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Monday, 21 October 2013

Just don't use the M-word

The ridiculous furore over the England football manager and the ‘monkey’ joke says a lot about the sorry condition of our cultural discourse. In case you missed it, Roy Hodgson –during the half-time interval in England’s game against Poland- was reported to have told an ancient joke about the relationship between an astronaut and a monkey; he used it to illustrate the connection that he required two of his players to make during the second half of the game. Here’s the joke:

NASA sends a man and a monkey together into space. After they’ve been up in space for a while, the intercom crackles and ground control gets in touch with an instruction: 'Monkey, fire the retros.' So the monkey fires the retros. A little later, another instruction comes through: 'Monkey, check the fuel supply.' So the monkey checks the fuel supply.
Later on, another instruction comes through: ‘Monkey, check the life support systems’. So the monkey checks the life support systems.
By now, the astronaut is getting pretty hacked off with this state of affairs, so he contacts ground control and says: 'Hey, when do I get to do something up here?' The folk at NASA get back to him: 'Don’t worry. In 15 minutes, we want you to feed the monkey.'

Now, as far as this joke related to the tactics Hodgson was trying to impart to his team, Chris Smalling (who is white) was to be the astronaut, while Andros Townsend (who is black) was to be the monkey. Smalling’s job, as the manager saw it, was to supply Townsend with the ball. One of the players in the dressing room -whose identity has yet to be revealed- felt that this was racially insensitive, and later leaked the ‘story’ to the press, where, of course, it was devoured. Some elements of the chattering classes viewed the incident as ‘problematic’. Indeed, had you been listening to BBC radio the day after the match, you might have been tempted to believe that this was a major story which could conceivably have led to Hodgson losing his job (in spite of the fact that Andros Townsend had publicly stated that no offence was meant and none was taken).

For those who don’t follow the sport and may have some prejudice against football and footballers, I should point out here that Roy Hodgson is by no means a run-of-the-mill manager. He has lived and worked in several countries, is fluent in five languages and conversant in three more. He lists Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Sebastian Faulds among his favourite writers. By most reasonable standards, he would be considered to be a cultured individual and has a reputation within the game for being a thoroughly decent chap. You could argue that he chose a rather convoluted way to make his point; perhaps he would have been better advised to have said: ‘just get the fucking ball to Andros as soon as you can’. But in using the joke to make his point, he would not have considered the possibility that it might have caused offence, not because he is a closet racist but because he is a nice man. I’m willing to speculate that it would simply not have occurred to him that there was any link between black people and monkeys.

But even if it hadn’t been someone like Roy Hodgson telling that joke, the folk who over-reacted would still have been wrong to over-react. Surely the notion of any link between a black footballer and a monkey is so utterly ridiculous that only a complete moron would entertain it? It’s as ridiculous a concept as claiming that all Welsh people smell of turnips. If anyone tried to promote that particular idea, they would deservedly be laughed at or, more likely, ignored by polite society.

With that in mind, one can’t help but wonder why so many people reacted in the way they did to the monkey joke; in fact, it’s tempting to speculate that there might be more to it than meets the eye.

During the recent American presidential election campaign, there was some hostile media reaction to one of the speeches given by the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Some mainstream commentators accused Romney of using ‘dog whistle’ politics to appeal to extreme right-wingers. According to these critics, he was talking in code in order to re-assure the lunatic fringe that he was the real deal. On the surface, it may have looked like he was speaking the language of consensus, designed to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, but he was actually giving out secret messages that only his core support would understand. These messages would re-assure them that a victorious Romney would indeed govern as a hard-line, kick-ass Republican president. This interesting theory, however, was deftly undermined by the cultural commentator Mark Steyn, who pointed out a simple and devastating truth: if you can hear the dog whistle, it usually means that you’re the dog.

By sensing something ‘offensive’ in Roy Hodgson’s joke, by making some connection between a black footballer and a monkey, the person who leaked that story and the people who took offence on behalf of Andros Townsend have perhaps revealed rather more about themselves than they might comfortably care to acknowledge.