Fostering daily division. Flickr/Gideon. Some rights reserved.As the Charlie Hebdo murders continue to reverberate through the media, it is important not to lose sight of mainstream forms of “freedom of expression” in Britain, and how they can affect everyday lives and families.
My parents are retired Lancashire textile workers. I went to visit them recently, and we ate rag pudding for dinner, meat parceled in suet pastry, traditionally cooked in a cloth in boiling water, hence the “rag”. It’s a white working class food. My parents don’t like curry, but have assimilated mango chutney into their mealtimes via simple supermarket curiosity. Rag pudding with mango chutney is a pretty radical combination, Heston Blumenthal territory. Try it.
After dinner, I noticed the Daily Express headline on the coffee table:
“MIGRANTS FLOOD BACK TO BRITAIN - 100,000 more can claim our benefits from next week”.
This seemed to grate against the hodgepodge hybridity of the meal we had just shared. My father once described a job lifting raw cotton bales from India, as they landed at the bottom of a chute. Back-breaking work, moving objects from another land, with their indecipherable text, which nonetheless fed straight into “local” Lancashire cotton production, and then eventually back out across the globe, as finished goods to be exported. My mother worked in the sewing shops for this part of the process.
It would be lovely to report that my parents have a celebratory attitude to multi-cultural Britain, but I can’t. As soon as I glimpsed the newspaper headline, I remembered the recent arguments with my father, about immigrants ‘taking our jobs and pensions’. His main targets are “Muslims” and “Eastern-Europeans”, although this shaded into anti-Semitism once.
My uncle is worse, an engineer in a global business, he travels abroad regularly, and money from these lucrative international networks flow into his bank accounts, put petrol in his car, feed and clothe his children. Still, he manages to rant about how “the Poles” feed their kids back home with “our money”, usually quoting the Mail or Express. He is an open admirer of Nick Griffin.
For most of the rest of the family, his opinions are “common sense”, he is free to travel internationally to work; “they” do not belong here. An empire unconscious lurks just below the surface in many small provincial English northern towns. Other viewpoints are rarely glimpsed, and so this empire view congeals like jelly around everything.
Sadder still, my father used to be much more tolerant, as a trade union point of contact who worked with Pakistani men in factories. When I was growing up he used to tell me, “they’re just the same as us”, all of which seemed to collapse after the millennium. His changing consumption of tabloid newspapers, and shifts within their editorial discourses, played a very large part in this.
My father buys the Mail and Express because they are cheap, and their price is not just incidental detail. Because he grew up in the aftermath of WW2, he refuses to spend money unless he really has to. There is a price divide we can observe, with the Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and Times at the higher end, and the Mail, Express, Mirror, Sun and Star at the bottom.
It would be wrong to claim that this map of price doubles as a map of mental austerity, although there is a very real dialogue between them. But this is not simply the case that there are “just” bad newspapers and fools who read them. My father thinks about what he reads before reacting to it, but what he reads is very narrowly crafted, although he refuses to see that.
This is about geographical and cultural isolation, people who go to the newsagents each day, to buy the cheapest paper and then process its contents. My father used to do exactly the same with the Daily Mirror when it was a leftwing Labour paper, before it was taken over by Robert Maxwell in 1984. Before then, I remember stories of social justice coming from him, via the same process, not intolerance, what Spinoza called “the sad passions”. I feel lucky to have been born in 1972 to experience that, rather than being born now, to experience what I describe here. I have younger cousins with very right wing views and children.
But the real bottom line, for me, is that I love my father, but I do not love the hate-filled poison he has to vomit back up each day, a substitute poison for the real social and psychic toxins in him, toxins that should have been attended to by the psychotherapy and love he never had in the distant past. These papers provide an easy way to redirect immediate but indefinable hurt onto others. Things so buried they cannot be named, and so are more easily dealt with by being spat out onto unknown, un-encountered others. The village my parents live in is almost entirely white.
I hate the architects of the Mail, the Express, and their like, with a passion that glows as brightly as the love for my family and friends. A complex lava flow of the heart gets me up in the morning. These people don’t just destroy the possibility of inter-community fraternity in Britain, they destroy internal family ties, break people apart, make them addicts, enslave their minds and poison them. They have done this to my family and therefore to me.
In my bleaker moments, if the earth were to be hit by an asteroid tomorrow, the right wing tabloid journalists would get back up again, straighten their ties and continue. In this nightmare, they are the wolves silver bullets cannot halt, and we are the empty-eyed undead who will allow them to feed on us for a thousand years.
News of the Charlie Hebdo murders broke just as I was speaking to Savoy Books in Manchester. Their author David Britton was imprisoned twice in the 1980s for his critical freedom of expression, by another brutal religious fundamentalist, Sir James Anderton. Britton’s book Lord Horror also exaggerated and satirized his persecutors, the Thatcher establishment.
The wider point I want to make here is that brutal, religion-inspired attacks on satire are not the exclusive territory of Islamic fundamentalists, and we must resist all of them, but at the same time we must still see the tabloid right as a target in the battle for a better society. The Charlie Hebdo murders should not tempt us to alter course regarding this. When fundamentalist atrocities occur, it is important to see the complexities at play, at the same time as we refuse to surrender our rightly targeted outrage.