I pull out Black Unity. Inside there is a photograph of Pharaoh Saunders, majestic with his afro hair and mandarin profile. I look at this photograph and I try to see what Richard Seymour sees.
I’m on the sofa listening to the two basses, hippie percussion, Pharaoh’s saxophone, and that lazy trumpet line; then the two basses again, and a reference to A Love Supreme. I look at the photograph. But nothing comes to me. I try so hard, but I do not see what Richard Seymour sees.
One very reliable trait about radical leftists is that when in a tight spot they will always turn to the state and to the big corporations for help.
These dolls, despite being the subject of dubious collecting fads and a regular feature at BNP festivals, aren't exactly in vogue. The golliwog has long since been removed from Black Jack chews and Robertson's jam jars. In 2009, Hamleys declared that it was joining the Queen's estate in banning the items from its shops. Police action has been taken against those displaying such items, on the grounds of incitement to racial hatred. (Golliwogs are a vile reminder of a racist past – even Tory MPs must see this)
Surely any action by The Crown and major retailers is a reason for Left critique. Not so! In a fight for ideological control all allies are welcome. Even Hamleys is a friend when the radical Left want to condition the kids to think like commissars. Old Bolsheviks never change: always keen to take our toys away.
I had golliwogs when I was a kid. I find it impossible now to reconstruct my feelings about them, although I am absolutely certain that I didn’t associate them with real human beings. In fact the only racist comment I can ever remember making as child, I must have been about eight, was in a railway carriage coming out of Cardiff. There is a black man sitting next to me, and I made some reference to the sitcom Love Thy Neighbour. I can’t remember why I did it, but I assume I made a connection between the characters in the TV programme with the person sitting next to me – in my mind they were both equally human. But to associate an individual with a cartoon? I am sure that would have made no sense to me at all. Toys were toys. People people.
Not so for Richard Seymour; a good example of the semi-educated bourgeois that I dissect in my A Broken Fairy Tale. Educated above the common run he has migrated to the suburbs; where ensconced in his bungalow he cultivates his dwarf conifers; or to be more literal - he grows his little ideas which he mistakes for real things. What does Richard Seymour actually see when he looks at a golliwog?
The Funland arcade on Pier Road is a main attraction, where you can win yourself a golliwog. There, you find beleaguered mums, straining to win one for the little ones; and kiddies trying to win one for the beleaguered mums. Good old-fashioned family racism.
The golliwog has more reality for Richard Seymour than do the visitors to Whitby. It exists in a way that Jane and Jack and little Jim Jenkins do not for him. Their actuality is hollowed out; their nature defined only in relation to a toy whose meaning is made by someone completely ignorant of their existence. In Richard Seymour’s mind ideas come before people. The implications are interesting. Committed to his ideas he has a closer relationship to the golliwog than he does to these holiday-makers. This doll embodies his ideas. It is his creation. His totem. Do you see? The golliwog belongs to Richard Seymour. The visitors, in contrast, have an independent life, which resists his totalising tendencies; thus his desperate need to denigrate them; inventing their thoughts and imagining their prejudices; then using these fictions to condemn their lifestyle. He must - and how desperate is his need - assimilate these people to his own ideas about this toy.1 To Jane and Jack and little Jim Jenkins the golliwog probably has no meaning at all. Unlike Richard Seymour they will have no strong feelings about it. When back in Leeds they’ll forget about the arcade; where much money was lost but naught won. Not so Richard Seymour. He will live with this incident for weeks; if not years, decades; the rest of his life.
Here is a mind populated by ideas, to which its owner is passionately attached. This man is an intellectual. Intellectuals. They are strange beasts. Their ideas a form of feeling, which, because so intensely felt, must be expressed with continuous vehemence. Such characters cannot be indifferent to the world. Always they must get excited…thus hate, an emotion that can be easily stimulated, is a regular and most welcome guest. Richard Seymour needs the golliwog. It keeps his ideas, and thus his mental life, alive.
What are these ideas?
Primarily: hatred of the white working class. Richard Seymour disguises this by focusing the article on a Conservative MP; which may mislead his readers into thinking Whitby is a middle class resort. It is not. This man is writing a piece about poor whites. His article social stereotyping of the crudest kind; not a single piece of evidence given to demonstrate that these families make the sort of racist associations that he desires they do. When in Whitby I didn't see any golliwogs. I try to imagine my reaction if I had… Overwhelmingly: nostalgia for my childhood. The atmosphere of my home; the 1970s furniture and the hallucinogenic painting of buffalos that exists on the fringes of my vision; the smell of freshly made Welsh cakes; the excitement of the postman and his brown and padded package; the mad scramble to get him out - here he is! -; the stories I invented, as I moved a band of strolling players around a little copse of table and chair legs; in this story they are musicians playing to Lancelot and Guinevere. Do you see what I see? I am making these dolls part of the family. I am turning toys into human beings that share the same range of thoughts and feelings as myself. Do you really see? I am turning the golliwog into a white child.
I‘m sure I didn’t did associate with them black people. Neither, I believe, do the majority of those Seymour attacks. To see all black people in the guise of a cartoon character, and to think that it represents them in any meaningful way, requires the extremely narrow perspective of a peculiar cast of mind. Richard Seymour definitely sees something in these figures, thus his reference to an “ugly commodity”. And so we return to our original question. What does Richard Seymour see when looks at a golliwog? Is it a black person?
This is not to deny that the toy has racist connotations; although even here we must be careful. Seymour is too quick to assume it was created for racial abuse. Even his own references refute him. We wonder how it can be related to America’s Jim Crow laws when the series started after Florence Upton moved London, and it was published by an English firm. This is an old communist technique of smear by association, which is confirmed by his selective quotation - "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome” - that appears to substantiate the racialist intent. Soviet apparatchiks weren’t known for their literary criticism. Or their commitment to the truth… According to wikipedia, where I assume Seymour lifted this reference:
The 1895 book included a character named the "Golliwogg," who was first described as "a horrid sight, the blackest gnome", but who quickly turned out to be a friendly character, and is later attributed with a "kind face."
Then all look round, as well they may
To see a horrid sight!
The blackest gnome
Stands there alone,
They scatter in their fright.
With kindly smile he nearer draws;
Begs them to feel no fear.
"What is your name?"
Cries Sarah Jane;
"The 'Golliwogg' my dear."
Their fears allayed--each takes an arm,
While up and down they walk;
With sidelong glance
Each tries her chance,
And charms him with "small talk".
As we read the book we realise…here is an early example of multiculturalism! All the characters are dolls and toys:
"Get up! get up, dear Sarah Jane!
Now strikes the midnight hour,
When dolls and toys
Taste human joys,
And revel in their power.
They are from different countries, and join together in a climatic friendly dance. It is the magic of midnight, when impossible things happen; when toys and dolls can suddenly become…Yes!…human beings.2
The story makes a distinction between Golliwogg and a “jovial African”, a doll modelled on the human figure. In the book there are toys that are clearly toys; and dolls that resemble children. Do you see? Florence and Bertha Upton believed that a child is a more sophisticated reader than a Left-wing radical. The distinction between the human and the non-human is emphasised in an article which says that Golliwogg is modelled on the American Black Minstrels, and is “a caricature of a caricature”. The source of this character was itself a cartoon! Like the old jack-in-the-box and the “stupid” clown; other figures in this story. Are these racist caricatures too? Are you consistent, sir? Like a sheep ruminating his grass Richard Seymour nods his head in the affirmative. So be it. The clown and jack-in-the-box must go.
This writer is relying on a lack of curiosity amongst his readers. Thus he can confidently pretend that a fictional dialogue is a direct quote from the author. Florence Upton held very different views.
‘I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name.’ (wikipedia again. Seymour didn’t have to do much work. Perhaps Lenin’s Collected works doesn’t leave time for much else).
The history seems to be this: a writer, influenced by a rising black culture filtered through a white entertainment system, creates a character to reflect the liberal views of her milieu. Because of its vitality, the character gains popularity, and grows a life of its own; it influence spreading far outside its original educational context. Who would have thought that buying a jar of Robertson’s jam was to buy into liberal propaganda? But this is an intellectual having his little joke. In reality: by the 1960s the golliwog had no ideological meaning at all.
During this time some people, at first possibly acting against the too polite, too pushy consensus, did give the golliwog a negative meaning; although the source of this offence appears not to have been the original Florence Upton books or the Robertson’s Jam icon but the stories of Enid Blyton. These people were the excluded, the alienated, the social scum; and could thus be safely ignored by respectable society.
Then, suddenly, there is radical shift in ideology and both the liberals and the Left agree with the racists that the cartoon is an offensive stereotype. Of course it must be banned! By this stage the doll is so polluted with ugly associations that it cannot be cleansed of them; the entire political class coming to believe that the golliwog is a distorted representation of a black man.
None of this has anything to do with the golliwogs I had as a child. What we are witnessing is the political history of a symbol; first created to encourage global togetherness; it is then distorted and used to bash underprivileged minorities – blacks from possibly the 1920s; whites from the 1980s. Yes. Today the golliwog an instrument to attack the white workers. How the radical Left hate this class! It is has failed them.3
Any cartoon can become a symbol of hate if taken up by the wrong people. Taffy is often used as a form of endearment, and yet how many remember the details of the nursery rhyme; my favourite as a child? More curiously still, a word of abuse can used by a minority to attack the host culture – “queer” by the gay community -; its offensive overtones making especially the liberals uneasy. And then…most words lose their effect over time – worn out by overuse or irrelevance.
There is nothing racist about a golliwog. Nevertheless, we need to ask a legitimate question: is the character terminally infected by political rhetoric? Hysterical attacks like Richard Seymour’s, and other incidents over the past decade, suggest that this is indeed the case. Common sense and childish innocence defeated by political extremism, which pollutes the public culture – activists like Richard Seymour want us to associate this doll with black people; because they want us feel bad about it. They have succeeded, it seems, and the public discourse has become corrupted by fanatics of both the Left and the Right. It is thus lunacy to defend the doll; which is why Robert Goodwill MP is such an easy target for Lenin’s Tomb, for he has accepted the assumption that the golliwog has entered the political arena. Better simply to ignore the debate and keep one’s own memories uncontaminated. We must accept that the politicos have won. To do otherwise is to reinforce the rhetoric, making the doll into the symbol it is not. Silence is Golliwogg’s best defence.
Other questions pop up like weeds in an organic vegetable patch…
A political radical once said me that he’d rage at anyone arguing a racist line - such views are intolerable and must be destroyed. Here is the totalitarian strain in modern liberalism; one that Richard Seymour so ably demonstrates in an international newspaper. The guardian. The Times. The Daily Telegraph. These are fairy tale lands; full of grotesque monsters and sinless saints they contain many superstitions, and much confusion; especially about language and ideas.
Words and concepts are not identical to actions. Ignorance is not racism, although they are often conflated; as here in Richard Seymour’s piece. I have never met anyone from Mongolia, nor read books by any of their writers. Thus the entire population of that country is reduced to a few images, and a simple stereotype – Genghis Khan. This is my ignorance. Miss Prejudice arrives when I meet a Mongolian and treat her as if she were exactly like my cartoon. And yet… this is exactly what many liberals do do!4 To give an example from personal experience: an old boss, the ideal of tolerance and civility, was surprised to discover that a Persian employee liked Christmas. Muslims after all…5
It is the typical mistake of the semi-educated intellectual who lives in a mental universe made up of a large number of very general ideas that are also imprecise and ambiguous - freedom; democracy; competition; love…abstraction tumbles after abstraction.6 Because of their education and training intellectuals will put such ideas first; individual human beings, especially if they are strangers, then expected to conform to their preconceptions.7 But there is a terrible corollary to such mental habits… Ideas, because they must be simple and logical, tend towards authoritarianism – all Welsh people must like Rugby; all Germans are intoxicated with music, especially if Romantic and from the 19th century. There is something of the filing clerk in an intellectual. And yet… because they manage our culture this is not called prejudice. Indeed, it is often regarded as insight! The correct name, once again, is ignorance.
Cultural stereotypes are the only knowledge the majority have about other nationalities and religious groups. Thus the common association of Wales with sheep and singing; and with coal thrown in for historical context. The more sophisticated call us “fickle” and “untrustworthy” and “prone to melancholy”.8 I don’t object to such categorisations; they are odd and amusing when a stranger applies them to myself. The mistake isn’t the generalisation, which may be true when applied to the statistical average; but its application to the individual; who may not conform to it at all.
Even in cases where the stereotypes do not apply they can be socially useful. They are one way the host community gets to know strangers; a stereotype a means of identification which gives the stranger a unique personality - to call a man Taffy is qualitatively different from calling him John Barnsley or Andrew Manchester - within the local group. If accepted by the community the foreign element in a person’s character is a form of friendly communication. Everything depends upon the feeling behind the caricature. If cliches are used with aggressive intent then we are talking racism. We shouldn't forget that anti-Welsh prejudice still exists in parts of England; Taffy there still a form of abuse.9
All stereotypes depend for their effects on their context, which generally are indifferent and neutral.10 It is when politics is involved that they become toxic.
In a stunning documentary a group of white Americans discuss Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers.11 One guest argues that the Panthers’ use of “pigs” to describe the police is the equivalent of a white racist using “nigger” – both are getting off on breaking a taboo. This is surely right. And yet no-one in this film wants to ban such language; for them it is enough that they recognise its meaning - it is the expression of fanaticism; “pig” and “nigger” a means of identifying the speaker, not that which is spoken about.12 We can apply the same thinking to the golliwog. It is a sign of a person’s inhumanity if they use it with nasty intent. Likewise when Richard Seymour talks about “good old-fashioned family racism” we know who belongs to the barbarians. Not that I want to eradicate such abuse. No. Not at all. Such phrases are a way of identifying his and his kind; Richard Seymour part of an establishment who now uses “racist” in the same way it once used “heretic”; to divide the elect from the damned.
We live in multi-cultural times. A new ideology, which like the old ones is full of anomalies and paradoxes – thus Florence Upton, a forerunner of this movement, is condemned as a racist bigot -, is consuming us. Such times of religious enthusiasm are interesting to think about; though we must accept we cannot radically alter them; it is too soon for that - in twenty, thirty, a hundred years…? In a period of ideological maturity the central issues are too trivial and too entangled with error and emotion to be changed easily. We have to accept that innocence has been debased, and there is nothing that can be done about it, as Richard Seymour’s false and extremely misleading article so clearly illustrates.13 Yes, the old Bolshevik has won.
Although we need to reflect on what winning means…
Caricatures and cartoons can be used for many purposes. Terry Castle is a keen advocate of the stereotype: she wants lesbians to look like lesbians. Her piece is extraordinary, for it reveals the religious mentality which suffuses a multi-cultural doctrine that needs people to conform to type. A community wanting to force itself upon the world requires its members to look and act alike; immediately recognisable to themselves it also acts as a centripetal force; an army of uniformed soldiers is more powerful than a rabble of individual malcontents. In such a regime cartoons are necessary; a sign both of togetherness and empowerment. But what happens in the future, when the gay culture has been transformed, and diversity is valued over strict conformism? Will some future journalist, lacking sympathy for the past, condemn Professor Castle as a self-hating dyke? I think this is likely.
Another revealing aspect of Professor Castle’s article is the belief that a person’s essence lies in their behaviour; this assumption almost inevitable if a collective identity is to be based on sexual orientation. What you look like is what you must be. Your identity forced to exist on the surface of your personality; otherwise there maybe doubts about it - what if you look only half gay…there are risks to making a mistake.14 Such ready conformity contains a danger: those who act to type will become mechanical and formulaic; automatons pre-programmed by the cult’s religion to behave according to its commands. Willingly they slim themselves down until they slip neatly into the stereotype. A perfect fit! Time for Terry to ask you out for a date.15
This is the exact opposite of the anti-racist position, which argues that appearance is irrelevant.16
Richard Seymour and Terry Castle are on the same side. Their thoughts, though, are in direct opposition. The one thinks there is an indelible link between sign and the person; the other that there is no connection at all; that under the skin individuals are the same. Such conflict, however, is only apparent at a particular level of abstraction, and dissolves when we consider political preferences. Thus Richard Seymour too believes that there is a necessary connection between sign and person: a white family playing a game with golliwogs must be racist. He has no problem treating his enemies in the same way that Professor Castle treats her friends - as types not complex individuals. It indicates the evolutionary stages of different political movements; Terry Castle recounting a time when sexual politics was still in its early youthful phase; Richard Seymour part of a Left that has lost its evangelical fervour - socialism, especially in the form that he writes about, feeling like a old man’s tired creed.
We have to careful. It is so easy to be consumed by the politics of daily life. Whilst arguably necessary to change the culture, the identity politics of the 1960s risked coarsening everyday discourse and producing a coercive attitude to ordinary existence. It was a time when the simplicities of ideological language sought to replace the multifariousness of living. To really understand a situation we have grasp its particularity. Calling somebody a cunt can actually be a sign of friendship; although this can only be known if we know the characters intimately. Politics is not interested in such nuances. It deals with big numbers and crude slogans; it prefers large abstractions to irritating facts; the complexities of the moment thus lost to anonymous rhetoric and bureaucratic order. To bring politics onto the street and into office (and our offices are suffused with this kind of ideological politics) is to create an artificial environment, where many people have to pretend to believe in things they do not. It is an example of what happens when the closed and coherent world of a cult expands to envelope the surrounding community, whose citizens lack the intoxicating belief of the religious disciple. Most people accept the language17 as a given - in the same way it is accepted that we mustn’t talk back to the boss - but there are times when they do find it oppressive; and we surmise that the temporary success of Nigel Farage and the perennial popularity of the Daily Mail are the channels through which they publicise their grievances.
We live in highly ideological times. Politics seeping into our system like drops of orange cordial into a glass of water.
In less ideological climates people are aware that there is a difference between someone’s views and their actions. The medieval Welsh may have hated the English burgesses but they nevertheless traded with them; a recognition of the diversity of the human animal; and how little opinions matter when one’s livelihood is at stake. People, and particularly those who haven’t gone to university, know that a person comes before ideas when they meet them in the street. Intellectuals are not so lucky. Totalitarian by instinct,18 they believe that words and actions are synonymous; an almost inevitable assumption given their background and profession.
The ideologues are winning. The old Bolshevik has won. And I? I stand on a mountain on the edge of Wales. Through my binoculars I look back inland. As I survey the country I recall a story by J.G. Ballard; it is The Garden of Time. I am standing in that garden. I feel its fragility. It is not safe here.
1. There cannot be any ambiguity or contradiction about the meaning of the golliwog. It has to be wholly evil; no positive feelings may attach themselves to this toy; all who come in contact with it must be infected by its bad magic.
Intellectuals are natural totalitarians because they fuse thought with feeling, and facts with values, to create a completely integrated and consistent unity (see my A Broken Fairy Tale for more comment).
2. Seymour would remove all mystery from life. He does it by turning humans into dolls and toys (ideas).
3. Stalin believed the same. According to George Lichtheim he defined the workers as a counter-revolutionary class (Lukács).
4. For a brilliant portrait of a progressive intellectual whose very progressiveness makes her prejudiced watch Frieda; an extraordinary achievement when one considers the date it was made. For further comment see my review, Civilised Bigotry. For my disagreement with a critic’s interpretation read Bad Ideas.
5. Of course, his first dubious assumption is that all Persians are muslims.
6. There is very little difference between a typical bourgeois and a typical intellectual; the latter tending to live more purely in a world of ideas.
7. The mindset is precisely captured by the quotes from Leslie Stephen and George Eliot in my A Broken Fairy Tale.
8. Rosamund Lehmann by Selina Hastings.
9. For the origins of modern English racism towards the Welsh see Glanmor Williams’ Renewal and Reformation; Wales 1415 to 1642. R.R. Davies’ The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr describes the structure of social and political discrimination against the Welsh in Wales.
10. In times of crisis this changes, and the stereotypes take on a real and murderous value. This transformation is well captured by Nir Rosen’s early reporting in Syria.
11. It is on Adam Curtis’ site. My apologies, but I cannot find the link.
12. For interesting and related thoughts on Jews and anti-semitism see this interview with Jonathan Miller.
13. Thus his misrepresentation of Robertson’s: they replaced the Golly cartoon with Roald Dahl figures because children were “unfamiliar with the character” and not because of public distaste or activist attacks. This seems to follow the fate of the original Golliwogg books – after initial success they faded away when the fashion changed.
There are so many errors in Seymour’s piece. It suggests an insensate rage. He must literally smash these dolls to pieces. One wonders… Is he trying to destroy his own racial associations with this doll?
14. For a harmless example see a late scene in John Braine’s Room at the Top - a gay man misreads the hero, and so buys a bunch of drinks for no sexual return.
Apart from the somewhat instrumental way he treats his interlocutor, a characteristic trait - Joe Lampton is a man on the make -, his behaviour is civilised; his actions quite distinct from his prejudices: to himself he dismisses gay men as “pansies”.
For the other side - of being rejected by the group because you don’t conform to all its prejudices - see the insightful but flawed Chasing Amy.
15. Of course gay culture has changed enormously; contrast Professor Castle’s article with Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
One of the many interesting things about this film is the plastic nature of the central character. Like her art Emma regularly changes her partners and her style; her lovers, her look, and her demeanour all have their own allotted periods;* a stereotypical lesbian phase is followed by an erotic one, which is replaced by domestic interlude; while we can easily imagine her later experimenting with heterosexuality. The film keeps this metamorphic texture right to the very end: Adèle may find love with either a man or a woman.
* Emma’s blue hair is surely a reference to Picasso’s blue period; which in turn suggests the artifice of her life - it is a series of consciously acted out lifestyles. Adèle, a working class adolescent, is impervious to this bourgeois-bohemian trait; one reason for her mental collapse following the end of the affair.
16. And in so doing tends to devalue the importance of appearances.
I once attended a “diversity” training course, where the trainer equated judgement with prejudice… To see in the distance a gang of loud and drunken lads and to decide to cross to the other side of the street is not a rational decision but an irrational act, according to this line of thinking.
18. My Dropout Boogie has more comment on his phenomenon. For an odd history of the 1960s see my Critic as Clerk.