Tuesday 7 March 2017

The Stupidity of Melanie Phillips

It's chip wrappings now, but I still wanted to say a few things about Melanie Phillips and her egregious stupidity. In case you missed it, she caused a flap with this article that made a number of tendentious claims. Namely that Great Britain is an ancient nation whose existence predated the Act of Union, and is therefore indivisible while, at the same time, Ireland "has a tenuous claim to nationhood"

This is Mel up to her old tricks. Back in her day as an ideologue-in-residence at, where else?, The Daily Mail, she regularly churned out awful rubbish and racist hogwash. She in fact pioneered trolling in national newspapers as a business model. Why rely on the crusty old Colonel Blimps - for whom the internet is communism, or something - when you can pile up the visits and advertising rates by hooking in lefty audiences outraged at explicit displays of bigotry? It's a lesson the gutter press and its scribblers have long taken aboard, and it works. Would I be writing about this if no one paid her any attention?

Take her points about Linda Colley and Benedict Anderson. Judging by her brief discussion of their analysis of nationalities and nationalism, she never got past the blurb on the back of either Britons: Forging the Nation nor Imagined Communities. She falsely attributes them the argument that because nations were artificial ("invented") they could therefore be declared and dissolved. Um, no. Modern British identity is a contradictory mishmash of the reactionary and the progressive, of a nostalgic paean to a bloody legacy of conquest and empire, and a contemporary tolerance of difference and inclusivity. The bits and the bobs fixing these coordinates in popular consciousness are moments and personalities deemed to embody nationally-inflected values and character. And you know what, Mel? These are argued over constantly. Each generation comes onto the scene and rewrites the national story. Different narratives are conceived (invented, if you like) and consciously pushed by politicians, intellectuals, and movements from above and below. Each rewrite works upon the inheritance of past iterations, which carries material weight among institutions, education systems, modes of habit and thought, and so on. No rewrite is total, but the nation can be significantly redefined. And, of course, Mel knows this. If she believed the British character was an eternal set of values unchanged from Roman times, she wouldn't spend her time fulminating at the liberal turn British national identity has taken, or the cultural "threats" posed by the sundry brown-skinned minorities she despises.

On self-contradiction, she says Britain forged a national identity out of fending off successive waves of invaders to these shores. The British national story certainly draws on those experiences long after the fact, but in her addled brain, has she not considered that the Irish might also arrive at a common sense of nationhood through being on the receiving end of invasion, occupation, colonisation, emigration, partition and liberation? Climactic events like the Irish Rebellion, the Potato Famine, the Easter Rising, as far as Mel is concerned are these "improper" to hang a national narrative on? Can only the experience of being a conquering nation, of being at the centre of mighty empires just as the French, Germans, Russians were be the correct conditions under which authentic nationhood is forged? Again, we know she doesn't really believe this. As one of Israel's most fanatical and uncritical cheerleaders, she accepts the official narrative of Jews being a nation prior to the state's foundation in 1948. Experiences of persecution, repression, and genocide are legitimate building blocks for nations that get Mel's seal of approval in this case, but not for countries she dislikes.

The thing is we know Mel really believes her stuff, which makes her so bankable. But what this article betrays is a mindset in which the spark of intellect fizzled out long ago. Putting forward arguments that are self-contradicting at some points, and show her up to be a massive hypocrite in others and all the while indulging wilful misinterpretation of people she disagrees with betrays a deeply stupid, vanishingly dim, petty-minded character. Don't let anyone tell you that her and her like get a national platform on the basis of merit.


Speedy said...

Wow. As you said, further to that how could a cheerleader for Israel call the Irish Free State tenuous?! I would add that Ireland has probably a greater claim to identity than England, having been demonstrably and continuously Irish since before records began and its monks converting the heathen before Rome asserted authority. But is a Trump Brexit age I guess any old bollocks will do.

James Semple said...

As you yourself point out, Phillips and the mogul press generally prosper from the publicity generated by your indignation. Best to ignore their ravings.

David Timoney said...

There is one telling omission in her sub-Sellars & Yeatman story: the Anglo-Saxons, those economic migrants who swamped the British (i.e. the Welsh, with their "residual" language) long after Hadrian's Wall was built.

The arrival of Hengist and Horsa is generally considered providential in traditional conservative historiography. In Victorian times, one of the more bizarre manifestations of this was the British Israelite Movement, which believed that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were actually the lost tribes of Israel, thereby making Britain the true promised land ("And did those feet ..." etc).

It would be easy to interpret Phillips's unionist and anti-EU rhetoric as a proxy for the defence of the state of Israel (the Palestinians being as "tenuous" as the Irish), but perhaps a deeper reading is that Brexit has revived some very odd thinking from our Imperial heyday. They don't call her Mad Mel for nothing.

Nik said...

Imagine the likes of Philips stripped of their upper-crust accents and upper-class social nous and they'd be immediately dismissed as reactionary thugs.

kailyard rules said...

Nik @ 04:38

She is a reactionary thug. They don't all come with bovver boots and clubs.