18 October 2012
Priggishness, wrote Marilynne Robinson “is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring.”
“Reassuring” is not quite strong enough. Prigs use conventional beliefs as a weapon – defensive and offensive – of self-justification. You come across it all the time on the behaviour of certain types of people. Implicitly they say: ‘I am anti-racist/anti- carbon emissions/pro-organic/anti-child abuse/anti-war, therefore I am good and cannot, in way, be accused of being bad.’ I suppose this is harmless, gently comic in fact, and the last seven hundred years of English literature would have been profoundly impoverished if all prigs had spontaneously seen the light and reformed just before Chaucer.
There is, however, the constant danger of mission creep when it comes to priggery and it is this that creates a new, more dangerous variant – the Prig Imperiale. I come across it quite frequently among people who confuse races with nations. Laughing at somebody because they are of another race is racism, no question, but laughing at the manners and mores of another country is not. I hardly need to explain to readers of this blog why, but I will briefly. To mock somebody because of their race is to suggest their inner worth, their essence if you like, is necessarily lessened by their race, to mock national characteristics is to pick out, as it were, accidental, non-essential features. All comedy on all subjects does this in one form or another. In fact, national jokes are very good things since it is difficult to go to war if both sides are creased up with laughter. (Of course, there are vicious jokes about countries but these are not bad because they attack a nation, they are bad because they are vicious.)
I suppose this is harmless, gently comic in fact, and the last seven hundred years of English literature would have been profoundly impoverished if all prigs had spontaneously seen the light and reformed just before Chaucer
The Prig Imperiale thinks otherwise. Yesterday on Twitter – sorry, but it is the source of all my blog ideas now – somebody called The Firm (@TheFirmOnline) took exception to my remark about this video – ‘Let’s be honest,’ I tweeted, “it’s funnier because he’s German.’ Obviously this it the case because certain German cadences sound funny to English ears and because of the reversal of stereotypical expectations, Here is a German who is not being efficient and humourless, here is a German who is being a clown of incompetence, like, say Tommy Cooper. Yet The Firm detected ‘The unmistakeable stench of casual racism.’
This judgment is not entirely objective. The Firm Online is a magazine for the legal profession, a trade which would benefit from billions of dollars of global revenue if imperial priggery won the the day. They would, for example, be able to act for the British government against the producers of the US comedy show Frasier which repeatedly, through the character of Daphne, mocks British cars, pubs and food. They would be called in to advise the Swedish and Danish governments on how to prevent the broadcasts of The Killing and Wallander overseas as they show their countries as eminently mockable zones of unrelieved misery and depression. Mr Bean and Fawlty Towers would have to be banned because they hold up British stereotypes for mockery. The Canadian authorities, of course, would be perpetually in the courts, taking action against jokers who suggested that they were boring and ensuring the eradication of South Park because of their song ‘Blame Canada’. Finally, lawyers could organise the burning of all P.G.Wodehouse’s books – they represent Britain as a land of ‘intellectually negligible’ toffs.
One can hardly, therefore, blame The Firm for adopting imperial priggery as a sound business strategy. For the rest of is, as so often happens with legal bright ideas, it would be a disaster. The big, serious consequence of imperial priggery would be the dilution of the good, genuine cause at the root of this mission creep. Spend your time objecting to national jokes and you will forget all about the real thing – in this case racism. I notice nobody called me a racist when I tweeted ‘What is wrong with the Serbs?” yesterday. Quite right, their current accidental characteristics are no joke.