On Friday, David Starkey, the TV historian, made a fool of himself on the BBC’s Newsnight. Blundering into the debate over what lies behind the recent riots in England, he suggested that “whites” had become too “black” — that England’s youths riot because they’re trying too hard to be like Ice-T and 50 Cent. Here is the entire debate, for your delectation.
I think there are a couple of points to be made about Starkey’s diatribe. First off, I admire him for turning himself into a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk: rarely have an outfit and an accent matched a set of ideas so perfectly. Such rigour and consistency deserve praise. Not much else did.
The language of his arguments — how he phrased them rather than what he said — was probably more offensive than at least some of the substance, much of which was merely trite rather than odious. The reduction of “black” culture (whatever that means) to gangsta rap, the essentialized categories of “white” and “black,” the way he wrote class and economics out of the equation altogether (“educated” or “middle-class” became “white,” and so on), his sharply dichotomous view of British society which doesn’t seem to allow for other ethnic or cultural identities beyond “white” and “black,” the reactionary understanding of the English language as a fortress that has been invaded (“intruded”) by foreign and alienating “patois” — all of this is as disgusting as it is laughable, simple-minded, and dangerous in the extreme. But it also seems to me that it has little to do with what Starkey was actually trying to say.
Even more bizarre and counterproductive was Starkey’s decision to make his point at least partly via Enoch Powell. It may indeed prove a career-ending move (as Owen Jones has suggested). More than any of the inflated and dishonest rhetoric, this struck me as almost unbelievably stupid, even for a committed provocateur such as Starkey. He makes his living playing a historian on TV — shouldn’t he be able to muster a modicum of historical sensitivity? (And yes, he said Powell was wrong about some things, which is to say his rhetorical strategy was akin to those who praise Hitler for building the Autobahn, not those who praise him for his genocidal successes. That’s obviously much better.)
Most revealing of Starkey’s simplistic social analysis was his inability to understand Dreda Say Mitchell’s point about consumerism and thieving bankers. He seemed to think she meant something like this: banks have stolen, the people are angry, therefore the rioters should have attacked banks. That wasn’t Mitchell’s argument. Her point, rather obviously, was that the culture of rampant individualism and consumerism that puts personal gain above all else, including the law, is not the culture of rap, it’s the culture of capitalism. Given Starkey’s investment in a particular brand of Englishness, I’m actually surprised he didn’t find an angle that would have allowed him to identify this capitalist sense of entitlement as an aspect of the Americanization of English culture.
Finally, I couldn’t help but feel cast back to the 1990s. The “blackening” of “white” culture (and again, I have no idea what these categories could possibly mean in the 21st century) isn’t exactly recent news, as David Starkey might learn from Ali G. Conservatives have made similar claims about pop culture since at least the 1950s — unsurprisingly, given the central role popular music has played in allowing African Americans a forum for self-expression. Before rap, there was funk, before funk, there was soul, before soul, there was blues, and so on. Except before rap, the issue wasn’t crime: it was sex. Lawlessness and immorality remain a constant, though. In any case, the supposed devastation visited upon “white” culture by “black” rappers has been going on for decades at this point, and across the Western world, so the cause-and-effect scenario Starkey tries to sketch doesn’t really make sense. If it did, there should have been riots and endless incidents of mass-looting throughout the late 90s, when gangsta rappers were at their most influential.
All that said, beyond the race-baiting and the cultural ignorance, the substance of Starkey’s claim was neither particularly original nor particularly far out of the mainstream, if no more credible for that. In essence, he was saying that young people have lost all sense of what’s right because they listen to too much hip hop, which teaches them that disrespecting people, and especially women is OK; that crime is good; and that material possessions matter more than anything (he didn’t actually quite say that, but the point was made by one of the other panelists). It also makes the young ones talk funny. That’s exactly the same discourse talking heads use when discussing violent video games and films. It’s the same discourse critics used to use when arguing for the censorship of books (but since young people don’t read those anymore, they’re now safe). The common denominator is a conviction that listeners, viewers, and readers cannot distinguish between art and reality; that, if exposed to enough material for a sufficiently long time, the ideas and modes of behaviour represented in those artefacts will be internalized, normalized, and become second nature to their youthful consumers. Read too much Thomas Hardy and you become a nihilist; watch too many horror films and you become a zombie; play too many ego shooters and you become a mass murderer. And listen to too much rap and you turn black (which is to say, you become a criminal). None of this is psychologically or sociologically sound, even if there are fringe examples that seem to confirm the logic of influence. But killing sprees aren’t caused by violent video games, even if some mass murderers are obsessed with them; and riots aren’t caused by rap, even if some rioters listen to rap.
There is, of course, an entirely different angle one might take on what has been happening in England — an angle one might expect a historian to favour. We might look back a couple of hundred years, to David Starkey’s own alleged area of expertise, and talk about apprentice riots in London, the kinds of riots the authorities frequently blamed on the theatres. One might then argue that Christopher Marlowe no more incited mass violence in 1592 than 50 Cent did in 2011 (or one might do a Starkey and argue the opposite, though I’m not sure he’d like the analogy much). Or one might look to the more recent past and ask exactly how different the current riots are from the intense violence of 1980s football hooligans. They’re focussed differently, they’re not as contained, or contained geographically more than socially, which makes them appear more threatening — but is the criminal energy, the unbridled anger, really that different?
Neither Tudor apprentices nor 20th-century hooligans were politically motivated, exactly, and neither are today’s rioters — but their actions, as reprehensible as they are, spring from deep-seated social problems, from a failure of the system to be as socially and politically inclusive as it ought to be. None of this is new, certainly not since the 1980s. “Mindless” violence, misdirected anger, an apparent fundamental disregard for the rule of law and that most English of virtues, decency — those have been core features of riots and uprisings for centuries. But the energy that fuels such events isn’t produced by cultural artefacts, by music, plays, novels, or video games, although all of them may spring from the same source and may give expression to the same sense of discontent. Latching onto angry songs that promote criminal acts, cheering villains on stage, going on a virtual rampage through Vice City — none of those things creates social unrest; if anything, indulging in such virtual trespasses is likely to contain actual violence. There is a connection between gangsta rap and street riots, to be sure, but it’s not a causal one.
* * *
To me, in some ways the most depressing part of this entire episode was what happened after I turned off the TV. I had just had the pleasure of watching a representative of what passes for the educated, the sophisticated, the clever spew total nonsense (even if merely essentialist rather than truly racist nonsense). And then I read Russell Brand’s column in The Guardian, in which an apparent moron, a notorious specimen of mass-culture depravity, a harbinger of a culture in decline manages to write largely coherently and in a heart-felt, principled, and even insightful fashion about the riots. I suppose I’d be OK with a scenario in which a bunch of scandal-courting comedians save the day after the supposed elites show just how entirely they’ve lost the plot, but I wish it hadn’t come to this.
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