Monday 11 March 2013

The Right-Wing PC

Laurie Penny writes:

If the Prime Minister says it, it can’t be political correctness gone mad. In recent weeks, David Cameron has publicly criticised a number of writers for what they have said about eminent members of the establishment.

First, he stepped in to denounce Hilary Mantel’s comments about the Duchess of Cambridge as “completely misguided and completely wrong”. Then, on 27 February, he took the time at Prime Minister’s Questions to demand that John O’Farrell, Labour’s candidate for the Eastleigh by-election, be condemned by his party for a single line in his memoir, published many years ago. The line pertained to a momentary sense of regret that Margaret Thatcher had not been killed in the Brighton bombing of 1984. If this is the new standard for heresy, surely the whole of Lancashire will soon descend into a flaming, red pit of torment? Then again, the Conservative front bench probably believes that this has already happened.

Whoever appointed Cameron as the arbiter of public morality has clearly never heard the rumours about what went on behind closed (dining-room) doors at the Bullingdon Club in the PM’s Oxford days. This new school of right-wing political correctness seems to require authorisation from the very top.

A process is emerging for the ritual immolation- by-tabloid of heretics to the Conservative mindset: first, the right-wing press digs up a wildly out-of-context quote implying that a writer has said something shocking about a national treasure. Then, the PM steps in to put the official seal of disapproval on the offending party. No hack with enough reading comprehension to handle either a political memoir or a London Review of Books essay could fail to notice that Mantel’s and O’Farrell’s quotes were, at worst, a little bit rude. In both cases, the misreading was done deliberately and with malice. The left, contrary to popular wisdom, does not have a monopoly on censoriousness.

The term “political correctness” is commonly used to reframe racist or reactionary ideas as somehow rebellious. It is used to silence the anger of people who complain about injustice and hate speech by recasting them as bloodless censors. When I’m accused of political correctness, it’s almost always by somebody who is frantically hanging on to their deep-seated prejudices about people who look, live or sound slightly different to them.

Reactionaries and conservatives practise precisely the kind of political correctness of which they accuse the left – but they call it “decency” and “morality”. Which is a rather PC way of referring to shutting down dissent.

We are informed that freedom of speech, if it means anything, is the right to be offensive. The question is whether or not, in these paranoid, sphincter-clenching times, it means anything else. From the weird, late-night back alleys of the internet to the pages of daily papers with millions of readers, freedom of speech has become synonymous with “freedom to attack the vulnerable” – and that’s about it. In Britain, where we have such repressive libel laws that multinational firms cross oceans to engage our lawyers to silence their critics, the only people it’s profitable to attack are those with no means of fighting back.

That means the poor. It means the disabled. It means immigrants and single parents. By a stroke of wild coincidence, these are exactly the people who are most likely to be made destitute by this government’s misguided austerity clampdown.

The right to offend the poor has never really been disputed. The right to offend wealthy, important people and to commit acts of cultural iconoclasm, however, is in serious danger at this point in history; that it is one of the main ways I make my rent money isn’t my only reason for being worried.

Suppose that someone – not me – were to opine that the Queen and Margaret Thatcher are national treasures only in the sense that they are ancient, expensive and will soon be buried. I don’t want to live in a country where such a sentiment is an occasion for national hysteria.

Right now, the list of things we’re not allowed to say about the rich is getting longer and not just for professional writers. At times, it seems that the right to protest itself is under attack.

Alfie Meadows and Zak King, two students who took part in the demonstrations against tuition fee hikes in 2010, are facing years in prison on charges of violent disorder, despite serious questions about the evidence in the case. Environmental activists who took on the multinational EDF Energy are being sued for £5m for trespassing on the West Burton power station by staging an action there. “This punitive measure would have devastating consequences for anyone who wished to take a stand against injustice and corruption or speak out for what is right,” says the Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

A chill wind of cultural conservatism is blowing across Britain and censorship is at its heart. A fence of taboos is being constructed around those in this society who least deserve our deference and that fence is alive with the electricity of public outrage. The royal family, the aristocracy and members of the political establishment skulk behind a perimeter of privilege where they don’t have to answer any difficult questions.

Outrage comes easily to us. Outrage is safe. You can express it in as little as 140 characters; it fits neatly into the line and a half of a tabloid headline; and there’s little risk involved.

Real anger, however, the expression of hurt and horror at how much crueller and harder everyday life is becoming for so many people, anger at those responsible, comes at a cost. As Britain swings to the right, we have to decide, individually and as a society, if the consequences of dissent are a cost we’re willing to pay.

There is a lot of truth in that. But, to the great amusement of some of us at the time, Matthew Parris did it better when Laurie Penny was still in school:

Are you politically sound?

Are you sound on field sports, sound on the countryside, sound on immigration? Are you sound on the Union, on buggers and on the Common Market? Are you sound on the monarchy? Are you sound on Diana? Are you sound on Enoch, Margaret, Jonathan and Neil? 

Ever ready to laugh at others, we on the Right are in danger of losing our ability to laugh at ourselves. As we ridicule the po-faced puritans of the Left, we forget how ripe for ridicule are the sniffy certainties of our own creed. Alert to the pursed lips and whining intolerance of the politically correct, we have lost our ear for the bark of the patriotically correct. But we too, we who are PS — the politically sound — have our thought police, our pursed lips and our mental phrasebook of sound (and unsound) expressions, sound (and unsound) attitudes, sound (and unsound) belief.  

General Lee Bhum Suk of South Vietnam used to open press conferences for sniggering journalists by declaring, ‘I am Lee Bhum Suk. Yes, that is indeed how it is pronounced. Please all laugh at my name now, and then we can get on with the press conference.’ So shall we all have another good bellylaugh at the politically correct, agree that they are often silly and sometimes sinister, acknowledge that the Left at least have been laughing at their own idiocies for the last decade or more – and then move on? Perhaps we too are becoming ridiculous and need a bit of joshing.  

A final word, then, about political correctness. Contrary to the more spluttering columnists of the why-oh-why? school, PC is almost exclusively an Anglo-Saxon affliction, contracted from the academic world in the United States and not from the political class in Continental Europe where they remain astonishingly politically incorrect. Only recently has the museum in Banyoles, a little town near where my family live in Catalonia, removed the stuffed African from its exhibits.  

Perhaps we forget the true progenitor of PC mentality: the Protestant conscience. We overlook the ways in which that keen sense of the appropriate and inappropriate with which all the English-speaking peoples are imbued from the cot can be used as an instrument of conservatism too. We have ceased to notice the myriad subtle ways in which our own PS police patrol language and thought. Here are just a few examples, some dos and don’ts: a first stab at a Politically Sound lexicon  

A is for Aids. Do say ‘Aids’ even when this is incorrect. ‘HIV’ is politically unsound, revealing a suspiciously thoughtful grasp of the pathology of the disease. It is politically unsound to sport an Aids ribbon, the wearing of which is dismissed as terribly PC, of course. But I don’t see why people have to wear their sympathies on their sleeves. One can care about Aids without advertising the fact. The wearing of a poppy on Remembrance Day is, however, obligatory. One cannot care about the war dead without advertising the fact.  

B is for Blood Sports. Don’t. The word is deeply unPS. Say ‘country pursuits’ or ‘field sports’. An engulfing concern for ‘the rural way of life’ and ‘rural employment’ is PS. Concern for the coalminers’ traditional way of life is unPS.  

C is for Chair. Don’t. As unsound as you can get. Always ‘chairman’. Any reference to ‘the Chair’ must be greeted with ‘Isn’t that an item of furniture, ha ha.’  

D is for Diana. Don’t. Unsound. Silly girl. An awful shame, of course. We support Charles. It is PS to be in favour of the monarchy as a system, but it is not PS to gush about the royal family as individuals, except possibly the Queen.  

E is for Europe, or, as the PS like to insist, ‘the Common Market’. Take care, here. The truly PS emphasise how devoted they are to Europe (glories of Florence, Bach, Puligny Montrachet, etc.), which is not to be confused with ‘Brussels’ (in PS usage invariably employed disparagingly) or the single currency. ‘Dear me, the poor old euro seems to have taken another battering on the currency markets today’ must be uttered with apparently genuine concern. The politically sound speaker ‘takes no pleasure’ in the travails of the euro.  

F is for Fayed. For the sound, racist language is just about PS in this exceptional case.  

G is for Gay. Don’t. This must never be used to mean ‘homosexual’. If others fall into such usage, the PS response is ‘Whatever have they done to that good old-fashioned little word “gay”?’, or ‘Can we have our word back, please?’ [But see ‘Queer’.]  

H is for Haider. Carefully does it. Sensitive treatment is required of PS speakers. The keynote expression is ‘counter-productive’, implying that attacks on Haider may only increase his domestic popularity. PS speakers are uneasy about the question of anti-Semitism. It is never sound to express anti-Semitism unless the person doing so is himself Jewish, in which case his remarks will be received with some pleasure. 

I is for Am I alone? Fundamental to the ‘mindset’ (dread word!) of the politically sound is the shared pretence that we who hold these opinions are somehow a persecuted minority. Phrases such as ‘Dare I say … ?’ ‘I realise this is an unfashionable thought, but . . .’ or ‘Are we allowed these days to observe …?’ are useful in this cause.  

J is for Jonathan. For the PS, Aitken is a gallant Etonian whose only fault was to be a trifle buccaneering in his approach. ‘Buccaneer’ is also a useful PS word to describe any well-connected right-wing crook. Leftwing crooks are described as crooks. Neil Hamilton was a ‘maverick’. Socialist liars are called liars.  

K is for Kilometres. Don’t. All metric measurements are unPS, unless used derisively. Make an elaborate fuss about trying to convert petrol prices in litres into pence per gallon. ‘Give ‘em 2.54 centimetres and they’ll take 1.6093 kilometres, ha ha’ is an endlessly amusing joke among politically sound.  

L is for Love-child. Don’t. The expression is unPS but, ‘bastard’ being too rude and ‘illegitimate’ being borderline, the sound are left with the unwieldy ‘born out of wedlock’. Having at first objected to ‘lover’ as well as ‘common-law wife’, PS speakers are now objecting to the perfectly useful term ‘partner’, too (‘Are you going into business together, ha ha?’).  

M is for Ms. Don’t. The politically sound never say Ms except sneeringly, as in ‘Mzzzz, ha ha’.  

N is for the Net. Don’t. The expression is not PS because it suggests expert acquaintance with information technology, which is unPS. ‘This Internet thingy’ will generally serve.  

O is for the Ozone Layer. Don’t. The sound doubt the likelihood of ozone depletion or global warming and treat such matters with sceptical levity (‘I’m all for these so-called holes in the ozone layer. Faster tan. And rising sea-levels? Hooray! Drown all those council estates in Middlesbrough, wherever that is, ha ha.’) PS people are suspicious of anything scientists say and which PC people believe. It is not PS to be completely convinced yet of the link between smoking and cancer. Passive smoking does not, in PS speech, exist. Alcoholism is regarded either with levity or as a regrettable condition which can affect sound people. All other drugs must be spoken of with horror.  

P is for Pinochet. He did wonders for the Chilean economy.  

Q is for Queer. When the word is used to describe homosexuals it is not PS to complain (as PS speakers do in the case of ‘gay’) that English has been robbed of a perfectly useful little word. The sound do not want this word ‘back’; we ‘homosexualists’ (PS-word) can have it for ourselves. Incidentally, ‘sexuality’ is non-PS, as is ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity’, the correct expressions (in reverse order) being ‘race’, ‘sex’ and ‘which team is he playing for?’.

R is for Race. ‘Enoch was right, of course.’ The sound take care never quite to specify what Enoch was right about. It is seldom PS to express overtly racist views. A politically sound speaker suggests that ‘it is a regrettable fact’ that the British population contains a number of people considerably less civilised than himself. ‘It is a regrettable fact’ finds extensive PS use as a means of distancing the speaker personally from this or that nasty prejudice which he is about to pray in aid.  

S is for Scotland. The sound are shifting on devolution and there is at present no agreed politically sound attitude or language. It is PS to express attachment to the Union, but it is now permissible to add that, if the beastly Celts are so ungrateful as to refuse the delights Union offers, then good riddance to them. Overt English nationalism, however, is not quite sound yet. It is suspected of having something to do with football. 

T is for Thatcher. She can do and did do no wrong. It is perfectly PS, however, to chuckle that the old girl went a bit batty in the end, ha ha – but only in the context of unbounded admiration for her achievements and personal merits.  

U is for Ulster. The politically sound support the Unionists almost without reservation and make no serious distinction between republicanism and terrorism. It is PS to display a remarkably detailed knowledge of Irish history, dropping obscure dates and battles into the conversation and assuming your listener shares your learning. It is PS to feel very deeply about Ireland, expressing sympathy with an intransigent position which the Unionists themselves have long abandoned. It is not, however, PS to go native or talk like one. References to ‘Prods’ can be PS so long as made with jocular affection. We support them from the outside. We do not necessarily invite them to dinner.  

V is for Vulcan. John Redwood is a problem for the politically sound. In his anti-Europeanism, his mutinies against Major, his free-market economics and his social conservatism, Mr Redwood cannot be faulted. But as a PS pin-up and possible leader he is somehow just not quite right. He is referred to by the PS with cautious regard. So is the present Conservative leader — ‘but of course he scores well in the House’. It is not PS to mention William Hague’s Yorkshire accent slightingly; this is achieved by deploring ‘that nasal voice’.  

W is for Wimmin’ — pronounced thus with sneering emphasis whenever the intention is to mock the equal-opportunities brigade or ‘so-called’ feminists. ‘Margaret was a feminist in the best sense, of course. Never talked about it.’ The PS are much in favour of minorities who don’t talk about it, ‘thrust it down our throats’, ‘push it too far’, etc. and like to give the impression of being under siege, except when they themselves are mounting the campaign. It is not PS to be a Eurosceptic in the best sense, of never talking about it. In summary, the Left ‘bang on’ about their causes while the sound ‘dig in our heels’ about ours.  

X is for Xenophobia. Don’t. The politically sound speaker is anxious not to be taken for a Little Englander, which would be vulgar. He is, however, happy to be accused of xenophobia since this gives him the opportunity to protest a passionate belief in free trade with the whole world, which ‘Brussels’ is trying to block. Towards America in particular the PS speaker is ambivalent, affecting huge disdain for American culture (Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s, etc.) while confessing a swelling interest in Nafta. He has not seriously tried to reconcile his belief (in the European case) that with economic union must come political submersion, with his implied supposition that we would somehow not be ‘swamped’ by the United States.  

Y is for Yah. Do. Though it is important to distinguish PS speech from ‘U’ speech (in Nancy Mitford’s sense), the use of ‘yah’ to mean ‘yes’ is a remarkably good indicator of political soundness. That Michael Portillo should recently have interrupted a questioner with ‘yah, yah, yah, yah’ — and nothing else — shows how anxious he is to be thought completely sound. But he may have to do more than this.  

Z is for the Zulu Question. PS people have never wholly reconciled themselves to the strange survival of post-apartheid South Africa. Nor, secretly, have they accepted the bona fides of Nelson Mandela (‘that chap who wears shirts on telly, ha ha’). They keep waiting for the whole thing to go off the rails, which of course they will greatly regret, but which will not entirely surprise them. The knowledgably PS way to signal this subtle position is to mention the Zulu Question. ‘Of course, the Zulu nation has not spoken yet, but will. They are fearsome when roused, as we Brits discovered at Rorke’s Drift.’ This means ‘I hope it all comes unstuck’. 

We have only scratched the surface and, besides, lists can never substitute for an instilled sense of what belonging to a mindset is all about. So let us try to sum up the feeling of being politically sound. The PS mentality combines a secret consciousness of being in the majority with the pseudo-plaintive tone of the put-upon. The PS voice is confident of the sympathy of the pack. It is the whimper-bark of the natural bully, eternally convinced that his victim is picking the fight.

1 comment:

  1. You couldn't resist that "still in school", could you? Unless you are giving a false age on Facebook, you were only 22 in February 2000. Not a schoolboy, admittedly. But you are hardly Laurie Penny's venerable elder.