Two columns about tourism and terrorism lay out different moral universes
One boring and annoying hallmark of some critics of ‘the meeja’ is their tendency to lump all conservative press outlets together. True, the right-leaning newspapers often sing from the same hymnsheet on both the big issues and the small ones. But distinctions can and should be made in order to criticise effectively.
Two columns published today on the recent plane crash over Egypt are a good example.
One can assume from the sarcastic tone that Littlejohn is trying to be humourous here, but as usual he provides only his special blend of flippant xenophobia.
Discussing his recent holiday, he writes:
“…you’ve probably guessed I wasn’t stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh like thousands of other British tourists. You couldn’t pay me to spend five minutes in Egypt or any other North African or Middle Eastern hell-hole.”
That’s sentence three. (In sentence two he beams that ‘the natives spoke English’, referring to Americans. This cute tapdance is characteristic, sounding a dog whistle with a margin of deniability, so he can plead innocence if caught out like a naughty child.)
There’s plenty of waffle – wordcounts must be met – but the meat of the piece is Littlejohn’s asking why British tourists take holidays in dangerous and unpleasant places. He writes:
“So I simply fail to understand why anyone would want to fly to a glorified Butlins in Egypt or anywhere else where they have scant respect for women and contempt for even basic human rights.
OK, so it’s relatively inexpensive, but not much cheaper than a week in Tenerife, where you’re far less likely to get blown out the sky or mown down on your sun-lounger by a jihadist gunman.”
This passage is the only direct reference to the deaths of over 200 people last week on the Russian plane over Egypt. Its flippant tone (matched in the reference to the Tunisian attack) is in tune with his contention that British tourists are stupid not to avoid North African and Middle Eastern countries.
(To over-egg the sarcasm, he imagines ‘lardy, tattooed Brits pegged out on the beaches of Gaza while Katyusha rockets bound for Israel explode overhead’. If I were in Gaza I’d be more worried about Israeli rockets coming the other way, but leave that aside.)
Turn now to Hugo Rifkind in the Times, who considers the same subject of tourism and terrorism:
“Closer to home, we may well shudder at the spectacle of pale bodies blithely sunning themselves on the beaches of Lesbos and Kos, while darker ones wash up with the tide.”
Immediately we find ourselves in a different moral universe. Where Littlejohn uses nationality to compare people as between civilised fools and savage criminals, Rifkind uses it to shame the reader’s global privilege. Emotion is manipulated, but in the service of compassion rather than fear of difference. He adds:
“Those same tourists, though, bring the only major income those islands have.”
Here again, the contrast is stark. While Littlejohn mocks British tourists for wasting their money and risking danger in ‘hell-holes’, Rifkind points out an obvious truth that Egypt and Tunisia rely heavily on the trade of those tourists. Advising people to stay away is to condemn the people of those countries to greater economic woes, on top of the bane of terrorism (state and non-state), corruption and so on.
Rifkind uses his column inches to shame our government on these points too:
“Within Egypt what follows now is probably a crackdown. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose blood-drenched hand David Cameron was (Sharm el-) shaking only last week, is fond of those. On past form, his forces will arrest a lot of the wrong people, and some of the right people, and the things they will do even to the right people will not be things you’d particularly want done to anybody.
“And then the streets will be hosed clear of blood, and the tourists will return. Most will probably never really think of what has occurred to make an unsafe place safe again. Even for those who do, the moral calculation is far from certain. Around a tenth of Egyptian jobs are in tourism. Go, and you’re complicit in tyranny. Avoid, and you’re complicit in poverty, which itself breeds tyranny anew.”
This does a lot of work in a short time, with a moral and humane and internationalist dimension I wish more writers would embrace. It provides as good a summary of contemporary Egypt as I’ve read anywhere, and employs humour with greater success than Littlejohn can manage.
The point about humour is key. As the novelist Martin Amis recently said, (channelling Clive James), there is a relationship between humour and common sense, as well as between style and substance. Humour has moral content – and you can tell much about a ‘funny’ writer from their choice of target, both for the butt of the joke and as between the competing instincts of the audience.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13
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