Culture: False consciousness needs false controversies

What do Birmingham Rep and the BBC have in common? Both court false controversies as a way of distracting from the vital role they play in censorship of the arts in Britain.

Last December there was a bourgeois media storm in a teacup over a demonstration that led to the cancellation of Birmingham Rep’s production of a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti called Behzthi (‘Dishonour’).

The media portrayed Ms Bhatti as a cutting-edge controversial playwright, and Birmingham Rep as a fearless and courageous theatre willing to promote ‘new writing’ that deals with the difficult issues of contemporary Britain. The demonstrators, on the other hand, were portrayed as raving mad, brown men in turbans. Consequently, the Birmingham Rep decision to pull Behzthi was portrayed as Free Speech giving way to Reactionary Mob Passions. Like so much of what appears in the bourgeois media, this scenario was a load of garbage.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has written another stage play (or maybe more than one), but her main credits are Eastenders and Crossroads. Looking at her whole opus, Bhatti’s writing is no more controversial than a typical Eastenders episode, where the ‘working class’ characters are known not for their trade union commitment, or their understanding of their class position, but for their psycho tempers, self-obsession, criminality and total lack of interest in anything beyond their immediate selfish gratifications. As to plots and themes, Eastenders fits in with Bhatti’s stage work, which is consistently sensational, but to date has never gone beyond the personal. To misquote the effervescent Dorothy Parker: If Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti is a controversial and cutting edge playwright, “then I am The Queen of Rumania”. (1)

An undeserved reputation for bravery

Likewise, Birmingham Rep’s portrayal as a fearless and courageous producer of ‘new writing’ that confronts the difficult issues of contemporary Britain does not stand up to scrutiny. Among Birmingham Rep’s forthcoming ‘new writing’ offerings, there is not one drama, comedy, musical or even farce that questions, let alone challenges the capitalist status quo.

This country is currently at war with Iraq, yet Birmingham Rep is so apolitical that it doesn’t find space for anything even along the lines of the bourgeois-liberal play Guantanamo, never mind a truly fearless and courageous contemporary anti-imperialist play. Instead Birmingham Rep’s forthcoming season includes Low Dat, featuring “themes of a sexual nature and strong language” among teenagers. Also showing is The Bells, set in a Pakistani-British brothel, which is also full of “strong language and scenes of a sexual nature”, and then there’s Smilin’ Through, which, surprise, surprise, features “scenes of a sexual nature and strong language”, this time in the Belfast of the Troubles, where a working class Orange woman is denounced, not for her politics, but for her “homophobia”.

Behzthi is of the same theatrical stable. It features Birmingham Rep’s trademark “scenes of a sexual nature and strong language”. This time the setting is a sikh temple – a location that even the most hostile of atheists would agree is more a venue for chanting and violently clashing carpet patterns than it is for “strong language and scenes of a sexual nature”.

As well as a murder, Behzthi shows homosexual acts and rape, along with a lot of talk about the uncleanliness of menstruating women and their fitness to enter a sikh temple. This talk is a little odd, as Judaism has far more of a problem with menstruation than the sikhs, whose particular obsession seems to be the length of men’s hair. Altogether, Behzthi has little connection to reality and nothing to say to the world except an incoherent Two Fingers Up.

False controversy

To be fair to Behzthi, the play is no different from a great deal of Birmingham Rep’s ‘new writing’ offerings, or for that matter the ‘new writing’ offerings of many other state-subsidised theatres, and if it had been set anywhere but a place of religion, it would probably have attracted little comment outside the normal aficionados of “scenes of a sexual nature and strong language”. The suspicion must be that Behzthi was set in a sikh temple deliberately to provoke a controversy so that Birmingham Rep could present itself as controversial and cutting edge without actually challenging anything more hegemonic than the religious sensibilities of a small minority of the marginalised. (And of course, as Miss Bhatti hails from a sikh background, Birmingham Rep also gets extra arts cred (and funding) for hiring an ‘ethnic’.)

And this brings us to the crux. Arts cred is in the gift of the government-funded Arts Council, which not only funds, but promotes and gives status to, all the arts in Britain. The fiction is that the Arts Council is in some way independent. However, de facto, its funding criteria are worked out with the arts minister and operate to government targets. Inevitably it is structured so that that nothing even mildly ‘challenging’ to the political status quo of capitalism ever gets funding or status. To disguise this complete lack of real challenge and controversy among the productions it supports, the Arts Council funding criteria cleverly facilitates productions of false ‘controversies’ such as Behzthi, for false consciousness needs false controversies to perpetuate itself.

Objectively, it is with the aim of promoting false controversies/consciousness that the Arts Council will fund endless plays featuring sex between unlikely people in unlikely places, just as it will fund endless plays that attack the working class for being racist or homophobic, but you “can whistle Dixie” for any Arts Council funded play that shows the working class in struggle, or the verities of Palestine or anything else at the stinking heart of monopoly capitalism.

The demonstrating and riotous sikhs are of course enemies of free speech. However, Birmingham Rep and the government-funded arts industry are also enemies of free speech – and their reach is far more powerful and pervasive. For each mentally vacant false consciousness play with titillating “scenes of a sexual nature and strong language” they fund and produce, something culturally valuable is being silenced.

Immediately after Behzthi was pulled, there were suggestions that it should be put on elsewhere. Another Birmingham theatre was mooted and the prestigious Royal Court in London said it would at least do a reading, though Behzthi and its “strong language and scenes of a sexual nature” must seem very tame compared to the Royal Court’s present offering Tim Fountain, Sex Addict, where the real-life Tim Fountain ad libs while using the internet on stage to find a gay partner for the night. He then regales the next night’s audience with details of how his one night stand went. Tim Fountain, incidentally, is a former Literary Manager of the Bush Theatre, another ‘new writing’ venue that has no interest in the political, and which likes to give itself the accolade of being cutting edge and controversial. (2)

For the moment, the Behzthi controversy has died down, but there has been similar furore over the BBC’s decision to show Jerry Springer, The Opera.

Jerry Springer – another false debate

For those who are not familiar with the full horrors of Reality TV, The Jerry Springer Show is a US programme where particularly overweight and unintelligent members of the American lumpen proletariat expose their sordid ‘love’ lives, and insult and even physically attack their ex-lovers in front of a mass audience. The participants get a moment of fame as the audience laugh and mock them, much as the 18th century visitors to Bedlam Lunatic Asylum mocked and laughed at the shackled mental patients. The Jerry Springer Show is horrific. Jerry Springer, The Opera claims the moral high ground by purporting to attack the concept of the original show through humour and parody. One of the vehicles the show uses is to show Jesus Christ in a nappy being fondled by either Eve or the Virgin Mary (or perhaps both). Whether this is the most effective way of mocking The Jerry Springer Show is a debate in itself; what is not debateable is that showing Jesus in nappies has aroused the ire of some christian fundamentalists, who demanded that the BBC cancel its airing of the show.

Interestingly as, unlike Sikhism, Christianity is supposed to be protected by the blasphemy laws, the christian fundamentalists found they didn’t have the clout of the Birmingham sikhs and despite their protests Jerry Springer, The Opera was aired. Apparently the outraged christian fundamentalists are going to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC.

Like the Birmingham Rep Behzthi affair, the BBC Jerry Springer, The Opera farrago of nonsense is now being spun in terms of ‘free speech’; with the BBC cast in the Birmingham Rep role of Defender of Free Speech and Artistic Freedom against the Forces of Reaction.

There is absolutely no doubt that christian fundamentalists are reactionary, but there is equally no doubt that the BBC is also reactionary (all the more so as it is a reactionary wolf dressed in liberal sheep’s clothing). The hard truth is that though the BBC might defend to the uttermost its right to put on an ultimately pointless show such as Jerry Springer, The Opera, it will bow down in craven supplication before Tony Blair and his henchmen.

The BBC was hardly courageous before Gilligan. Post Gilligan it has become abject and is now functioning as a mere publicity machine for the present incumbent of 10 Downing Street. Name any BBC programme, or any BBC pundit, who seriously challenges Blair and Bush’s agenda for the world. Name one drama or comedy that questions capitalism. And yet the BBC wants us to believe that because it defied a bunch of religious nutters and aired Jerry Springer, The Opera, it is somehow an intellectually courageous cultural organisation. (Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it!)

Labour’s new blasphemy law

Hidden among all this spin and confusion there is a real controversy bursting to get out— the issue of the blasphemy law, which supposedly protects the Christianity of the folks who did not get Jerry Springer, The Opera cancelled, and yet de jure does not protect the Sikhism of the riotous folks who successfully got Behzthi pulled.

The blasphemy laws in Britain that are supposed to protect Christianity are in reality a dead letter. The state does not prosecute blasphemy and even if the christian fundamentalists opposed to the airing of Jerry Springer, The Opera were to mount a successful private prosecution, the result would (at most) be a small fine for the BBC, not prison sentences all round for its executive. The blasphemy laws are defunct and, in a multi-cultural society, where all religions are supposed to be equal, it might seem an obvious move to repeal a law that, at least theoretically, privileges one religion above others.

And to cries of joy from the members of the National Secular Society (NSS), which has been campaigning for the abolition of the blasphemy laws since 1869, the infamous Blunkett announced that Labour was planning to abolish the blasphemy laws. The happiness of the NSS and its liberal friends was somewhat lessened, however, when they discovered that the ever-devious Blunkett (and now the equally devious Clarke) intend to replace the laws against blaspheming Christianity with a much more wide-ranging (or in Labour-speak, ‘inclusive’) law against ‘inciting religious hatred’.

The new incitement to religious hatred law will be similar to the laws against racial hatred, except that ‘incitement to religious hatred’ will carry the virulent punishment of up to seven years imprisonment. Apparently the government has discussed its proposals extensively, most especially with the muslim ‘community’, who all seem to think such a draconian law would be a handy weapon in the fight against ‘Islamophobia’. And no doubt various members of the British lumpen proletariat of the “Millwall, Millwall, no-one likes us, we don’t care” variety will find themselves incarcerated under the new law’s provisions (and new prisons may have to be built to accommodate the legions of malefactors).

But it would a very gullible citizen who believed that Blair’s stated aims were the same as his real aims. Blair, after all, is a zionist and the leader of an unremittingly zionist administration, and in view of his support for genocidal policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine it is surely difficult to accept at face value any concern Blair or his government express for the feelings of muslims. Given that the jewish ‘community’ is never mentioned in these discussions, it might be cynical to suggest Labour’s incitement to religious hatred laws might be more about protecting jews than muslims, but the point is worthy of consideration, especially now, when the most ferocious of the neo-conservatives are arguing that to oppose present Israeli policies is to be anti-jewish, likewise to be anti-zionist is to be anti-jewish, and by extension to be anti-Israeli or anti-zionist is ‘an incitement to hatred against jews and Judaism’.

If, in his third term, Blair decides to take on this viewpoint, and if the proposed incitement to religious hatred laws get on the statute book, then logically pro-Palestinian activists could find themselves prosecuted under the provisions of this new anti-religious hatred law.

Alarmist? Far-fetched? Well, “the future is another country, they do things differently there”. Come to that, “the past is another country, they did things differently there” too. Mussolini (for one) passed laws that forbade incitement to class hatred and imprisoned communists under its provisions. (3)

As communists we must be opposed to the proposed incitement to religious hatred laws. We can demand that the blasphemy laws be repealed (though as they are not enforced, it is hardly worth spending much time campaigning for abolition), but we should not allow ourselves to get drawn into ‘false consciousness’ battles between what amounts to rival groups of reactionaries. Through the media hysteria we should see that the BBC’s intellectual cowardice is a bigger threat to free speech and artistic freedom than a handful of upset christians, just as a theatre that consistently produces mental trash is a bigger threat to free speech and artistic freedom than a bunch of angry sikhs.

Opposition to religion should not send us into the arms of bourgeois decadence – that way lies anarchism, not communism.

The arts funding establishment may operate its censorship by the back door of refusing airspace, funding or support for the truly critical and challenging, but none the less it is censorship. The sikhs, and even the christian fundamentalists, are merely angry outsiders. It’s not them, but the BBC, the Birmingham Rep and the rest of the arts-media complex that form an intrinsic part of the system of hegemony that oppresses us all.


1. From her ditty: “And life is a long and glorious song. Harmonious extemporania. And love is a thing that can never go wrong. And I am the Queen of Romania.”

2. The Royal Court’s interest in standing up for the ‘rights of free speech’ is particularly ironic as, in 1987, the Royal Court under the artistic direction of Max Stafford Clarke had immediately and apologetically pulled the Trotskyite Jim Allen’s play Perdition (directed by Ken Loach) when told to do so by the zionist lobby. (Perdition dealt with a real taboo, the collusion between wealthy jews and the Nazis in Hungary in 1944.)

3. A take on the opening line of LP Hartley’s Book, The Go Between: “The past is another country they do things differently there.”