YOU feel as if you are living in a parallel universe when you listen to much of the news these days, particularly from the USA.
It is not just the presidential elections – almost unbelievably, scarily weird though they are – but the insidious, incremental spread of gun culture and violent pornography into everyday lives, suburban shopping malls or small town colleges.
On my way to visit a friend in Yeovil hospital, I was listening to Woman’s Hour, which is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary. Lauren Laverne was talking about the music of the period, including Billy Holliday’s version of Strange Fruit and recordings that were banned by the BBC during the prim and proper 1950s. She picked out It’s Illegal, It’s Immoral or It Makes You Fat, by the Beverley Sisters (who were the epitome of wholesome blonde glamour, if you aren’t old enough to remember them!) It was another world when such a sweet, innocent song could fall foul of the censor!
It is hard to imagine that this wry reflection on the fact that most things that are enjoyable are “illegal, immoral or make you fat” would even have upset Mary “Clean Up Britain” Whitehouse.
The redoubtable campaigner against violence and pornography, who died in 2001, was back in the news this week when one of the lawyers who confronted her in court commented that history had probably proved her right.
Barrister Jeremy Hutchinson, who is now 101, led the defence team in Whitehouse’s private prosecution for indecency against the play The Romans in Britain.
Referring to the rise of social media, Lord Hutchinson told The Times that it was a reasonable view that “perhaps morals have become a bit too loose with exposure to pornography and violence and computer games. I think in many areas they probably have, but the genie is out of the bottle.” Speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Lord Hutchinson’s biographer, Thomas Grant, said the barrister had a “great respect” for Whitehouse and believed that she had been “vindicated to some extent by history.”
Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing.
It is worth pondering what Mrs Whitehouse would have made of Donald Trump, and all too easy to imagine her excoriation of the video in which he boasts of the sort of “groping” which in most people’s books would be classified as sexual assault. She would surely have seen it as cast-iron, apricot-toasted proof of her belief that increasing exposure to explicit sex, indecent behaviour and violence would have a corresponding impact on public attitudes, leading to diminishing shock and revulsion and ultimately to acceptance of such behaviour as the norm.
Of course if there were tapes of Barack Obama talking in a similar vein, the ferocity of the reaction would not only be entirely predictable, it would also recall to many on this side of the pond, just how recently the white communities of the old South ignored or even tacitly approved Ku Klux Klan lynchings of black men accused of relationships with white women.
It is easy to understand why many people think the best response to Donald Trump is to laugh at him – but a photoshopped image on the internet showing him with a slash of scarlet mouth and green hair reminds us that The Joker is not funny, but an egotistical psychopath.
Trump – like his little Brit cheerleader Farage – has drawn a large following of disenfranchised, demoralised, angry white people, mainly but not exclusively male. Both have built their fan base by saying the hitherto unsayable and promising the earth. But both are very wealthy people with the sense of entitlement that comes with never having known real struggle or crushing poverty.
They dismiss the offensive groping video as an example of locker-room banter as if that made it all right. Such talk may, regrettably, be common in locker rooms, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, let along admirable.
The disconnect between US and European attitudes was highlighted in another R4 programme, a report by a British professor at a Texas university on the state’s decision to allow concealed carrying of guns on university campuses.
Students talked about the sense of comfort and security they felt about having a concealed gun. They spoke about being “good people” who would be able to defend themselves or their families from “bad people.” And they criticised “liberal” lecturers and professors at their university who didn’t understand and needed to be educated.
I think of my little grandchildren in California and I despair. America’s gun culture is now so pervasive and influential that it is hard to imagine any US president with the determination and resolve to challenge and reduce the power of the National Rifle Association or take guns out of classrooms and shopping centres.
For that reason alone, we should all hope for a Clinton victory. She may not be your dream candidate, but she is not your worst nightmare, not a racist, sexual predator, climate change denier, and friend of the gun lobby. It would be a comedy if it wasn’t a horror scenario.