There is a film that is never discussed when people talk about the classics of Hollywood — and with good reason — but nonetheless, The Crazies provides a brief diversion. The 1973 horror flick, directed by George A Romero, is set in any town USA, a homogenous, god-fearing, God Bless America kind of place. And the premise is that things go haywire when someone dastardly puts a little something in the water. Suddenly, strait-laced types start cursing and fighting. Scores are settled. A thin veneer disintegrates. What lies beneath?
Britain in December 2011 feels a bit like that place. Nothing to do with the privatised water companies, I’m sure, but for whatever reason, it does feel as if the safety catch has developed a fault, as if the car is on a slope and someone has disengaged the handbrake.
There is an element of devil-may-care to the way we treat each other. You see it on the streets, in supermarkets, on public transport, read it on the internet threads. Go on to YouTube: three instances now of apparently ratty women berating fellow passengers on the public transport network. Emma West, from south London, faces criminal charges for an alleged racially aggravated public order offence. The matter will now be decided by a court.
The two others were posted subsequently, with more scenes of acrid cabaret. Read the online comments beneath the videos — note the rancorous tone of those who do battle. Disregard the contributions from the far right; no one expects decency from them anyway. It is the aggression from those who might see themselves as middle of the road that is worthy of note.
Think about football. The England captain John Terry, ignominious with his fate in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service amid disputed claims that he called Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers a “black cunt”. Football, always a pressure cooker, continually reveals much of what lies beneath. Muslim players with beards who turn out in the lower leagues go prepared for the likelihood that someone will try to provoke them by calling them ‘Bin Laden’.
How did we get here? There are many theories from which to take your pick. An obvious one is money. For the past decade we had a lot. Or at least, with plastic prevalent, it felt as if we had an unlimited supply. Now we know better, and we don’t like it. Wages cut, jobs lost, services run down, disillusionment with the establishment and the political class; little wonder people are cross. As we know, angry people behave badly.
But there is something else that has less to do with money and more to do with politics. Two years ago, amid the deafening clamour of complaints about the scourge of ‘political correctness’, I wrote a piece pointing out that those who complained of being silenced by political correctness were usually the ones who enjoyed a platform to make politically incorrect pronouncements.
The thesis bears repeating. “Political correctness has become the complaint of choice for those who don’t like their world; for men who fear their positions are being eroded by women, white people who fear too much attention is being paid to non-white people, minorities jealous of other minorities, non-disabled folk who can’t see why buses should have wheelchair ramps, tall people who fear short people. It embraces everything. It means nothing.”
We are free societies, with the right to offend, but all civilised societies need some kind of handbrake. The alternative is ‘Lord of the Flies’ spanning several continents. Our main brake is the law and the judicial system, but before things reach that stage there is just us, making hundreds of micro-decisions each day about how we view and treat our fellow citizens.
The handbrake that has been disengaged can be reapplied. There is a sense of right and wrong within the British psyche. The ratty YouTube women may have held centre stage, but it is worth noting that, in each case, their outbursts were challenged. Some may have agreed with the view that the country is overrun with migrants, but one could do that and still feel outrage at the way these people chose to behave.