Fintan O’Toole: Kevin Myers broke the only rule that matters

If he had stuck with straight misogyny, he would have been fine

BBC presenter Vanessa Feltz has said she felt 'extremely upset by a Kevin Myers column in the Sunday Timeswhich suggested she and Claudia Winkleman earned high salaries because they were Jewish. Video courtesy: BBC Radio London

 

When it is hard to say whether the anti-Semitic tropes are more appalling than the misogynistic stereotypes, the actual construction of the sentences in Kevin Myers’s column in Sunday’s Irish edition of the Sunday Times seem rather a moot point. But there is a relationship between stupid ideas and bad writing, and it is striking that the column is unusually badly written. Myers can write well – sometimes extremely so. The abysmal quality of some of the prose therefore suggests that he wasn’t really thinking about it. The column has an accidental quality. He didn’t notice that he was doing something he generally avoids: insulting people who can answer back.

 The point about this awful writing, though, is that Myers can do much better

Forgive me for inflicting some of this bad prose on you. I’ll keep the examples to two. Here’s an egregiously painful sentence: “Meanwhile, the print media generally have been wrathfully chewing the righteousness carpet.” And here’s an idiotic nonsequitur: “Meanwhile, other broadcasting managers, almost in cultural compensation, have reduced the once majestic BBC Radio 3 to a populist jingoistic travesty, all Elgar, Holst and Williams. The Brexit vote was, in part, a conscious rejection of the largely irrelevant agenda of that depraved and self-regarding metropolitan elite.” The first reads like it was assembled by a computer given a random selection of words, too many of which were adverbs. The second, with its claim that Leave voters were partly motivated by rage at being forced by depraved BBC managers to listen to too much Elgar is as surreal as it is risible.

 The point about this awful writing, though, is that Myers can do much better. This suggests to me that he hardly bothered to read over what he had written – and that his editors hadn’t the heart to do more than glance at it either. And this in turn points to something larger: in the age of Trump, far-right insult has become a kind of automatic writing. What matters is what it is not, which is “politically correct”, aka in line with the most basic standards of decency and good manners. So long as it is not PC, you can sell it by the yard. It’s a generic, mass-produced commodity.

Licence to thrill

It has to be acknowledged that the Murdoch press – where, until Sunday, Myers had a very comfortable berth – is not alone in this. For many years, The Irish Times gave Myers a licence to thrill its broadly liberal readership with the forbidden delights of contrariness. The paper did him no favours when it decided in February 2005, under the influence of a misplaced anxiety about being seen to censor dissenting views, to publish his column calling single mothers “mothers of bastards” and was then very slow to apologise for this gratuitous kick at the weak. What Myers learned from the episode was not to mind his words but that he would be indulged and rewarded for inverting the usual journalistic imperatives and using his formidable talents to afflict the afflicted.

The occupant of the well-upholstered pulpit imagines himself as a valiant voice in the wilderness

The joy of this career choice is that there are so many groups to afflict. All you have to do is make sure your targets are people who have less power than a well-paid male star columnist. You can take your pick of who to pick on: women in general, immigrants, Africans, poor people, Travellers. And while you are doing so you can see yourself, not as a bully, but as a victim, a heroic resister of the PC oppressors. That “mothers of bastards” column begins with Myers dramatising himself as “sitting outside the warm tepee of political correctness, and in the howling blizzard of reality”. The occupant of the well-upholstered pulpit imagines himself as a valiant voice in the wilderness.

Acceptable drivel

Let’s not kid ourselves: Myers would still be in that pulpit if he had stuck with straight misogyny. The keynotes of his column on Sunday were on familiar themes – that women are to blame for the discrimination they suffer because they work less hard than men, are less charismatic and driven and have the bad taste to have babies. This drivel is perfectly acceptable, especially when it is seasoned, as Myers’s column was, with sycophantic signals to Rupert Murdoch: Sky TV wonderful, BBC “depraved”, Brexit good, equality nonsense, rich white men great.

Jewish people have learned to be alert to the tropes of anti-Semitism and to call them out when they see them. It’s a matter of survival

Myers’s problem, though, is that this stuff is everywhere now. It is no longer contrarian: the president of the United States spouts it. Far-right rhetoric runs on automatic pilot. You don’t have to think about it. And it is obvious that Myers didn’t and nor did his editors. It was just standard-issue bile. Even those who trade in it are bored by it.

But they failed to notice they were sleepwalking across a line. They broke the only rule that matters – don’t pick on people who can answer back. Jewish people have learned from the most abysmal experiences to be alert to the tropes of anti-Semitism and to call them out when they see them. It’s a matter of survival. Myers was probably half asleep and wholly bored when he threw in some of those tropes to try to enliven the corpse of a moribund column. He woke up out in the cold he has so long pretended to enjoy inhabiting.

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