Why was American "shock jock" Michael Savage excluded from Britain on the orders of our beloved Home Secretary Jacqui Smith? The whole affair is genuinely puzzling. For one thing, Savage - real name, Weiner - hasn't visited Britain in twenty years, and has expressed no intention of doing so in the future. He is said to have "extreme" views on subjects such as immigrants, Islam and liberals. And he has claimed - offensively, no doubt - that many children diagnosed with autism are just badly-behaved. He is a provocateur, no doubt. But he's scarcely alone in that. It might be that the government wanted some token non-Muslim right-wingers to balance out the Islamic "hate-preachers"; but they could have found a lot worse than Savage.
According to Smith, his presence in the country would be "actually likely to cause inter-community tension or even violence". But she offered no evidence for this. And in fact there is none. There is abundant evidence to the contrary. He has been broadcasting and writing in his Michael Savage persona for fifteen years, during which time he has never advocated violence, nor (so far as anyone can tell) caused any. He broadcasts from San Francisco, a famously liberal city home to a large gay community: if his words provoked no riots there, why might they here? It is not even as though he had announced a series of tour dates, provoking an organised campaign like that which forced the government to ban Hizbollah spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi in March. If Savage has been excluded, why not any of the myriad other professional confrontationalists in the world of shock-jockery and right-wing punditry. Why not Rush Limbaugh? Why not Ann Coulter? Virtually no-one in Britain had heard of Michael Savage before yesterday. It makes no sense.
Savage himself suggested that someone might have sent the British government a copy of his latest book Psychological Nudity. Unlikely. Clearly, though, someone brought Savage to the Home Office's attention. One interesting fact is that Savage is currently suing the Homeland Security Secretary and Attorney General over a recent FBI report into "Rightwing extremism". Although Savage was not named as an extremist in the document, his writ alleges that the report violates the civil liberties of veterans and targets Americans for their political beliefs, smearing conservatives as potential terrorists. His ally, lawyer Richard Thompson of the Thomas More Law Center, claims that the Obama administration "has declared war on American patriots and our Constitution" - although, as it happens, the report was commissioned when George W Bush was in the White House. Is it too conspiracy-minded to wonder if someone in the US government took revenge on Savage by confidentially denouncing him to the British government?
Whatever explanation there may be, the incident has - predictably - handed Savage a priceless opportunity to raise his profile on this side of the Atlantic. He took to the airwaves to denounce the home secretary as "a lunatic" and "a witch". He ridiculed Britain. "My first thought was, damn, there goes the summer trip where I planned to have my dental work done", he said. Perhaps he's seen a photo of Jacqui Smith. He urged his listeners - up to 8 million, allegedly - to boycott British goods ("if they still make anything") and to cancel their holidays. If even a small proportion take up his advice, the Home Office's stunt - which may have been intended to distract attention from the manifold troubles of Gordon Brown's government - will have proved extremely costly. He is threatening to sue, alleging - not unconvincingly - that being placed on a list of undesirables alongside terrorist sympathisers, murderers and a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan is not only defamatory but could endanger his personal safety.
Most of all, Savage gets to pose as a free-speech martyr - as Wilders did before him but, since he wasn't planning to come to Britain, at no cost to himself. Bill Bowman, who wrote a book about the broadcaster entitled Savage Lies, describes Smith as "an idiot". The reputation of Britain as a country that values free speech is tarnished once again. The government confirms its reputation for self-righteous bossiness and petty political correctness. All in all, then a typical Jacqui Smith own goal. Though if she is dismissed in a few weeks' time I've no doubt another equally authoritarian robot will appear in her place. New Labour has a limitless supply of them.
Listening to Smith give her incoherent explanation of the ban, so expressive of the contempt often found among allegedly liberal left-wingers for people whose views with which they disagree, I was reminded of a film from the mid Nineties, The Last Supper. In it, a group of trendy liberal grad students - among them Cameron Diaz - begin murdering assorted pro-lifers and Religious Rightists, having managed to convince themselves that the world would be better off without them. Nemesis comes in the form of shock jock Norman Arbuthnot, played by Ron Perlman, who proves surprisingly charming and convincing - furthermore, his right-wingery turns out to be an act. After a fraught discussion, they decide to spare him - only to find that he has turned the tables by poisoning the wine.
Arbuthnot's most convincing argument is that provocateurs such as himself provide a much-needed safety valve, and that allowing the extremes of both right and left to have their say ultimately produces a balanced and harmonious society. Extreme views are only dangerous when they go unchallenged. As he puts it: the extremists "make most of the noise, but the centrists do all the work".
You have some harmful people on the extreme left and the extreme right. But I suggest that the more extreme those opposites get the more moderate this society becomes. Because when you average out all those extremes then you come up with a society that's anchored in the middle, and that's what we all want, isn't it? A society where all of us can live. All races, all religions, all views, living together, forging ahead as one.
Arbuthnot's cyncicism is rather compelling:
I can't be responsible for every nutcase who thinks I mean something when I mean something else. Look, I admit to sometimes throwing in some pretty outrageous arguments to support my positions. But, man, it's the ratings, you know. Besides, the average citizen knows what I'm doing. Dissent. Being the voice of dissent.
So I was intrigued to read Michael Tomasky casting doubt on Savage's own sincerity:
Savage in particular is an interesting case, if you want to put it that way, because there is some suspicion that he doesn't mean a word of what he says. Whereas Limbaugh and Hannity at least come by their crypto-Francoism honestly, Savage used to write – under his real name, Michael Weiner – books on herbal medicine and homeopathy. I mean really. How many quasi-fascist homeopaths are there?
A San Franciscan, he actually used to hang out with Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. You read that right. But tempus kept fugiting along, and eventually, he says, he grew disgusted with the whole bay area-leftie scene. Having spent a little time in Berkeley, I will confess to you that this strikes me as plausible. But the guy who currently fulminates on the radio is so insanely over the top that he either must have been a little unhinged in the first place, or it's mostly an act.
Either way, he's no danger to British national security. Especially since he wasn't coming here anyway - although, if he succeeds in his legal action, he may decide it's worth risking our bad teeth and (he also alleges, quite falsely) terrible restaurants after all. After all, thanks to Jacqui, he now has a whole new set of fans here.