Tuesday 28 January 2020

Unfortunately, we need to talk about Kevin

Kevin Myers tripped over his own rhetoric last week, but the effort to control the political agenda goes on

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The low point in last week's Kevin Myers circus was, for me, the moment he went on BBC Radio 5. Myers climbed down into the hole he'd dug for himself, took out his trusty shovel of contorted rhetoric and proceeded to dig.

Grunting and sweating, he gradually disappeared from view.

In his Sunday Times column, he had explained the high pay of BBC presenters Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz as being somehow related to their Jewishness.

Now, he showered praise on all Jews, everywhere, as being exceptionally virtuous in their very essence.

Some of us - not only Jews - took exception to both versions, as being opposite sides of the same coin. Myers, usually confident to the point of arrogance, sounded lost.

Some questions remain.

1) Why is it you can get away with insulting just about any subset of humanity, but when you insult Jewish people you get into trouble?

2) How come Myers imploded?

The first question is easily answered. Jews have been scapegoated for centuries, but within living memory, in Europe, there was a state-sponsored effort to exterminate them.

And that barbarity was made possible by dehumanising Jews, in a sustained denigration of them as sinister, money-hungry conspirators.

One result of the slaughter is guilt, in Germany and in those countries, such as Ireland, that balked at saving Jewish lives by accepting refugees.

We are also properly sensitive to the use of any reference to Jews that echoes the language that paved the road to the Holocaust.

Thus, the uproar against Myers. Some threw in his 2009 'There was no Holocaust' column. Read it. It's silly. It argues that the word "holocaust" comes from the Greek: holos, 'whole'; and caust, 'fire'. And, since most Jewish victims were not burnt to death... there was no holocaust.

Yes, you're right, this is daft.

Myers doesn't deny the barbarity that killed millions - indeed, it genuinely outrages him. He denies the description of it as a holocaust. And he denies the precise figure of six million. "For efficient though the Nazis were, they were not so clinically precise as to kill six million Jews - not a Jew more, or not a Jew less."

This is tiresome playing with the colloquial meaning of words. It's inappropriate to a hellish barbarity of recent history.

Why did Myers implode?

Last Sunday's column was a bog-standard attack on the BBC, including a rant against "PC traitors" who refuse to discuss immigration and national identity in terms of which Myers approves.

He compared the BBC with "the infinitely superior Sky Television" (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch, who also owns The Sunday Times). He then sprinkled on some tired old remarks about women and their lack of ambition.

Then - apparently knowing nothing of the BBC of which he was writing - he Googled some names. And when he discovered Feltz and Winkleman are Jewish, he threw that in because - well, it seems, just because.

We rightfully will not stand for any abuse of Jews. But otherwise our sensitivities can be quite blunt.

Some time back, some of the sons and daughters of the privileged announced a "skanger party", in which they decided to make fun of the dress, accent, language and culture of Dublin working class people, the people who built this city, whose hard work sustains the fortunes the wealthy conspire to extract.

On another occasion, Niall Harbison, one of our revered entrepreneurs, described working-class kids jumping into the water at Grand Canal Dock. He wrote of how "the local crime rates plunge" while the "little bastards" are "having their annual wash".

When 10 Travellers, including children, died in a fire at Carrickmines in 2015, many comments on reputable sites such as The Journal and Broadsheet were virulently anti-Traveller.

And we treat refugees today as disgracefully as we treated the Jews seeking escape from the Nazis.

There is much decency in this country - there is also, not far beneath the surface, a lake of racial, ethnic and class contempt.

It is notable that some have excused Myers on the basis that he's a strong defender of Israel. Myers, say some, "inadvertently stumbled into an anti-semitic trope".

Someone left an anti-semitic notion lying around and poor Kevin inadvertently tripped over it.

Never mind. Kevin might stray into anti-semitic language, but politically he supports Israeli policy, so it doesn't count.

However, criticise Israeli policy - in measured terms - and you're routinely dismissed as anti-semitic.

The mainstream media writes the political agenda, in consultation with the large right-wing parties. Today, social media - by its reach and its persistence - seeks to elbow its way into that equation.

There's a constant struggle to influence the agenda. One persistent influence has been the rash of right-wing columnists who rage against "political correctness", or PC.

The notion of "political correctness" belittles those who seek to put inequality and exploitation on the agenda.

It suggests it's all just about a wish to use the "correct" form of words.

More recently, the term "virtue signalling" is used to denigrate those who dissent.

It says inequality and exploitation aren't real, where they exist they are natural effects, nothing deliberate.

And those politically correct people who talk about such matters are merely signalling their virtue to one another - it's all a game.

The even more recent creation of the notion of "fake news" is an even more basic form of the same thing, for those who struggle with the concept of virtue signalling.

Anyone who raises uncomfortable facts can be shouted down with just two words. Kevin Myers started out as a courageous reporter. He became a remarkable columnist, often very funny.

He raised the issue of the Irish who fought in World War I and got it on to the political agenda, at a time when many were uncomfortable with it.

I don't wholly agree with the notion that there was a silent generation, who didn't dare speak of their service for the crown.

Both my grandfathers were in the British army back then, and there were different ways of dealing with that experience.

But Myers had a valid point of view and he persisted with it.

In his later years, he joined the right-wing choir that trolls the rest of us.

His experience last week suggests that the right will continue to prosper politically if they confine their insults to women, the working class and the notion of the generic evil Muslim.

If Myers on BBC Radio was a low point, the funniest moment was surely a tweet by David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, who spent much of the week defending Myers from those who - like Vanessa Feltz - denounced Myers's column as "vile" and "racist".

Quinn wrote that Myers "has apologised for his remark about Feltz/Winkleman. How about an apology for him from those who called him an anti-semite?"

Perhaps the Iona Institute feels Ms Feltz owes Myers an apology for casting aspersions on Kevin's character, out of the blue, without the slightest reason or provocation.

That's some high-class think-tanking, right there.

Sunday Independent

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