David Starkey: No Refuge in Cultural Arguments

British historian David Starkey’s indiscretion continues to rankle among the morally uplifted (“David Starkey’s views on race disgrace the academic world, say historians.”) 102 academics are horrified by his behavior, complaining that

his crass generalisations about black culture and white culturrrre as oppositional, monolithic entities demonstrate a failure to grasp the subtleties of race and class that would disgrace a first-year history undergraduate. In fact, it appears to us that the BBC was more interested in employing him for his on-screen persona and tendency to make comments that viewers find offensive than for his skills as a historian. (See the letter here.)

This episode is a good example of policing elite levels of discourse. People like Starkey represent a potentially grave threat to the system because they not only have excellent academic credentials, they also have access to the elite media. Deviations from the path of moral and political righteousness by people with Starkey’s stature must be severely punished. If at all possible, he must be removed from access to the elite media. The letter clearly aims at getting Starkey removed from his position at the BBC:

We the undersigned would therefore ask that the BBC and other broadcasters think carefully before they next invite Starkey to comment as a historian on matters for which his historical training and record of teaching, research and publication have ill-fitted him to speak.

I suppose it’s fair enough to bring up Starkey’s lack of academic publications on current race relations, although I rather doubt that they would have been disturbed if he had blamed it all on an evil monolithic White culture.  In the original interview he mentioned a study he did of rap lyrics illustrating a Black subculture of hyper-masculinity, dominance, and violence. This is the culture he was portraying as at the root of the rioting, both because it is common among Blacks (Starkey explicitly stated it didn’t characterize all Blacks, so his comments are quite compatible with different Black sub-cultures) and because the (relatively few) Whites involved seem to have similar tendencies.

The historians’ letter simply asserts that things are more subtle and differentiated than Starkey represented them without saying exactly how they are more subtle and differentiated in a way that would make a difference to what Starkey is saying. One would think that  when attacking  a colleague, they might feel a little guilty for not being more specific–that they would feel a need to say what added subtlety would have cleared away all the clouds. I guess the idea is that if moral righteousness is on your side, you don’t have the usual scholarly obligations.

The letter also accuses him of bad behavior:  “He simply shouted [criticism] down; instead of debating his fellow panellists from a position of knowledge, he belittled and derided them.” I guess they were watching a different program than I did; again, I rather doubt Starkey’s behavior–after all, he was being vigorously attacked–would bother them if they agreed with his opinions.

It strikes me that these historians really don’t like the idea of culture as an explanation pretty much on the same grounds that they don’t like race. That is, these leftist academic activists would be aghast at the idea that biologically-based genetic differences made Blacks more prone to violence and criminality. So they throw race out and label anyone who suggests that race may be relevant as a “racist” or “Nazi”. Starkey neatly avoids talk about the biology of race. But his talk about a violent, hyper-masculine Black sub-culture is also objectionable because it locates the problematic culture in a subset of Black folks.

We see this all the time in the U.S. For example, the official view is more or less that poor school performance is entirely a problem of inadequate teachers and inadequate funding. Never the nature or even the nurture of the children. Recall Ronald Brownstein’s recent urging that we should “compensate” for Black family patterns and focus our efforts on spending more money. Lots more money. The problem is most definitely not in Blacks or their culture. End of story.

Actually, Brownstein commits a sin against political correctness by even referring to Black family patterns; way too monolithic to please these historians. If we took these academics seriously we wouldn’t be able to make any generalizations about a group at all. Obfuscation in the name of science–a field pioneered by Franz Boas with massive success: “Because of its rejection of fundamental scientific activities such as generalization and classification, Boasian anthropology may thus be characterized more as an anti-theory than a theory of human culture,” citing Leslie White (” The social organization of ethnological theory.”Rice University Studies: Monographs in Cultural Anthropology 52(4):1–66, 1966, 15; see here, p. 25). The left is nothing if not creative in its approaches to science.

So the lesson for Starkey is clear: If he wants to remain in the good graces of his colleagues, he should attribute the rioting to poverty or something else where the blame is on some aspect of society that can be targeted by yet more social programs. Then they would be proud to have him labeled a historian when he is introduced by the BBC–whatever his expertise.

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