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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Vulgarity

In the post below, Jonathan quotes Theodore Dalrymple saying the following rather mind-boggling statement.

“[Journalists are taxed at lower rates than normal people] … this is a considerable privilege, definitely worth preserving. It creates an identity of interest between the elite and the journalists, who are inhibited from revealing too much about anyone with powerful protectors.”

He thinks this is a good thing? Seriously? Journalists have an incentive to cover up the wrongdoings of the powerful, and this is good?

Leaving aside the obvious corollary of this, that France effectively licenses journalists, I personally do not think that politicians and bureaucrats should have any right to privacy whatsoever. They choose to go into politics, and they are trusted with our money and are given considerable power over us. In return, everything they do up to and including going to the toilet should be subject to scrutiny. They should have some protection against being libelled (but even then a relatively weak right – the burden of proof should be on the politician and it should be necessary to prove both untruth and malice). In truth I am not that keen on extending much of a right to privacy to anyone else either. As long as you are telling the truth, you should generally be able to say it out loud, in any forum. This is one case where the Americans have it right with the First Amendment.

As for the vulgarisation of culture, London is the most culturally vibrant city in Europe. Culturally speaking, Paris today is about as interesting as English food circa 1955. At least, Paris inside the peripherique is. There are some interesting things going on in rap music, language and art in some of Paris’ suburbs, but I doubt that Dalrymple is much of a fan. The price of cultural interestingness may be some vulgarity, but who gets to decide what is vulgar and what is art? Old men decrying the tastes of yoof today, I guess. The Nazis were very keen on doing this, too. As are the Chinese communists.

China is a deeply authoritarian place. As a consequence of that, the country is culturally pretty dead. The Chinese watch imported movies, and encourage their children to learn to play western classical music. What is produced domestically and gets wide distribution is frighteningly bland, which is what happens under authoritarian regimes. Interesting things can be going on underneath, which can sometimes lead to cultural explosions when the authoritarian regimes are gone (see Spanish and South Korean post-dictatorship cinema, for instance), but China is a way from that.

Who do you compare China with, though? There is one obvious rival.

In late April, a couple of days after some unspeakable barbarians had exploded a bomb in a restaurant in Marrakesh, I was sitting in a cafe in Fez, in a more northern part of Morocco. As in many cafes worldwide, there was a television in the room. This was showing a soap opera of some kind on a pan-Arabic TV channel. (There are many, many, many pan-Arabic TV channels. They are run out of Qatar and Dubai. Moroccan roofs have more satellite dishes on them than I have seen anywhere else on earth). This particular pan-Arab channel was showing a soap opera or a popular movie of some kind.

In any event, the program in question contained some Islamic symbols. There were mosques in the background of a few scenes. The TV was showing subtitles in Arabic. I am not sure if that was because the program was originally in some other language or if these were just closed captions in the same language as the original material, turned on because there was a lot of background noise. (It may have been that the program was in fact Pakistani, and the original language was Urdu, but I am not sure). In any event, though, the program contained musical dance numbers of a form that were familiar to me. And there were slightly more bare female midriffs than one expects on TV in an Arab country. I expect there were more than one sees on domestic Moroccan TV, too, which partially explains the satellite dishes. Morocco is authoritarian enough to censor its own TV, but not authoritarian enough to attempt to ban the dishes.

The program was not made in India, but the grammar of the program was entirely that of Bollywood. In North-West Africa, in the Arab world, one of the leading cultural influences is clearly India. This is hardly surprising. Go to Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Qatar and who does the actual work? People from South Asia; Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. Even when they are making programs for Arab markets, they use their own cultural reference points. Even when making programs for their own market, Pakistanis use Indian cultural reference points. However it happens, and however second or third hand it comes, the cultural influence of Bombay on the Middle East and North Africa is clearly immense

And is Bollywood vulgar? Oh Lord yes. More conservative Indians elsewhere in the country denounce its amoral wickedness as much as anyone in America has ever denounced Hollywood. The entertainment industries of India are run by gangsters at least as depraved as any who have ever run Hollywood or Las Vegas. It isn’t any great coincidence that the most savage terrorist attack carried out by Islamic extremists in recent years was on the city of Bombay. This is the heart of wickedness and vulgarity, and they know where the enemy is. Indian culture is vibrant and vulgar. On the surface and in the mass market at least, Chinese culture is dead. And Indian culture is the country’s greatest weapon against its enemies.

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8 comments to Vulgarity

  • The Pedant-General

    “He thinks this is a good thing? Seriously? ”

    Willing to be corrected here, but I think you may have misinterpretted this.

    It is perfectly possible to read his comment as saying that the journalists think that this is a perk well worth preserving, not that he thinks so himself.

    that’s certainly how I read it.

  • RAB

    Well stand to be corrected then PG…

    Since most policies are carried to excess at some time or another, the question amounts to this: do you prefer the vulgarisation of culture to the impunity of the powerful? Within limits – and clearly there are limits in France – I prefer the latter.”

  • Jack Olson

    I suspect Pedant General is correct, that Dalrymple means that it’s the journos who think their privileges are well worth preserving and not that they are worthwhile to the country. Every privileged group thinks its privileges are worth preserving.

    I didn’t know that France subsidizes its newspapers although I have heard other European countries do. What a great way to ensure insightful journalism, to give all the reporters part of their paychecks from the Ministry of Truth.

  • I, too, read the quote from Dalrymple as not exactly approving of the tax privileges of journalists. He explicitly says that the level of collusion between journalists and the powerful in France is too high, and he’d prefer it to be lower, but if forced to choose between the French way and the British way, he’d choose the French.

    Personally, this is one area where I say “We are British, thank God!” with no irony at all. But in fairness to Dalrymple, he does not think the identity of interest is good, just less bad than something else.

    However, I found all that something of a distraction to the really interesting discussion of the cultural influence of India.

    I am glad, glad indeed, to hear of this – particularly from someone like yourself who has travelled widely and is not likely to be deceived by one chance observation. It ties in with something I have read about in Iran: apparently Indian, South American and Japanese soaps are very popular there.

    The Western front is not the only front in the culture wars. Where the West is hated, these other cultures may be much more likely to penetrate. Unlike some here I don’t think that the Arab / Muslim (and yes, I am aware the two are distinct) is simply bad. It has been relatively tolerant, productive and “alive” in the past, and the future is an unknown country. But its worst aspects are dominant in this era, so when I hear of such subversion by the living, vulgar, tolerant culture of Bollywood, I rejoice – as much for those subverted, or enriched as I would put it, as for us in the West. Cultures can change, absorb and flicker back into life when all seemed dead.

  • Should have been “Arab / Muslim culture” in my last.

  • Yes, he is clearly saying it is a privilege worth preserving from the point of view of the journalist. I misread it. Bad me. But he is still saying something approaching “Paying journalists to cover up the offences of politicians is a price worth paying, as in return we get something resembling authoritarian censorship of things I don’t like”. The more I reread it and think about what he is saying, the creepier I find it, none the less. It is a shame I made this mistake, because rereading it, I rather like what I wrote in the rest of the post

    Dalrymple’s descriptions are diagnoses of what is wrong with welfare states are generally spot on, but he is ultimately an authoritarian conservative who hates popular culture. As someone who loves popular culture, I confess I find his view of the world a rather dreary one.

  • Tom Perkins

    “untruth and malice”

    throw in “or carelessness”, and I’m happy with that.

  • Paul Marks

    In Indian culture (either news or entertainment) where is the warning against copying the Western Welfare States (which the ruling elite is determined to do) – where is the warning? I do not see it.

    If culture is just about singing and dancing – then Chinese and American television (“Glee” for example – with its standard mix of entertainment and leftist poltical messages, for Fox entertainment is no different from teh rest) can do that just as well as India can.

    I am no expert on Indian entertainment – but let me guess…..

    Is it full of evil landlords and big businessmen?