Rod Liddle

Note to protestors: elitism and privilege are not the same thing

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‘Theoretical perspectives on contemporary cities, with a specific focus on the global nature of urban social and political change and development. The course will consider classic and recent theory and analysis emanating from ‘Northern’ academic and policy contexts, while also challenging western-centric views of the city… The course will equip students interested in urban change and development to understand and consider appropriate responses to social and political aspects of cities.’

—LSE course module in Contemporary Urbanism

Trenton Oldfield, the smirking Australian halfwit who was dragged from the Thames having successfully disrupted the 158th Oxford-Cambridge boat race, is in this country for the purpose of taking the above university course at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Trenton presumably thought that swimming across the Thames was the appropriate response to one social and political aspect of the capital — its, uh, horrid elitism. Of course, he is a narcissistic idiot, probably considering himself a modern equivalent of Rosa Parks or that angry woman who jumped in front of a racehorse so that her gender might have the right, 90 years later, to elect people like Lynne Featherstone to parliament.

More to the point, though, it would look, from that prospectus, as if Trenton has been encouraged in his manifest idiocy by my old university, the LSE. Trenton was arrested by the police after his stunt. It might be a good idea if they arrested everybody taking a course in ‘Contemporary Urbanism’ as a sensible preventative measure — much as we arrested domiciled Nazis and pro-­Molotov-Ribbentrop pact commies in 1939. And much as then, we could intern them on the Isle of Wight, with their benighted lecturers, the facile Howard Kirks of this century. You can imagine the sort of glib, infantile, left-wing drivel that gets rammed into thick, impressionable middle-class Australian students studying Contemporary Urbanism, can’t you? I will bet any money that the people behind the course were also behind that hilarious ‘study’ the LSE produced in conjunction with, natch, the Guardian about last summer’s riots. This consisted of asking rioters why they rioted and taking the answers at face value in a dynamic new sociological approach called Utter Naivety. Oddly enough, none of the rioters said: ‘We rioted because we’re greedy, feral, badly brought-up, fairly stupid and criminally inclined.’ The riots were, instead, an entirely appropriate response to social and political aspects of cities, especially when our western-centric views of these places are challenged.

It goes without saying, of course, that the globe-trotting Trenton hails from a background more moneyed and gilded than that which had been the lot of most of the Oxbridge rowers, I would guess. He had attended one of Australia’s top fee-paying schools, the Sydney Church of England Grammar — which will have set his parents back something like £16,000 per year. Perhaps this accounts for his confusing the terms elitism and privilege, a mistake made by a good many of the commentators who rushed to eviscerate the idiot, too. Trenton’s background is privileged, oddly enough for someone named after a diasporic hellhole in New Jersey, not especially elitist.

The Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race is also a consequence of privilege and not elitism. If there were to be an elitist boat race taking place on the Thames each year it would not be between Oxford and Cambridge, it would be between Reading and Durham, or perhaps Loughborough and Birmingham. Those are the universities with the best rowing teams, for what it’s worth. The same applies to those yearly ‘Varsity’ rugby union matches contested between two singularly mediocre teams at Twickenham, Oxford and Cambridge. If this were an elitist event it would be contested by a team from something called the University of the West of England (Bristol Poly, I think, to you and me) and again, the likes of Loughborough or maybe Bath. They are the universities with the best rugby teams.

This confusion between elitism and privilege lies at the heart of much that is wrong with, among other things, our education system — although I doubt very much that lecturers in Contemporary Urbanism at the LSE would agree. It was an odd sleight of hand from the liberal left to render these two terms effectively synonymous, so that elitism became tainted with the same connotations of unfairness and snobbery as that which can, justifiably, be levelled at privilege.

We have seen what the war against elitism has done to our school students: a grotesque dumbing-down of standards, the stifling of the brightest pupils, examinations rendered almost meaningless through the ease with which they can be passed — and all so everybody gets to win and nobody is allowed become part of an elite of excellence. You can see this in microcosm at your local primary school sports day; the ingrained resistance to have any pupil singled out as a ‘winner’, in case this made the other kids feel bad about themselves. At my daughter’s school last year, the 50m sprint took the following form: all the kids lined up and ran as fast as they could to the halfway point. Then they waited for the fatties to catch up and, holding hands, all walked or trotted to the finish line, where everyone received an identical token.

This plainly mentalist aversion to the notion of success, and hypersensitivity about those who have not won, runs through every strand of our society. Incredibly, it is even present in the hype being whipped up about the Olympic Games: the official propaganda insists that this costly jamboree is not about the physical excellence of the elite competitors but is instead an ‘inclusive’ event, something in which we can all take part and all be winners. No, it isn’t. It is a celebration of elitism. And as such, one might hope that Trenton Oldfield expresses his opposition to it by invading the field of play halfway through the finals of the javelin.