Don’t joke in Little Stasi-on-Avon

MARK STEYN: Britons have shown a surprising enthusiasm for informing on their fellow citizens

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Not long after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I chanced to be in Hungary making a TV film co-produced by the BBC and MTV. Not the MTV of caterwauling rockers but MTV as in “Magyar Televízió”—their version of the CBC, although obviously nowhere near as monolithically left-wing. We spent the first few days in Budapest meeting our local contacts—producers, fixers, interviewees, all of whom were urbane Mitteleuropean charmers, and delightful company. We’d then go on to the next meeting, at which we’d be assured by György that, while József may seem urbane and charming on the surface, he’d spent the previous 30 years as an informant for the Ministry of the Interior. Moving on to our appointment with Gábor, we’d be told that it was the eminently civilized and amusing György who’d been the state informer for the past several decades. Needless to say, Viktor had much the same to say about Gábor, and Imre about Viktor.

The BBC lads found this most disquieting. They had no objection to commies per se, being mostly the usual bunch of university Trots and Marxists themselves. But they disliked the idea of snitches, of never being able to be sure whether your neighbour or workmate wasn’t sneaking to the authorities on your every casual aside. It offended against their sense of fair play; it wasn’t cricket. I took a more relaxed view, having been on the receiving end of the famous British sense of fair play, not least in my dealings with the duplicitous bastards at the BBC. I figured sure, Gábor and Viktor and József and Imre and György and pretty much everyone else we ran into in that post-Soviet spring doubtless had their dark secrets, but under a totalitarian regime the state can apply all kinds of pressure those of us in free societies can scarce imagine. Who are we to judge?

Less than two decades later, something very odd has happened. The United Kingdom is not (yet) a totalitarian regime, yet huge numbers of Britons have in effect signed on as informers to a politically correct Stasi, and with far greater enthusiasm than Gábor and György ever did. Last year, David Booker was suspended from his job at a hostel for the homeless in Southampton after a late-night chat with a colleague, Fiona Vardy, in which he happened to reveal that he did not believe in same-sex marriage or in vicars being allowed to wed their gay partners. Miss Vardy raised no objection at the time, but the following day mentioned the conversation to her superiors. They immediately suspended Mr. Booker from his job, and then announced that “this action has been taken to safeguard both residents and staff.”

That’s good to know, isn’t it? The hostel is run by the Society of St. James, which comes under the Church of England, which in theory holds exactly the same views on homosexuality as Mr. Booker. But, if in doubt, suspend. Six weeks ago, Roy Amor, a medical technician who made prosthetics for a company called Opcare, glanced out of the window at their offices at Withington Community Hospital, and saw some British immigration officials outside. “You better hide,” he said to his black colleague, a close friend of both Mr. Amor and his wife. Not the greatest joke in the world, but the pal wasn’t offended, laughed it off as a bit of office banter, and they both got on with their work. It was another colleague who overheard the jest and filed a formal complaint reporting Mr. Amor for “racism.” He was suspended from his job. Five days later, he received an email from the company notifying him of the disciplinary investigation and inviting him to expand on the initial statement he had made about the incident. Mr. Amor had worked in the prosthetics unit at Withington for 30 years until he made his career-detonating joke. That afternoon he stepped outside his house and shot himself in the head. The black “victim” of his “racism” attended the funeral, as did other friends. It is not known whether the creep who reported the racist incident did, nor whether the management who opened the (presumably still ongoing) investigation troubled themselves to pay their respects to an employee with three decades of service.

“You better hide, mate.” What can we do to show racists like the late Roy Amor that they won’t be tolerated in our tolerant society? Well, we can take early action. A couple of years back, 14-year-old Codie Stott asked her teacher at Harrop Fold High School if she could sit with another group to do her science project as in hers the other five girls all spoke Urdu and she didn’t understand what they were saying. The teacher called the police, who took her to the station, photographed her, fingerprinted her, took DNA samples, removed her jewellery and shoelaces, put her in a cell for 3½ hours, and questioned her on suspicion of committing a Section Five “racial public order offence.” “An allegation of a serious nature was made concerning a racially motivated remark,” declared the headmaster Antony Edkins. The school would “not stand for racism in any form.” In a statement, Greater Manchester Police said they took “hate crime” very seriously, and their treatment of Miss Stott was in line with “normal procedure.”

So what can we do to show racists like young Miss Codie Stott that racist remarks on the linguistic preferences of members of her school science project will bring the full force of the otherwise somnolent constabulary of Her Majesty’s crime-ridden realm crashing down on her? Well, obviously, we need to start the Racism Watch far earlier. The government-funded National Children’s Bureau has urged nursery teachers and daycare supervisors to record and report every racist utterance of toddlers as young as three.

Like what?

Well, for example, if children “react negatively to a culinary tradition other than their own by saying ‘Yuk,’ ” that could be a clear sign that they’ll grow up to make racist immigration gags like the late Roy Amor’s. If we get all their names in a big government database by pre-kindergarten, it’ll be much easier to keep tabs on them for the four or five decades until we drive them to suicide.

My British friends say of Mr. Amor, “Well, obviously, he was a little disturbed, he overreacted.” No, it’s the system that’s disturbed. Look at it from his point of view: you’ve worked hard, been a model employee, for 30 years—and suddenly it’s all over because of a single joke that didn’t offend your black friend but only the white snitch who decided to get offended on hisbehalf. It wasn’t Roy Amor who overreacted.

“It’s an enormous tragedy and we are all in mourning,” said Opcare’s chief executive. But actually Roy blowing his head off works out pretty well from the company’s point of view. They could have dismissed the racism complaint as a lot of hooey, but then who’s to say the aggrieved complainant might not report them for “creating a racist work environment”? So they suspended Roy, investigated Roy, and probably would have fired Roy. And then he might have sued for wrongful dismissal and, even though no contemporary jurist would find in favour of such an obvious racist, just fighting the suit would rack up a six-figure legal bill. All in all, suicide’s the most cost-effective option. Maybe more racist employees might consider it.

Earlier this month, Matthew Parris, a very squishy Tory gay, was called up by the BBC, Sky News, Channel 4 and many others anxious to send TV and radio crews round to his country place to record his reaction to a front-page lead in the Observer: “Secret Tape Reveals Tory Backing for Ban on Gays.” As it turned out, the “ban on gays” was a bit oversold: the shadow home secretary had been musing on distinctions in public accommodation between running a hotel on the High Street and a B & B out of your own home. Mr. Parris had no particular views on that one way or the other, but the “secret tape” bit prompted the following:

“There was also something unpleasantly Orwellian in the lip-smacking way in which my informants were telling me how Mr. Grayling had been recorded—caught—expressing his opinion. That Nineteen Eighty-Four feeling was reflected, too, in the un-self-aware failure of irony with which an Observer journalist referred to the view that Britain should not ‘tolerate’ (his word) intolerance. Burn the bigots! To the tumbrels with zealots! Crack down on narrow-mindedness! No to the naysayers!”

Droll, and very British—or it used to be. But in Little Stasi-on-Avon, where you can’t make a joke in private conversation or say “Yuk!” in the nursery school lunch hour, the words of the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut seem more pertinent: “The lofty idea of ‘the war on racism’ is gradually turning into a hideously false ideology,” he said in 2005. “And this anti-racism will be for the 21st century what Communism was for the 20th century: a source of violence.”

I think back to those weeks in Budapest, and similar conversations in Berlin, Prague and Bucharest, and I wonder whatever happened to that British sense of fair play.
But then, I suppose, the very concept is racist.