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Aaronovitch on Backward Whites

I recently wrote a post called ‘The Colourblind leading the Colourblind regarding the casting of Dev Patel in Armando Iannucci’s film, ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield.’ The Times journalist, David Aaronovitch, has waded into the battle with a piece today called ‘We’re Edging Towards a Colourblind Future’ which you may find behind a Times paywall. The piece parades Aaronovitch’s confusions and allegiance to the usual tedious liberal shibboleths.

In the New Jerusalem which is surely just around the corner all humans will be treated equally in the sense that the mere possession of a human heart and a set of human cognitive apparatus, regardless of racial or cultural characteristics will be all that qualifies them for respect and a seat at the table. Most sane people would subscribe to the appeal of such a distant and attractive vision while acknowledging that they need to get on with their lives here on Planet Earth. Here there is not a cultural and racial vacuum like a clean Etch-a-Sketch page on which liberals can curate their magpie, multi-cultural vision of a perfect world for their friends. The Good Lord, or, if you are an atheist like Aaronovitch, blind Evolution and the accidents of history have seen fit to make certain characteristics difficult not to notice and to define human experience in certain ways (without which it would cease to be human experience as we know it to the point that there would be nothing left to talk about at all). Among these number race, culture and gender for starters. It could be argued that these are the very things that make life interestingly exotic for everyone on all sides but that’s another argument.

In spite of this Aaronovitch applauds the fact that Iannucci’s Copperfield ‘says no to….the idea that human beings have identities rooted first and foremost in their race or “native” cultures.’ In this he paints himself as a kind of free-floating and untethered creature whose cognitive being has in no way been formed by a western consciousness, western literacy or British history and culture. He is merely a post-modern crossing place who, nevertheless exhibits the will and agency that can express opinions in the Times in the infinitely culturally enmeshed cultural attribute of the English language. It is interesting that, in spite of all of this he has had a great deal to say on the subject of his Jewish, er, cultural background in recent times. There is also the Marxist cultural inheritance he received from his parents – a very distinctive form of, er, culture.

He makes other errors equating the conventional suspension of disbelief we exercise when we see Meryl Streep play Florence Foster Jenkins (he points out that we know it’s not really FFJ!) with a similar unconventional suspension of disbelief we should exercise when Iannucci places a Chinese father with a black daughter before us in his film. He also thinks the convention, alive in Shakespeare’s time, of not noticing trouser roles still operates. Basically, he thinks humans can operate without conventions.

A lot of this can be explained by Iannucci’s style. In The Thick of It he amusingly evoked a chaotic absurdist world untethered from a reality where things make sense. In The Death of Stalin he presented us with a wacky, hyper-real comic vision which had often tenuous links with historical reality and now he gives us “the London of Dickens’ day….. portrayed (in racial terms) by the London of today.” It’s all very meta, very post-modern and a bit mad. It buys into a certain distinctive ideological stance on these things that not everyone agrees with. Of course he’s perfectly at liberty to project such a vision just as we are at liberty to demur over its attractiveness and to find it rather queasy and unpleasantly agenda-pushing. It might seem, to quote Jane Austen, to be pushing things as facts “universally acknowledged” that the majority don’t acknowledge. We’ve had plenty of that recently. Aaronovitch might explain that failure to applaud with reference to the ‘backward whites’ who ‘fetishise’ (rather than simply acknowledge the existence of) race he cites in his article.

We are not god-like curators of the parameters of our own reality. We are finite creatures (WH Auden was good on the subject of our finitude in his Ode to Terminus) who find ourselves, without being consulted, in a world where things are defined by racial and cultural characteristics. What decides whether we are good people or not is how we react to these immutable facts not an insane attempt to pretend they don’t exist or to erase them.

At one point Aaronovitch asks whether Austen’s Emma’s grandpa might not have “married a dark woman in the West Indies.” Well, yes, it’s not impossible just as it’s not impossible that a Sikh (most of whose brothers were fighting for the British Empire in Mesopotamia) might have stumbled into an all-white regiment on the Western Front. However, the fact that it is so staggeringly statistically unlikely but is there anyway has a significance we can’t just ignore if we are intelligent. It means something. We can all read the signs. No one is insisting that race is our "first and main identifier", to use the pseudo-scientific geneticists' language Aaronovitch enlists to his cause to give it scientific glamour. People are defined ultimately by their moral behaviour. However, that moral drama takes place in a world where racial characteristics and cultures can't just be wished away with a lifting of the Etch-a-Sketch page. To do that isn't sophisticated. Photo -

Gaius Cornelius - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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