In the aftermath of the worst rioting in England for over 100 years, it was inevitable that the usual chorus of right wing voices would point the finger of blame at ‘blacks’. Even when it was demonstrated that people of all ethnicities participated in the four days of rioting and looting, they refused to listen (have a look at some of the comments on Telegraph blogs). The chorus then nominally shifted its emphasis from skin colour to the musical sub-genre of ‘gangsta rap’ . Some, like the reactionary imperialist and romantic Tudor historian, David Starkey, even went so far as to blame the way black people spoke as a factor.
A few months ago, I reported on Douglas Murray’s appearance on Question Time, in which he demanded a British monocultural response to what he called the “creeping Islamization” of this country. He proposed something that he described as “leitkultur“. But he failed to tell us what this leitkultur would look like and who would be responsible for constructing it – since it doesn’t actually exist in the first place.
Starkey and Murray like to give the impression that they understand the meaning of the word culture but like many people they haven’t got a clue. Raymond Williams describes culture as the “one or two most complicated words of the English language”. He also notes that in the nascent German Empire of the 1840’s that culture was used in much the same way as the word “civilization’. It was Otto von Bismarck who proposed the kulturkampf or “cultural struggle” against the influence of Catholics on the Prussian state. Catholic clergymen who resisted Bismarck were arrested or removed from their positions.
As I mentioned earlier, it is gangsta rap that has come in for a lot of the recent criticism of the riots. It has been singled out as the primary suspect in the crime of polluting the minds of our youths. But this way of thinking is not new. It happened in 1950’s America with R&B music, which was dubbed “race music” by the white cultural establishment. Such music, it was feared, would have a deleterious effect on the nation as a whole and it was kept largely separate from so-called white music.
An example of this ‘dangerous’ music is this song by Wynonie Harris, a blues shouter.
The phrase “rock n roll” was African-American slang for sex. It isn’t hard to work out what Harris means when he sings “All she wants to do is rock. Rock n roll all night long”. For the racists, this was a vindication of their belief that black people were essentially bestial.
By the 1960’s the conservative establishment had largely given up on black music and, instead, turned their attentions to white musicians who demanded an end to Jim Crow laws in the South and opposed the escalating war in Vietnam.
Barry McGuire a folk singer and contemporary of the Mamas and Papas, had a popular but unexpected hit single with The Eve of Destruction. It became a favourite with young conscripts in Vietnam. Here is McGuire appearing on The Jerry Lewis Show.
As the decade progressed, the dominant culture accused the bands and the hippies who listened to them of contributing to the moral decay of the nation. Like R&B earlier, it was seen as ‘dangerous’ and ‘subversive’. Like the drugs they took, the music, it was argued, would pollute the minds of the impressionable and convince them to grow their hair long and go on protest marches.
In 1975 the first punks arrived on Britain’s urban streets. Fleet Street greeted their appearance with a mix of fear and suspicion. Punks spat and swore and they fashioned clothing from bin liners. The most notorious band, in the eyes of the British cultural establishment, was the Sex Pistols, whose single God Save the Queen was banned from airplay. It is hard to determine which offended the British cultural establishment the most: the music or the defaced image of the Queen on the record’s sleeve. Despite it being banned from the airwaves, God Save the Queen became a number one hit single.
Causing further controversy was The Clash’s single Bankrobber, which the media described as “glorifying bank robbery” and called for it to be banned. In any case, the single was not banned and the numbers of bank robberies did not increase.
Though it was released in August 1980, Bankrobber remained in the charts until December.
Usually it is authoritarians who call for the banning of certain cultural products. Hitler and Stalin both did this and both for different reasons. Hitler saw jazz, in particular, as the music of an inferior people and Stalin considered western popular music to be decadent and bourgeois.
Those who demand some form of cultural cordon sanitaire should ask themselves deep and searching questions about what it is they’re calling for. Popular culture does not exist in isolation, it is influenced by a range of other cultural factors. Skiffle, for instance, would not have existed were it not for rock n roll, country or R&B music being imported into this country. Indeed British popular culture would look very different today if certain types ofmusic had been banned. In fact culture would cease to be a living organic entity and would become more of a cultural relic (it is no accident that Thatcher named her Culture Ministry the Ministry for National Heritage). The most vibrant cultures are organic and are created from ‘below’ by groups of people or communities. The leitkultur that Murray proposes will only stifle us creatively and turn us all into cultural zombies.