The Death Of Debate


Noun: A formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.
Verb: Argue about (a subject), esp. in a formal manner

On Friday night, as you probably know by now, the historian David Starkey made some comments on Newsnight that have caused something of a furore.

The discussion was about 10 minutes long but two things he said have caused all the fuss.

(Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood) prophesy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent, they wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham. But it wasn’t inter-community violence. This is where he was absolutely wrong. What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs …have become black.

He then went on to say:

Listen to (Labour MP) David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white.

Now, I think he was on to something with his first point, though it was phrased badly and lacked context (i.e. gang culture has always been attractive to young under-priviliged men – just ask The Krays), but the second comment was so sweeping & ridiculous that it is, at best, offensive, and, at worst, racist. But that’s not the point of the post.

Because what’s more depressing than his comments is the debate that it provoked. Or rather didn’t, because on the web, and in a lot of the wider world, debate is dead.

Looking for more information on Starkey’s comments I stumbled upon a comment piece by Toby Young on the Daily Telegraph* site. Yes, the man whose claim to fame is that his career in New York was an utter disaster. An obvious choice for reasoned political and social analysis.

In his article Young argued that Starkey had been misunderstood. Leaving aside the fact that as a professor his job is to make sure that people understand him, I felt Young was missing the point and left a comment to that effect. But, on the Daily Telegraph website it would seem that even trying to understand the roots of what happened, without necessarily condoing or excusing it, makes one a rabid left wing nutter.

For trying to claim that both blacks and whites had been involved in the riots, and making the points that I made above, I was called an idiot, a liar and a multi cult leftist (whatever the feck that is).

When I was younger I studied politics and used to regularly start debates/arguments just for the fun of it. I’d say wildly outrageous things because I knew they’d provoke a response. Amazingly I never got into an actual fight, but came close on a number of occasions.

And then, somehow, I grew up. I decided I’d rather spend time in the pub chatting with friends rather than shouting at them about things that didn’t really matter that much. So, now, I try to listen, to understand and to phrase things carefully so as not to cause arguments.

On the Telegraph, that marks me out as a loony.

The web is increasingly becoming an echo chamber where we only hear what we want to, and attack things that don’t fit with our worldview. In the US this behaviour has permeated the mass media too, with people on the left & right screaming at each other without ever really listening.

My favourite TV show is The West Wing, not just because of the amazing scripts and acting, but because it portrays some sort of utopia where, occasionaly, people of all political persuasions come together to do the right thing. It’s a world I’d like to live in. It’s also a world where the sort of rap that is celebrated is intelligent and eloquent, like that of Ty, a man who should be a star.

But I guess that’s because I’m a loony.

If you’re interested you can see the comments I made, and responses I received here. Maybe they do mark me out as a rabid nutter. I’ll let you be the judge.

* I probably would have saved myself a lot of time and energy if I’d just remembered the descriptions of the British papers by Jim Hacker in the (brilliant) British series Yes, Minister


Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

BernardSun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.


David Starkey by Jon Robson on flickr


  1. I think his main problem is that he suggests that “gangsta culture” is the only form of Black culture. He’s correct in the fact that a number of youngsters from a number of ethnicities embrace aspects of hip-hop and gangsta culture which stems from a particular part of Black US society. However, that is only one aspect of Black culture, there is much more to it. Gang culture, however, is certainly not unique to Black culture though and never has been.

  2. I actually don’t think that’s the main problem, though it is one – as you say, there are elements that have embraced the nihilism espoused by the worst type of hip hop. He has a point, though he explains it badly (or was looking to shock on purpose, which is equally possible).

    But for me it’s when he suggests that because Lammy sounds educated, he sounds white, that he totally loses it.

    Either way, it’s even more of a shame that these points can’t be debated in a civilised manner without ridiculous student politics style insults.

  3. Ciaran, this echo chamber theme that you touched upon today at #searchlove and we then spoke about afterwards is a cogent analysis of the deficiencies of the social web in it’s current state. Too often it’s feels like a back slappy reaffirmation of your own beliefs or at worst the abode of intersecting monologues. Yet the ghetto trend continues be it Right Minds, CIF or your fave social network, people feel safe in their own backyard with their own Like Minds. When I say people should get out more I wish it were understood I meant ‘from their conformism’. Thanks for making me think.

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