Clarkson: Beyond the pale
Uproar over Jeremy Clarkson’s use of the ‘n-word’, writes Eddie Ford, demonstrates yet again how the bourgeoisie has appropriated anti-racism
Once again, Jeremy Clarkson is embroiled in controversy, as most Weekly Worker readers will know. During filming in February 2013 of his extremely popular BBC programme, Top gear, whilst having to choose between two very similar cars, he starts reciting the ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ children’s rhyme - before apparently mumbling the next line, “Catch a nigger by his toe”. However, the footage was never broadcast and it is extremely difficult to make out the word ‘nigger’ (this journalist failed to).
But, whether the presenter had ever intended to use the offending word or not, it was enough for the Daily Mirror on May 1 to run the front-page headline, “Jeremy Clarkson n-word shame”, and post the unshown footage on its website.1 There was another article featuring a “digital audio expert”, who concluded that the “letter sound” heard during the short clip has the “characteristics” of the letter ‘g’ (though she later reminded LBC radio listeners that she could only be 75% certain the word was used, as we are not dealing with an “exact science”).2 Not helping his case though, Clarkson on the same day issued on Twitter a righteous denial of the allegation - only to retract his words the very next day in a contrite video statement, saying he had tried to “obscure” the n-word that would “normally occur” in that part of the rhyme. He insisted that the racist term is “a word I loathe”, but admitted his efforts not to utter it “weren’t quite good enough” and so was “begging for your forgiveness”.
In other words, a non-apology apology - expressing regret about a word he says he never uses, unlike the ‘c-word’ or ‘f-word’.3 In his regular Sun column, however, he was more honest about the nature of the ‘apology’ (May 3). He admitted that the BBC bosses had told him “very firmly” to apologise, but in his opinion apologising for using the n-word was akin to apologising for “starting the war in Syria” - it was something he had not done. Clarkson is now on a “final warning”, as he put it, and claims he will be sacked if he ever makes an offensive remark again - the BBC releasing an appropriately stern statement about the “standards” it expects “on air and off”. Racism is never acceptable.
Downing Street too felt compelled to make clear its disapproval about “usage of that word”, and racism in general. A spokesman for David Cameron could not say when the prime minister and Clarkson had “last met” - which is perhaps a little bit odd, seeing how the Top gear star was an active member of the ‘Chipping Norton set’ (which includes Rebekah Brooks and Elizabeth Murdoch) that Cameron socialised with in his Oxfordshire seat, even dressing up as The Stig to deliver a 50th birthday video message to his friend Clarkson.4
Naturally, various senior Labour politicians weighed in to condemn Clarkson. Helen Goodman, the shadow culture minister, said that millions of people would be “disgusted” if their licence fee has gone to “reward” the use of racist language. Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman tweeted that “anybody who uses the n-word in public or private in whatever context has no place in the BBC” - or any other British institution, presumably. Her intervention came after Simone Pennant (a leading figure behind Lenny Henry’s campaign to boost the number of black, Asian and ethnic-minority workers on TV) also condemned Clarkson’s “wholly inappropriate” behaviour, arguing that this incident is an “example” of what happens when there are so few black and Asian people working in the industry. He might have a point. Henry, of course, was recently told to “emigrate to a black country” by William Henwood, the United Kingdom Independence Party council candidate for Enfield - who was quickly forced to resign.
Slightly oddly, it emerged on May 2 that law firm Equal Justice is planning to write to Barack Obama and the ambassadors of every country in which Top gear is aired asking them if this “racist show” should continue to be broadcast. Lawrence Davis, director of the firm, stated that Clarkson was a “repeat offender” and should be immediately sacked. He also pointed out, obviously correctly, that if a Ukip councillor in a private meeting had uttered the n-word then they would suspend or dismiss him - just take a look at the disgraced idiot, Henwood - or if he was the owner of an American basketball team, he would be fined and banned.5 So how come the BBC management has not acted in a similar manner?
The straightforward reality is that BBC has a serious incentive to keep Clarkson on Top gear - it generates a vast amount of money. Rights to air and mimic the motoring show - not to mention peddle all the crappy merchandise - are the preserve of the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which exists to “support” the public service mission and “maximise profits” on its behalf. In 2012-13 it made a £156 million profit and Top gear is usually cited as its biggest income stream.
Clarkson himself made an estimated £14 million when the BBC took full control of the Top gear production company, Bedder 6, and since the move he is rumoured to be the corporation’s highest-paid presenter. When it comes to Clarkson, we see a clash, or disjuncture, between the BBC’s very real institutional anti-racism and the commercial imperative - which do not always make for easy bedfellows (not that we are joining in the calls to sack him, of course).
That was something pointed out by Ukip’s Nigel Farage in his defence of Clarkson - the “more controversial” the presenter is, the more people watch the programme and the “more money” the BBC makes out of marketing it. For Farage, the ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ episode was just “typical” Clarkson - “getting very, very close to the line of being offensive, but perhaps not quite going over it”. That is the art of Clarkson, you could say. And the BBC bosses know it.
For communists, however, whether Clarkson used the word ‘nigger’ or not is ultimately not the main point, not that we would make light of such things: words do obviously matter. But it would be a mistake to think of him purely as an obscenely highly paid TV celebrity or just another bigot, though both those statements are true. He clearly has a political agenda of sorts. It was surely no accident that he was defended by Farage, the personification of Little England narrow-mindedness, and has a regular column in The Sun: making a united stand against this ‘politically correct’ madness forced upon patriotic Brits by the gay-loving, hoodie-hugging, dope-smoking, metropolitan liberal/lefty elite - who lost us the empire.
This reactionary nostalgia seemed to surface in a Top gear special shown in March and filmed in both Burma and Thailand, the three presenters on a “mission” to build a bridge over the river Kwai in Thailand.6 At the completion of the task, an Asian man is seen walking into shot, to which Clarkson comments: “But there’s a slope on it”. This is a catch-all derogatory term for Asian people, used as a racial slur against Japanese and other Asians in US World War II-era movies and novels - and especially about the Vietnamese by US soldiers during the imperialist war in that country. ‘Slope’ just goes with the whole package of anti-foreigner, male-chauvinist politics that Clarkson almost perfectly embodies.
If you want more examples of Clarkson’s delight in national stereotyping and breezy bigotry, consult his bestselling Motorworld - first published in 1996 and then reprinted by the eminently respectable Penguin press in 2004. Here we read that his “only experience” of the Vietnamese was either “at a restaurant in Fulham” or as a “lot of scuttling midgets in straw hats throwing hand grenades into Huey helicopters” - or discover, amongst many other things, that each Wednesday, Clarkson has to “make a 120-mile journey from Nairobi, south London, to Bombay, near Birmingham”.7 Some of the readers’ review on the book’s Amazon page are quite revealing - praising Clarkson for his “opinionated and outspoken” views (which apparently is a “rare quality amongst the politically correct English”), admiring the book’s “100% English” language and recommending it to all those “sick of PC rubbish”, etc.
For communists, the fact that there has been so much outrage about the possible use of a word that ended up on the cutting room floor - and was instantly taken up by various mainstream politicians - demonstrates yet again how racism is beyond the pale for the media and the establishment as a whole. More broadly still, it shows how the bourgeoisie has appropriated the left’s anti-racism - turning it into a weapon of its own.
Does that mean therefore that the bourgeoisie has turned to the left or become more progressive - three cheers for the ruling class? No, absolutely not. Rather, society has changed, and there has been a radical rearticulation of what it means to be British, as against ‘outsiders’. Fundamentally, Britain is no longer the master of a global empire - however much Clarkson may regret that - and hence there is no longer any need for an ideology (or bogus science) of innate ‘racial’ superiority/inferiority to subjugate the colonised peoples and cohere support back home in the imperialist motherland. Now we have a situation where a not insignificant proportion of politicians, businessmen, sports people, presenters, voters, etc are - in terms of origins - from parts of the old British empire and have been integrated, or are becoming integrated, into the British consensus, which of necessity had to change or risk destabilising the social peace. Thus the shift to state-sponsored multiculturalism and the whole ideological apparatus of official anti-racism and ‘equal opportunities’.
That does not mean, it goes without saying, that there are no longer any racists of the old sort - obviously not the case, you can still find them huddled together in dark corners. But by definition they are outside the new, rearticulated, consensus - and are themselves now regarded as ‘unBritish’. Therefore the central task for the left, or at least it should be, is to challenge the poison of national chauvinism - which stands for the unity of Britain, as opposed to the unity of people throughout the entire planet. Hence the comment by Jeremy Hunt, the Tory health secretary, about Lenny Henry being as “British as you and I”. The bourgeoisie - and that includes the Ukip leadership - wants us to be one big, happy family under the monarchy and the union jack.
Regrettably, the left has not risen to the challenge - failed miserably, in fact. Take the Socialist Workers Party, which has been through its biggest ever political crisis, shedding a good part of its membership, and is now viewed with deep distrust - if not contempt - by large sections of wider society. So what does it do to regain political traction? Undertake a thorough re-examination of its own political traditions and methods? Reach out honestly to the rest of the left in the spirit of genuine, non-sectarian unity? Not on your life. Instead of dealing with its past failures, it is running a ridiculous campaign targeting the “racist” Ukip - ie, the embarrassing Stand up to Ukip, taking lowest-common-denominator politics to a … well, new low.8
On what grounds exactly are our hapless SWP comrades singling out Ukip - maybe because it contains some “right nutters”? But Nigel Farage has openly admitted this on numerous occasions, including in his updated 2013 memoirs, Flying high - and has just suspended the latest idiot, Stockport candidate Harry Perry, who called for Pakistan to be “nuked” and described homosexuality an “abomination before god”. Or is it down to Ukip’s position on immigration? If so, can the SWP please explain what makes it so different to the stance adopted by No2EU - an organisation that the comrades do not appear to regard as racist. Farage says there are too many migrants chasing too few jobs and this competition is depriving British people of work that should rightfully be theirs. And what does No2EU say: exit the European Union and bring an end to the free movement of labour - spot the difference. Both represent a form of nationalism. Ditto the Tories, who want to reduce migration to tens of thousands, while Labour too supports ‘firm but fair’ immigration controls. Ukip is hardly unique.
So we communists remain a bit puzzled as to what makes Ukip such a terrible menace that needs to be mobilised against seemingly over and above all other political tasks and priorities. Even the SWP, perhaps disappointingly for some of its members, has admitted that Ukip is not a fascist organisation - an obviously crazy idea. Ukip is a rightwing, populist party that contains contradictory strands of authoritarianism and ‘libertarianism’ and is held together by a primal attachment to a form of national chauvinism - but in terms of its basic world outlook it is barely distinguishable from the three mainstream parties.
Despite that Ukip is to be singled out, something that the SWP leadership tries to explain in the latest Party Notes: We read: “Racism is central to their appeal. They are more sophisticated than the BNP and present themselves as against migration, not colour or religion. As Farage said in a meeting in East Anglia: ‘We want Polish, Africans, Chinese, Europeans with skills like doctors - people who want to make this country a success and in turn help their families - we don’t want Polish, Africans, Chinese and Europeans who want to take our resources - it’s not a race question; it’s a question of our country’s needs’” (my emphasis, May 6).
This reveals the SWP’s theoretical and political poverty. Farage in East Anglia was not outlining a disguised or “sophisticated” racism that is somehow able to pass itself off as non-racism or even anti-racism, but actually voicing a thoroughly mainstream and if anything rather unsubtle form of national chauvinism (nationalism). Dismally, the SWP - which I note has nothing to say on the whole Clarkson affair - is acting as extreme left defender of the establishment consensus that feels threatened by the rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip.
3. See www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/5602679/Top-Gear-Jeremy-Clarkson-denies-using-N-word.html.
4. The Stig is a character on Top gear that sets lap times for the cars tested on the show, as well as instructing celebrity guests off-camera.