Is self-hatred the British disease?
Whatever one thinks of the government’s plans to send refugees to Rwanda, it was amusing to see the left in that country suddenly find all sorts of reasons why only the UK – “an old gray island filled with cakes , laden with misery” according to Emma Thompson, head of the Council for Refugees – would do the trick as a final destination for these poor people. It was particularly ironic that the place that the great and the good had ruled unsuitable for human habitation was a country that liberals had historically approved of: France. The phrase “French flu” was coined in the 1950s to describe the cultural pushback of British progressives towards France as the source of all that is civilized. They had Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Paul Sartre; we had Diana Dors and Malcolm Muggeridge. Despite Macron’s rapprochement with Putin and police brutality towards working-class farmers, this attitude persists.
While France is endlessly flattered by a certain sort of self-loathing Briton, it’s rare to hear anyone speak highly of this country. Unless they grew up under communism. Konstantin Kisin left the Soviet Union as a teenager, coming to live here with his dissident grandfather who remembered a time when people were imprisoned for eating food from a newspaper that had a picture printed on it of Stalin’s face. Naturally, he was going to notice creeping authoritarianism in his adopted country, no matter how badly he dressed up as a unicorn wearing a rainbow flag.
In 2018, Kisin – a comedian by trade, but a writer by nature – was asked by the School of Oriental and African Studies to sign a “behavioral agreement form” promising to deviate from humor that might not be “ respectful and kind”:
By signing this contract, you agree to our policy of non-tolerance towards racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia , Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.
Why did the chicken crosses the road? To escape those buzz-kills, probably.
Young Kisin went to live in Bristol. It’s ironic that I grew up there being told by my communist father that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise where you could dine on the floors of the majestic Moscow metro stations, so immaculate were they, because of the national pride of the Russian people in those underground palaces. I thought he was just eccentric until I found out that my husband – from a different generation and a different social class – had been told the exact same thing by his mother. Too bad they didn’t inform us that Soviet citizens had to queue for three hours to get the ingredients for these dinner shows, but I’m sure they meant well.
This book is all the more powerful for recognizing exactly what drove good people like my father and mother-in-law to spout Soviet propaganda. In Britain, the richest 10% earn 24 times more than the poorest 10%. In the USSR, the richest earned barely four times as much as the poorest. The illiteracy rate in the former Soviet Union was 0.4% – in the United States it is 14%. “But if that sounds too good to be true, I’m afraid it is. Spoiler alert: The Soviet Union collapsed dramatically in 1991…and, before it started, that was real socialism. ‘
Marxism began as the workhorse of two rich little boys and is now firmly established as a “belief of luxury” with as much cachet as Chanel. It’s always fun to see “useful idiots” having fun and Kisin doesn’t spare the rod, especially when roasting Michael “Nine Homes” Moore – although considering how much profit the mountain man has made from the enactment of his usefully silly luxury beliefs, one has to wonder who is zooming in on who.
It’s a love letter, but it’s also an elegy to a West that seems to want to immolate itself. After perfectly informed little romp through the flashpoints of the culture wars – race, gender, censorship – the chapter “Should I go back?” brings us back to where we left off: the mystifying desire of the British left to bring refugees to live in this xenophobic hellhole when they could easily stay in beautiful, kind and civilized France. And, of course, “weirdly none of the people who tell you how evil, bigoted, racist and sexist the West is ever move to one of the other ‘much better’ countries”.
If you only read one book on the culture wars, make this mine: Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #identity killed progressive politics. But if you have room for two, Kisin’s book — a deadly warning that also manages to be bright and airy — is the perfect complement to my own amuse-bouche.