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It’s been a bizarre few days. On Question Time we saw a nation agonising over the materialistic, greedy, celebrity-obsessed culture of its youth turn to Brian Paddick for answers. That’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Celebrity Come Dine With Me contestant Brian Paddick.
Lots of commentators have weighed in on the mixed messages the police have been getting since the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes. Because, you know, it’s simply unrealistic to expect police not to beat innocent people until their hearts give out or shoot them in the head and at the same time still expect them to actually intervene to stop people visibly stealing things from shops. Until someone finds a way of distinguishing people who are committing a crime from people who aren’t committing a crime we should just let the police beat everyone, just to be on the safe side.
And last night, on Newsnight, an eminent historian approvingly (but in a qualified fashion) cited Enoch Powell‘s “Rivers of Blood” speech, and said that the problem with the country was “whites acting like blacks”. You can see the whole incident here, it takes ten minutes but it’s well worth seeing in context: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14513517?utm_source=BBC+News+UK&utm_medium=twitter
What’s most shocking about the whole thing isn’t his constant conflation of ‘black’ with ‘black culture’ with ‘a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture’. It’s not the part where he asserts that if you closed your eyes you would think David Lammy was white. It’s not even his bizarre reading of a text message, righteous contempt dripping off every emoticon he attempts to pronounce.
No, what’s most shocking is that the quality of our history teaching has become so debased, and the basic standard of our historical knowledge is so poor that Starkey can arrive unprepared and behave like a lazy undergraduate trying to derail a tutorial because they haven’t done their homework.
I say that as someone who was once an exceedingly lazy undergraduate who almost never did their homework.
It works like this.
1) You arrive at the tutorial having only read one thing from the reading list and having picked one incident from what you read.
2) You then say the most shocking and counterintuitive thing you can about your incident at the beginning of the tutorial and then, like a mastiff with a hare, or Niall Ferguson with a toddler, you grip and shake and worry at that one thing you know until you have drained it of all interest and meaning.
3) The incident you choose should be sufficiently obscure that if you pontificate about it loudly enough people will assume you know more about it than they do.
4) In order to spin this out for a whole tutorial you must at least know one picturesque fact, which you can describe and analyse in detail (in Starkey’s case the teenager’s text, or the woman putting on shoes outside the shop) and have one quotation you can give at length and in full (like Starkey’s paraphrase of Enoch Powell).
5) Every time anyone tries to widen the discussion, you must bring it back to the few pungent facts you have at your disposal.
6) That’s it.
For instance, I once got through a whole tutorial about Richard II knowing little more than the fact that Thomas of Woodstock, his uncle, had burst into the child king’s bedroom during the Appellants’ Crisis.
Every time anything was mentioned, I would bring it back to the impact having an uncle burst into your bedroom threatening violence must have on a child. I blamed everything that happened from 1377 – 1395 (when I had stopped reading) on that one incident, even though most of them happened before it.
I left without learning anything more about Richard II, but having successfully concealed my ignorance for another week. I didn’t even know Richard was deposed until I was doing my one bit of reading for the Henry IV tutorial the next week.
And that tactic was followed almost to the letter by David Starkey last night. I’m not saying he’s lazy. He might be incredibly hard working but rather dim.
He starts by grabbing our attention with Enoch Powell, a bogey man we all know about but few of us have read. We are soothed into listening by delightful phrases like ‘lambent flames’. And then he delights us by implying that Powell was wrong: the violence that was coming was not between races but between…
And this is where he falters. He is not as nimble as he thinks he is. The obvious way out of his bind would be to revert to a class analysis, but this is anathema to an old Tory like him. So he stretches: it’s not a clash of races, it’s not a clash of classes, it’s a clash of cultures.
And suddenly he’s no longer on thin ice, he’s not even on ice at all. His legs whirl beneath him, desperately trying to execute the intellectual pirouette he envisions, but he is simply splashing at the murky water below him. There is nothing for him to get traction on because he hasn’t thought very deeply about cultures at all, so he’s left pedalling the in air like an aquatic Wile E. Coyote, desperately churning the mixed metaphor below him.
For while there is very much a sense in which a “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture” is involved with our social problems, he will not, cannot accept that that is a culture that is widespread. His allegiances won’t let him see this ‘shopping with violence’ as a radical outcropping of Thatcherism. He’s trying to skip through fields of thought-experiments, but he is hobbled by his own adherence to ideology.
So he shorthands “violent gang culture” to “rap culture” to “black culture” to “black” and uses them interchangeably. He has the kernel of an interesting, nuanced analysis, and about new cross-racial youth cultures but it is crippled by his inability to put it into words. He’s so eager to shock with how transgressive his thoughts are that he fails to give them any, you know, thought.
In Salford, most of the rioters I saw were white. The one they interviewed on the news said he was rioting to protest against the Polish taking jobs. Starkey’s argument runs. This was a special kind of riot, a ‘shopping with violence’, concentrated on looting. White people don’t loot. White people did loot. What was the factor that made white people loot? Black culture. Or, to qualify it as he does a couple of times: ‘black male culture’. The circularity of the argument and its implicit assumptions are clear.
It’s so self-contradictory that the high priest of personal responsibility ends up blaming a whole race for the people of another race who burned down buildings.
White people don’t loot. How do we know this? We must take it on faith because David Starkey, eminent historian, states it to be true. Does he give evidence? No.
In Starkey’s world, those who trashed the Savoy Palace during the Peasants’ Revolt all did so because they were outraged about the legal status of serfs, were angered by wage laws that failed to reflect the new reality of the scarcity of labour since the Black Death, and a growing anti-clericalism that would result in Lollardy. Not the chance to get their hands on some of John of Gaunt’s golden candlesticks.
Except, of course, we’ve got evidence that that wasn’t the case at all. The leaders of the riot were very careful to tell no one to loot, they didn’t want to be seen as thieves, and they ground up the jewels and plate they found before throwing them into the river.
Except they had to throw a man in as well, who was found to be hiding bits of silver plate to hang onto for himself.
Or the cellar full of people who were helping themselves to the Duke of Lancaster’s wine when the roof fell in on them, killing them all.
I wonder if Starkey would have been more astounded or less at the sight of them guzzling away on stolen wine than he was by the woman who tried on a pair of trainers. They weren’t even bothering to flee the scene, so sure were they that there would be no repercussions.
Perhaps the moment when he gets himself into most trouble in his attempts to rule out a class analysis for his cultural one, is when he finds himself saying “If you were listening to him [David Lammy] on radio, you would think he was white.”
Bound up in this is clearly the assumption that to speak respectably, is to speak ‘white’. It’s indefensible, even Toby Young’s defence throws its hands up in the air at that point, just saying “He didn’t mean it like that.” Like there is another way to mean it.
(Oh, and yes Toby, Starkey was doing little more than parrotting the received wisdom, he also showed the racist conceptual underpinnings of the received wisdom.)
Accent is clearly an identifying feature, but what it identifies, usually, is class. Not race. Accent is stratified by schooling, employment, the people with whom you spend your time. Even those assumptions will lead to shake and frequently wrong conclusions.
And why would you even turn the screen of your television off anyway? Should we be outraged that the purveyors of radio are all depriving us of the information we need to make important snap judgements about people?
The real tragedy is not that David Starkey is ill-informed about certain subcultures and has a tendency to make generalisations based on race, but that he is allowed on television at all. His ill-informed, unprepared contrarianism is both misleading and tiresome.
I enjoy his waspish uncle persona, but it is a travesty that our one remaining television historian – the one who hasn’t decamped to the US – is more Teddy Taylor than AJP Taylor, more anal than Annales, more Ben Elton than G.R. Elton.
It is a tragedy that our national debate is so debased that starkey enjoys his position as sharp-tongued speaker of uncomfortable truths, rather than serial misinformer and thumping bore. starkey is the lowest-common-denominator Satruday-evening telly answer to history.
David Starkey is symptom of the dumbing down of our intellectual life. He’s X Factor for the Montrachet-drinking classes. He’s a twit.
(And don’t even get me started on Dan Snow. Anyone who can present a piece on The One Show and then have their other guest know more about it than him* is not an historian, no matter how many looters they sit on.)
*Al Murray destroyed Dan Snow after a piece he did about King John. Snow knew enough to fill his three minutes of Outside Broadcast time, but nothing more. It was pitiful to watch, and I hope that one day someone puts it on iPlayer.
- David Starkey claims ‘the whites have become black’ during UK riots Newsnight debate (mirror.co.uk)
- Was David Starkey being racist on Newsnight last night? (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)