David Starkey is many things, and I suspect that one of them is attention-seeker. If so, he’s been remarkably successful via his interview on Newsnight yesterday. Ever since, there’s been the usual queue of well-meaning people lining up to castigate him as racist. The problem with this is that it’s a debate finisher, particularly for those on the left. It’s pretty much akin to “paedophile” (and if by that you think I’m saying that black people and paedophiles are equivalent, I suggest you go and cool off in a darkened room) in the sense that once someone is accused of an attribute like that we no longer need to listen to what they are saying. The word alone is enough to signal to us that they are beneath contempt.
But Starkey’s error is less heinous and a lot more straightforward than the epithet of racist suggests. He can now involve himself, as indeed he did in the interview last night, in pseudo-profundity and sham complexity. Starkey as serious historian daring to face the reality of race that others are too scared to do. Codswallop.
His mistake isn’t so much that he’s made a gross generalisation that fails utterly to see that there is no such homogeneous, monolithic thing as “black culture”, although it is that, too. It isn’t even that he’s displayed some sort of blanket hostility towards black people, because he didn’t. It wasn’t that he was talking from complete ignorance (the accusation most repeatedly chucked at him in the interview) although his knowledge is based more, I suspect, on hearsay than on direct experience. And it certainly wasn’t that he had the temerity to suggest that race had some part to play in the week’s events because I certainly believe that it has. No, his mistake is much simpler and more basic. It is the inversion of the direction of causality.
Insofar as David Starkey had a case at all, it was that a certain glorification of material acquisitiveness, and of the acceptable role of criminality as a route to achieving those acquisitions, is expressed in some rap music. (Unfortunately he didn’t say anything as nuanced as even my précis of his argument: he went straight for “black culture” as a shorthand, and one that was bound to be as offensive as it is misguided.) He then went on to suggest, ludicrously in my view, that white young people had signed up to this materialist manifesto along with their black comrades, and as a result had decided to “shop with violence”. The plain suggestion was that if there hadn’t been rap music, gangsta culture, a sort of sublimation of Britishness by an alien blackness, then our young people, black and white, would never have even thought of going on their consumerist rampage. Arse before tit is about the most generous comment one can make.
If there is a materialistic strain in some rap music (and there is) it’s the result of something, not the cause of something. It’s the result of a deeply materialistic mainstream culture holding the almost sacred nature of acquisition in the faces of those that it simultaneously conspires to exclude from the means of satisfying that acquisitiveness. The solutions lie in both unseating the gods of capitalist consumerism, and in opening up legitimate means to sharing in social objectives for all groups in society. I’m prepared to bet that increasing opportunities for gainful employment for black and white youth alike would be a lot more effective than trying to stop “white” young people becoming “black” young people via the dubious means of listening to rap. In fact, almost any real solution would be more effective than a solution born out of David Starkey’s bizarre and unfounded fantasies.