Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Another day, another OUTRAGE. I am all for a bit of outrage; in fact, I was perfectly outraged only last night, lying in my bed, reading a passage about James Dobson and his Focus on the Family in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s new book, but that is another story. Only I do start to think that there is such a hair trigger on outrage now that the whole thing starts to collapse in on itself like a black hole, and may end up meaning nothing. It’s a sort of cultural entropy.
Here is what happened. The comedian Jimmy Carr, an edgy say anything sort of fellow, not known for charity or campaigning as so many comics now are, but famous for pushing humour to its limits, remarked that you can say what you want about servicemen amputees, but we are going to have a splendid Paralympics in 2010. The Daily Mail, who has just been under the cosh for upsetting a huge number of gay people, and all straight people who do not live in fear of The Gay, saw the opportunity to press the outrage button. WAH WAH, WAH WAH – red lights flashing, sprinklers on, everyone move calmly to the emergency exits.
Carr's audience, apparently, was left stunned. The Mail then dug up a grieving mother, haunted by her son losing three limbs in Afghanistan, a wounded soldier, and an army commander to say how horrified they were by such sick humour. Oddly, though, on the army message boards, the brave boys came out largely in favour of the comedian. One of them thought the thing was a sort of compliment. Others remarked that it was just the kind of black humour that got the squaddies through the hell of Helmand. One complained that it was his joke, and bloody Carr had stolen it. Dominic Lawson, a conservative chap not much famous for defending alternative comedians, told everyone to calm down. Twitter started tweeting.
My instinctive reaction was: Jimmy Carr has just done those soldiers the biggest favour of their young lives. Everyone now is talking about the dirty little secret of the Afghan campaign, the horror that dare not speak its name. People speak of the dead; they line up in the streets to watch the coffins come home. The fallen are paid proper respect in the House of Commons every Wednesday, when an honour roll of the lost is read out solemnly by the Prime Minister. But a hundred miles away, in the unglamorous suburbs of Birmingham, maimed twenty year olds are being patiently taught to walk again on prosthetic devices. No one talks much of them. They never make the front page of the Daily Mail. They are courageous, fit young men (and they are still mostly men), trained to become dedicated fighting machines. Their life is all about the physical. More than that, their platoons and brigades are their family. All soldiers will tell you that they fight for their country, but maybe more importantly, they are fighting for each other. The shattered young people who come back from a shooting war without limbs not only have to learn to live with the loss of arms and legs, but with the loss of everything they were trained to do, and, most tragic of all, without the camaraderie of those to whom they were so devoted.
As in so many things, context is king. I think part of the reason that everyone got so exercised about Jan Moir complaining about the ‘happy every after myth’ of civil partnerships, was that she wrote it in a publication which hymns heterosexual marriage to the rooftops. Ironically, only a week before, a story had run in The Mail about a businessman who slashed his wife’s throat. No columnist used this as an excuse to challenge the happy ever after myth of marriage, which is in fact much more prevalent than the supposedly vaunted perfection of the civil union. While supporters of marriage insist it is the cure to all loneliness, the solution to every societal ill, and the silver bullet for female contentment, those who asked for civil unions did not say it would mean every single gay person in the land would then skip off into the sunset without a care in the world. It was a simple matter of equity. So when Moir chose Stephen Gately’s death and the suicide of Matt Lucas’s ex-husband to prove that civil unions were unhappy ever after, it proved a prejudice. Two women are killed every week by their other half; that is a much bigger and more scientific sample than two gay men.
So the context of Carr’s joke is important. What was not much known about him was that he had visited the military amputees, in two different hospitals, on several occasions. He did not just drop by for a photo-op, to burnish his image. For some reason, an awkward, edgy comic showed a sustained interest in something terrible, and terribly underpublicised. It is the thing that makes us, the public, turn away, because it is so hard to face. Let’s think about something else; let’s get grumpy about MPs putting bath plugs on their expenses and make jokes about duck houses and moats instead. So when a very cross person on the Daily Mail website accused supporters of Carr of being hypocrites, insisting they would be livid if the joke had been made by Bernard Manning, he was half right. It would be different if the joke was made by a crass comic famous for mother-in-law jokes. The fact that Carr knows of what he speaks makes all the difference in the world.
He is already apologising, and maybe he should. If that one mother and one soldier interviewed in The Mail were genuinely shocked and upset, that is a matter for regret. But it seems to me that the bandwagon jumpers of outrage should be careful. I’m not sure if the gag was actually about the amputees themselves, but directed at general attitudes towards them. I wonder if the butt of the joke was actually the public and the papers and the politicians who allow a war to go on where such tragedies happen, and then brush them under the carpet. When Bob Ainsworth, possibly the worst defence secretary in modern times, comes out with his chuntering statement of objection, he should stop to wonder if he, in fact, is the real outrage, for sending those young people out to fight and die without the proper equipment or an effective strategy. Before you clamber up onto your high horse, Mr Secretary, why not throw in a few helicopters, and some proper boots, and a plan?
Is the real shocker not that Jimmy Carr made a joke, but that in August this year, a soldier called Carl Clowes was told by the Ministry of Defence that he must pay back his compensation for losing a leg? Is the true outrage that the MOD, before it charmingly asked for its money back, valued that leg at £48,000? Banks owned by the state may pay their workers bonuses in the millions, but the leg of a young man who lays his life on the line for his country is not even worth fifty grand. Get outraged about THAT.