Are Gypsies Having Sex with Britain’s Swans? Or, the Meaning of Myers

Sigh. A long, sustainted Pat Rabbitte special. Kevin Myers is attracting a lot of attention today. To respond, or not respond? It depends. It’s not worth engaging with what he meant - as he doesn’t propose actual arguments - but it may be worth considering what he means, as a symptom of something else. By Gavan Titley.

For all his distaste of ‘postmodernism’ and related horrors, Kevin Myers is one of its most perfect symptoms. His columns roll out and on, pre-digested, having long since shifted past self-parody to an endless pastiche of comforting, rote elements. If Chris Morris didn’t exist, Myers would have to invent him. His narrow range of recited reaction undermines otherwise funny gags about Daily Mail auto-generators (which have kindly supplied the title to this piece). His over-blown writing style, and dependence on random historical factoids – produced as condescending proof of his effortless intellect – are symptomatic of nothing so much as the wider poverty of public discourse. He involves us all in the performance of the Angry Man Brand; ritually produced, his articles demand a ritual call and response, of two kinds - well said Fellow! How dare he say that! 

Here’s another ritual that helps unlock the meaning of Myers. You know that thing, the little ritual beloved of US sports fans? Yeaauh! Yeaauh! Yeeauh! Pump your fist in the air, and windmill it from the wrist for each Yeaauh! Each one begets the next, and there may be a Woo! Hoo! Yaah!! at the end, before the spent sports fan retakes their seat. That’s Myers writing, pumping the air, trying not to spill the warm Bud Lite from his plastic glass. It doesn’t matter where the article starts, or what the ostensible issue or subject matter is, for once he stands, crooks his arm and holds aloft his skinny fist, a sequence is unleashed. Gardai? bad taste, yes, but they didn’t mean it, as I have fixed the permissible meaning of what they meant and indeed this whole episode, because I am rational. Thus the really guilty party is the women - who are not rational - and by effortless extension, gender politics. Yeaauh!! Did I say gender? If I did, I also meant the massed and interlocking forces of political correctness. Yeaauh!! This is not trivial, it is a shadowy global conspiracy, called The New Moral Order (dictated by the Protocols of the Lesbians of Palestine). Yeaauh!! They play the victim, they even have a science – victimology – but the real victim here is me, and my freedom of speech, and the lack of ‘ideological compassion’ extended to me. But then, I am courageous, a contrarian, a scourge of weak thinking, I will not be silenced. Woo! Hoo!!! Yaah! 

In this, his mature, later work, Myers has tended to spare us such lovingly tended projections as ‘Amnesia Crawthump, Pol Pot Professor of Multicultural and Ethnic Minority Studies’, or ‘Fallopia Whynge, the Yasser Arafat Professor of Woman and Traveller Studies’. Yet he is consistency in a world gone mad (mad! I tell you!), it’s just that in today’s column he wasn’t arsed to go and google the name of the ‘black she-comic’ whose stage performance magically takes on an equivalence with the casual, violent banter of powerful agents of the state. His column ends with this lament: ‘As I say, it’s more complex than you might think. Life usually is.’ It usually is, and complexity is more complex too, so here’s my random historical parallel. 

Negative intellectuals and the abrakedabra of power relations

Writing on the coverage of the Algerian civil war in France, Pierre Bourdieu drew attention to the ways in which the efforts of the many who worked with Algerian refugees to counter one-sided media narratives of the war, and to understand and explain the complex reality as a moment in attempting to ‘reinstate respect for the complexity of the world’, would periodically witness how their efforts could be undone instantly by media comment. Implicitly taking aim at Bernard-Henri Lévy, Bourdieu argues:

“The negative intellectual has done his job: who could want to express solidarity with mass murderers and rapists – especially when they are a people who are described, without historical justification, as ‘madmen of Islam’, enveloped under the abominated name of Islamicism, the quintessence of all Oriental fanatacism, designed to give racist contempt the impeccable alibi of ethical and secular legitimacy? To pose the problem in such terms, you don’t need to be a great intellectual. And yet that is how the originator of this crude operation of symbolic policing, which is the absolute antithesis of everything that defines the intellectual – freedom with respect to those in power, the critique of received ideas, the demolition of simplistic either-ors, respect for the complexity of problems – has come to be consecrated by journalists as an intellectual in the full sense of the word.”

Myers, like BHL, has a very specific function as a negative intellectual, which is to reduce and deny complexity, but more importantly, to do so in ways that efface questions of power. The way this works is reasonably easy to demonstrate from almost any piece of his writing. Today’s column concludes with this: ‘A hugely disproportionate amount of street-crime in London – which is usually suffered by women – is by blacks, and virtually all gang-rapes are by blacks’. Myers does not feel the need to produce proof for this lattice of claims, and nor does his editor feel the need to demand it. Yet this claim is a transposition of an argument made, in 2007, by Rod Liddle, in a Spectator article where he attributed the ‘overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London’ to ‘young men from the African-Caribbean community’ (see how much braver Myers is? He just talks about ‘blacks’). As Richard Seymour, among others, has shown, Liddle’s reading of the crime statistics he riffed from was, at best, imaginative.  (Indeed, Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson, in their fine book Sleepwalking to Segregation? have recently shown how the mis-use and mis-reading of data and statistics in British public discourse has informed a ‘litany of myths’ about migration and urban life). 

It says a lot about the difference between British and Irish journalistic cultures that Liddle got widely trashed for misreading statistics, whereas Myers sails on blithely despite having cut and pasted an extreme spin on Liddle’s argument into his own. Myers’s self-aggrandizing claims to intellectual status mainly rest on peppering his articles with quotes from Kipling (or some such). However his precise role as a negative intellectual is clear from his cannibalization of Liddle’s bastardization. It is, in Bourdieu’s terms, an act of ‘symbolic policing’, a determined effort to flatten and efface social complexity even while laying claim to complexity as a badge of intellectual duty. When we think in terms of ‘symbolic policing’, the routine, reductive nature of Myers’s arguments become clear, beyond the arrogant solipsism of his approach to language in politics and society: It means this, and only this. It means what I say, not what you say. This is a joke, and it is funny. That issue is not important, this random association that allows me to recite my script is what is really important. Any attempt to question my preferred use of language, and the histories and assumptions embedded in it, or any sustained attempt to speak from positions and perspectives that unsettle my privilege, is so much political correctness.

Again, it says much about the somewhat petrified state of Irish public discourse that recourse to something so spurious and dated as ‘political correctness’ can still have an impact. But it is useful to think about its utility for the negative intellectual. The discourse theorist Norman Fairclough has argued that:

‘…part of the controversy over ‘PC’ is attributable to often implicit differences between those who assume some form of ‘discourse theory’, which implies that representations are always positioned, value-laden and chosen against alternative representations. This compares with those who assume a transparent and direct relationship between what is said/written and ‘the language’ without the mediating level of discourse.’

Put in Myers’s terms, a joke is a joke is a joke if I say it is: ‘Moreover, any rational person who has heard the Rossport tape would know that the references about "rape" were not meant as such, and in no way represented how gardai usually talk about women. The three men were clearly using black humour to vent their frustration at having to deal with the latest batch of what they thought were foreigners.’ In other words, it is rational and it is clear, and any attempt to ‘over-interpret’ is politically motivated PC mischief, bending our meanings, and stealing our innocent words. However, Fairclough misses something crucial about the strategy of the charge of political correctness, and it is nailed by Will Hutton, of all people:

‘Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid-1980s as part of its demolition of American liberalism…what the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by leveling the charge of political correctness against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.’

What Hutton captures is how conservative ideological agencies quickly adopted a politics based on the ‘mediating level of discourse’ (playing language games) while accusing their opponents of the frivolity that this apparently represents. Thus for Myers, in the role of negative intellectual, what is important - and what gives an adhesive logic to his seemingly random shift from Yeeauh! To Yeeauh! - is to attack cultural manifestations: ‘D4 Rossport theme park revolutionaries’, ‘New Moral Order’, ‘black she-comics’, ‘numerous quangos’, ‘culture police’, and many others just in this one article. By concentrating an attack on manifestations, the negative intellectual reduces the substantive politics around inequality, injustice, racism or sexism to an apparent battle of cultural equivalences. If feminism is only about dungaree’d lobbyists, or racism about the shrill paranoia of ‘the race relations industry’, then actual experiences of sexism and racism, and the structural forces that shape these experiences, do not have to be debated. This is the function of the Liddle Lite moment; political correctness has stopped an honest discussion of Black violence, which has disproportionately impacted on women, ergo one tentacle of the politically correct octopus has ripped off another. 

Focusing on the apparent power of the advocates of political correctness obscures the realities of disempowerment experienced by those subjected to racism, sexism and other forms of marginalization and repression. Focusing on the prevalence of a language dedicated to equality and diversity elides the almost complete lack of mainstream political commitment to meaningful equality and diversity. If there is one thing that characterizes neoliberal societies, it is that mediated and symbolic commitments to equality, diversity and human potential are weakly progressive dimensions of most corporate and national brands, cost-free Benetton ad-ons. But they do not describe, or bring into being, the realities they mediate and commodify. Instead, they mask social realities; when everyone from HSBC to the Austrian Freedom Party can trumpet their diversity policies, it creates a widespread assumption that structural issues have been solved; that feminism is unnecessary after shoulder pads, racism doesn’t exist because when people black up for parties they do so ironically and no offence is intended, and class is outmoded because folks with northside accents have iphones. If we are post-everything – race, class, sexism – then everything is a language game, particularly for those most dedicated to simultaneously playing and denying them. Myer’s particular iteration of the negative intellectual involves a backlash without the lash. Sexism and racism shift and mutate, but they nevertheless endure. The toxic beauty for Myers is that people can now be attacked for benefitting from an orthodoxy which is largely immaterial, in both senses of the term. 

In this context, it becomes possible for the angry white man to, in fact, be the victim: ‘And though I certainly don't know what the rules of this New Moral Order are, I've got a pretty good idea that a middle-class heterosexual white male like me absolutely never qualifies for any ideological compassion within it.’ By focusing solely on the ‘mediating level of discourse’, Myers represents victims who pretend to concede a tiny fraction of symbolic privilege only to better conceal their material, social and political forms, a durable inversion of power relations captured by Ghassan Hage in Against Paranoid Nationalism:

‘These courageous people may appear to be in power, they might appear to have pages of newspapers and endless radio and television time at their disposal, but every now and then the repressive conditions under which they operate reveal themselves…they say something along the lines of “I know they will get me, but I’m going to say it…” “They”, in case you’ve been kept in the dark, is the formidable powerful ultra-left revolutionary council of political correcteness.’ 

What is most interesting about Myers’s discourse workouts is that to engage with them is to play them, and be played by them. The more people like me blog about him, or the more Twitter reacts furiously to his provocations, the more his argument that questions of race, gender and class are merely props in an equivalent struggle between politically correct and conservative elites, takes on a certain truth. And this is not cost-free, as the social operations of power get obscured, again, in the raging battle for a New Moral Order.

Kevin in the World 

Referring to Bourdieu and Hage’s withering critiques of this kind of public role makes it clear that Myers is a prototype. What is interesting is the prevalence of this kind of public role, in this political moment. I recently wrote a book, with a colleague, on ubiquitous debates on ‘multiculturalism’ in Europe, and what these debates tell us about racism in a neoliberal age. As we researched across various European contexts, we kept coming across the same kind of media event; the publications of books, columns or public utterances that, on their own terms, inject explosive honesty into situations calcified by political correctness and middle class liberal evasiveness. From Paul Scheffer’s NRC Handelsblad article ‘The Multicultural Drama’ in The Netherlands in 2000, to David Goodhart’s banal transposition of Nordic economic chauvinism in his ‘infamous’ 2004 Prospect article ‘The Discomfort of Strangers’, to Thilo Sarrazin’s recent book Deutschland schafft sich ab (2010): for all the differences in emphasis between these authors, their actual analysis is less important than the particular kind of performance they invoke. Regardless of their privileged access to and status in mainstream media, and regardless of the ubiquity of this kind of derivative performance, they must always present themselves as battling an imagined consensus, an imagined centre of politically correct values and results that is preventing the truth from being told. In other words, the negative intellectual, as Alberto Toscano (2010) put it more recently, desires ‘the ideological comfort of fighting on the side of the powerful while presenting oneself as a member of a beleagured and courageous minority’. 

The grim, subtractive logic that men are diminished by feminism, or that a few decades of mainly rhetorical multicultural ideals have over-compensated for centuries of racial violence, have been around for decades. As Roger Hewitt, for example, has shown, they began to be patterned in the 1970s as a focus for concentrating anxieties of disempowerment stemming from the socio-economic impacts of neoliberal ‘restructuring’, what is politely termed ‘deindustrialisation’, and the general implosion of class-based politics. It would need a much longer piece to examine how the public role of the intellectual has shifted, in this context, from some broadly assumed duty to complexity, and to question power, to a self-styled performance that stifles complexity and normalizes power. The enhanced significance of ‘edgy’ and controversial commentators as brand recognition for newspapers in shrinking and intensively competitive markets has a lot to do with it. 

But more important is to question the broad, post-political consensus that, for all the evidence around us, deems material and structural questions to be more or less resolved, and instead posits a range of fault-lines limited to the cultural – to who can speak freely, to who can speak about whom, to who has the right to feel aggrieved, to give and take offence. The important consensus, the consensus that allows Myers to posit himself as a fearless contrarian jousting with the imagined centre, is the consensus that politics does not really consist of much more than this. I suspect Myers knows quite well that an emphasis on questions of representation and identity emerged solely as a dimension of the radical and transformative politics of feminism and anti-colonialism. As he puts it, the ‘power pyramid of political correctness… authorises certain people -- typically, blacks, homosexuals, women -- to say almost anything in public. Others -- white, heterosexual, middle-aged males -- cannot say far milder things even in private, without an outcry.’ But while the negative intellectual will never admit to it, they are quite happy to limit the grappling to this discursive power pyramid, because in doing so they draw attention away from other, more obdurate structures and hierarchies. Myers and postmodernism: can’t live with it, can’t write without it.

Image top: edited version of an original via erikadotnet on Flickr.