Civilisation

The price of bread has shot up recently. Have you heard? It’s all the fault of the Jews.

You just did a double-take, didn’t you? So did I. That was the thrust of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago. The conversation was not taking place at, say, a rally in Nuremberg in 1936. The two participants were a married couple in a Co-op supermarket in suburban Greater Manchester, and they were not whispering. In the interest of accuracy – and only in the interest of accuracy, since it demonstrates how absolutely repellent and stupid these people must be – the gentleman’s exact choice of phrase was “fucking Jews”. In public, loudly, in a busy supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, within earshot of, well, anybody else who was shopping there, which included a number of families with children.

In the same week, we’ve seen a surprisingly minor furore erupt in the press about the Unholy Trinity – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – and their witless, racist evaluation of a  Mexican sports car.  The BBC’s apology managed to be both grudging and startlingly insincere, citing a long-standing British tradition of humour based on national stereotyping – because, really, what could be funnier, edgier or more worth defending than three white, overpaid, conservative motoring journalists poking fun at people with a different skin colour who are poorer than they are? Only comedian Steve Coogan, writing in the Observer, has, as of this writing, responded to the incident with the venom it deserves, pointing out at some length and in some detail precisely why the moronic racial stereotypes paraded onscreen by Clarkson, May and Hammond are not remotely funny.

Coogan’s piece is startling in the way it thoroughly, systematically demolishes the three presenters – he doesn’t just cut them off at the knees by pointing out the absolute childish vacuousness of passing off offensive racial stereotypes as ironic humour on an internationally-syndicated television programme, he kicks them when they’re down by pointing out how much the onscreen dynamic between them resembles two wimps (May and Hammond) hiding behind a school bully (Clarkson). It’s a devastating hatchet job, but it misses a trick: Top Gear is shown on the BBC, and is therefore funded by the licence fee.

Yes, that’s right. We’re paying for these idiots and their crass, schoolboy attempts at “humour”, to the tune of £145.50 per household per year.

The thing is, the racist comments on Top Gear and the racist comments in the supermarket are twin symptoms of a common disease. Casual racism, in this country, is widespread, fed by hysterical headlines about immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers and all the rest of it in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the like (sorry, I won’t link to them – I’m not wearing latex gloves and I don’t have a paper bag handy). It’s sobering to note that during our last general election, when Gordon Brown referred, in private but with a lapel microphone still live, to a woman he’d met on the campaign trail who had confronted him with a borderline-racist question about Eastern European migrants as “bigoted”, our national media – more or less all of it, including the broadsheets – crucified him and deified her, despite the fact that, given her line of questioning, “bigoted” was a fairly accurate description.  It was also sobering, during the last general election campaign, to note the absolute reluctance of any politician from any party to get up and say, unequivocally, that immigrants who are here legally, work hard and pay their taxes – in other words, the vast majority of them – make a positive contribution to our nation and our society, which of course sends an absolutely poisonous message to immigrants who are here legally, work hard, pay their taxes and all the rest of it. Immigration has become a toxic subject – all the more so, unfortunately, when the immigrants under discussion have any skin colour that’s further up the colour chart than light pink. And that’s without getting into things like BNP campaign leaflets, which are offensive on a level that actually makes me feel physically ill. During the recent by-election campaign here, one dropped through my letterbox bearing the charming headline ‘YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE NOT HALAL MEAT’. These people got something over 2,000 votes.

And, of course, when this stuff is splashed all over the front pages of “newspapers” like the Mail and the Express, which enjoy very wide circulation (largely because they pander shamelessly to the most bigoted fears and prejudices of their base demographic), when our politicians routinely characterise immigrants (and by ‘immigrants’ they mostly seem to mean people with darker skin than theirs) as scroungers, and when racial stereotypes are apparently considered fair game as a source of humour by the presenters of one of our more popular television programmes, it’s not at all surprising when you hear someone spout the sort of foul, offensive racist crap I heard at the supermarket on Sunday, and do so quite matter-of-factly and in a public place. I’m not saying, of course, that Top Gear caused the moron I met in the supermarket to spout racist bullshit in public – actually, thinking about it, ‘moron’ is too kind, he had the sort of intellect that makes an amoeba look like Stephen Hawking – but the casual acceptance, espousal and even endorsement of racist attitudes as a source of headlines (the gutter press) or humour (Top Gear) at least gives the impression that it’s somehow once again acceptable to say outrageously racist things in public. And, certainly, in this part of the country, in a town in which seething tensions between different ethnic groups lie very, very close to the surface, you don’t have to look very far to find the kind of attitude I encountered on Sunday. The letters page in the local newspaper is usually a good place to start.

Well, sorry, we’re all to blame. One of our national characteristics, true, is that we are, as a group, somewhat reticent. We’re often reluctant to stick our heads above the parapet – with good reason, since confronting the kind of brain-dead thug who would seriously attribute the rise in the cost of a loaf of sliced wholemeal to any specific ethnic or religious group is likely to result in, at the very least, a stream of obscenities and insults – so we say nothing, ignore it, and hope it goes away. It isn’t going to go away because by saying nothing, by not standing up and saying loudly and clearly that such attitudes are vile, hateful, offensive and thoroughly unacceptable, we’re effectively giving permission for public hate speech.

I told the oaf in the Co-op to shut up. I’m apparently a fucking cunt who’s going to get his fucking head kicked in. The Co-op staff, of course, just stood there and gawped, as did my fellow citizens, most of whom had looked shocked and appalled as they heard this semi-evolved chimpanzee spout the kind of putrid filth that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Third Reich campaign meeting. I suppose this ape could have hit me, although from his point of view, in a busy supermarket where there were both witnesses and security cameras, that could have ended up being some kind of own goal – and in any case, he probably didn’t have quite enough coordination to breathe and scratch himself at the same time, so the likelihood of his a) finding his fist and b) getting it to connect at any kind of velocity with any part of my person was probably relatively remote. Nevertheless, I imagine it might have been more prudent to keep myself to myself. I heard one person – shamefully, a member of the supermarket’s staff – say loudly that I was making too much of a fuss.

Sorry, no. The profoundly sad thing about what happened when I went shopping on Sunday is precisely that versions of that experience, in today’s Britain, are not at all unusual. They’re not at all unusual because most of the time we don’t make enough of a fuss. We’re de-evolving rapidly into something quite unpleasant – a society in which casual racism is not shocking, common courtesy no longer exists, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ have apparently replaced the comma and the semi-colon. Those of us, myself included, who stand on the sidelines tut-tutting at the offensive behaviour we see in the streets every day are complicit, because we allow it to happen. Unless we learn to stand up and say no, we are effectively giving permission, but by standing up and saying no, we put ourselves in the firing-line.

That’s not a world I want to accept. It’s 2011. We’re supposed to be civilised. We’re supposed to be better than this. We pretend that we’re better than this.

We aren’t.

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