The attack dog of mainstream misanthropy
With his hatred of nightclubs and blokes, his constant carping about what’s on TV, and his recent campaign to censure a newspaper columnist, Charlie Brooker is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Mary Whitehouse.
A recurring conceit in Charlie Brooker’s column in the Guardian is that Brooker – a ‘prick’ and an ‘absolute shit’ who writes ‘gibberish’ (his words, but I won’t quibble) – doesn’t really belong in such an apparently respectable organ. ‘I’m amazed I get published in a newspaper’, he recently said in an interview. He takes this teenage complaint of ‘I’m really crap, but everyone thinks I’m brilliant, how fucked up is that?’ a step further in his published collection of columns, titled The Hell of it All. Next to the logo of Faber & Faber, one of the poshest and most esteemed publishing houses in Britain, there is Brooker again describing himself as a ‘hideous Q-list celebrity failure’. Hmmm. Something doesn’t quite add up, does it reader?
Brooker’s conceit is actually quite clever, very clever, probably the cleverest thing in his weekly outpourings, the vast majority of which feel like having a conversation with a 15-year-old boy suffering from adjectivitis who imagines he is the first person in history to hate the modern world and everyone who inhabits it when in fact everyone from William Blake to Joseph Goebbels to Mary Whitehouse got there yonks before him. Because in presenting himself as a gatecrasher in the world of liberal letters, a grumpy outsider who talks bollocks but keeps on getting published for some inexplicable reason, Brooker can suppress what for him is clearly an unpalatable truth: that he is feted in the Guardian and by Faber & Faber and on BBC Four because his views, far from being ‘fucking weird’, chime perfectly with the stony-faced miserabilism that passes for Being A Liberal these days. Brooker has perfected his act as obtuse, overgrown teenager to disguise what he increasingly really is: the attack dog of mainstream misanthropy.
To anyone who has ever suffered a dinner party, read a broadsheet or met someone called Hermione, Will or Ethan, there will be nothing surprising in Brooker’s worldview. The only distinction is that he espouses the worldview – let’s call it middle-class miserabilism just to wind people up – with a few more f-words, c-words and s-words attached than you would normally hear at a Nigella-inspired soirée. (Like Richard Curtis, Brooker thinks saying ‘fuck’ is automatically funny.) You want some handwringing about working-class blokes? Brooker’s yer man, asking ‘Is there a single force in the universe worse than swaggering, cocksure, stupid young men? Because I’m struggling to think of one.’ You want some trendy anti-humanism? Brooker won’t disappoint. ‘Hooray for us humans… Global warming, terrorism, bird flu, peak oil, gun crime, David Cameron.’
If it’s Chinaphobia you’re after, because as we all know those Chinese are not only killing their own people but potentially the rest of us with lead-riddled toys and pollution, Brooker will deliver. ‘It cost around £50million and was probably rehearsed at the shooty end of a machine gun’, he said of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. ‘Dance, beloved populace! Miss three steps and we take out your kneecaps. Miss five and we go for the head.’ Or if you like to read quite sly and totally unconvincing defences of the European Union against its populist critics (er, like the millions of Irish, French and Dutch people who have continually told the EU to piss off?), then check out Brooker lamenting the ‘pointless piece[s] of eye-rolling anti-EU extrapolation’ that frequently appear in newspapers. Apparently if you think the EU is undemocratic and censorious and stuffed to its rafters with rotters, then you must be a slave to the Daily Mail Death Star.
Or if your favourite liberal prejudice is that the mass of the population is stupid, especially for daring to question the Gospel According to Science, then you’ll enjoy a Brooker column titled ‘Minds wide shut’ in which he says ‘huge swathes of the general public’ hate scientists because ‘they’re always spoiling our fun, pointing out homeopathy doesn’t work or ghosts don’t exist EVEN THOUGH they KNOW we REALLY, REALLY want to believe in them.’ (Brooker’s capitals. No, I don’t know why either.) Elsewhere Brooker says the British public is ‘gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms, from crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns’. Because we’re so stupid, you see! Or REALLY fucking STUPID, as Brooker might say. Of course, and I know I don’t even have to say this, Brooker says not a jot about climate change ‘bullshit’, which has been shown recently to contain some dodgy science of its own and which also encourages in its adherents cranky rituals and a belief in stupid fairytales (complete with floods, carbon monsters and drowning puppies).
Or if you’re the kind of broadsheet reader who likes being titillated by stories of young people’s disgusting drinking habits and sexual shenanigans, then you’ll enjoy Brooker’s comments on young men in Glasgow (who drink ‘pints of phlegm’) or his attack on nightclubs (which are ‘insufferable dungeons of misery’ with smelly young people ‘preening and jigging about like desperate animals’). At least when the Sun bangs on about feral youth and drunken chavs it gives us some scandalous photographs to gawp at – in Brooker’s world we have only his sixth-form-style writing to inform us that Britain is going to hell in a horny, drunken handcart.
For all Brooker’s protestations about being an outsider who produces little more than ‘misanthropic scribblings’, not one of these views would be out of place in… how do we describe that world today? ‘Islington’ is over, ‘dinner party’ is too broad, and ‘Guardian-reading set’ is probably unfair since I’m sure lots of people read the Guardian simply to get their news. But you know what world I mean, that secluded, chattering world where they fret about loud blokes and sluttish women; where they love the EU (but they’re not really sure why) and fear China; where Scientific Truth has become a new kind of religion, especially to the extent that it reveals the stupidity of the mass of the population; and where panic about global warming and cynicism towards mainstream, democratic politics mix together to create a powerful mood of misanthropy that boils to the surface of so much daily commentary.
The real reason Brooker titillates some people, such as at Faber & Faber and in the commissioning offices of the BBC where he presents a TV-baiting TV show called Screenwipe, is not because he is daring and different, but because he says what they already think but in a more bizarre, violent and gruff manner. So he doesn’t only fret about cocksure young men, for example, like every other talking head in the land does – he also fantasises about beating them into submission, Orwellian-style, where ‘if you want a vision of the perfect future, picture a boot stamping on a gurgling blokey face – forever’. It is this frisson of violence, a bubbling-under-the-surface desire for vengeance against the ‘Dumb’ (one of Brooker’s favourite words), that excites and enthralls various editors and TV men, who also imagine doing such things but never reveal their imaginings out loud (far less actually try to carry them out – they’d get battered). Brooker’s success is not as weird as he would have us believe – it merely confirms that miserabilism and misanthropy are trendy, and that today’s liberal intelligentsia is actually not that liberal nor very intelligent.
Indeed, in many ways, Brooker is the Mary Whitehouse of our age. Like her, he is alarmed by the garish antics of young people. Like her, he is shocked by what happens in nightclubs. And like her, he has made a career from moaning about what is on the box. Whitehouse was a constant campaigner against smut on TV, while Brooker, in a modern twist on that conservative, purple-haired approach to ‘shocking content’, makes a living from writing about the dross they show on TV and presenting a TV show that ridicules it. Of course, the only difference between Whitehouse and Brooker is that he doesn’t want to censor smut. Er, actually…
Last year Brooker took his intolerant screeds to their logical conclusion when he encouraged readers of his Guardian column to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir’s now-notorious and apparently homophobic piece on Stephen Gateley published in the Daily Mail. Describing himself as ‘still struggling to absorb the sheer scope of [Moir’s] hateful idiocy’, Brooker provided readers with a link to the PCC’s complaints page. Thanks to his and other commentators’ efforts, more than 20,000 people complained, further puffing up the PCC as judge, jury and executioner of what is permissible in media debate and further shrinking the parameters of ‘acceptable discourse’. Where Whitehouse wanted to ban stuff that offended God, Brooker wants to block stuff that offends gays. The end result, though, is the same: whipped-up hysteria in the service of censorship.
Some will argue that there’s a difference between censoring someone (Whitehouse’s tactic) and censuring them (Brooker’s preferred method). In fact, ‘censureship’ is the new censorship. In our relativistic world of moral uncertainty, it is almost impossible to have any traditional system of censorship, of rules governing what can and cannot be said, for that would require devising a moral outlook and enforcing it. So laws and organisations that brutally blocked the broadcasting or publication of ‘offensive’ material have slowly been replaced by new groups – Ofcom, the PCC, the Advertising Standards Authority – that censure after broadcast or publication, usually in the bullshit name of ‘public opinion’. That way, the parameters of debate can still be controlled without the arduous task of having to use moral judgement to proscribe certain ideas and arguments. And you know what? That just about sums up Brooker and today’s numerous other middle-class miserabilists, too: they don’t know what they’re for, they don’t really have a morality, but boy do they know what they hate: you, me, the Daily Mail, blokes, Simon Cowell, Christians, homeopaths, motorists, holidaymakers, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etczzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
The Hell of it All, by Charlie Brooker, is published by Faber and Faber. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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