'White becomes black': The Stark(ey) reality

Posted on: 08 September 2011 by Alexander Hay

Is David Starkey a troll or a bigot? The respected historian stirred up a hornets nest after suggesting black culture was at the root of the August riots.

David Starkey going all Renaissance on yo ass, yesterdayIs David Starkey one of the UK's finest trolls? By that, what is meant is 'agent provocateur' or just plain old 'wind-up merchant'.

Trolling is most associated with the Web, where it is socially acceptable in some dark corners to take the mickey out of suicide victims and the terminally ill 'for the lulz', but realspace has had its own trolls for a long time, with Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' leading the charge back in 1729, and reaching a high apogee in the late 20th century with Auberon Waugh and then Victor Lewis Smith and Chris Morris.

The UK prides itself on its trolls, since they run parallel with the brutish British sense of humour. Both are mostly and horribly overrated, of course, since most of the time it's merely picking on those who can't fight back, but some stars shine out of the firmament...

But is David Starkey one of them? Having appeared on Newsnight in the wake of the August Riots, he blamed it all on the rioters having "...become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion."

In so doing, he caused a great deal of controversy, with his fellow academics rising up against him and accusations of racism, bigotry and plain ol' pig ignorance being made elsewhere in the media. Any troll worth his salt would have been delighted by the result.

Starkey certainly has previous form. When he's not doing his impression of a shrill PG Woodehouse aunt at Question Time, he's picking on fat kids in Jamie's Academy (a trainwreck without the comedy) and arguing, with a straight face, that it is perfectly acceptable for council house tenants to be driven out of inner cities and into the outskirts. They'll just have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps...

And as one of the country's most recognised historians ('from Cambridge, no less!'), he does have a certain authority. People take him seriously, or at least, the type who are also easily impressed by Steven Fry's vocabulary.

What a troll! Well, actually, no. A good troll's intentions are always clear to a third party. Starkey, meanwhile, actually believes what he says - the stern timbre in his voice, the angry headmaster stare, the animated movement of his body, even when he's sitting down... It's plain he's being sincere and, if he is trolling, it is only in its basest form, where sincere beliefs are used as a club to batter others into submission.

This makes him problematic. It seems that all too often, he and his viewers have fallen into the trap of thinking 'He knows what's he's talking about! He must be right about other things too!' This fallacy seems to have lead to a lucrative sideline in broadcasting, where the illusion and the reality are often blurred.

Sadly, he is also mis-advertised. Most of the public still don't know what historians do, thinking that it is a general subject - as it is taught (frequently badly) at school - when in fact it is one of the most focused, obsessive and anally retentive of subjects.

By PhD level, a historian will have not only picked a specific time period but dedicated themselves to it, to the exclusion of all else. This is why Starkey is renowned as a Tudor historian but is not renowned for his work on social history and race relations post-Windrush, or indeed jam making in 1970s Guatamala: He doesn't actually have a clue beyond the bedroom antics of Henry VIII.

Is he, then, a product of his age? Born in early 1945 and having grown up in a country where notions of race relations were still unheard of, perhaps he is simply reflecting the attitudes of a certain generation? Again, this fails to convince.

He may have been a young man when Enoch Powell, himself a historian who should have known better, gave his 'Rivers of Blood' speech, but there are many who are of that age who did and do not share such views. There is a certain irony about a historian like Starkey being unable to learn the lessons of the Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots – racialised conflict is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, the public see only a charismatic man who convinces them that he is an authority. Years spent regaling lecture halls will have this effect, as will talking to a camera or a microphone. Certainly, he says things to provoke, which meets some of the trolling modus operandi, but he also means what he says. In dismissing a whole swathe of young people and conflating 'black' with 'criminal', he didn't so much mean to provoke outrage as simply vent his spleen.

Whether this latest controversy will keep Starkey off the screen or make him even better box office is yet to be known. Though, it would be much better if he stuck to what he was good at, and avoid matters on which he doesn't have the slightest clue.

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Alexander Hay

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