Whoever thought that a conference on education could be interesting? Last week, Laurie Penny and David Starkey made one so
by having a loud dingdong about race. Ms Penny – a columnist for The Independent – called Starkey a racist because he implied that gang culture was an import from the Punjab. Dr Starkey – a freelance historian – lost his temper, pointed his finger at Penny and shouted, “I will not be lectured to by a public school girl
like you!” The whole farce would have gone unreported had Penny not turned to Twitter to imply that Starkey physically assaulted her. The video that leaked out suggests different. Starkey’s rage contains all the terror of a bichon frise growling at a suspicious looking tree. Ms Penny has enough sangfroid to return to the microphone to, once again, call her opponent a big auld racist. It's pure Punch and Judy
The story went global and partisans fell into two camps. The Left said
Starkey’s insensitive pronouncements on British identity made his racism obvious. His vocal outburst, coupled with having the audacity to wear linen in the 21st century, confirmed an implicit violence within his politics. The Right argued
that Penny was the real bigot for twisting the words of a respected historian to denounce all conservative views as inherently racist.
Both sides are equally guilty of misreading the politics of race. The Right often exhibits a paradoxical cultural chauvinism. On the one hand, they will insist that racism isn’t a problem in Britain – partly because our society is more homogeneous
than the Left thinks it is and partly because Britishness is a byword for tolerance. On the other hand, they use this claim of tolerance as a reason to exclude outsiders, because they perceive the “invading” culture to be intolerant. Most of Britain’s problems are imagined to be the result of outsiders getting inside and exploiting the British soft touch: asylum seekers scamming benefits, Islamic sex rings, Muslims building super mosques to preach destruction of the West etc. The repugnant assumption behind much of the conservative take on multiculturalism is either that foreign cultures are breeders of violence or that individuals raised in those cultures are incapable of independent moral action. That’s why Starkey’s infamous claim on Newsnight
that the London riots were a cultural import from Jamaica was so wrong. Civil unrest isn’t unique to the West Indies – the English have been revolting for centuries
If the Starkey’s crime is myopia, Penny is guilty of trying to use the racist label to shut down debate. Consider what happened during the Starkey vs Penny confrontation. On the subject of “What is Britishness?” Penny said, “For people like my colleague Professor Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs. And if you ask people who organise conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs, pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate
I highlight the last part of that sentence because this is a key part of the contemporary Left’s agenda: dividing political opinions into legitimate and illegitimate. The Left insists that it is illegitimate to say that homosexuality can be a choice
, that the fetus is a human being
, that the welfare poor must take some responsibility for their life choices
or that there is some other explanation for global warming
. These positions may be wrong or even despicable. But the Left’s very undemocratic goal is to drive them from the public sphere. Happily, all we will be left with once we effectively outlaw cultural traditionalism is liberalism and socialism. Then we can all get on with the business of becoming the kind of people Laurie Penny wants us to be.
Of all the forms of thought policing that the Left uses, the most egregious is the accusation of racism. Of course, racism does exist in both conscious and subconscious forms – given its history of imperialism and slavery, it is truly the West’s Original Sin. But if we overuse the word racism, we dilute its meaning and lose our ability to judge between who is and who is not racist. David Starkey might be prejudiced, but he is in no way analogous to Nick Griffin and the BNP. By labeling Starkey as such, the Left empowers the BNP to claim that its views are both germane to the mainstream Right and the victim of the same kind of thought policing that Starkey suffers. It’s notable that Nick Griffin offered to make Starkey an honorary member of his party
after his Newsnight appearance.
In the same way that overuse of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe things that come nowhere near to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust is offensive, so too is misuse of racism. It dilutes the power of that word, so that an ugly, stupid throwaway line by a politician about Africans
is treated with the same seriousness as the Rwandan genocide. It also blinds us to non-political forms of prejudice that genuinely need tackling. The worst is the racism of low expectations – a variety of racial oppression that the Left unwittingly participates in. By constantly asserting that ethnic minorities can’t get ahead because of white bigotry, we often condemn them to a culture of low morale reinforced by shockingly bad schools. Aspiration and Capitalism have historically been far kinder to the poor than therapeutic welfarism.
In short, the Right constantly confuses the meanings of culture and race, but the Left does nothing to help by taking an already toxic debate and poisoning it further with a mix of righteousness and paranoia. And the discussion so rarely actually improves anyone’s lives. Step back from the Starkey vs Penny fight and you see two white figures from the establishment claiming to speak for the disenfranchised. They do not. The only thing that distinguishes their privileged voices is that Laurie Penny shields herself from criticism with the claim that she is being physically and intellectually oppressed by violent patriarchy. To his credit, Starkey’s bombast is more honest, cheerful and self-aware. David Starkey doesn’t care who he offends or what people think about him, and that's why his brand endures. He isn’t just thick skinned – he’s all skin.
Last week, I returned to the Baptist church that I grew up in for a wedding. It was quite a culture shock. Having spent ten years going to Catholic Masses – with Latin, choirs and enough incense to suffocate an elephant – I’d forgotten the simple joy of a few chairs slung around a table and a band belting out Shine Jesus Shine (the pastor’s wife was on keyboard). The bride was so overcome with emotion that she almost had to be carried down the aisle (“We finally did it, ma!”). The pastor gave a fine, Old Time Gospel sermon that struck the right note of love and wrath. And afterwards there was even a little wine, soaked up by fruit cake.
One of the greatest gifts we have in life is the sacred. Most of the human experience is mundane or tarnished by mundanity; the body rots, eye sight fails, friends let you down, temptation wins, the will saps and the mind slips. But then there are rules and rituals that help us transcend all of this and experience a moment of Heaven on Earth. Marriage is a good example.
Much of what I’ve seen of marriage has not been great. A good proportion of my family are divorced or raised by single parents, and everywhere else there is routine and bitterness. The closest relationship I’ve known is between my aunt and uncle. My uncle is one of those perennially, terminal ill men who has relied on my aunt for everything. And yet my aunt has never shirked her duty and never would. They are not in love, but they love each other. My aunt says, “He was a very good father and he always looks after us. So now we look after him.” It might not be romantic, but their partnership is rooted in a an old fashioned commitment to the marriage vows. And the vows are strict and unbending. The “in sickness and in health” bit terrifies me the most; I’m far too selfish to waste my time making chicken soup for the ill.
Looking over all the photos on my aunt's mantelpiece, the ones that are still polished and sparkling are the wedding ones. A woman clothed in white, like a princess; a man in top hat and tails like a Victorian gentleman. It says something about the meaning of marriage that no one ever dresses down for it. And why is everyone in tears? Remembering that some folks insist that marriage is purely a social contract designed to perpetuate the Capitalist patriarchy, why does it make people weep for joy? Is this a purely Pavlovian response bred by Hollywood and the Church?
No, the emotion is real and justified. The marriage ceremony takes the banal reality of a very basic human function – the desire to be with someone as much as possible – and elevates it to the divine. It’s a union blessed by God and what we’re witnessing is nothing less than a miracle: two individuals who are broken without each other becoming healed by each other's love. Life is best appreciated this way - as a series of miracles, of which these natural imperatives are among the most wonderful. Next will come conception, then birth, then baptism, and finally death. It isn’t just a biological cycle. It’s a journey every bit as challenging and rewarding as swimming the Sea of Tranquility.
But we have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the splendor, which is probably what accounts for the white dress and tails. I suspect that few people who get married nowadays are as virginal as the bride gown suggests. But romance is all about creating new states of being that take us closer to perfection. Much as the Tristan chord transports us to Valhalla, or the smell of strawberries evokes a perpetual summer, so the ritual of marriage makes us better prepared to receive and love one another. Again, that’s what the sanctification is all about: the transformation of something ordinary into something extraordinary. That experience prepares us well for a lifetime of dull holidays, long silences, arguments over the in-laws, and chicken soup.
How wonderful it is that we have the tools to make this happen, to experience the divine in this life. It's one of the great legacies of a Judeo-Christian culture, which preached that we could know God personally if we wanted. Plato would be jealous. For while he dreamed of imitating the “music of the spheres,” he could never hope to hear it for himself because it was only a metaphysical speculation. We, by contrast, live in an age of miracles. I only wish that we better equipped our people to seek and see them. Materialism and secularism blind us to how incredible ordinary life really is.
I’m obsessed with Richard Nixon. He’s the wonk’s president – the political artist who knew how to manipulate voters and articulate their deepest hopes and hates. He towered over American politics for three decades, as a McCarthyite Vice President in the 1950s, the voice of the Silent Majority in the 1960s and the symbol of bureaucratic corruption in the 1970s. He attracts people who see politics as a game worth winning; he repels dreamers and losers. At the last CPAC I went to, I bought and wore a Nixon ’72 button. Several young Tea Party hotheads told me to take it off. Dan Hannan didn't look too impressed, either.
At the heart of Nixonism was a blend of idealism and realism. That was reflected in his foreign policy. He wanted world peace, but Nixon thought he had to use maximum force in Vietnam to achieve it. Most of all, he always hoped to build a conservative public service ethos that would appeal to the young (see this hopeful 1968 ad
). Ironically, his involvement in the break in at the Watergate Hotel (site of the 1972 Democratic Party’s headquarters) destroyed his reputation and forever damaged public confidence in government. It might seem obvious, but that's really not how Tricky Dick would have wanted it.
The narrative of the Watergate scandal needs challenging, if only to respect the memory of man who deserves to be remembered for more than just corruption. And the narrative does have holes. Orthodoxy says that after he narrowly won election in 1968, Richard Nixon decided to use all the power of the imperial presidency to smash his liberal opponents and win re-election in 1972. He used police state tactics to destroy the antiwar movement, covered the White House in bugs, employed dirty tricks to undermine his Democratic opponent and burgled the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg
to dig up dirt on the man who leaked papers that displayed the full mendacity of the Vietnam War project. In June 1972, Nixon ordered a break in at the Watergate Hotel that was presumably a fishing expedition to see what the Democrats had by way of intel. The thieves were caught and the administration’s crimes were investigated by a Senate committee chaired by Sam Ervin. It found evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency and took his incriminating Watergate tapes with him.In a major feature in the Independent last week
, Woodward and Bernstein – the Washington Post reporters credited with breaking this story - increased the list of Nixon’s crimes to include racism, silencing the free press, subverting democracy and rewriting history. The irony is that in trying to prove that they brought down an evil genius, Woodward and Bernstein make Nixon sound far more competent and Machiavellian than he really was. It begs the question, if Dicky was this tricky, how did he get undone by a “third-rate burglary?”
Based on what we do know (and, crucially, we lack a lot of evidence for Woodward and Bernstein’s allegations – be they true or false) here are a few corrections
to this narrative.1. The bugging system wasn’t as bizarre as it sounds
. Nixon got the idea of taping what went on in the White House from Lyndon Johnson. The idea wasn’t to spy on his staff (although it had that effect) but to provide an accurate historical record of what went on during Nixon’s time in office. Historians are secretly glad he did it, because they leave a remarkably unedited and honest account of White House life.2. Nixon’s dirty tricks were nothing unusual
. Consider that in 1960 the Democrats almost certainly cooked up enough votes in Illinois and Texas to steal that year’s Presidential election
. Nixon’s staff saw dirty tricks as a natural part of the “game” of politics, and when they made a fearsome defence of them before the Ervin committee the issue was dropped.3. We can’t prove that Nixon had anything to do with the Ellsberg burglary
. What we do know is that he actually stood to profit from the publication of Ellsberg’s papers, because they exposed the inept decision making of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.4. Nixon did wage a war against the antiwar movement, and that was probably no bad thing
. The country was close to civil war and the antiwar folks were turning violent: From September 1969 to May 1970, there was at least one bomb threat in America every day. On May 9, 100,000 demonstrators occupied Washington DC. They slashed tires and started fires; nearly 12,000 were arrested in the largest mass arrest in US history. But what brought this anarchy to an end wasn’t the intense surveillance campaign that Nixon authorised, it was his decision to end the draft. As the rate of body bags returning to the US from Vietnam dropped, interest in the antiwar movement petered out. It was basically a spent force by 1972.5. We have no evidence that Nixon ordered the Watergate burglary or knew anything about it
. It is true that we have a recording of him asking an aide to tell the CIA to advise the FBI to drop its investigation. This is the so-called “smoking gun” tape, and it certainly suggests that Nixon tried to pervert the course of justice. The CIA and the FBI declined to accept this request (indeed one of Nixon’s problems was that justice officials would consistently ignore his demands). Nixon did not pursue the idea any further. Nonetheless, this is the one crime on which we can definitely nail him, and it’s the crime over which he was urged to resign by his own staff.6. Nixon was terrible at covering things up
. If Nixon was truly the grand conspirator that Woodward and Bernstein portray him to be, he wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. He failed to destroy the tapes, he (albeit reluctantly) allowed transcripts to be printed that showed him in all his verbal ugliness, he relied too heavily on the loyalty of Senate friends and he failed to use the military or CIA to defend himself in the way that his more paranoid opponents feared. What he did try to do was continue to be a good President. In the midst of the Watergate crisis, he helped prevent World War III starting in the Middle East
.7. The Watergate hearings were a very partisan affair
. Historically, that’s always been the case
with impeachment processes (consider how Bill Clinton was hounded by the Republican Congress). In this instance, the partisanship started when Democrats on the Judiciary Committee decided to expand the grounds of impeachment from something related to criminal charges to what they dubbed “a constitutional safety valve” – essentially a wide-ranging Congressional judgment on the ethics of an incumbent president. Hence, the committee decided to investigate the conduct of foreign policy as well as internal security. It is true that, over time, partisanship broke down as the administration’s crimes became obvious. But be in no doubt: for some in Congress this was a chance to bring down a Republican who they never liked.
Finally, just how non-partisan were Woodward and Bernstein? The Washington Post was effectively a Democrat newspaper; it was published by Katharine Graham, who was an avid New Deal Democrat and friend to both the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson. Aside from the liberalism of much of the Post staff, Russ Baker, author of Family Secrets, claims that Woodward himself was an Agency man
. Baker’s story reads like a lot of conspiracy minded foolishness. But he has a fair beef with Woodward that, far from being an anti-establishment liberal, the journalist has used his credentials and access to write books that tend to be sympathetic towards the Agency or the US military complex. He’s not quite the idealist his Watergate endeavours suggest.
One way of seeing Watergate is an alignment of anti-Nixon forces in politics and the press that conspired to oust a man who had proven unreliable. Or, even worse, rather too good at his job. Although Nixon’s crimes were real, his greatest crime in the eyes of many of his opponents was that he had brought peace to Vietnam, went to China, stolen power from the FBI and CIA, broken the antiwar Left and won re-election. Thanks to Watergate, however, he’ll be forever known for that third-rate burglary. That’s not fair.
Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise – is an exercise in hype. The buzz started twelve months ago with the trailer, notched up with the viral videos, and then went crazy with the word of mouth (I was told that a friend fainted during a screening). The problem is that the hype doesn’t stop at the start of the movie. The film continues to promote itself all the way through, stopping every so often to tell us what’s going on and why it’s so important. Prometheus is an event movie. Sadly, it’s an event in the style of the Olympics: self-important, way over budget and tedious. At least the Olympics has the erotic delights of the volleyball heats. All Prometheus has to offer are contract-stipulated, repetitive shots of Charlize Theron’s fully clothed backside.
The original Alien movie was all about man’s complex relationship with nature. The titular monster would smother its victims, lay an egg inside them and then burst out as a rampaging xenomorph (and he doesn’t even buy you dinner ). The embryonic stage plays with fears of rape and disease. As a xenomorph, the creature is a metaphor for the relentless, destructive power of nature. It is the answer to every fear about what lurks beneath the surface of a dark sea; a raging, unstoppable beast that answers only to the logic of its own appetites. It cannot be reasoned with.
Crucially, Alien and its sequels didn’t state any of these ideas openly. The 1979 movie works on the level of the id. The interior of the humans’ spaceship is soft with undulating lights, like a womb. The craft in which the monster is discovered has the smooth, black rubbery interior of a bondage workshop. The creature does its dirty work with a penile appendage, and the xenomorph’s head is phallic. The reason why Alien stays inside your head for so long is that its images are unsullied by explanatory dialogue, which would reduce fear to theory. It’s a nightmare made flesh.
The problem with Prometheus is that it approaches its issues literally and unimaginatively. Of course, there are a lot of other problems, too. The acting is variable (Noomi Rapace accent wanders from Scotland to Wales, via Long John Silver) and the stand out performance by Michael Fassbender is undermined by his character’s decapitation. The movie loses all gravitas when Fassbender’s head rolls around the floor chatting away in his creepy camp monotone. The plot is unoriginal (a mix of Leviathan and Quatermass and the Pit) and everyone’s motivations change halfway through (when everyone stops to have sex). The heroes are supposed to be archaeologists, but their approach to their craft is more akin to demolition experts. All the characters are dumb. Where would you choose to spend the night when trapped in an alien spaceship? Somewhere near the exit or camped out in a room full of oozing black liquid? Worst of all, it’s unscary. When a flapping, gooey monster is plucked from Noomi’s belly, my theatre companion shouted out “Who ordered the calamari?” Seriously, there’s about five minutes of gore in this “horror” movie.
But the most annoying thing is the way that the movie signposts its themes. The big one is the relationship between parents and children. The movie opens with the ultimate generative act: an alien “engineer” dissolves himself into the waters of the young Earth to create the primordial soup from which we evolved. Flash forward and the humans go in search of their parents … only to discover that mommy and daddy want to wipe them out by returning to Earth with a cargo of alien DNA. Meanwhile, the head of Weyland industries has two children – a daughter that he seems to despise and an android who is devoted to him (although the android later suggests that he’d like to kill his father; Sigmund Freud, they’re playing our song). Noomi Rapace can’t have a baby but gets impregnated with alien DNA and ends up birthing a jellyfish, which she does her best to kill. The only person in the movie without daddy issues is the wisecracking, cigar smoking black pilot. He’s too busy being a cliché.
There’s nothing wrong with a touch of metaphor, but Ridley is so obsessed with showing us how clever he is that these allusions crowd out the plot and might be why the movie grinds to a halt halfway through (something many reviewers have spotted). Whereas Alien was a tight, taught little movie with sparse dialogue that let images speak for themselves, Prometheus is so in love with its own epicness that it forgets to tell a story. It’s Ben Hur without the chariot race. Prometheus even comes with a soaring strings soundtrack that (while very good) undermines all the onscreen tension. It’s hard to be frightened about the descent into the bowels of an alien craft when the journey is accompanied by the theme tune to Gone With the Wind.
All of this might have been forgivable if there were some interesting answers to the questions that Prometheus throws up. But there aren’t. The engineers who created us are, despite their high technology, roaring beasts of the living dead variety. There may or may not be a God; life may or may not be worth living. Nihilism rules everything: children want to kill parents, parents want to kill children. The movie has no moral centre or voice of responsibility, only a constant search for knowledge. It's an episode of Star Trek, written by Richard Dawkins.
I’ve been waiting for this all year - the arrival of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus
. Apparently it adds a whole new dimension to the Alien mythos, which is a pity because the series had a pretty sound teleology already. Folks have been guessing about the origins of the Aliens for months now, but I guess the title “Prometheus” is a bit of a giveaway. He’s the fellow who stole fire from the gods and brought suffering to the world as a result. Benign ignorance gave way to enlightened misery. I presume that the Aliens started out as rat catchers and got ideas above their station.
I resent the desire of modern directors to retread old ideas and give them two dimensional back stories (Batman, the Marvel comics, Star Trek etc). In some cases, the result is prosaic but in others is does real damage to the power of the original. One of the great things about the Alien is, well, its alieness. It’s terrifying because we can’t understand it and it inverts our understanding of nature (which usually places us at the top of the food chain). Explain too much and the threat becomes easier to understand and, potentially, to control.
It’s surely no coincidence that the Alien cycle dominated the screen in the late 70s to early 90s, the golden age for schlock. The Aliens shared something in common with that other great monster of the era, the zombie. Like the Alien, the zombie had no personality; there was no twirling moustache or vampiric charm. It was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be negotiated with - an apt evil for a period defined by urban terrorism, AIDS or the Viet Cong.
Back in the time of I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the zombies weren’t the real villain. They were usually controlled by a mastermind who wanted to exploit them for cheap labour. But when George A Romero released Night of the Living Dead (1968), they became independent entities and the focus of the story. The zombie as imagined by Romero is a revolutionary being. It is neither good nor evil but instead following an agenda that smacks of historical determinism: the zombie will bite you, you will die, you will become a zombie (“When the revolution comes, we will all eat caviar!”).
There’s no escaping the revolution, you can only hide or succumb. A good parallel is found in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in which anyone who falls asleep wakes up reborn as an alien entity. The zombie and the body snatcher movies are nihilistic from the heroes’ point of view because they can’t win. But the movies aren’t necessarily pessimistic from the audience’s point of view because neither director casts their agents of doom as explicitly evil. The body snatchers want everyone to be equal and peace among all nations; the zombie want everybody to be eaten. They are an amoral part of nature - just like the Alien that suckers onto John Hurt’s face and lays its egg in his belly ("At least buy me dinner first...")
The greatest statement on this topic was Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). His heroes escape the zombies by locking themselves up in a mall and, at first, our sympathy is squarely with the humans. But as we see them bicker and slip into a parody of consumer culture (they go “shopping” and fill their hiding space with the latest fashions and electronics) we begin to lose sympathy. By the time a few months have past and the zombies are still relentlessly throwing themselves against the glass windows of the mall, we start to ask why the humans don’t just unlock the doors and surrender to the inevitable. One of them awakes from a nightmare to find herself “escaping” in a helicopter. But there is no escape, for the world is gone. In the 2004 remake, the humans reach an island that looks like a paradise - until they see hundreds of zombies running down the beach towards them. The scene is reminiscent of a Saturday night in Majorca.
Romero went too political with his 1985 Day of the Dead. That movie features a military squad hiding underground while the zombies rule the world above. As they debate what to do with the undead, the director heavily signposts his sympathy for the zombies. Romero’s liberalism got the better of him. By the time of Land of the Dead (2005), the zombies now have personalities and the movie concludes that dead and living can live side by side. This ending betrays Romero’s original vision; the zombies evolve from a metaphor for ceaseless evolutionary change into a rational political force like the IRA. I don’t buy it.
Does the same happen to the Alien in Prometheus? I don’t know yet and I’d appreciate it if readers don’t email or Tweet the answer, but I’ll be disappointed if there’s something human about their origin. Personally, I’ve always shared the view of the monster articulated by crewmember Ash from the first movie: “I admire its purity: A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash could be describing himself, for he is shown to have a duty to the corporation that goes beyond any loyalty he should have to the people who have presented themselves to him as friends. But then Ash, too, is another revolutionary stage in evolution. If the Alien bursting from John Hurt’s chest is the movie’s first surprise, the second (and maybe bigger one) is the fact that Ash is revealed to be a “Goddam robot.” Here is another organism that will surpass us - inevitably.