Signs taken for Symbols

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Meghanomania and the Big Bong


Everything seems to be of a piece at the moment. News stories that, on the face, have no connection, somehow seem to make sense, to rhyme. Clicking between a few news articles in my browser, I closed one lamenting Meghan Markle’s influence on Harry Windsor and another popped up with the headline 'Bung a bob for a Big Ben bong'. I pinched the top of my nose and closed my eyes. What the fuck is happening to me? I thought. I opened them again: a former TV show host and journalist who made a career with outrageous polemics against the European Union stared back out at me. Something about a lie about bendy bananas, my brain told me, something about Italians demanding smaller condoms, because they’ve only got little cocks. Oh yeah. That’s it. The Prime Minister. 

He was issuing a call to arms from the British public. We need to donate £500,000 within the next two weeks, he said. On 31st January, Britain will formally leave the European Union, although, in reality, the country will begin an eleven month ‘transition period’ during which the actual logistical difficulties — the border arrangements that risk rekindling almost a century of paramilitary violence, the legal status of millions of workers both in the UK and in Europe, the management of stable food and pharmaceutical supplies to an entire country — you know, the little details — will be ironed out. But back to the big issue — the bongs. Big Ben, the thirteen ton bell that hangs in the Palace of Westminster, is currently out of service as renovations on the Elizabeth Tower take place. Some people think that, to celebrate an occasion as momentous as leaving the EU, Big Ben should ring, but to enable that, given the pause in work needed, it’ll cost half a million quid. Mark Francois, a ludicrous scotch egg of a man, is pushing the campaign. 

There’s a reason the two stories seem so similar. Both the Big Ben Bong and Harry and Meghan’s decision to throw in the monogrammed towel and become private citizens are examples of what happens when, having built up an issue as a key culture war battleground, right-wing culture warriors finally, even unexpectedly, get their way. Using the same bellicose rhetoric, the same talk of wokeness and invocation of English exceptionalism, both Mark Francois and the Meghanomaniacs have built campaigns and careers on the back of these symbolic obsessions. This, I thought, is what it looks like when the culture warriors win?

There’s a hole in English culture, a fundamental lack of substance. In his recent book New Model Island author Alex Niven suggests that England as a nation, having donated its identity to an empire that has now fallen, doesn’t really exist. England’s regions, once powerful economic and cultural entities that provided alternative modernist identities, have been stripped bare by deindustrialisation and disinvestment over the past 40 years, leaving a South-East/London-focused centre of gravity to the country’s life that holds on an imperial malaise in stead of a national identity. On his podcast 301: Permanently Moved last week, Jay Springett said:

Unlike other cities, London is a total city. It is not only the capital, it is also the financial centre, and the creative centre, and the political centre, and the seat of the sovereign. Other countries have these sources of power and influence distributed… London is a gravity hole, one that swallows investment, money, infrastructure, and even souls.

The newspaper industry and England’s print media is at the cultural centre of that gravity hole. The strength of the newspapers is a unique aspect of English culture, compared to the US or other European nations. The print media draws its ideas from a staggeringly narrow sector of English society — a study in 2014 showed that almost half of England’s newspaper columnists went to Oxbridge, a higher percentage than even the House of Lords — with a unique dynastic element: Toby Young’s father was a baron, Polly Toynbee writes for the same paper as her father, Jacob Rees Mogg’s father was also a baron who edited the Times, Giles Coren and Victoria Coren Mitchell’s father was also a columnist, Marina Hyde and Camilla Long are both the daughters of barons. The executive editor of the Sunday Times is the son of the former editor of the Guardian. Patrick Wintour is the son of an editor of the Evening Standard; his sister is the editor of Vogue. All of these people, it goes without saying, are white. All but two went to Oxbridge, and one of those is Anna Wintour. You get the point. Perhaps getting paid to have opinions is genetic.

The pool is small, the voices loud, and the opinions repetitive. The English media is in the middle of a full-throated culture war, from bendy bananas to woke snowflakes, Stormzy to burqas, trans rights to free speech on campus. It seems like over the past decade the intensification of that journalism, combined with the exaggerating effect of social media on editorial choice, has created a print and TV comment culture dedicated to creating a popular spook or ogre, then to ripping it apart. The English press has developed into a unique combination of bullying and blackmail, where a relentlessly vicious tone of mockery and enforced conformity is policed with the justification that either the enemy is at the school gates, or that their furious mockery is “only banter”. In the process, from sheer incuriosity, a whole generation of journalists have confused disagreement with taking offence, criticism with trolling.

In the BBC television comedy The Office the tragic figure of David Brent, a relentlessly unfunny and unlovable boss who has “confused respect with popularity” is given a moment of bathos through comparison with his friend Chris Finch, an ignorant bully and practical joker, who, unlike Brent, doesn’t even mean well. The English press operates with the same logic; the people it mercilessly hounds are expected to suck it up and laugh along, or take it for granted. If they reject the culture as cruel or an infringement of their privacy, they’re subjected not only to the original abuse, but to an even worse charge — of not being able to take it. From Piers Morgan to Rod Liddle, Camilla Long to Jan Moir, the tone is exactly the same — you only exist as a cultural figure because we focus on you, and we can do and say whatever we want about you, and if you object you’re a spoilsport, a sourpuss, a snowflake. An aggressive and machismo culture that was, in the 90s, projected onto northern, working-class ‘lads and ladettes’ is now fully owned by a print media largely drawn from elite public schools and literary dynasties. They’re the Establishment, they’re in charge, and do not, under any circumstances, get too big for your boots.

The result is a one-tone, one-and-a-half-joke atmosphere. One of the many crimes of Meghan Markle is that she is “woke”, although, Lord knows, I can’t figure out what it is that she’s done that’s “woke”, besides existing as a woman of colour and holding her own opinions. But if you want to know what “woke” means, and why a “woke elite” are trying to shut down all criticism, why not read Andrew Doyle’s new book, ‘Woke’, in character as Titania McGrath, with glowing reviews from Rod Liddle, Sarah Vine and Ricky Gervais? Why not read Brendan O’Neill’s spiked editorial on Markle, “A woke Wallis Simpson”? Why not read Rod Liddle’s latest on the “wokeplace romance”? Why not check out Toby Young on how the Labour Party got woke and broke? Why not see what Sarah Vine likes so much about Ricky Gervais, “the Wokefinder General”? Why not read Helen Lewis on the superwoke elite, or listen to Helen Lewis on the News Quiz, supposedly the country’s leading news satire radio programme, where the assassination of Soleimani revolved around a joke that the Left wouldn’t have criticised the attack if the Iranian general had misgendered someone. All this in the last month alone. I’m done. The satire is about as biting as I am now I have caved my own teeth in from sheer frustration and boredom. Last week Rod Liddle and Giles Coren wrote almost exactly the same article on the ungrateful Duchess, and the worst thing about it is, it probably wasn’t even plagiarism — the whole culture war is so predictable, the same turgid, shitty jokes pumped out by the same talentless, hateful old hacks, that, like monkeys on typewriters, it inevitably happened by chance. 

Yes, these jokes are not funny because they are by privileged people at the expense of vulnerable people, pretending that the vulnerable people are powerful people. But, importantly, these jokes are also not funny because they’re just not funny. The humour is, like England, hollow, substanceless, without a punchline. It’s the hollow laughter of recognition and repetition, Chris Finch’s injoke told again and again, dishing out humiliation to others yet so sensitive to criticism themselves that they’re only ever one critical tweet from throwing your shoes over a pub to prove they won.

We are reaching the culture war singularity. To all intents and purposes, in terms of England, the right have won the culture war on most fronts. But now they’re left with a problem — they need an enemy. After we leave, and Francois has had his bongs, what replaces the narrative of EU tyranny that has driven English Euroscepticism? Of course, there’s no point waiting for anyone to take the blame for the inevitable problems, much less for any mechanism to hold culture warriors accountable for the consequences of their actions, but it is worth the rest of us being aware that new spectres and enemies will have to be fabricated. It seems inevitable that immigrants and people of colour more generally will face a new wave of demonisation in the press. I also suspect we can see a wider rebirth of a moral majority-style cultural conservatism, with Britain’s home-grown press transphobia being stoked alongside imported “problems” such as drag queens reading to kids, or a moral panic around gay sex perhaps. 

I think Meghan and Harry’s response is informative here. It may not surprise you to discover I am not a monarchist, but the petty viciousness that Meghan has endured from day one of being a Windsor has been astonishing. The role of the “Royal Correspondent” or “Royal Expert” is also a unique part of the British press: the job is a form of fiction writing, producing and projecting believable and compelling narratives onto the essentially unknowable and meaningless inner lives of people whose constitutional role is precisely not to have inner lives. These people are dessicating human ghouls, parasites on the back of parasites, maliciously projecting and meddling in the lives of people who they claim to venerate and adore, but the stories they tell reveal the ideologies they subscribe to. It is telling that, when Meghan and Harry react to the self-evidently racist obsessions of the press, the columnists swing into action to mock them for not being able to take it. These obsessions have deep roots in English culture, and the culture war finds fertile ground in parts of England, where racism is still rife and unacknowledged, and where suggesting someone might be racist is worse that actually being racist. Stormzy, another hate figure of both the columnists and Little England, laid it out in a recent interview on US radio: “Brits are super in denial [about racism]...someone on talk radio the other day said ‘I just look at her and I think…she’s just got that arrogance’. Nah, she’s just black, bro… if you told someone ‘write a list as to why you hate Meghan Markle’ the list is rubbish. There’s nothing, there’s nothing credible to it.”

I find it hard to imagine that Harry can regard the press with anything less than disgust. Before Princess Diana’s death, which, at the time, both media and public agreed was partly down to obsessive press coverage, she was little more than reckless and indecent. After, she was a saint, and everyone agreed this must never happen again, and the Daily Mail promised not to publish paparazzi photos again. Of course, they didn’t, and within years photos of his mother’s corpse were on TV and in magazines, and the Daily Express was weekly running headlines such as “Perhaps Diana should have worn seatbelt”. They did that to his mother, and they would do it to his wife given half a chance, before branding her a misunderstood martyr too. They are lying, venal scum without an ounce of moral fibre, with no understanding of the meaning of self-reflection. In their own eyes they are the backbone of contemporary English culture. To an extent they are right, and that should weigh on their shoulders as a heavy shame.

Meghan and Harry Windsor haven’t left the Royal Family, they’ve left the British media. And, honestly, who can blame them? Instead, we can learn from them. Faced with a loaded dice, bound never to be anything more than a sounding board for the racism and misanthropy of English culture warriors, Meghan simply chose not to meet the enemy on the field of battle. If you don’t have to, why would you? She is the first major deserter of the culture war.

British author Reni Eddo-Lodge has been consistent in her calls for anyone seeking a meaningful discussion on race to step out of the media landscape, of putting yourself up for a culture war debate in order to be punched down for ratings. This week on Twitter she made her reasons clear, stating: 

“The whole point of them seems to be Punch & Judy style entertainment to drive ratings. TV producers call the process of finding guests 'casting' for a reason...The question of how to discuss anti-racism with the widest possible audience is never going to answered by a television producer named Poppy working at ITV studios 🤦🏿‍♀️ For me, it takes place on the right terms or it doesn't take place at all...I just don't understand how anyone's been convinced that participating in a reductive TV debate is the only way to get a point across? I wrote my book because I wanted people to spend more than five minutes on the arguments. We have to move beyond soundbites.”

As the right begins its hunt for new targets, new obsessions, such an approach is the only way to develop a culture that moves beyond the ‘gravity hole’ of both London and its culture warriors. Jay Springett ends his podcast by encouraging listeners to reconnect with local news and politics, and to follow blogs and RSS feeds, as a remedy to the gravity hole. And I was struck by the tone of hope in New Model Island, focusing on new models of regionalism and their political and cultural possibilities to counter the uneven weighting of London and the South-East.

One by one, the subjects of the culture war are backing away. Nobody wants to be friends with English culture any more, the toxic “character” in your group of friends who has developed “banter” as a personality, who calls you a gay cunt then says calm down mate, it’s just a joke, who holds his finger to his nose and does a goose-step whenever there’s a German in the room. Mark Francois’ Top Gear-style antagonism works in gaining airtime and column inches, but produces nothing of value. Coverage of Meghan Markle has, likewise, produced nothing of value — nobody has gained a moment of insight, a shred of understanding of themselves or the world, nobody has been enriched or moved. There is nothing here for us.

Of course, opting out totally is neither possible nor desirable; yes, the culture warriors thrive on having something to push up against, but sometimes things need to be resisted, loudly and clearly. But if we must fight the culture war, we should do it as guerrillas, striking on our own terms before retreating to our communities, where we can continue to build our lives, our systems of support, our music, writing, politics, sport, gaming and blogging scenes, rather than pouring endless energy into an outrage machine whose only product is our own exhaustion and defeat. Jay reiterates to me the same maxim, all the time: “Your attention is sovereign. The media thinks it owns it.” I believe, more strongly than ever, in the personal and political implications of that. We are personally responsible for where we put our energy, our attention, and we can change our habits of engagement with a media culture that is currently, quite clearly, our enemy. 

Thanks for reading my weekly newsletter, utopian drivel. If you’d like to get an essay or story every week, please subscribe. I’ve written more on the culture war here.

In line with what I was saying above, my aim this year is to read more newsletters and blogs, and fewer mainstream newspapers or twitter. Here’s some newsletters I’ve been enjoying this week:

awful mass: If you like architecture review blogs, you’ll hate this architecture review blog. If you hate architecture review blogs, you’ll like this architecture review blog.

Age of Invention by Anton Howes: A ‘historian of innovation’ doing regular, focused accounts of technological and economic innovations during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

time for some mage theory, an occasional newsletter by Sz Marsupial, is very good. The most recent is on a love affair with mulch, and ‘the snails and slimes’ within.

ways of eating food writing by Rebecca May Johnson, whom I’ve never met but feel friends with through the internet, and hope to eat with someday, which somehow feels like the spirit of 2010 is still possible. Somehow both critical and romantic, Nigella shared her last piece which says all you need to know.

Visit them and subscribe to them!

Modern Babylon

Sn*wflakes and F*ggots

How did a Christmas classic get enlisted into the culture war?

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It’s a complicated word, is faggot. I use it, not regularly, but in certain contexts, amongst certain friends, to describe ourselves. But I also know that I can’t remember a single time I’ve experienced homophobic violence or harassment where it didn’t come attached with the shout “fucking faggot”. It’s a matter of context — who is saying it, and why.

I know why I want to say it, sometimes. When a gay or queer friend refers to me as a faggot, not only does it not bother me, but its very usage makes me feel safer, more included. In fact, it’s the very fact it’s loaded with hatred that gives it that positive power to me; when another queer person uses it as a term of affection, I know that they know how powerful it is, and they can only know that power because they’ve heard it too, from straight people, in anger. We’ve stood in the same place, we get each other. I also appreciate that lots of gay and queer people don’t feel the same, and would respect their right not to hear it, if that’s how they felt. 

What I don’t understand is why straight people want to say it. It can’t mean the same thing to them, and yet lots of straight people, people who would probably never regard themselves as homophobic, really want to say it. That became clear enough this week when the BBC aired a Christmas Special of Gavin and Stacey that included a rendition of Fairytale of New York, the Pogues’ Christmas standard featuring Shane MacGowan and the much missed Kirsty MacColl as a dissolute couple of codependent drunks, bickering their winter night away. I quite like the song; like all good Christmas culture it juggles the right amount of sentimentality with an unpleasant darkness. In one back and forth, MacGowan calls his girl a slut on junk. MacColl calls him a scumbag, a maggot, a cheap, lousy faggot.

That line featured in the Christmas Special of Gavin and Stacey. I don’t blame gay people who get pissed off by that. It’s not strictly necessary. Personally, it doesn’t offend me, so to speak, to hear it. Shane MacGowan, when asked about it, said “The word was used by the character because it fitted with the way she would speak and with her character. She is not supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate.” MacGowan’s statement about the piece is a fine justification — of course it would be beyond crude to suggest that the views of a character necessarily reflect the views of the writer.

What I’m trying to understand, however, is why so many straight people get so agitated by the idea that they don’t have to sing it. There’s not feasible means to genuinely censor it, and anyone can download the song and play it and sing it to their hearts content, faggot included. But why do straight people get so vocal about it when gay and queer people saying they don’t like to hear it? 

For years it simply wasn’t so much of an issue. Clearly some gay people have always disliked it; Kirsty MacColl started switching out “you cheap lousy faggot” for “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” in performances soon after it was released, presumably because someone had let her know how it made them feel. Nobody complained of censorship when she switched the words on Top of the Pops, as far as I can find. But in the past few years I can’t help but notice that the whole debate has got roped in to the wretched ongoing culture war in the UK, and this year has been the worst yet. It can’t simply be that people either do or don’t like it, do or don’t sing it. In fact, it’s not even about whether faggot is or isn’t an offensive word. Instead it’s loaded with a new power. To not sing it is to give in to censorship, to sing it is to stand up for free speech against snowflakes. How did that happen?

For a start, the BBC released their press release defending the use of the word and commenting on the controversy before the programme screened. That is, they used the inevitable opposition of LGBTQ people to use of the word to market the programme. Tune in, they said, you will hear someone get called a faggot on Christmas Day, knowing that the expectation of that controversy will generate viewers for the show — not least those pleased to see that Gavin and Stacey hasn’t bowed to those PC snowflakes. That editorial decision seems particularly cynical, but unsurprising; within their news output the BBC have been enthusiastically running “culture war” stories for a few years now, largely because of the returns it gives on social media. That, for me, is key here; there’s a regressive feedback loop where frontline reporting of the culture war drives hits, and those hits drive more fighting in the culture war. 

I think, at this moment, it’s time to acknowledge that, if you’re either on the side of nuanced cultural output, or on the side of minorities, the culture war is not going our way. But then, that’s not the point of the culture war. The point of the culture war is precisely to nurture the animosities of the majority. To remove the nuances of sensitivity and replace it by absolutes — use faggot or lose it. And then to sing it, for you, changes its meaning. It’s not about how you feel about homosexuals. It’s about how you feel about being told what you can and can’t think. The homosexuals are mere collateral damage.

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Well, this is it, from now on. Like the War on Christmas, the faggot debate is set to become a perennial staple of the culture war. Every year column inches will be devoted to it, thinkpieces like this one will be written, people will become more polarised on the issue, and more and more straight people will gleefully sing about faggots, not because they hate queer people but because they’ll be damned if they’ll be told what to do by the ‘woke’ left. Meanwhile more and more queer people will be reminded of those people who do hate them, and everyone will trust each other a little less and the world will get a little bit shittier for everyone. We need, as a culture, to break out of this loop. The problem is, we won’t, until it’s too late.

Sometimes I wonder if not engaging is the answer, but I’m rapidly coming to the opinion that these disputes could be about anything, and will be about anything. The point is not necessarily about the etymology of the word faggot, nor about the literary justification of a characters voice. It’s just about exacerbating this divide between contextual and absolute. It’s about cultural force, about never having to think about what you like and why you like it. A week ago I read about Morrisons’ Supermarket renaming Brussels sprouts as ‘Yorkshire Sprouts’ or ‘Lincolnshire Sprouts’, a move celebrated on Brexit twitter. I pointed out that the British used to mock the Americans for renaming french fries as ‘Freedom Fries’, for similarly anti-European reasons. Now that’s the level of weird patriotism our country is at. I was interested to note how many responses I got accusing me of being a snowflake. Strange — it could just as easily have been the other way round. Aren’t they the snowflakes for being unable to bear the word ‘Brussels’, even in their kitchen?

That’s it, I thought — the snowflake discourse is an infinite regression. The right is no less sensitive that the left to cultural signifiers, to insult or slurs. Our faggot is their Brussels. You’re a snowflake for changing a name, but you’re also a snowflake for pointing out a name change is ridiculous. The only answer is to get in your charge of ‘snowflake’ earlier, but then you’re just adding to the momentum of the term, the logic of oversensitivity. The content of the dispute is irrelevant. There is no argument to win — the aim is to beat your opponent into tired submission. Only one side will ever be a snowflake, and the point is to reiterate that until the argument can’t even be heard any more. That’s the culture war, baby. 

I’m open to ideas of how best to circumvent a logic that was once restricted to some of the shittier opinion columnists, the Rod Liddles and Richard Littlejohns, but is now pretty much the operating system for all broadcasters and newspaper publishers. Partly I think that LGBTQ people in general should take courage from their history, and go back to building and nurturing our own audiences. I return to this idea regularly, but architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote that one reason certain gay cultures flourished in New York in the 20th Century is because they built a specific gay audience, who had a shared bunch of references and a shared language. Their cultural production wasn’t oriented to a straight crowd, and didn’t have to explain first principles of straight culture to people. I’m all for people trying to introduce new crowds to drag, for example, but a drag scene whose primary aim is to educate Sharron Davies is not going to produce anything worthwhile or sustaining for those who need it, namely, fellow queers. Of course it’s important to call out bigotry when we see it, but how far do we get sucked down the rabbit hole of engaging with bad faith attempts to sap us of our strength before we call it a day?

I’m not suggesting that this territory should be ceded to the right’s culture warriors, nor that there’s no hope in fighting. After all, the right’s culture warriors are fighting a rearguard action here, a counterattack to the huge leaps in social progress made in the past decades. But much of that progress was made by staking out new cultural territory and by refusing the terms of debate we were offered. As the UK faces down another five years of conservative government and emboldened right-wing and fascist culture warriors, perhaps recognising that the nuance and complexity we need from our culture can only come from looking to ourselves is a start. Unlike those LGBTQ people in the 50s, or facing the emerging AIDS crisis in the 80s, we have a headstart on that thanks to the platforms the internet can provide, and the work of our elders. How much energy will we waste pouring our arguments into a mainstream culture war that doesn’t ever intend to hear and to understand us? 

We should prepare, for example, for the fact that The Faggot Debate will now be a culture war perennial, entering our queer lives every December, and that every year a new generation of queer teenagers will be exposed to the people around them, straight people, furiously defending their right to sing-along-a-faggot. The best we can offer them may not be fuelling the fire of the culture war but instead producing a visible alternative of what faggots are, what music they can make, what joyful communities they can build, what visions of the world they can offer beyond James Corden swigging a lager and singing FAGGOT! at the top of his voice.

If we want to live in a world without censorship, then we must all be prepared to listen and think more carefully about context and nuance. It does mean something different when a queer person says faggot compared to when a straight person says it. It does mean something different when a character sings faggot compared to when a pub of drunk men sing it. It does mean something different when someone asks you not to use word compared to when someone tells you not to use a word. As for me, I don’t care if you, as a straight person, do or don’t sing the lyric about the faggot, but I would like to live in a society where you’re not desperate to. 

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