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Bum rap for Jamaicans

Theodore Dalrymple says that young Jamaicans have been corrupted by victimhood and the musico-industrial complex

9 August 2003

12:00 AM

9 August 2003

12:00 AM

Whenever I have a patient who belongs to the first generation of Jamaican immigrants, I cannot help but ask myself what England has done to the Jamaicans. How has such a charming and humorous community been turned into the sullen, resentful people that so many of their children (or grandchildren) seem to be today – particularly the males, possessed as they are of an arrogant sense of radical entitlement that renders them almost extraterritorial both to the laws of the land and the laws of good manners? What has England done to them that they should turn out thus?

Of course, there is still a strong strand of church-going respectability among the Jamaicans. Respectability is a much-mocked quality, and no doubt it has its drawbacks: but its opposite, a kind of bohemian anarchy without culture or intellect to redeem it, has no advantages. Besides, the respectability of poor people is moving to behold, constituting as it does a constructive attempt to overcome the hardship of their lives.

The first explanation of the transformation that comes to mind is the racism of English society. But I do not think this is the true explanation – in fact, radical anti-racism (a kind of employment opportunity for bureaucrats of limited ability) has far more to answer for, having persuaded many young men of Jamaican descent that when someone asks them at three in the morning to turn their music down, or upbraids them in any other way or circumstances, he is motivated by racism. This is convenient for the young men themselves, who are enabled thereby to behave badly while convinced of their own moral superiority based upon permanent, insuperable and existential victimhood; and it is also convenient for the anti-racist bureaucracy, who thereby assure themselves of ‘work’, that is to say a salary, for the foreseeable future.


But the Jamaicans are not a race, and their conduct is in marked contrast (at least in my experience) with that of West Africans and even West Indians who come from other islands. The first generation of Jamaican immigrants did indeed face racism, not of the subtle kind that requires a specialist armed with an anti-racist Malleus Maleficarum to detect, but of the most obvious and open kind. For example, a patient of mine came to this country as a cook in a hospital staff canteen, only to discover that the staff at first would not eat what she had cooked because they wanted nothing that had been touched by black hands. Her response was to cook so well that, before long, the staff wanted to eat only what she had cooked, and asked that she worked longer hours. Accommodation too had been a problem: no one wanted to rent to her. Now, of course, she has bought her own house, and she chuckles deeply when she recalls her first days in the Mother – or Stepmother – Country.

She has that deep laugh of someone who understands, not intellectually but emotionally, the imperfectibility of Man. Her wastrel sons, by contrast, had had it easy. Doors were open to them, but they steadfastly refused to walk through them. Instead, they took to the life of what they conceived to be the immemorial Jamaican culture: the getting of bastards, the smoking of dope, the collecting of social security, the wearing of gold chains, the driving at high speed with music thumping, and the refusal of work. The women suffer the consequences of this way of life. Many of them seem to be of vastly higher calibre than the men, bringing up children without any paternal support – indeed, with paternal hindrance – and going to work, often in responsible capacities. They are not blameless, of course, because they subsidise the fecklessness of the men, whose violence towards them they also tolerate: but in the victimhood stakes, they win hands down over the men.

It is not England, however, that has effected the great transformation and produced the ludicrously self-satisfied, macho, lupine-gaited, gold-chained-and-front-toothed predators of the slums, with the bodies of giants and the mind of a pea. First-generation Jamaican immigrants sometimes return to Jamaica to retire, only to discover when they get there that the very things they dislike in their own children are even worse, more salient and exaggerated over there. They flee back to England, to escape the childish but very dangerous bang-bang-you’re-dead culture of modern Jamaica (which, of course, is now spreading in England too). They are as puzzled and horrified as I.

Actually, it is not England as such that has changed people of Jamaican origin, but a certain kind of modernity. The changes they have undergone (or should I say embraced, since they are chosen?) are not really so very dissimilar to those that the native English themselves have undergone, and that make the modern English so deeply unattractive a people. One powerful influence in the process has been so-called popular culture, which is to real culture what McDonald’s is to real cookery. Where are the Marxist cultural critics when you need them? Just as the British educational system can be justly characterised as a conspiracy by the Department for Education, acting as a sub-committee on behalf of the British bourgeoisie, to protect the bourgeoisie from any competition from the lower orders by keeping them in a state of preternatural ignorance and uncouthness, so what is known as black culture is actually a conspiracy by the musico-industrial complex to keep blacks (actually, Jamaicans) in a permanent state of exploitable helotry –that is to say as a reserve army of reluctant casual labourers. In the process, of course, a few among them, possessed of minimal talent and little different from the rest, become very rich, though few of them hang on to their money because of the very ‘culture’ of which they are both the creators and the victims, stardom these days being awarded not to exceptional people but to mediocrities, in order to keep the rest of the population daydreaming rather than forming proper and realisable ambitions.

The output of the musico-industrial complex reinforces and makes actual the stereotype of the Jamaican as a man of small brain but large appetites, with a powerful though primitive sense of rhythm. These are not, of course, qualities that are very useful in social ascent: on the contrary, they inhibit it. It is therefore no accident, as the Marxist would say, that rap music is lionised in our press, even taken seriously as a genuine rather than as an ersatz and prefabricated, that is to say industrialised, cry of protest from the streets; while Pentecostal religion – the other pole of Jamaican culture in Britain, one that is genuine and spontaneous – is laughed to scorn. Pentecostal religion offers the frightening prospect of Jamaicans breaking free of the musically and bureaucratically forged manacles that keep them forever subordinate, marginalised and criminalised. As a 16th-century German bishop once remarked, the poor are a goldmine; and so are the Jamaicans – for the record companies and welfare bureaucracies alike.


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