Monday, July 24, 2006

Nick Cohen and Political Correctness, Part II

At the risk of seeming like a crazy person, I feel the need to return to this rather trivial article. Matthew Turner's almost innocuous comment to my last post made me realise just how deeply silly this piece is. There are useful things to be against political correctness, but they've mostly been said, and "Mongolism" and "Nigger" are not terms I personally wish the language to keep. (That said, I was wrong to imply yesterday that the decent white folk Nick mentioned have never used the word. I seem to remember it's in the song "The Sun Has Got His Hat On", and of course it's in Mark Twain. And *of course* I object to anyone who censors literature. Don't be daft.)

Anyway, as I mentioned the risk of seeming like a crazy person, it's gone half past midnight, and my brain was churning over the things I objected to in Nick's piece, and I did a little late night surfing. Here's a good paragraph. (It's not particularly relevant, but it'll do for future reference, and it is sort of relevant, as you'll see.)

In this connextion it is well worth having a look at Mr (Clarence K.) Streit's much-discussed book, Union Now. Mr Streit, like the partisans of the ‘Peace Bloc’, wants the democracies to gang up against the dictatorships, but his book is outstanding for two reasons. To begin with he goes further than most of the others and offers a plan which, even if it is startling, is constructive. Secondly, in spite of a rather nineteen-twentyish American naiveté, he has an essentially decent cast of mind. He genuinely loathes the thought of war, and he does not sink to the hypocrisy of pretending that any country which can be bought or bullied into the British orbit instantly becomes a democracy. His book therefore presents a kind of test case. In it you are seeing the sheep-and-goats theory at its best. If you can't accept it in that form you will certainly never accept it in the form handed out by the Left Book Club.
It is worth noticing that this scheme is not so visionary as it sounds. Of course it is not going to happen, nothing advocated by well-meaning literary men ever happens ...

There are journalists, and there are journalists who can write. This passage is from the startlingly titled Not Counting Niggers. It ends splendidly, too.

Nothing is likely to save us except the emergence within the next two years of a real mass party whose first pledges are to refuse war and to right imperial injustice. But if any such party exists at present, it is only as a possibility, in a few tiny germs lying here and there in unwatered soil.

What I wanted to talk about was why Nick's attitude irritated me so much.

Now was the time for their prize. The welfare state was going to allow them [East Enders] to join the rest of Britain as full and equal citizens.

This is where I put on my hackneyed 'liberal' hat, because Nick also bangs on about 'constant shifting of the linguistic goal posts' and the effects of same on 'decent white Americans'. I believe, and I think I can make a strong case for believing, that American blacks had more right to complain that they were not treated as "full and equal citizens" in the 1950s (since that was the period Nick mentioned) than East Enders in London. Yes, people were poor in the East End, but there were poor people all over the country; there was nothing special about the East End. (I think you can say the same thing about "family networks dominated by matriarchs" about mining communities up to the Miner's Strike. And the pedant in me says that the East Enders survived the Blitz because the Luftwaffe didn't drop enough bombs. Unless someone can prove that lack of moral fibre contributed to the body count at, say, Nagasaki. Any takers?)

I find the whole East End passage terribly wooly. Everything that looks like a substantive isn't.

East Enders couldn't cope as they once did because the families which sustained them had evaporated and been replaced with isolated mothers who needed the state to help them bring up their children.

On the one hand, East Enders are a constant '[they] can't cope as they once did' on the other, they're an entirely different set of people.

There's no mention of changing employment, immigration, emigration, the rebuilding of much of the East End (arguably disastrously) or that this cohesion also sustained the Krays.

‘Mum has lost ground steadily and comprehensively’, said Young’s successors. ‘An army of social workers now organises her children’s and grand children’s lives, often around principles and child-rearing practices with which she profoundly disagrees … The welfare state which was designed to help her has in the event taken her children and her role away from her.’

This is a really bad passage.'Mum' isn't a person, but an archetype. Social workers don't go around in armies. In army trousers maybe (or at least my ex-girlfriend who was a social worker did). And maybe a lot of them do work in the old East End, but armies of them do not intrude upon individual families. And the people I know who use social workers say you can never get one when you want one. I'd also like to know what these "principles and child-rearing practices" are. "Well, I asked the teacher if my little Johnny could sit next to another white boy in class, I don't trust these darkies. And do you know what she said?" (Best read in a "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" voice.)

The sad thing is that Nick's supposed to have been a Lefty since university, and he's only now noticed the down side. Every valid point he makes was made over 40 years ago.

All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.
The earlier parts of Gulliver's Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he admires. In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures.
The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem. Dickens can describe a poverty-stricken family tucking into a roast goose, and can make them appear happy; on the other hand, the inhabitants of perfect universes seem to have no spontaneous gaiety and are usually somewhat repulsive into the bargain.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's a fantastic spot nicebb - I have updated our "Quote of the month" as the "Paddling to Jerusalem" one was getting a bit aged.

7/25/2006 01:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really should read that survey of East Enders apparently ruined by the welfare state.

Does it take into account that many of the EE from the war will have upped sticks and moved out into suburban London, Essex and Kent, that most of them will be integrated in wider society in both trade and white collar work...and that many of the horny-handed much admired "white working classes" of the 40s will have had children who have become professionals, moved up the social scale and now are (horror of horrors) middle-class Guardian reading liberals?

I offer my own (anonymous) family as a fine example. Not everybody from the East End ended the second world war by claiming generational rights to council housing and then voting BNP when things went wrong, which appears to be a very common stereotype nowadays.

7/28/2006 06:33:00 PM  

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