Is “our” culture in peril?
By Paul Halas
The right wing press doesn’t pull its punches: an army of do-gooders, snowflakes and lefty killjoys are out to rob us of our freedoms and force us to abandon our cherished traditions. Our history is being re-written, monuments are being torn down, our favourite books, films and TV programmes are being censored. Comedians daren’t tell jokes any more, inclusivity has hijacked the airwaves.
They seem to be everywhere now – gaggles of painfully-sincere, well-meaning folk cavorting in support of some cause or other, unwashed-looking people daubing buildings with paint or sitting and blocking thoroughfares, and all manner of other nuisances. Even to many of us on the left, some highly worthy forms of expression can come across as pretty ridiculous. Pan pipes for peace, macrame against the cuts.
When people start singing at the end of demonstrations I’ve often thought how effective it is at clearing the streets. Wokeism isn’t to everybody’s taste, but is it a threat to our national culture?
If our national culture is under threat, maybe we need to reflect on what that culture is and how it evolved…. and what parts of that culture are in urgent need of further evolution. For a start, the UK’s national culture is predominantly white. (And that goes for the rest of Europe as well, and the countries taken over by white people. Britishness has its own individual flavour, but it has a great deal in common with the other European cultures – especially those with a colonialist past.)
In recent years the UK has begun to embrace multiculturalism and made a start at owning some of its past. And even the progress that has been made is met with resistance from large sections of the media, and the population at large… Which isn’t surprising when you look at hundreds of years of “our” cultural history.
Art, entertainment, literature and more recently cinema and TV all reflect a society’s values and also shape them. And our cultural values have an awful lot of baggage – racist baggage, class based baggage and misogynist baggage.
Racism and the assumed superiority of Europeans goes back to the Crusades and probably considerably before. We come across it in Shakespeare. If Othello wasn’t an outright racist play, it certainly was about racism, and The Merchant of Venice was overtly antisemitic. (It’s a moot point that nearly all productions of Othello until very recently involved white actors in blackface.)
Concurrent with Shakespeare was the birth of the East India Company. Envious of the Dutch and Portuguese, who were raking in fortunes via the spice trade in the “East Indes”, the British and French set up their own East India companies in order to grab a slice of the pie. I find the British East India Company fascinating. It was the first example of modern multinational corporate capitalism – a trading company formed on modern lines with a board of directors and shareholders, which grew into a ruthless colonial power – and set a template for exploitation on a truly massive scale.
While British enterprises had joined in the lucrative slave trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the New World, and had quickly come to regard their “cargo” as less than human in order to be able to carry out that shamefully inhuman business, the first European traders to set up shop in India tended to regard the Indians they dealt with on a much more equal footing. That was hardly surprising, as the Mughal Empire far surpassed its European counterparts in wealth, power, opulence and learning. Indeed, the Europeans were regarded as somewhat uncouth and lacking in manners. “…A handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms.” The Europeans were tolerated, however, because the trade they brought was mutually beneficial.
Through chicanery, good fortune, military prowess, brutal repression, treachery and sheer ruthlessness the British East India Company gradually became a force to be reckoned with, and in time the dominant force in India. To begin with the main source of discrimination between all the players was class rather than ethnicity. Europeans deferred to powerful Indians and vice versa. Intermarriage was common (although it’s doubtful whether many European women married Indian men).
Without doubt the expansion of the East India Company’s power was driven by commercial greed, but what had started as a trading venture turned into out and out colonialism, and, realising how wealthy and powerful the company had become, the British government muscled in and gradually took over. The Raj was born. Indians increasingly laboured for British overlords rather than Indians – and of course that made them inferiors. The caste system was nothing new in India, but now the top caste was all white, and the humblest of colonists considered themselves superior to anyone with brown skin. The remaining Indian potentates and maharajas were now mere puppets. Intermarriage was forbidden; miscegenation took place behind locked doors. As so often through history, the implementation of racism came about through exploitation and money-making.
It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which colonialism has shaped British culture. And that goes for the various cousins across the Channel. Our wealth grew from it, people went to the colonies to make their fortunes, it contributed enormously to our sense of self-importance. The subjugation of other peoples was painted as philanthropy, the theft of their wealth and resources was bringing development and civilisation, the obliteration of their religions and cultures was our sacred duty. You might have laboured in a factory in Manchester or stoked the boiler of a new-fangled steamship, you might have been the bottom of the heap but at least you weren’t black. And you could always prove your worth by taking the Queen’s shilling and joining in the carnage.
Racism, snobbism and misogyny are deeply entrenched in British and the white world’s culture. As a baby boomer I’ve seen these traits perpetuated through every decade that I’ve lived through, and although we’re starting to acknowledge and admit to them a little more nowadays they’re still part of our cultural fabric.
One of the more demeaning parts of the prejudice engrained in society is the use of stereotypes. They’ve been a constant.
As well as demeaning and patronising people of colour, our culture also strove to keep women in their place.
The lower orders had to be kept in line too. And anyone who didn’t conform – vegetarians, teetotallers, intellectuals, left-wingers…
My own field, comics, has not been immune. Comics I have grown up with and loved have been guilty of some pretty crass stereotyping. Two in particular spring to mind.
Most of this imagery is pretty old, but it’s part of the white world’s legacy; maybe more mine than younger generations’, but if anyone believes we’ve outgrown such primitive attitudes they should think again. Our culture, our media, our education have all been fuelled by such attitudes. We have become multicultural – but there can be few people from families that immigrated to Europe at some point who haven’t been made painfully aware of our cultural failings. There may no longer be signs on doors saying no dogs, no Irish, no blacks, but we haven’t eradicated snobbism, we haven’t eradicated inequality, we haven’t eradicated misogyny and we certainly haven’t eradicated racism. Just ask the young English footballers who failed to score their penalty kicks in the Euro final last year.
As a society we are evolving, or sections of society are. But there’s a large rump who remain entrenched in the old attitudes. The consumers of right wing news, the Daily Express readers, those who believe the BBC is dangerously left wing. Those who think colonialism was a good thing and that exploitation by the rich and powerful somehow benefits us all. Having been a political activist I’ve locked swords with them countless times on letters pages, at street stalls and on doorsteps. We have a long way to go.
So, getting back to the subject of wokeism, and whether or not it’s imperilling our culture, I’d say I bloody well hope so. Let’s keep the good – John Betjeman, larks ascending, parish churches, the Mersey Beat, cream teas, J M Turner… – but let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t still have a toxic legacy to address. So when it comes to clog dancers against climate change, or foot massaging to save the rainforests, or basket weaving for world understanding, I’ll do my best to swallow my cynicism and be supportive. They’re on the side of the angels. War is being waged on wokies, and we have to support them or the dark side wins.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.