Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shockingly, The Daily Mail Is Evil

Some of you may have had the "luck" of seeing the media shitstorm whipped up around Intellect Books's forthcoming anthology Doctor Who and Race, edited by Lindy Orthia. If not, it's exactly what you'd expect; the Daily Mail got a copy and decided to run a typical Daily Mail article in which the bizarre leftist intellectual attack on an upstanding British tradition is exposed to reveal the menace of the... whatever, really. (Obviously the Daily Mail likes Doctor Who today, since attacking academics is more important than making the BBC look bad. They can always go back to hating Doctor Who later, after all.)

I was one of the peer reviewers for the anthology, and while it would be inappropriate for me to offer a full review of the book, not least because I saw an older draft of it, I am in a position that virtually nobody else commenting on this kerfuffle is in that I've actually read the thing, as opposed to just the Daily Mail article. So after checking with Ms. Orthia that opening my mouth would be OK, I figured I'd weigh in.

First of all, absolutely every story on this is a retread of the original Daily Mail story, which if you really want to read you can find here, but be sure to swab your monitor down after. To be fair, pissing off the Daily Mail is the very definition of picking the right enemies, and I'm frankly jealous of Ms. Orthia for pulling it off. So the bulk of this should surprise exactly nobody. Still, let's make a few observations. First of all, let's note that the two essays singled out in the Daily Mail article are, in fact, the first two in the book. It's not even clear the Mail received the entire book - the first ten percent of it would be sufficient to write the takedown they mustered. So actually, maybe I actually am the only person in this kerfuffle who's read the book.

The Daily Mail's screed objects to two essays, both in the first four of the book. The first, by the blogger Fire Fly, is admittedly problematic. In fact, at least in the version I read, I found it a terribly weak essay that systematically overstated its claims. It's a reworking of a blog post, and it reads like one - a polemical screed of the sort that's perfectly sensible as a discussion-starting bomb lobbing on the Internet. As the opening chapter in a pop-academic anthology presumably aimed in part at Doctor Who fans, it's a... poor choice, and one that absolutely everybody should have expected to cause exactly this reaction.

But crucially, it's one essay, and the only one that's anywhere near so polemical. The other essay criticized, Amit Gupta's look at the use of cricket as a signifier in the Davison era, is utterly tame, and it's almost funny to see the Daily Mail lay into it. It is, in effect, a primer on the status of cricket as a cultural signifier in the early Thatcher years, and something it is nearly impossible to work up any meaningful objection to.

And, of course, there's a requisite out of context quote from Lindy Orthia herself that is made to sound as though she is saying the whole of Doctor Who is "thunderingly racist" when in fact she is asking how to love the show in the specific moments in which it is, in fact, thunderingly racist - moments which unequivocally exist.

The book is not, in other words, some takedown of Doctor Who on the grounds that it is racist. It's a book that was inevitably going to be misrepresented that way - and this is something I brought up in my peer review. But the book isn't that. It's a bunch of people, most of whom love Doctor Who, working through what are, in fact, some serious issues with the program. Of course a show about a white man with a British accent who explores alien civilizations and fixes their problems for them is going to have some serious race issues. Because, you know, so did white British men who explored and "fixed" the problems of foreign cultures.

Let us, in other words, remember that the only people with something to gain by treating criticism of racism and colonialism as an outright and no-holds-barred denunciation of British culture are the people who want British culture to remain racist and colonial. Which is to say, yes, the Daily Mail. And here we get an awful moment of allying them with the fannish tendency to resist criticism of the thing they love. Because, of course, that's fandom all over - desperate to be allowed to love Doctor Who without complication. So we have a desperately ugly alliance designed to shut down all consideration of the book before anyone reads it.

Tragically, this is a book that a lot more people should read than actually will. And if anyone had the sneaking suspicion that the Daily Mail was viciously poisoning the well with outright misrepresentations, well, congratulations. You called it. This is actually a book that tries to move beyond the knee-jerk desire that we all have to defend Doctor Who. It's a book that exposes what it is that those of us who want to offer redemptive readings have to redeem. It's a good book. It deserves a fair hearing and an intelligent debate. And I'm gutted to see that it's going to spend months where the only people talking about it are the Daily Mail and people copying it.

So I'd like to end by talking about an absolutely wonderful essay in it. Unsurprisingly, it's Kate Orman's. The book is a mix of fan and academic contributors, and Orman's is notable for being a fan essay that's as well-argued and meticulously footnoted as the best academic contributions. It's eminently publishable in a proper academic journal, and is the most thorough archeology of the racial issues in The Talons of Weng-Chiang I've seen to date. It doesn't spare the story - and why should it, given that Talons is, in fact, thunderingly racist. But it also gives the story real and searing criticism that goes beyond the yellowface performance of John Bennett and instead looks at the entire cultural tradition that Talons comes out of, locating the racism not in a dodgy and ill-advised prosthetic but in an entire literary tradition. It's intelligent. It's significant. It's critical, but eminently fair. And it's written by someone whose love of the program is beyond question.

That's the book I peer reviewed. And fuck the Daily Mail for lying about it.

46 comments:

  1. Not just the Mail; the Daily Telegraph has gotten in on the act as well, publishing a similarly misleading article.

    Of course, pissing off the Telegraph is even more indicative of being on the right path than annoying the Mail. The Telegraph is the real enemy, and the Mail the real enemies's neglected children scrawling on walls with yellow crayons.

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    1. I know, but nobody has new information that the Mail doesn't, right down to all talking about the same two essays and three quotes, so it's fairly clear that the Mail was the source for all subsequent articles.

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    2. The Mail is the most respected newspaper in the UK - in the limited sense that even Guardian and Independent journalists will say that it is extremely good at coming up with, presenting, and selling news stories. It is the newspaper most likely to set the agenda for all news media for any given couple of days. That's why it's influence is so pernicious. The Telegraph's influence is far less.

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    3. It's true that the Mail has greater influence country wide; I'm not sure it has greater influence upon the way our country functions, what with the Telegraph being the prettied-up face of evil people can carry with them into Whitehall. But yes, I offer the Telegraph up as an additional object to hurl metaphorical hate-rocks at, rather than as an alternative.

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  2. You had me at 'fuck the Daily Mail'. :)

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  3. I doubt there would be many people in the books target audience who wouldn't regard "hated by the Daily Mail" as a very positive recommendation.

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  4. I find it fascinating that in the US, newspapers are 'objective', without party allegiance, while TV news is fiercely partisan -- exactly the opposite of the situation here in the UK.

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    1. In Australia it's slightly different: both the newspapers and the TV news have party allegiance. Oh, and the radio stations too.

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    2. The partisan quality of American TV news is almost entirely due to the Murdoch-owned FOX News. Prior to its arrival on the scene some 25 years or so back, American TV news aspired to the same standard of "objectivity" that the newspapers did. Now, of course, Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, and the tabloid ethos has spread to our dying newspaper industry as well.

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    3. Now, of course, Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal, and the tabloid ethos has spread to our dying newspaper industry as well.

      Whatever else might be said about The Wall Street Journal, it does not have a "tabloid ethos." The Murdoch property you probably meant to invoke was The New York Post.

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    4. It has something to do with the different reaches of the media. Newspapers in the US tend to be focused on a particular city, and only the largest cities had multiple newspapers, so the culture of newspapers has been to piss off the fewest people possible so as not to harm circulation. Network TV is nationwide, so you can differentiate by demographic / politics to distinguish yourself. In the UK, papers have been centralised in London for a long time so they have distinguished themselves by voice, but the tone for TV news was set by the BBC which had a monopoly and wanted to be relatively uncontroversial.

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    5. A lot of local newspapers in the UK have a political bias though. As a party activist in two different towns, I have found the local newspapers to have their own unspoken party allegiance.

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  5. I avoid tabloids (particularly the Mail) so hadn't seen the article. This explains why a couple of people have in the past week asked me to give my opinion on whether I thought Doctor Who is or was racist. I believe the Murdoch owned Sun also ran ran a similar piece. Cheap journalism of this sort, giving the false impression that the tabloids are alert to racism in popular culture while on their very front pages they are fanning the flames of hatred by referring to 'Muslim fanatics' and 'Islamic Hate Preachers'. For the popular press to dismiss any intellectual debate on racism as coming from the 'loony left' is incredibly tasteless and inflamatory in light of the racial tension this week following the murder of a soldier on the street in Woolwich by alleged 'Islamic extremists' and while racist groups such as the English Defence League are organising marches and attacking mosques, denigrating all who oppose them as 'commies'.

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  6. The way that article presents the information...it doesn't sound professional or about a professional work. I disagree with a lot of it, but I'm sure the book actually makes a better arguement.

    I don't know; the impression I get from Doctor Who is that it's about a man who wants to help everyone.

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    1. Except it’s not about a man, it’s about an alien.

      An alien that has vowed to protect another planet than his own against any threat.

      Mind you, the Doctor’s treatment of Daleks and Cybermen is extremely prejudiced... they should all be judged on their own individual merits!

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    2. There's a part of me that's always going to be sad that Dalek!Oswin didn't become the new companion.

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  7. "Because, of course, that's fandom all over - desperate to be allowed to love Doctor Who without complication."

    And desperate to attack Doctor Who too... So a book such as this which appears to attack the programme is also reviled for usurping that prerogative (and never mind that some of those within it are in fact fans themselves).

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  8. The funniest part about this whole thing is seeing Daily Mail readers defending Doctor Who on the grounds of the show's inherent xenophillia.

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  9. It's possible, of course, that this burst of publicity will actually help sales of the book, which, let's be honest, without coverage in the national press (and probably even with it) will struggle to reach three figures.

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    1. Actually I meant four figures. It might well get to three.

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  10. As someone who's own politics are Centre-Right (which makes me another enemy of the Daily Mail as I'm too conciliatory and soft on issues) I do have a problem with this bit:

    " Of course a show about a white man with a British accent who explores alien civilizations and fixes their problems for them is going to have some serious race issues."

    White middle class left of centre intellectuals beating themselves and their cultural artefacts up about race. I don't think Dr Who's premise has such serious race issues. It implies that there were choices and alternatives with the casting. A white actor was cast because that was the acting pool with a big enough name to chose from in 1963. He has a British accent because it's a British show and besides, it's familiar to the audience. He travels around the universe and fixes problems because the alternative: He doesn't travel and refuses to help out, won't sustain drama. The premise and set up is not a serious race issue. So what I see is the typical hysteria from the Daily Mail (a newspaper I find best to ignore like a petulant child having a tantrum) and the also typical over the top reaction from the intellectual left.

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    1. Chadwick.

      While you're right to a certain extent in your reasons why a white actor was cast, you also have to accept that there were reasons why the acting pool in the 1960s was predominantly white. Also why was an RP British accent familiar to the audience of the time? Because there were very few non-white actors with regional accents on telly...because the acting pool was predominantly white.

      So sadly underlying everything was an inherent racism (albeit a racism of ignorance) at the time. Why did John Bennett yellow-up to play Chang? Because there were far fewer Chinese actors available of sufficient calibre at the time. And this strikes at the root of where I think "anti-racism" (in fact any "anti-discrimination") goes too far. If auditions for "Talons" had turned up several oriental actors, but John Bennett was by far the better actor, should the production team have chosen a Chinese actor of inferior acting ability? Where does it stop? Will we get complaints when old characters are played by younger actors "aged" up? Should the producers of "Ironside" employed a true disabled actor rather than Raymond Burr in a wheelchair? Should a gay character on television be played by an actor who is also gay?

      You may think I'm being facetious but today's accepted is tomorrow's unacceptable. The fact that "Irish" jokes are now considered racist (because we've moved on from the unenlightened 70s), but comments about "Muslim extremists" isn't shows that discrimination is never really reduced. The spotlight merely moves to find a new victim.

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    2. What has fascinated me is the Jonathan Pryce controversy. Race-blind casting had been the norm at places like the RSC for years so in London it didn't raise an eyebrow, but suddenly on Broadway it became a big deal.

      Obviously John Bennett is not Jonathan Pryce, but it's an interesting look at how context can change whether something is controversial.

      The 'cricket' thing, on the other hand, sounds like one of those parodies of one of academics who can, by looking hard enough, find racism in everything -- 'The colonialism of Winnie the Pooh' and suchlike.

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    3. I always presumed the Pryce controversy in Miss Saigon was a bigger deal on Broadway because New York (and America) has a greater amount of Asian citizens and actors than Britain- but then I'm no population expert.

      The prosthetics also played a big deal- IIRC they had to be removed shortly after it premiered due to the controversy.

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    4. Well, that's the thing - it comes from a culture that's had these problems, so it's going to run into them every so often, and it can deal with them well or deal with them badly. And, the show having run as long as it has, it will deal with them badly.

      It's not that the Doctor will inevitably come across as a White Man's Burden-style colonialist; but he's close enough to that archetype that there's a danger of it, either through writing that's sloppy or writing that's deliberately reactionary.

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    5. ...meant to write "it will deal with them badly on occasion".

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    6. I don't think Dr. Sandifer is saying that individual pieces of that particular statement make the show racist. Rather, adding all of those pieces together and looking at the origin of that particular image leads us to see the influences that have racist origins - the Victorian inventor and the colonial adventurer in particular. In terms of the latter, Rudyard Kipling is a huge influence on that type of story and while not everything he wrote was racist, big chunks are. Because Doctor Who draws from both of these images so often, it sometimes falls into some of the same assumptions and problems those original ideas have. Regardless of whether or not the show is or was purposefully racist, it can inadvertently fall into stereotypes and traps that are because of its ideological origins.

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    7. Or what Ununnilium said. I think this blog addresses a lot of the "racism as being lazy with stereotypes but not actually trying to present out-and-out racist views" aspect in the Celestial Toymaker post: http://www.philipsandifer.com/2011/04/most-totally-closed-mind-celestial.html

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    8. It implies that there were choices and alternatives with the casting

      It really doesn't. Racism doesn't cease to be racism just because it's in keeping with the dominant racism of the surrounding culture.

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  11. Goddamnit Doctor S...you're killing my monthly budget. If you keep recommending books containing well-thought and cogent arguments on topics I find interesting, I'll be in the poor house!

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    1. I was going to take a break from the reviews, but current events forced my hand. (I'd actually been going to skip reviewing this entirely because it felt ever so slightly COI to me, but then you get to people I have genuine regard for getting trashed in the global press and, well, one side of the conflict won.)

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    2. Which is completely understandable. However at this rate I'll be living in a house built out of books you've recommended I buy. No regrets or anything. I'm still making the choice happily. And people do need to call organizations like the Daily Mail on their BS. But could you call them on their BS on a slightly more affordable schedule?

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    3. On this subject, I've been recommending "Alif the Unseen" to every fantasy fan I know, with positive results.

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    4. I'll second that call on "Alif," quite wonderful. Wilson's voice is graceful, she's always driving the story forwards, with immersive yet economical descriptions and distinct characterizations. Some great fantasy sequences that remind me of Gaiman, but with a savvy self-consciousness befitting a modern-day myth.

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  12. If it helps, the only other comments I've seen so far about this book are defending it - albeit in a very kneejerk-teenager way.

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  13. "to be fair, pissing off the Daily Mail is the very definition of picking the right enemies"

    Fuck off hater. The Daily Mail was the paper that broke the Steven Lawrence story and ran with it for years when everyone else wouldn't touch it.

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    1. "You let one of them go, but that's nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim's spared because she smiled, because he's got freckles, because they begged. And that's how you live with yourself. That's how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind's in the right direction, you happen to be kind."

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    2. It is to the Mail's credit that they did that - even if it only happened because the editor was made aware that he actually know the family (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jan/08/paul-dacre-stephen-lawrence-editor-fury).

      Whether it makes up for all the harm they've done, from supporting the Blackshirts in the 1930s onwards, is another matter.

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    3. The thing you need to know about the Mail is that it's a campaigning newspaper. It doesn't particularly matter what the campaign is, but every story has to be a campaign.

      The Mail doesn't have a consistent position, left or right or up or down: to have such a position would compromise its ability to be against anything and everything.

      It's not about being 'kind', it's not about being 'cruel' -- it's entirely down to the calculations of what sells newspapers. All they need to live with themselves are the sales figures.

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    4. A quote from Matthew Parris, via Andrew Brown: A friend starting as a cub reporter for a diary column on a mid-market tabloid, let's call it the Daily Brute, received a pep talk from his diary editor. 'Always remember on the Brute,' he was told, 'that the ideal news item will leave our readers feeling a little bit angrier, or a little bit more afraid.'

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    5. Yep: it's not about the position, pro- or anti-, it's about the effect. The 'call to action'. Doesn't matter what action, but you just have to be called to have some emotional reaction to the piece.

      That's what sells newspapers.

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    6. Angry and afraid are emotions that favour conservative and reactionary political positions. Left-wing political positions are better served by hopeful. (Angry and hopeful can be left-wing if it's angry at specific problems. But just generally angry becomes defeatist.)

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    7. 'Hopeful' doesn't sell newspapers, though. It's all about selling newspaper, remember. If what sells newspapers is being reactionary, then reactionary it is. But it's not about being reactionary: it's about selling newspapers, by whatever gives the best sales figures.

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    8. "Whatever sells newspapers" is, I think, reactionary in itself.

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    9. Is selling newspapers reactionary?

      Note, for instance, that the Mail is just as happy to run scare stories trying to make its readers angry about 'the bedroom tax' as it is to run scare stories to make its readers angry about 'benefits cheats'. That's not a sign of an organ with a coherent driving political philosophy. That's a sign of seizing on anything and everything anybody does ever for a knee-jerk reason to find it threatening.

      I suspect if the general drift of society were rightwards, the Mail would appear to be left-wing. As the general drift of society nowadays is leftwards, it appears right-wing.

      Actually I suppose that does make it reactionary, in that it will always react against the direction of travel of society. It's just that currently reactionary is right-wing, whereas if (when) society starts to drift right, 'reactionary' will be left-wing (I suppose you could claim in some areas that's already happened, which is why the Mail is aligning itself with the left over, eg, 'bedroom tax').

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  14. My favourite UK newspaper with Telegraph in the title was published for one year (1848) by free-market socialist anarchist Thomas Hodgskin.

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