Starkey, Delingpole and “Culture”

It’s not just young black people being demonised by David Starkey and James Delingpole: it’s the whole working class

In his influential 1948 publication, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot famously stated that “Culture…includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.” In other words, as Raymond Williams wryly noted in his Culture and Society: 1780-1950, it includes “sport, food, and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure”. (He suggested adding “steelmaking, touring motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining, and London Transport”). Eliot had craftily conflated two senses of the word “culture”: firstly, that of the general body of arts and learning (which, during the long industrial revolution and the struggle for the franchise, came to be practically separated from everyday social judgment and associated with a privileged ‘cultured’ elite) and, secondly, culture as a whole way of life. Eliot’s “whole way of life”, however, looked suspiciously like that of the upper echelons of British class society.

I was reminded of this passage in Eliot when I read an article by James Delingpole, in which he defends the dangerous and offensive remarks made by David Starkey on Friday’s edition of Newsnight. Having listed the ways in which, as Starkey argued, the “whites” have become “black” – essentially, “they” don’t speak RP and “they” wear their underpants too high – he goes on to make the following point: “Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis? Or does anyone, perhaps, want to persuade me that this is but one tiny and much-exaggerated facet of a broader black culture dominated by opera and madrigal singing and crochet and sonnet-construction and lawn bowls and Shakespeare and new translations of Ovid?” Look at that list of characteristic “white” activities: Eliot himself could have written it. And this should alert us to an important aspect of such ill-considered and offensive discourses. The opposition Starkey and Delingpole construct between a mythical, homogenous “white culture” and a mythical, homogeneous “black culture” is a rerun of the traditional opposition between “culture” and “common”. It is an opposition based on class.

Which is not to say that the white-black opposition is identical to the one which Williams exposed. Rather, as we have seen, each is now mediated by the other. Class prejudice informs racial prejudice which feeds back into class prejudice in a quite literally vicious circle. Thus, David Starkey’s ridiculous and malicious imitation of what he called “a language which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England” combines a patrician disdain for common speech with a reduction of the rich patchwork of intercultural London accents and dialects to a homogenous “black culture”; this is then equated with “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”, as if a lack of “Standard English” itself had caused the riots.

The only way to interrupt this cycle is for the Left universally to condemn such dangerous simplifications and to expose the complex interrelation of racial stereotyping and economic exploitation. Political temperatures are soaring in Britain, and it is imperative that the Left come together to battle the right-wing media onslaught. In the words of Raymond Williams: “There are ideas, and ways of thinking, with the seeds of life in them, and there are others, perhaps deep in our minds, with the seeds of a general death. Our measure of success in recognizing these kinds, and in naming them making possible their common recognition, may be literally the measure of our future.”

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3 thoughts on “Starkey, Delingpole and “Culture”

  1. Geoffrey says:

    As an American looking on with keen interest from afar, the same dynamic has been present in our public discourse for nearly a generation now. The complexities of the race/class circle, described so well here, is at play in the States, with the added trouble that class is far less visible here, too often not acknowledged.

    I think, however, the main point of the right-wing cultural criticism is irrelevant. The powers-that-be, in Britain and the US, are not the least bit interested in whether or not working class whites can or should at least aspire to a claim on old, dominant cultural forms. Rather, their criticism is far more sinister; using “blackness” as a trope, a stand-in for the cultural and intellectual poverty of the working class, they are, in effect, insisting that repression is the only possible response because, among other reasons, poor whites seem to embrace the same cultural touchstones as poor blacks (hip-hop, styles of dress, ways of speaking). As you say so clearly, race and class are used to interpret one another, as filters through which the ruling class understands the working class, and seeks to demonize it.

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