Some say he’s a rich member of the establishment who fakes his we’re-all-in-this-together persona to boost ratings.
Others say he’s a witty bloke who has found an audience that adores his schtick and is comforted by his politics.
All we know is, he’s called … unemployed!
I go both ways on Jeremy Clarkson. (Ooo! A gay double-entendre! French words! Gay French words! Stupid France, surrendering like that! Stupid gays, being all – oh shit, was my mic live?) On the one hand, he can be funny. Top Gear is very good television, and he has been central to the show’s success. On the other hand, well, the other hand is busy drawing swastikas and penises and vaginas and racist caricatures and exploding Argentinian warships on the toilet wall.
The other hand is also the reason I’m not surprised by his sacking. I don’t begrudge the BBC its decision, and I certainly wouldn’t send death threats to its director-general. Which, of course, actually happened. Somewhere in the world there is somebody who felt so close to Clarkson that he or she believes Lord Tony Hall needs to die for tearing them apart.
Clearly, a lunatic. And yet, a lunatic oddly in synch with the lunatic conservatism that suddenly seems to be everywhere, from the woman-hating man-boys of Gamergate to “analyses” of Cecil John Rhodes that read like the Rules of a Victorian gentlemen’s club.
Elsewhere, France has taken a solid step to the right in its latest election, American Republicans are getting ready to unveil presidential candidates created in a lab by splicing Wall Street bankers to the hillbillies from Deliverance, and in Russia, Vladimir Putin has just perfected the world’s first working time machine, successfully taking the entire country back to about 1956.
Meanwhile, in Durban, a writer who expressed admiration for Salman Rushdie had her face smashed with a brick by men apparently defending their faith. Still, it could have been worse: religious fanatics in Bangladesh hacked a second atheist blogger to death this week.
Conservatism seems to be gathering steam. Everywhere we look, angry men are trying to impose antiquated systems of control on us: medieval religion, Victorian racial attitudes, 1950s sexual mores.
It’s an odd delusion; believing that, by defending the status quo, you are being iconoclastic.
And yet, even as this apparent tide of reaction sweeps in, a growing number of people are protesting that the world has “gone mad with political correctness”. Whether they are defenders of Clarkson or simply ageing trolls lurking under bridges in the backwaters of the internet, they claim, ever more shrilly, that namby-pamby “libtards” are trampling the freedoms that separate us from beasts like cows, sheep, feminists and poor people.
It’s an odd delusion; believing that, by defending the status quo, you are being iconoclastic. (“Suck it, libtards! Look what a total bad-ass I am, conforming to the dictates of my class!”) It’s tempting to ignore these voices as the rantings of the loony right. And yet I think there is value in listening to them, for one important and surprisingly affirming reason: they show us we are making progress.
Consider for a moment the world view of someone who believes that society is being overrun by “libtards”. Try, even, to get inside the head of someone who sends death threats in support of Clarkson. I would suggest that both feel overrun by hostile forces they can’t control. You don’t write angry defences of the past unless you’re feeling threatened in the present. You certainly don’t send death threats if you feel secure in your own life.
If we listen to the racists, the misogynists and the religious fanatics, and accept what they are telling us – that black people, gay people, powerful women, non-believers – are making their lives intolerable, then it means that all those groups are making inroads into a world that was previously closed to them.
Perhaps I’m a naïve libtard, but I choose to believe that the surge of conservatism isn’t a groundswell of support but a frightened backlash against an even stronger tide: progressive humanity. I believe misogynists are howling louder than ever because women are climbing up into their boys-only tree-houses. I believe religious fanatics are resorting to murder because they see modernity advancing over the horizon. I believe racists are closing the laager and firing their muskets into the air because black people are no longer nameless servants but neighbours, colleagues and – gasp! – bosses.
Their voices will continue to be shrill, and the backlash may get more violent. Like Japanese soldiers fighting on in the Pacific because they don’t know the war is over, they will refuse to believe they have been marooned on the periphery of history. They will insist the world has gone mad when it’s much simpler than that. The world has changed, and they haven’t.
First published in The Times and TimesLive