Monday 16 March 2015

Jeremy Clarkson fans show racism is alive and kicking

By John Lui, The Sunday Times, 15 Mar 2015

Last week, I caught up with the times. I Ubered a car in Los Angeles. I'm usually on the tail end of trends, so it felt really good to be on the cutting edge of what's called the "sharing economy".

A nice man in a silver Toyota Prius drove up to my hotel five minutes after I tapped the Confirm button on my phone.

His name was Alan and he was grey-haired, with a neat grey moustache.

For 20 minutes, he talked about leaving Iran for Germany, getting married, divorced, coming to the United States, getting married and divorced twice more.

He was still in love with each of his former wives, he claimed. He blamed himself for being too selfish to make the compromises that keep marriages going.

Alan shares his ride, for a fee, when his Uber app pairs him with people headed in his direction. He drives around LA a lot because he is a property agent.

The boom in legal marijuana has driven up demand for industrial spaces for planting. He gets a good commission from selling or renting these spaces. This is why, among other reasons, he thinks legalisation is a great idea.

I Ubered twice more during my three-day stay and, each time, the driver was an immigrant. One used to teach philosophy in a South Korean university but now owns a mini-mart. His family runs the shop, so he drives to make a few extra dollars.

He, like Alan, had an accent and both, in several ways, conform to immigrant stereotypes - they hold two or more jobs, do not seem to be interested in the things that occupy the average American and are just trying everything they can to make a go of life in a new land.

I wonder what Jeremy Clarkson might make of them. I can imagine a "bit", probably one of the cross-country races they like to hold. Clarkson competes with fellow presenters Richard Hammond and James May.

Clarkson might try to give instructions to his driver, let's say the South Korean, and fail to understand the reply because of the strong accent.

Frustrated, he would look into the camera with an expression that says everything you have ever wanted to say about foreigners but cannot in public.

The presenter of the BBC motoring show Top Gear is known for his mockery, a trait that has made him one of the broadcaster's highest-paid stars and his show a global hit.

Clarkson now looks likely to part ways with the BBC, after the last in a string of acts that have outed him as a petulant man-child. In the latest incident, he is supposed to have wanted to hit a producer who failed to produce a hot dinner after a long day's shooting.

I was a fan of Top Gear partly because Clarkson was different from other presenters. More than almost anyone else on television, he lacked a filter. He was dangerous - not just with car stunts, but socially.

That was the show's appeal. There was some stuff about cars, and other stuff about what it feels like to be a white, middle-class Western European stuck in Argentina, Myanmar, Mexico, India or deep in the Southern United States.

He would do and say the things you might expect a crabby Englishman abroad would say but cannot any more because of political correctness. He was the living, walking embodiment of a complaint posted on a Web forum for expatriates in China ("The spitting... the staring... the guy who took a live chicken into the subway.")

You got the sense that he exaggerated that ugly part of himself for the camera, as all entertainers do with that aspect of their personality that resonates with the audience.

As Clarkson got richer and the show became a flagship, the heart seemed to go out of the xenophobia. I guess it's hard to sing the white man's blues in an air-conditioned Range Rover. He started manufacturing his own casual racism. I stopped watching after that.

It is one thing to have a reality show in which the host drowns in the incompetence of silly foreigners. But it is another to throw the first punch, which is what he did with a licence plate that referred to the war in the Falklands while driving in Argentina, or putting a toilet in a car designed for India.

This is low-effort, kindergarten- level race- and foreigner-baiting. It is not just beneath a clever man like Clarkson. It's also boring, and no different from what the people behind "alternative" Singapore news websites do.

Clarkson's online supporters have held him up as a free speech hero, a man's man hounded by the frilly-pantied milquetoasts of the leftist BBC, a scapegoat for do-gooders and feminists looking to destroy the last free man on TV, and that if you are offended, change the channel. (Really? What if there were a channel for sympathisers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?) There is an online petition seeking his reinstatement.

Mainly, what I read from those supporting him is that racism is alive and well, only wearing nicer clothes. By saying "I'm not personally offended by it, so he should be allowed to keep saying it," the commenters show how bad the problem is. But I suppose empathy is just too hard for some people.

Clarkson's supporters shouldn't worry. He can move to another station, where he can ride into a golden sunset, his herd of followers behind him. There is a whole world of obvious and lazy ethnic stereotypes waiting to be tapped, and he has found his niche.

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