And now on To­day, a pa­tro­n­is­ing creep

When their ar­gu­ments fail, the right’s at­tacks get per­sonal. Yes­ter­day it hap­pened live on the ra­dio

The Guardian - - OPINION - Polly Toyn­bee

What to do when re­ac­tionar­ies at­tack? Do you give them the sat­is­fac­tion, the oxy­gen of pub­lic­ity? Do you play the game and be the po-faced, po­lit­i­cally cor­rect Guardian­ista glum­bucket of their imag­in­ing? A bit of a poser, that one, as the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts might say in his Boris-Greyfri­ars lingo.

There I was on the To­day pro­gramme, lined up against Letts as he plugged his lat­est quicky book, Pa­tro­n­is­ing Bas­tards: How the Elites Be­trayed Bri­tain. He lists 100 peo­ple he hates. I make it in at No 51. His trope is that a “Brah­min caste” has “posed as lib­er­als” and “crouched be­hind ‘en­light­ened’ at­ti­tudes while im­pos­ing on a pop­u­lace it claims to es­teem but truth­fully dis­dains.”

You know the whole schtick at a glance. “Com­mon sense” has been abol­ished, “Bri­tons voted Brexit be­cause they were fed up be­ing taken for fools”, and “chil­dren were ex­posed to sex ed­u­ca­tion by schools more in­ter­ested in dogma than de­clen­sion. Sex crimes rock­eted.” Mur­der­ers are set free by so­ci­ol­o­gists, while smok­ers feel like crim­i­nals, all “bossed about” by “knowalls” on “diet, gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, race, even the weather”. His is a life of purest tor­ment. He es­pe­cially hates “rail­way Tan­noys say­ing ‘see it, say it, sorted’”.

If you didn’t hear To­day, you can imag­ine what tran­spired. He took a swing at “our new es­tab­lish­ment”, the “new elite … schmooz­ing and net­work­ing”, the “mass of peo­ple for­ever wag­ging fin­gers” and “telling us how to live our lives”. And as he did so, he be­trayed again that cu­ri­ous para­noia of those who hold power, wealth and in­flu­ence, and their de­fend­ers in the Tory press, pre­tend­ing that they are the vic­tims. For most of my life, the Tories have been in power, with brief so­cial demo­cratic in­ter­ludes show­ing that democ­racy still func­tions, if in­ter­mit­tently. They are the cap­tains of just about ev­ery com­mand­ing height – ex­cept, maybe, the most se­nior fig­ures in the arts. That’s why they are Letts’ great bete noire.

This per­verse po­si­tion­ing is al­ways par­tic­u­larly rich from those who take the Daily Mail shilling, for who could be more pow­er­ful, more elit­ist than Paul Dacre, the pa­per’s grand and pug­na­cious ed­i­tor, whose per­sonal port­fo­lio, if we leave to one side a £2m salary, in­cludes a cat­tle farm in Sus­sex and a Scot­tish grouse moor with deer stalk­ing and salmon fish­ing, hand­somely sub­sidised by the EU? Shouldn’t he be in the book? “I’m not a sui­cide bomber, for God’s sake,” splut­tered Letts.

He was los­ing the ar­gu­ment. So what does the right do next, what does a Mail man do next? He turned per­sonal and pa­tro­n­is­ing: “Do you know, when­ever I’m on with Polly I wish I could just pin her to the ground and tickle her un­der the armpits and make you smile my dear!” It was creepy, dis­gust­ing. In the panic of the live ra­dio mo­ment I sim­pered a bit. “I do smile!” I said, fall­ing for the trope of the “mis­er­able hu­mour­less Guardian old girl can’t even take a joke!” (Old girl is what he called the prime min­is­ter on the Mail’s front page last week). And then I kicked my­self a thou­sand times for all the things I might have said. Pin me down? Tickle me? Can you imag­ine him say­ing that to Si­mon Jenk­ins or Jonathan Freed­land?

There was no harm done: I’m not vul­ner­a­ble. But on Twit­ter there was anger at another weary­ing re­minder of the ex­tent to which con­tempt for women in­forms the Mail cul­ture. This isn’t pussy-grab­bing or mas­tur­bat­ing in front of ac­tresses. Letts isn’t Trump or We­in­stein – but his twee, over-phys­i­cal lit­tle put-down comes from an ad­ja­cent place. Men are men and women for­ever silly girls – old or young.

I guess that this week all women my age have been men­tally re-run­ning the bum-pinch­ing, grab­bing, in­tim­i­dat­ing hu­mil­i­a­tions from men in power of our youth. I re­mem­ber as a gauche and in­ad­e­quate 22-year-old re­porter, that in­ter­view with the au­thor Saul Bel­low. Bored, bul­ly­ing, he or­dered me to walk ahead of him in the park so he could look at my legs as they were bet­ter than my ques­tions. And sham­ingly, I did. Morde­cai Rich­ler, the Cana­dian nov­el­ist, as­sumed a fixer had set me up for the night with him on his pub­lic­ity tour in ex­change for an in­ter­view. He was out­raged when I ran off. I never wrote those things into my in­ter­views, as now we would.

I’m pre­pared for what might come next, for the right often strikes back and the Mail usu­ally re­tal­i­ates. I’m a cham­pagne so­cial­ist, a hyp­ocrite, a glum­bucket, a mis­ery of an old girl who can’t take a joke; just tickle me to death, Dacre.

Letts be­trayed that cu­ri­ous para­noia of those who hold power and wealth, pre­tend­ing that they are the vic­tims

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