits manifest themselves in very liberal social groups. One of the whitest of Christian denominations is Universal Unitarianism, the liberal wing of Unitarianism, itself a very liberal sect which in Britain has always been associated with the Left (the Guardian was founded by Unitarians). It’s not a coincidence that it was the publishing arm of Universal Unitarianism that gave us White Fragility, the bestselling self-help book for white people who want to express feelings of guilt for their racial privilege. (The book, ironically, has a very Calvinist idea of people either being saved or damned, but that’s for another piece.)
White and liberal go together, and it is for that reason that conservative underrepresentation in certain milieus often has echoes of minority underrepresentation. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, once suggested that ‘The same people who are exquisitely sensitive to discrimination in other areas are often violently antagonistic when it comes to political ideology, bringing up clichéd arguments that they wouldn’t accept in other domains: “They aren’t smart enough.” “They don’t want to be in the field.”’ Yet whereas academia, the media and arts are heavily white, the similarly elitist world of finance is way more diverse. Discoursing on queering history is quite a niche thing popular with white liberals. Making money is universal.
The Inglehart-Welzel world map of cultural values illustrates how post-Protestant northern Europeans tend to coalesce in one corner of the ‘secular-rational v traditional’ and ‘survival v self-expression’ values index, far away from the global norm. If you were to break that chart down, white liberals would be way off in a top right hand corner somewhere, while white conservatives would be somewhere in the green Catholic blob, far closer to the human average.
White liberal abnormality explains why, for example, white liberals in America have far more radical views on race, or policing, than black Americans. These opinions are very WEIRD — and, frankly, weird — yet paradoxically these runaway progressive views serve as a white liberal in-group marker. The socially radical wing of the Democratic Party is only vaguely held in sanity check by African-American members, whose views are much closer to the centre.
Lenny Henry was something of a childhood idol of mine, a comedy star of British TV in the mid-1980s, and will always have a place in my heart. Yes, he has become quite serious and scolding about the issue of race, but he’s incentivised to do so because white liberals like being told their country is racist. In nowhere else in the world would members of the majority population enjoy this sort of criticism, by a member of a minority which is already quite well represented in the media.
This masochism is just another of those WEIRD white liberal kinks, like veganism or polyamory or Glastonbury. Whatever floats your boat, I say — except, of course, no one thinks like that anymore. The underlying implication of this debate is that there is something wrong with a milieu if it is not sufficiently diverse and that, at the very least, some sort of shame should be felt, or pressure enacted to change the disparity. This is the problem with a society which has forgotten that ‘freedom of association is the master freedom’, in Christopher Caldwell’s words, and we lose it at our peril.
I have friends who like Glastonbury, and who will be going this weekend to do whatever it is white liberals like getting up to. It’s not my bag, but good luck to them. Let people do the things they enjoy, and stop worrying who they enjoy it with.