David Starkey’s wrong, but the “racism” tag doesn’t illuminate why

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.

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6 thoughts on “David Starkey’s wrong, but the “racism” tag doesn’t illuminate why

  1. Billy thanks for your unfailingly thoughtful posts this week. It has been required reading in amongst the mess of self-interest promoted by most commentators. I’m particularly interested in your solution of unseating the gods of capitalist consumerism. How do you propose this is done? I’m also behind your idea of increasing employment opportunities for young people but again wonder how this can be achieved ?

    • Ah, two rather fundamental questions, I have to admit, to neither of which do I have any remotely satisfying answers.

      To take the second first, I think that this will involve some kind of re-assessment of the way in which we’ve made it almost an article of faith that efficiency is best achieved by shedding labour. For example, in the post where I talked about street cleaning, we’ve got rid of people for sure, and made it cheaper, but also much less effective both at the basic level of rubbish removal, but perhaps even more importantly at the cost of dehumanising, quite literally, an aspect of our communities. It’s efficient only if you ignore the dis-efficiencies of poorer cleaning, and less human communities. I don’t want to over-egg this, but maybe the riots we’ve seen are part of this inefficiency, and part of the costs which are ignored.

      Unseating the gods of consumerism. Well, I’m quite proud of the phrase, but does it have any meaning beyond rhetoric? I think it could have. At one level this is about changing our behaviour as consumers. We don’t need routinely to chuck serviceable stuff away in order merely to get new stuff we don’t truly need. It’s – in that telling phrase from the 70s – about living simply so that others can simply live. All I can do as an individual is to try and discipline my personal acquisitive instincts, and vote for those who seem to understand the problem. Ah, I knew there was a catch…

      • Yes, I was struck by your street cleaner example. It chimed with something I read a while ago in a book by Richard Sennett where he criticizes computer aided design because using a computer means something gets lost mentally when screenwork replaces physical drawing. Also, I don’t think you are over-egging it by saying that the riots are part of the costs that are ignored in the market economy as it is currently constituted.

  2. I’d like someone to tell me what’s positive about this black ‘gangsta’ culture. As far as I can work out it’s racist, sexist, homophobic, nihilistic and glamorises violence.

    And, of course there’s also the negative effect on the language of the people who subscribe to this culture; they’re unable to pronounce the letter ‘t’, always replacing it with a glottal stop…and they have difficulty with the ‘th’ phoneme too; usually pronouncing it as a ‘d’. In effect, this makes them unemployable.

    • Some is. I’ve often felt very uncomfortable indeed listening to my son playing his music, and I doubt it’s been an entirely positive influence on him. But not all rap is “gangsta rap” of course, and some is very positive indeed.

      But the point is not whether or not this particular cultural phenomenon is a good thing or a bad thing – ultimately a matter of taste – but whether it is, in David Starkey’s argument, a cause of the recent upheavals. I don’t believe that it is. Rather, I see rap – even in its most unpalatable forms – as a result of, and a resistance to, a consumerist culture which is ever-present but also for far too many ever-unobtainable. That’s the cause. What David Starkey has alighted upon is an effect.

  3. David Starkey was being very racist and offensive and he set the studio laight because of that. There was no basis to his argument at all and there is nothing original or admirable about eulogising Enoch Powell. I think Ted Heath’s assessment of Powell was excellent, and showed Powell for the unacceptable racist that he was.

    Sadly, Dr. Starkey, in pursuit of populist, ill-informed admirmation and dining-room controversy, has now placed himself among the likes of David Irving or even Nick Griffin. As a previosuly respected academic and broadcaster, he knows that he should have realised the consequences of his comments and taken a more responsible and reasoned approach.

    More disturbingly, his comments resemble those made by Dr. Gobbells made about Jews infecting German culture in the 1930′s

    I am at a loss as to why the BBC recruited Dr. Starkey to the programme, when his specialist area is Tudor History, not complex current controversies. Dr. Starkey has been regularly used by the BBC for “politically non-correct entertainment” and now it has blown up in their faces.

    I hope that anyone with a shred of decency or democratic regard would not want to see Dr. Strakey on their screens again.

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