Thursday, May 20, 2021

Jeffcotism: The Foundation of 21st Century Thought (I)

Zechariah Jeffcott's destiny was determined at the age of five, when he heard his mother say to his father -- who had just said that it was universally agreed that the angles of a triangle added up to 180 degrees -- "Oh, that's because nowadays the geometry mob will vilify you if you dare to say they add up to anything else." 

"At that moment", Z. Jeffcott assures us "There flashed across my mind the great truth that behind every widely held opinion there is always a powerful elite systematically enforcing conformity and punishing dissent. The more widely believe something is, the more likely it is to be false."

That is how Jeffcotism became the foundation of 21st century thought. 

Over the next few days we are going to be looking at the fruits of his discovery. 


I ate a shepherd's pie last night. He was livid. 
      Thomas Cooper

On 23rd April (St George's Day) the Daily Mail published a recipe for spaghetti bolognaise. 

Nothing wrong with that. I quite like spaghetti bolognaise. 

But strangely, they published it as part of a political column, under the Jeffcotian headline: 

The woke mob can rant for all they're worth, but I'll keep adding Worcester sauce to my spag bol

Four years ago, an Italian chef, Antonio Carluccio, remarked that bolognaise sauce properly contained only meat, tomatoes, and wine: if it contained carrots and herbs, it's not bolognaise. He also thinks it should be served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti. Three years ago, Nigella Lawson published a recipe for carbonara, which included cream as an ingredient. Some Italians on the Internet said that this wasn't how you made carbonara. Earlier this year, restaurant critic Jonathan Meades mentioned in a collection of old essays that he didn't think that authenticity mattered all that much: it was more important that the food tasted nice. So political writer Tom Uttley has decided it is his duty to publish a receipt for bolognaise sauce that includes Heinz tomato ketchup and Lee and Perins sauce. There comes a moment when everyone has to show the world which side they are on. 

Is there are valid point being made here? Yes, probably. 

Is it an interesting point? No, not particularly. 

Is the language in which Utley makes the point a fascinating and disturbing specimen of the ubiquity of Jeffcotism? Why else do you think I am writing about it?

Food criticism is indeed sometimes too proscriptive. Excellence is indeed more important than authenticity. A dish containing meat, vegetables, onions and spaghetti might very well be nice to eat, even though it is not a traditional Italian sauce. The pizza of New York is not the same as the pizza of Naples, but both are very nice to eat. When fish and chips is first mentioned in print -- somewhere in Dickens, I believe -- it is referred to as "Jewish style" fried fish and potatoes, but a hundred and fifty years later it is as English as, well, fish and chips.

False representation is a thing, and cultural appropriation is a thing. I probably ought not to advertise my shop as selling "authentic Italian cuisine" if I am not using Italian recipes and none of my staff have ever been near Italy. I certainly ought not to open a chain of restaurants festooned with Union Jacks and beefeaters claiming to be selling Authentic English Jerk Chicken. (And no, a diner full of green, yellow and black flags and pictures of Bob Marley selling "Authentic Jamaican Roast Beef And Yorkshire Pudding" would not be just as bad. That's not how it works.) But the only objection to a seaside landlady serving up mildly spiced mince with rice and (for some reason) sultanas is that it tastes disgusting. The fact that no-one on the Indian sub-continent would recognise it as curry is neither here nor there. 

I can see why chefs get annoyed when writers tell them how to cook. No artist likes a critic. "Why are you telling me how to paint?" they say "when you can't paint yourself?" 

Some consumers don't like critics either. "How dare you tell me that that is not a good painting?" they say,  "There is no such thing as a good painting, or a bad painting, there is only a painting which I like, and my opinion is just as good as yours. Why are you forcing me to read your column in the paper you have forced me to buy?" 

"When you have written a thousand page fantasy novel about wizards / run a busy Italian restaurant / sung Wotan at Covent Garden" they continue "Then you will be entitled to tell me that the book / pizza / singer was boring / burned / flat. But not before."

Those who can, do. Those who can't, write long learned articles in the Times about those who can.  

On the other hand, I recall a Thespian, possibly Sir Michael Hordon, saying that unlike some people in "the profession" he did read "the notices" because the critics went to the theatre every night ("poor bastards") and knew what they were talking about. To repeat myself: If I want to find a good middle-priced vegetarian restaurant; I would do better to ask Cecil, who eats out five nights a week but can't cook to save his life, than Joe, who hardly ever goes out but is widely regarded as the best pastry chef in the whole of Milton Keynes. I myself can point you in the direction of the best folk gigs in Bristol, even though I can't sing or play a single note. 

However, Tom Uttley turns this very obvious and uninteresting pushback against the preachy, proscriptive food critic  into a buzz-word bingo of Jeffcotian snarl words. 

"Before I write another word, I must issue a trigger warning to all culinary purists, vegans, opponents of cultural appropriation and others of a sensitive, woke disposition who are inclined to take offence at just about anything."

"Anyway, I can already sense the purists and politically correct leaping to condemn me for my sacrilegious treatment of goulash and bolognese." 

"The truth is that since the dawn of international trading, mankind has been culturally appropriating recipes, fashion tips, words, religions, artistic genres, scientific discoveries and economic and political systems from foreign societies. It’s only in this deranged modern world that fanatics have come to believe that adopting good ideas is a vile crime."

No-one has actually said anything is a vile crime, of course. It seems to me that a dish of minced beef, onion and gravy topped with mashed potato is pretty obviously not a "shepherds pie". If you wanted it to be a shepherds pie you would have made it with mutton. But no-one is claiming that being wrong on this point is or should be a criminal offence. 

At one time, most of the words in Uttley's Jeffcotian vocabulary had pretty clear meanings. A "trigger" meant something that could set off a PTSD episode, like a soldier having flashbacks to the trenches when he heard a motorbike backfire. "Political correctness" meant the avoidance of language which was demeaning to minorities. "Cultural appropriation" meant a more powerful or privileged group adopting the dress or religious symbols of a weaker or less privileged ons and presenting them as their own. 

People sometimes say neurotic" when they mean "worried" and "schizophrenic" when they mean "undecided". Jumping down the throat of every adolescent who says "that maths lesson triggered me" is about as helpful as pointing out that Frankenstien was not the name of the actual monster. But still: we are entitled to ask in what way might "using the correct ingredients of a meat dish" be analogous to "saying 'wheelchair user' rather than 'cripple'"? Why is Tom Uttley implying that "inventing you own version of a recipe" is somehow similar to "putting Jewish mystical symbols you don't understand on expensive designer jewellery"? 

Well, to be funny of course. But why would anyone find it funny? I am 90% certain that Boris Johnson doesn't really masturbate into the Union Jack. Well, 85%. But if I call him a "flagshagger", you reasonably infer that I think that he is patriotic in an exaggeratedly and slightly disgusting way, and that I think that performative nationalism is a bad and ridiculous thing. You could then write two hundred and fifty comments on my blog quoting facts and figures you have googled in order to establish that I am wrong to think that Boris Johnson is affectedly patriotic. What Uttley is doing is pretending (as a joke) that he thinks that the left are going to say that his recipe is a form of cultural appropriation. No-one has really said this, and no-one really thinks anyone is going to. But the joke wouldn't be funny if we didn't think that the left really do apply the word "cultural appropriation" to very trivial things: in fact, if we weren't assumed to agree that the whole idea of cultural appropriation is intrinsically ridiculous. 

I am fully on board with offensive jokes. The worse taste the better. One day I am going to write something in depth about Jimmy Carr. Jokes don't particularly have to align with my politics. I doubt if Ian Hislop put his cross in the same box that I did last Thursday. 

But jokes are not value neutral. Benny Hill really didn't approve of pedophilia. But the fact that he treated "dirty old men" as essentially funny figures tells us something about the prevailing attitude to sexuality in his day. The fact that we wouldn't make those jokes tells us something about ours. Carry On Camping and Jimmy Savile are part of one continuum. (So are John Barrowman and Noel Clark. Allegedly.) 

I see three possibilities. 

Perhaps Utley is consciously trying to defang these words: to render them unusable. When some very nasty Twitter thugs briefly attacked me for liking Jeremy Corbyn, having bad breath and wearing silly ties; one of their tactics was to claim that expressions like "I feel cross" was "triggering them" (because a: they were Jewish and b: one of their relatives had been killed with a crossbow.) They did not, of course, really believe that the word "cross" would cause a traumatic flashback. What they were doing was insinuating that that claim that the depiction of sexual assault in a literary work might cause a flashback in a rape-victim was just as silly as pretending to be triggered by the word "cross". 

So the tactic here is to imply that complaining about the ingredients of goulash would be just as silly as complaining about the use of the word "n*gg*r" or "sp*st*c". Since it would obviously be silly to accuse an English curry house of cultural appropriation, it is equally silly to complain about a white man who wears dreadlocks or a not-Jewish pop star who burbles on and on about the kabbala. Some entirely imaginary people might possibly claim that serving bolognaise with mixed herbs is cultural appropriation, therefore cultural appropriation does not exist. 

But perhaps he doesn't care what the words mean, or indeed, what any words mean. Political Correctness, Cultural Appropriation; Offence; Woke; Elite; Trigger; Modern; and Deranged are all simply synonyms for Bad Thing, or indeed, Double Plus Ungood. I contend that this article -- and indeed, every Daily Mail article -- makes a great deal more sense if you read it that way. 

The baddies can rant for all they're worth, but I'll keep adding Worcester sauce to my spag bol

Before I write another word, I must issue a warning to all baddies, nasty people, horrid people, and others of a silly, stupid disposition who are inclined to disagree with things that I like.

The hollowing out of political discourse is, in my view, double plus ungood; but it is very much what I would expect baddies and people I disagree with to be engaged in. The world is black and white; everything either gives you cancer or cures cancer. We can spot the bad opinions because they are believed in by bad people; we know which are the bad people because they have the bad views. If only we could deport, kill, or cancel the bad people then the world would become a good and happy place.

Words are not neutral. A different writer would have said that he fully expected the communists to object to his recipe; that he would carry on putting custard on his roast beef even though the papists would tell him not to; that he wasn't going to pay any attention to protestant heretics telling him how to cook. Different societies have different folk devils, which can be very uncomfortable if you are one of the folk devils that needs exorcising.

But there is a third, more alarming possibility. 

Perhaps Uttley honestly believes all this bullshit. 

Perhaps he expects his readers to believe it as well. Perhaps he honestly believes that everyone in the modern world (everyone apart from him) is literally mad. Perhaps he honestly believes that there is a more or less organised faction who want to tell him how to cook; and that adapting recipes is a serious act of political resistance. Perhaps he truly thinks that the statements "the slave trade was regrettable" and "you should cook Italian food the way Italians do" contain a similar quality called "political correctness" and that sinister forces will punish him for his dissent. 

 Perhaps he is a fully comitted Jeffcotian. 

There really is a Woke Mob, and it is coming for your spaghetti.


JWH said...

"I certainly ought not to open a chain of restaurants festooned with Union Jacks and beefeaters claiming to be selling Authentic English Jerk Chicken. (And no, a diner full of green, yellow and black flags and pictures of Bob Marley selling "Authentic Jamaican Roast Beef And Yorkshire Pudding" would not be just as bad. That's not how it works.)"

Andrew, for clarity, are you asserting that the phenomenon is different (it is cultural appropriation one way around and not the other)? Or that the phenomenon is the same but it should be reacted to differently (it is okay if Jamaicans culturally appropriate English things, but it isn't okay if English people culturally appropriate Jamaican things)?
Also for clarity on the word 'just': are you saying that both things are bad, but English cultural appropriation of Jamaican things is worse than vice-versa? Or that only the English cultural appropriation is bad, but the Jamaican appropriation is fine?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Cultural appropriation means a powerful and privileged group adopting the symbols of an oppressed and un privileged group and presenting them as their own.

unfortunately people with privilege are fond of making false equivalences. (If white rap is cultural appropriation then it follows that black peole shouldn’t be allowed to learn the violin.) The comments on the Donmar Warehouse all black all female production of Richard II (by people sho hadn’t seen it) were particularly nauseating in this respect.

jamaican yorkshire puddings, and indeed “the great British curry” are probably not very serious example. and of course stuff gets shared. i will never not believe that the Jamaicans got the idea (or at any rate the word) “patties” from Cornish sailors: but on the other hand saffron doesn’t grow wild in the Wescuntry

Scurra said...

I look forward to reading how this develops.
Another (US) writer I follow has recently been discussing whether or not the QAnon mania can be cured without recognising that it is merely a symptom (as a modern incarnation of the Satanic Panic) and not actually the disease (and therefore cannot be "cured".)
But ultimately about whether even those who appear to have embraced the conspiracy actually believe in it, or whether they have chosen to embrace it even though they know it is nonsense, because by opposing it they can feel that they are being heroic.

This feels very much like these columnists' modus operandi. Oppose something nonsensical and feel heroic, because opposing actual issues would require both insight into the issue and a coherent response that could be rationally confronted.