DJ Taylor: This year's busby babes

Bruno has befuddled the politically correct; revolution wrongfoots right-wingers; and job titles can baffle us all. Our commentator cuts through the confusion

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There are still some weeks to go until Brüno's unveiling in the United States, but already the idea that the film might be playing into the hands of gay stereotypers is inflaming many a liberal sensibility.

According to Rashad Robinson of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: "We do feel the intentions of the film-makers are in the right place ... but at the same time it can heighten people's discomfort with our community." A request to the film company to encourage its star, Sacha Baron Cohen, to issue a statement confirming the importance of "gay rights and tolerance" has been politely declined. Brüno's American viewers will have to work out what they think of Baron Cohen's uber-camp Austrian fashionista, seen at last week's London premiere as a camp guardsman in leather hotpants, frothy busby, and flanked by babes.

It takes the public anxiety over Brüno, and its likely effect on some of the less enlightened members of its audience, to bring home just how troubled and problematic an entity "comedy" has become in the 21st century. So agonised, in fact, is the process by which some of us establish what we should or shouldn't find funny that it sometimes seems as if a committee of well-meaning people has to sit in solemn judgement before the fee-paying public is allowed to laugh. When Baron Cohen first appeared on our screens in the guise of Ali G, impresario of the "Staines Massive", The Guardian tied itself in knots over whether the humour was racially acceptable. Was he satirising black street culture? Could such satire be construed as racist? In the end, it was agreed that the thing being sent up was white appropriations of black street culture, and a huge sigh of relief went up all round.

Surely, though, it is possible to laugh at black street culture without being a paid-up member of the BNP? I remember being amused by an interview with a member of the rap ensemble So Solid Crew in which, asked where he was brought up, this native of Battersea replied "in the ghetto".

As nearly every autocratic regime eventually discovers to its cost, the most difficult thing to police in the world is a joke: if people want to laugh at something, then laugh they will, whatever the barriers of official disapproval placed in their way. The way in which humour takes on a queer, subterranean life of its own was first brought home to me in the aftermath of the Falklands war, when an order went out to British troops stationed on the island that they should stop calling the locals "Bennies", in tribute to Benny Hawkins, the intellectually challenged Crossroads star. A fortnight later, the barracks seethed with jokes about a community known as "Stills". Mystified, the authorities investigated. "Stills", it turned out, meant "Still Bennies".

***

Watching last week's news from Iran – so reminiscent of the events of 1979 – it struck me that the West, in encouraging the march towards "freedom" in the benighted autocracies of the Middle East and beyond, is in one crucial respect deluding itself. Naturally, we all of us want liberty for the ground-down Chinese peasant tyrannised over by wicked Wen Jiabao and his goons and the Burmese protesters kicked into submission by General Ne Win. What we don't like to consider, or somehow manage to hold at arm's length, is the economic consequences of this freedom for the rest of the world.

We live, as even The Daily Telegraph has now got round to admitting, on a planet whose resources are finite. But "liberty" to a Chinese pro-democracy activist doesn't merely mean the right to a vote and the ability to organise a factory sit-in without fear of punishment. It means the material advantages – cars, televisions and mobile phones – that the West takes for granted.

Rather like The Guardian and Ali G, the average right-wing pundit of 20 years ago was horribly confused by the first signs of Eastern Europe's imminent disintegration. Liberty was a fine thing, certainly, and hoorah for brave Mr Gorbachev, but at the same time there lurked a sneaking suspicion that a Soviet population hunkered down behind the Iron Curtain in meek, Cold War quiescence might be easier to deal with. At least with Communism, this argument ran, you knew where you were.

With a few geographical variations, and a bit less cynicism, the same rule applies two decades later. Broadly speaking, "freedom" in the Middle East and Asia is eventually going to mean lower living standards in the West. As the non-democratic half of the world steps up its pursuit of Western values, it's as well to establish this principle from the start.

***

Staring dazedly at a TV ad the other day – one of those ultra-glamorous affairs in which Penelope Cruz's eyelashes resemble a pair of tussling black caterpillars – I noticed that the rubric beneath whatever product was being puffed advised interested viewers to consult their "aesthetic practitioner". And what, I asked myself, is an aesthetic practitioner? Is it some kind of high-grade arts therapist, advising clients on the relative merits of contending attractions ("The Klimt exhibition's supposed to be very good, dear, but if I were you I'd have a quiet night in with Hilary Mantel")? No, a few seconds thought confirmed, "aesthetic practitioner" means "beauty consultant".

Cultural commentators usually assume that the routine exaggeration of job titles – in which a dustman becomes a refuse operative and a shop assistant a retail executive – is fairly recent. In fact, it is as old as the Industrial Revolution. I forget which grand Victorian panjandrum it was – possibly Matthew Arnold – who, on discovering that the ushers in boys' public schools now preferred to be known as "masters", inveighed against what he called "the ambitious vulgarity of the age". There is a marvellous moment in HG Wells's novel Kipps (1905) when the hero, coming home in search of his childhood sweetheart, is briskly informed by his uncle that "She's gone as help to Ashford, my boy. Help! Slavey is what we used to call 'em, but times are changed. Wonder why they didn't say lady-'elp while they was about it." To old Mr Kipps a servant girl, alas, is always a skivvy. All of which confirms my suspicion that at the root of English society lies not an obsession with class but an obsession with status – a rather different thing.

***

One of the most depressing aspects of cultural debate is that the people charged with conducting it nearly always tend to be writers and artists. Consequently it's nice to be able to report that the most telling recent intervention in the time-honoured stand-off about art's ability to influence behaviour comes courtesy of Liverpool's Primary Care Trust. The trust is reportedly so alarmed by the number of under-age smokers in the city – estimated at 5,300 – that it is considering using a clause in the 2003 Licensing Act to have all films shown on Merseyside which depict characters smoking certificated "18". In making this connection between what happens on a screen and what happens in the onlooker's mind, the Liverpool medics are, of course, flying in the face of all known psychological opinion, but somehow it is difficult not to sympathise with them. As a concerned parent I always find the arguments put forward by the anti-censorship lobby whenever anyone complains about on-screen barbarism horribly disingenuous. If people can be exalted by art (a sensation that most of us would admit to experiencing) then it follows that they can be debased by it too.

***

The funniest thing that I read last week was an announcement that Stansted Airport is to initiate discussions on the best way to reduce noise pollution. To this end the airport authorities will be sounding out local MPs, conservation groups and county councillors over options for lessening the daily tumult of the skies. The polite bromides about the need for "consultation" sounded horribly like those uttered at the meetings in Norwich's Prince of Wales Road, when nightclub owners, the police and local residents get together to discuss what might be done about the regular small-hours mayhem that bedevils the area. For just as the only way to improve the Prince of Wales Road is to prune the number of nightclubs licensed to operate in it, so the only way to deal with noise pollution in Essex is to reduce the number of planes that fly above it.

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