Monday, March 12, 2012

The True-Born Englishman

But wait, there's more. I began looking at Owen Jones's Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2011), which is about class warfare in Britain. Early on, Jones discusses an ad campaign for an upscale fitness club called Gymbox, which started a self-defense class called Chav Fighting. (A chav -- from a Romany word for "child," according to Jones (2) -- is a lower-class Briton; there are other derogatory terms for non-whites.)

The leaflets for the class included such enticements as "Why hone your skills on punch bags and planks of wood when you can deck some Chavs". The Advertising Standards Authority dismissed complaints on the ground that such classes "would be unlikely to condone or incite violence against particular social groups..." (3); "social groups" presumably referring only to "racial" minorities.

Jones quotes Richard Hilton, the CEO of Gymbox:
They tend to live in England but would probably pronounce it 'Engerland.' They have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades. And would happily 'shank' you if you accidentally brush past them or look at them in the wrong way. They tend to breed by the age of fifteen, and spend most of their days trying to score 'super-skunk' or whatever 'gear' they can get their teenage hands on. If they are not institutionalized by twenty-one they are considered pillars of strength. in the community or get 'much respect' for being lucky [4].
"And yet, intriguingly, Mr Hilton does not think of himself as a bigot -- far from it. Sexism, racism and homophobia, for example, were 'completely unacceptable," Jones reports (4.)

When travel firm Activities Abroad took heat for promising "Chav-Free Activity Holidays," "'I simply feel it is time the middle classes stood up for themselves,' declared managing director Alistair McLean, "Regardless of whether it's class warfare or not, I make no apology for proclaiming myself to be middle class'" (5). I enjoyed McClean's implication that it takes courage to "proclaim" one's membership in the middle class, against the PC Guardian readers -- also probably middle-class -- who objected to their ads. (Just as it takes courage to admit to being a liberal or a Christian nowadays.) "Activities Abroad exploited resentment against the cheap flights which allowed working-class people to 'invade' the middle-class space of the foreign holiday. 'You can't even flee abroad to escape them these days' -- that sort of sentiment" (5), commented Jones.

This is the kind of thing that makes me dismissive when (usually white) well-meaning Americans argue that the answer to America's racial and ethnic conflicts is to intermarriage, to the point where everybody is the same color. Skin color is a handy divisor, but as the pasty white Brits quoted above reveal, it's really just an excuse. If there were no "racial" differences in the US, others would be invented and exploited. (And remember, many groups now classed as white here didn't used to be: Irish, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Jews.)

What really intrigues me is the way the same language, the same tropes, are used to demonize whatever group is currently being classified as Them. The parallel to Black English in Hilton's diatribe should be obvious, but don't forget the way white liberals worked themselves into a lather over George Bush's difficulties with pronunciation and syntax. I don't suppose that these themes are "genetic," but it is very interesting how they recur over time and in different contexts: They are dirty lazy animals who breed like rabbits, steal like monkeys, and babble unintelligible gibberish; they don't have language, they don't have morals, they band together and hate all outsiders. They don't belong here, why don't they go back where they came from? (There are echoes of these attitudes in John Preston's contempt for the "sightseers" who defiled the edgy, exclusive world of the leather bar.)

Of course Richard Hilton and Alistair McLean aren't bigots; as my Right Wing Acquaintance would say, they're just trying to protect their culture. But how remarkable that the threat is as true-born as they are. And why do defenders of culture keep falling back on the same giveway themes, regardless of the origin or status of the barbarians at their gates?