Sunday Times, 10 April 2016
I recently saw Justin Bieber on a TV chat show in America and concluded he was a bit thick. Then I felt guilty and decided he was sick, not thick. Inventing a diagnosis on the spot, I concluded he was suffering from CIA (celebrity induced autism). This afflicts people in their teens who have had a showbusiness “personality” dumped on them before they had a chance to attain personhood.
Up to the age of two a baby’s brain generates neuronal connections at the rate of 700 a second. After two the brain starts cropping these excess connections and it is not until the early twenties that the brain reaches its adult state. Bieber was discovered when he was 13; he became world famous at 15. Something went wrong with the cropping process.
Something else has gone wrong with Bieber’s cropping. He has acquired dreadlocks. This, it turns out, is forbidden in some quarters because it amounts to the “appropriation” of black culture by a white pop star.
So? Well, in America this word has gone viral. A production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was shut down because it had “appropriated” Japanese culture. In Maine some students have been banned from wearing sombreros because they belong to Mexican culture. Another CIA sufferer, Miley Cyrus, has been condemned, as has the reality TV star Kylie Jenner, for adopting cornrows. And so on. A video has emerged from a US campus of a white student being bullied because of his dreadlocks.
This is another startling addition to the ever-lengthening list of things we must be offended by. It follows a yoga class banned because of “cultural issues” in Canada and a New Orleans-themed summer ball in Oxford condemned as “nostalgia for an era of history steeped in racism”.
Ian McEwan was recently cornered on the subject of some annoyingly sane and perfectly humane remarks on transgender matters as, previously, was Germaine Greer. Last year the National Union of Students adopted a policy to stop gay men “appropriating” black culture.
Some of the current outrage is, admittedly, driven by nothing more than the need to feed the slavering maw of the internet — notably Twitter and Facebook — with ever more lethal doses of outrage. But, more alarmingly, it is also driven by academic terror at the prospect of being found on the wrong side of any argument with students.
Or academic glee. Appropriation was the subject of a bizarre, head-clutching — and, on closer examination, entirely nonsensical — item on BBC2’s Newsnight last week in which an academic, Emma Dabiri, fiercely defended those who were outraged by these cross-cultural exchanges. Black culture in particular may be “appreciated” but not “appropriated”, a distinction that, I fear, may further confuse poor Justin.
The high point of the show was when, from New York, Chimene Suleyman, a writer, told us that white students had defended dreads on the basis that Vikings and Celts had worn them. To this, Suleyman responded that this meant that black culture was being extirpated in “favour of a group of people who haven’t existed for the past 1,000 years”.
The BBC should really look into the possibilities of a noxious drivel filter.
In fairness, Newsnight was right to take this subject seriously. The politics of outrage and identity (defining social roles entirely by whether people are black, gay, female, whatever) and the revelling in victimhood have lately taken an explicitly illiberal and Stalinist turn.
McEwan and the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who has found himself being labelled “transphobic”, are liberal men, defenders of tolerance, but suddenly, like one of Stalin’s bewildered loyalists, they found they had to take a bullet in the back of the head.
The first point to make here is that if you ban appropriation, more or less the entire culture vanishes in a puff of smoke: from the Beatles and the Stones (the blues) to Romanesque architecture (Byzantium) and Picasso (African art).
The second point is the stupidity of the assault on liberalism. This may give people of a certain age a shudder of déjà vu. The radicals of the 1960s and 1970s were, reasonably, angry about the Vietnam War but then, less reasonably, they moved on to liberal democracy.
They found succour in the thoughts of philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse who, I notice, has returned to haunt us. The good news is that he was brilliantly lampooned in the Coen brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!; the bad news is that he is being adopted by a new generation of students.
The man was a prat who wrote, among other things, that freedom would come when we imposed “intolerance against movements from the right and toleration of movements from the left” or, to translate, you’re free if you agree with me.
Marcuse is now being used to argue against any distinction between speech and action, which is why preventing people speaking at universities — “no-platforming” — has become so commonplace.
Within reason, this distinction is critical to the stabilising function of liberal discourse.
Poor Justin’s hair now seems to have been dragged into the Marcusian dialectic. Supposedly his “do” victimises blacks but the only victim here is a bewildered Bieber.
People say, he said in response, that “you wanna be black and all that stuff, I’m like: it’s just my hair.”
Out of the mouths of babes and CIA-sufferers . . .