Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
To illustrate the pathology of our age, consider the following stories, all from the past fortnight.
Sierra Boggess, who was to have starred as Maria in the BBC Proms production of West Side Story, withdrew from the role after critics complained that the part should be reserved for a singer of Latin American background.
At the same time, there was a priggish hunt for anyone who refused to join the demands that a black actor should play James Bond.
There was fury at Jamie Oliver’s “cultural appropriation” of Caribbean cuisine with his jerk rice.
The super-talented Jack Whitehall was criticised for accepting the role of a gay man in a forthcoming Disney production.
It is just about possible to imagine these rows blowing up during the Eighties or Nineties, but the vehemence that they call forth is peculiarly modern. As the Simpsons’ creator, Matt Groening, puts it, “It’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended”. (Groening was responding to yet another characteristically twenty-first century rumpus in which Leftists, unconsciously mimicking the mobs depicted in The Simpsons, had protested about the supposedly racist depiction of Apu, the workaholic Indian shopkeeper.)
What is most striking about these stories is the unquenchable indignation of the affronted. It becomes impossible to avoid giving offence, because the offended keep changing the rules. It is obligatory to demand a black Bond, yet simultaneously unconscionable to applaud a white Maria. Gender is an invented social construct, but we must recognise self-designated gender identities. Racial discrimination is always wrong, except when quotas are wanted.
The wokest of the woke can find themselves tripping up. Consider, for example, the explosion earlier this month when The Nation, a Leftist American magazine, published a poem written from the point of view of a homeless black woman. When it turned out that the author was a white man, he had to issue a grovelling apology, while the editors involved rushed out the kind of self-accusatory statements that were heard at Stalin’s show-trials. Why? Because the poem was written in black American vernacular – apparently quite authentically.
The old rules – use a bit of common sense, be fair-minded, avoid gratuitous insults – no longer apply. If people are determined to be outraged, they will be outraged. Jamie Oliver’s career has been built on creating new food combinations, taking the world as his inspiration. Often, he gets it wrong, as with his catastrophic parody of paella. But no one has previously considered bad recipes to be ideologically offensive. When Dawn Butler had a go at him, her objection was not that his jerk rice tasted bad (which I’m happy to believe). It’s that it was wrong for a white man to be promoting a dish loosely based on a Jamaican one.
It’s no use objecting that no one “owns” jerk cuisine – except, arguably, the cook who first created it. It’s pointless to ask whether, say, a Briton of West Indian origin who has never cared for such dishes has a greater claim to them than a white Briton who has spent time in the Caribbean and loves them. And there is certainly no purpose in arguing, as James Cleverly did, that Britain has always adopted and borrowed from abroad. “We didn’t just ‘adopt’ other cultures,” replied another furious Labour MP, Clive Lewis. “We actively raped, pillaged, enslaved and destroyed some of them.”
We are in a realm beyond reason here. Lewis’s rage trumps Cleverly’s facts. In an atmosphere when anyone can close down the conversation by saying “I feel uncomfortable”, rational discussion becomes impossible. The empirical method, the basis of Enlightenment civilization, no longer applies.
“The Left’s identity politics poses a threat to free speech and to the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy,” writes Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs. “The focus on lived experience by identity groups prioritises the emotional world of the inner self over the rational examination of issues in the outside world and privileges sincerely held opinions over a process of reasoned deliberation that may force one to abandon prior opinions”.
What would common sense suggest about, say, actors playing a character from a different ethnicity? Surely that we should find a balance between authenticity and the fact that every actor – even Michael Caine – is pretending to be someone else. I’d love to see Idris Elba playing Bond, for example. He is versatile and convincing and would, I suspect, superbly convey that hint of hardness that is just visible under the secret agent’s suave manners.
Yes, Fleming’s Bond was of Swiss and Scottish origins, but 007 almost immediately transcended his literary roots, and has been played on screen by English, Scottish, Irish and Australian actors (though a plank of wood might have out-acted the Australian). Bond is an archetypal representation of Britain, which is why he remains the same age as the decades pass, the technology advances and the Ms and Qs come and go. He could be black, brown or white without affecting the integrity of the drama – provided he remains British. The equivalent is not true of, say, Stringer Bell, the character Elba played in The Wire.
That observation might seem obvious but, in the current inquisitorial atmosphere, obvious observations can get you into trouble. Race is said to be non-existent, yet our cultural elites rarely seem to think of anything else. Shakespeare’s Globe, for example, has recently had a week-long series on “Shakespeare & Race”. In fact, our national poet had relatively little to say about race, and what he did have to say was ambiguous, like his views on everything else (except, curiously, hedgehogs, which he uncomplicatedly loathed).
I was at the Globe to watch one of the few plays where race is an issue: Othello, with Mark Rylance as a stammering and banal Iago. (I explained on this site three years ago how I finally overcame my self-imposed Othello embargo.)
Despite our present preoccupations, the production was relatively deracialised, with non-white actors in several roles, including Cassio, and Iago’s wife, Emilia (played by a totally brilliant Sheila Atim, who gave the performance of the night and from whom I suspect we’ll be hearing a great deal more). Consequently, the spotlight was turned back to the play’s bigger themes: possessiveness, jealousy, obsession.
It made me think. Surely the liberal ideal one is where, instead of obsessing about the ethnic backgrounds of actors, we treat their skin-colour as just one more attribute, like hair-colour or the ability to speak the appropriate accent for the production. There will be occasions when it is right for actors to play someone from a different ethnic background – the musical Hamilton, for example, which tells the story of the eponymous founding father through hip-hop. There will be occasions when type-casting is correct: we generally want to see fat Falstaffs, beautiful Cleopatras, elderly Lears, female Ophelias and, yes, black Othellos. And there will be occasions – most of Shakespeare’s comedies, for example – where it doesn’t matter either way. Is that really such a difficult concept?