Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On the Origins of the BCs

They've started called lunatic asylums "care homes". It's madness gones politically correct, I tell you.

On Friday, the Daily Express ran a headline.


Two lines of text, black on white. A sort of poetry of the apocalypse


Four words.


"In addition." "On top of everything else" "We knew things were bad, but this is really the last straw." The word drags us into the conspiracy.... we all know, it's so obvious it goes without saying, that many things have been banned recently, we can't think of any actual examples, but we're sure they have, and now this!


The person? The religion? Or just the word? I think there is a little wordplay going on here. We have just had the annual "local council abolishes Christmas" stormover. This year it is the Cromwellian Lambeth Council who have canceled the festivities – or more specifically been caught using the phrase "Winter Lights" to describe its municipal December decorations in some literature.(1) We are supposed to infer: "Yesterday, they banned Christmas, and now, Christ is banned."


The journalistic present. We are not reporting an event which has happened. We are informing you of a state which now exists. You have woken up in a bad new world where a new thing has been prohibited.


A key tabloid word. It's meaning is ambiguous – it doesn't been prohibited by law, necessarily, or censored, or abolished – but it implies that Someone is telling us what to do, and we don't like it.


Who is the evil authority figure doing the banning? The Curator of Cheddar Gorge geological museum. What has he done? Removed the letters "B.C" from the dates on some of his exhibits.




That's it. That's the whole story. Main headline, front page, inside page and leading article in a tabloid on sale in every shop in the land, predicated on "Small Museum Re-Labels It's Exhibits."

Museum bosses are trying to erase Jesus Christ from the pages of history. In the latest ludicrous attempt to tear down traditions, curators have banned the phrase BC --before Christ -- and insist on using BP -- Before Present -- to avoid offending other faiths. The astonishing decision caused national outrage last night

I like the use of the term "Museum Bosses". It implies some kind of powerful, dictatorial autocrat, a geological Fat Controller. I like the way in which, somewhere between Page 1 and Page 7, the plural "Museum Bosses" shrinks to mean the curator of one small museum. I like the idea that there was "national outrage" on Thursday night, even before the Express had broken the story. We don't do national outrage very well in this country. The French set fire to other people's motor-cars. We write mildly rude remarks in museum visitors books.

BC is used for dates leading up to the birth of Christ to help place the timing of eras throughout history and is internationally accepted. But officials at the Cheddar Caves Museum in Cheddar Gorge Somerset -- one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions (2) -- say that this is not politically correct, and have changed all exhibit dates to BP....'BP has no meaning, and if it means the present day, then it's always moving. It really is a completely nutty idea'.

The writers of this piece – sorry "ludicrous tabloid bosses" – apparently to want us to believe that the BP dating system is the crazy whim of an individual museum curator who is hyper-sensitive to the feelings of those of other-religions-and-none. In fact, as everyone knows (3) "BP" is actually a long established notation when dealing with extremely ancient events. I assume that, when we are talking about a geological time-frame, we can't necessarily come up with a date which is accurate even to the nearest millennium, making "BC" and "AD" fairly pointless distinctions. If a dinosaur skeleton is sixty-five million years old, you would hardly label it "Tyrannasauraus Rex: 64997995 BC". For the purposes of the BP dating system, the "present" is deemed to be 1950, because the advent of nuclear testing messes up the results of carbon dating after that point. If you were being very strict, you might use the term "Radiocarbon Years Before Present". It seems to be a fairly widely-used when talking about geology: the educational section of the Yosemite National Park website gives the history of the valley in the "BP" system.

BC is also a little unhelpful if you are talking about the early history of Christiantiy. Christ fairly obviously wasn't born 4 years before the birth of Christ, but he is generally reckoned to be born in 4BC. (If you aren't careful, you get caught up in millennial conundrums about whether it was 1 BC up to December 25th and became 1AD on Boxing day, does that mean that the year 1 only lasted until Hogmany, and how on earth did the Romans manage for so long without a zero?) Academics, of course have been using the terms "CE" and "BCE" since..well, since the year dot. You can pretend that this means "Before Common Era", "Before Christian Era", or "Before Current Era" depending on your mood.

These points bypassed Rosemary and Mark Yule (both 45, apparently) who told the Express that they were "shocked to see the BP signs when they visited the museum with their sons Greg, eight, and Robbie, seven." (Maybe this gratuitous information about the ages of their informants and their informants family is intended to make a point about the importance of dates. Or maybe it's just a way of filling up space. Incidentally, in the context of last week's "Lambeth Bans Christmas" stormover the name "Yule" looks highly suspicious).

Rosmary said "These signs are all over the walls -- every date says BP instead of BC it's...

wait for it...hold your breath... it's coming


Will she or won't she? Can she spot a cliche at 50 paces? Is there a an invisible autocue following her around? Or does she just say the kinds of things she thinks she's supposed to say when interviewed for the Daily Prophet?

....political correctness gone mad.

Just in case we've missed the point about who is to blame for all this the Express provides us with a 25p-a-go phone-in-poll in which we readers can answer "Yes" or "No" to the fair and balanced question: "Are PC fanatics right to ban Christ?"

"But Andrew -- its only the Daily Express (4). Do you really need to write a five page article about how the Express wrote a three page article about a ten line label on an exhibit in a museum that hardly anyone ever goes to?"

Actually, yes. Because while it was a very bad news item, it was a very good example of something we should all be terribly scared of.

The words "Politically Correct" used to be used to mock clumsy or redundant attempts to use inclusive language ("We've been told to stop saying "freshmen" and start saying "freshpeople" – isn't that a bit politically correct?") But the Express seems to be using it primarily to refer to a a group or organisation or movement with a political agenda. We read of "the political correctness brigade", "PC fanatics" and "fanatics of political correctness". We are told that their aim is "to tear down our traditions" "to write Jesus out of our history" "to erode the very foundations of British culture." It envisages a conflict between one group – "the political correctness brigade", and another group who have a shared culture (our tradition, our history, British culture) which the first group hates and wishes to destroy.

Who, exactly, are the "we" who are under attack? In case we are a bit slow on the uptake, elsewhere in the paper, a reader's letter spells out the answer for us.

"Ban this," rants Ms Diane Denby-Schole from Birmingham "prevent the other, change all our traditions, turn what was once the the proudest nation on Earth into some wishy-washy grey pulp where only immigrants can follow their traditions..."

Pause, breath in. "Our" traditions are being changed, but "immigrants" can follow theirs.

"Indeed, they are actively encouraged to maintain the traditions of their homelands."

Their homelands, being places other than Britain. I trust you are keeping up?

"Birmingham council is an oppressive vehicle that had already banned the flying of our national flag."

Has it, Ms Denby-Scholes? Has it really? Banned it from where? Under what legislation? (I very much doubt that the flying of any flag is banned under English law, and that I would be perfectly within my rights to run the swastika up the flagpole if I so desired.) Are you sure that "banned" doesn't mean "isn't flying it from the town hall at the moment."

"Come on Britons. Stand up for your traditions." (5)

I think that is pretty unequivical. "We" are Britians, non-immigrants, true-blue Brits: they are immigrants, with different traditions, from different homelands. Or, not to beat about the bush, black people.

And so we come to the point. Every day, I read a news story about how someone called "the political correctness lobby" has done something faintly ridiculous, and how some ordinary person has been shocked and outraged by it. Without needing to remember, or even believe, the details of any specific story, I acquire a general sense of paranoia. I start to believe that a "politically correct" minority is out to get me; and I gradually and insidiously associate them with the non-white Other who is still an immigrant after two or three generations. And so my white middle class neighbour and me start to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority. If you keep winding us up, we are apt to do something crazy like vote in for a far right Conservative government, or even the BNP. Which is (I assume) what the people who write this kind of drivel are hoping for.

On Monday, the Express reported on the front page that British Legion collectors had been banned from pinning poppies on people in case they injured them.

(1)In Tate Modern there is a glass of water. It is a very ordinary glass of water, but it has special significance because it was poured in 1973 by surrealist artist Michael Craig-Martin. Mr Martin said that the the glass of water was, in fact, an oak tree. "Craig-Martin’s assertion addresses fundamental questions about what we understand to be art and our faith in the power of the artist," apparently. Or possibly it's about Catholicism: if the Priest can say that a wafer is Jesus, why can't I say that a glass of water is a tree? Given that it was created in 1973, it isn't clear how the curator's stop the work from evaporating; or whether they are allowed to top it up from time to time. But this is probably part of the joke. I assume that the Daily Express is up to date with the idea of a conceptual art, and thinks that, as bed or a pile of bricks can become a work of art if an artist intends it, so a row of fairy lights turn from "religious" fairy lights to "secular" fairy light depending on the intentions of a local politician.

(2) According the Office of National Statistics, the most popular tourist attractions in the UK are

1: Blackpool Pleasure Beach
2: British Museum
3: National Gallery
4: Alton Towers
5: Tower of London
6: Tate Gallery
7: Pleasureland
8: Natural History Museum
9: Chessington World of Adventures
10: Science Museum
11: Legoland
12: Windsor Castle
13: Edinburgh Castle
14: London Zoo
15: Roman Baths
16: Chester Zoo
17: Stonehenge
18: London Aquarium
19: Knowsley Safari Park
20: Edinburgh Zoo

(3) Everyone who took the trouble to look it up on Google, at any rate.

(4)PAXMAN: They also publish Horny Housewives, Mega Boobs, Posh Wives, Skinny & Wriggly. Do you know what these magazines are like?
BLAIR: No, I don't....

(5) To be fair, the sub-editor who composed Ms Denby-Scholes letter also points out that, and I quote "true-Blue-brits" have no problem with participating in, say, a Diwali celebration, and that Pakistani and Sikh shopkeepers sometimes fly the Union Jack (despite the fact that it has been banned...I give up.)