Monday, 24 January 2011

Mad Mel earns her nickname

An article by Melanie Phillips in today's Mail on the subject of "the gay agenda" has caused something of a stir. At one point, her name was the top trending topic on UK Twitter. And it's not difficult to see why. Even by her standards, it was a remarkably over-the-top performance, reading more like the paranoid ramblings of an embittered old soak (or possibly Robert Mugabe) than the considered opinions of a renowned political and social commentator in the national press.

"Schoolchildren," she warned, "are to be bombarded with homosexual references in maths, geography and ­science lessons as part of a Government-backed drive to promote the gay agenda.... Absurd as it sounds, this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the ­camouflage of ­education. It is an abuse of childhood."

It was, she intoned, "all part of the ruthless campaign by the gay rights lobby to destroy the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour." Instead of tolerance for all (and she is willing to admit that prejudice against gay people was not always such a great thing) there is now "a kind of bigotry in reverse. Expressing what used to be the moral norm of Western civilisation is now not just socially impermissible, but even turns upstanding people into lawbreakers."

People like B&B proprietors Peter and Hazelmary Bull, that is. Or Hans-Christian Raabe, a Christian doctor who was subjected to an "astonishing attack" after being appointed to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. A man of "robustly traditional views", he had apparently upset some gay members of the committee. Or perhaps they were just using his support for marriage as an excuse for undermining someone who has "criticised the flawed logic behind the claim that it is the illegality of drugs such as ­cannabis that is the problem."

Because this isn't just a gay agenda. It's a gay drug fiend agenda. Given the involvement of the BBC's Mark Easton in the story, it's probably a gay drug-fiend feminist immigrant-loving anti-Israel pro-warmist agenda decreed by Brussels, but perhaps Mel's still working out all the ramifications of the global gay conspiracy. As it is, she can merely mutter darkly that "everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda." And that the campaign against Raabe representd "behaviour more commonly associated with totalitarian dictatorships."

Provocative stuff - vintage Phillips, except that even Phillips doesn't usually sound quite so ludicrous. It marked a (terminal?) descent into self-parody, and ridicule is a natural reaction. So unsurprisingly, the indignation which greeted this outpouring attained (as it often does) a kind of rapture. But is such a response helpful?

I don't want to defend Phillips' detailed claims about the "gay agenda", not least because it isn't true. The whole congeries of assumptions, doctrines and laws which go under the banner of "equality and diversity" is too complex and subtle for such a simplistic analysis. It makes no more sense to blame the "gay lobby" for politically correct textbooks than to blame Muslims for some council's decision to drop the word "Christmas" from its midwinter celebrations.

I'm not sure what gay maths is all about (though non-Euclidean geometry always seemed a bit gay to me) or whether schools really are being turned into homosexual indoctrination centres, as Mel Phillips seems to believe. Somehow I doubt it. And as the brilliant Quiet Riot Girl astutely pointed out on Twitter, if there is a "gay agenda" it's more concerned with promoting an essentialist model of sexual identity and orientation than with destabilising society.

Nevertheless, I think we might cut Mad Mel some slack. The other day I noted that the transformation of public morality in Western countries over the space of a mere forty years is almost unprecedented, and that it has left traditionally-minded religious believers and others "morally stranded". Phillips is not exactly wrong when she points out that "values which were once the moral basis for British society are now deemed to be beyond the pale" . You may think this a good thing. But it is inevitable that many people will find it disorienting.

Faced with the world turned upside down in this way, the losers in the culture war - who tend on average to be older, less articulate, less well-educated, certainly less fashionable - will often react with anger, confusion and wild imaginings. Phillips herself of course is neither ignorant nor inarticulate - and however unfashionable her views she is far from unprivileged. Her notion of a "gay agenda" - or more broadly a conspiracy of elitist liberals - is on the one hand quite mad. But it is also a way of making sense of a phenomenon that otherwise must seem quite inexplicable. That someone as intellectually sophisticated as she can be reduced to such anguished blustering reveals much about the cultural chasm that now divides our society. I find it all rather ominous.