Bowing to the MeToo madness is landing us all in the Apu
The canning of The Simpsons grocer is the latest decree by the PC dictatorship on what you can and cannot say
On a flight back from the US last week following an exhausting history conference, I treated myself to a few in-flight movies. I kicked off with He’s Just Not That Into You, a delicious film version of the iconic book dedicated to explaining pretty much what it says on the tin. It was made in 2009, just nine years ago, but watching it felt like entering a different world.
There were jokes about gay couples, yoga teachers and that reassuring old binary, “men” and “women”. It was bliss; an indulgent soak in a time before the chilling present, when each day brings a new curtailment of artistic, comic and personal freedom, and new diktats on what you can and cannot say, wear, do, eat.
It happens that as I was making my way across the Atlantic ensconced in my film, a scandal was erupting that goes right to the heart of this restrictive, authoritarian present. A rumour had circulated that The Simpsons character Apu would be axed following endless complaints that he is a racist stereotype.
Apu, full name Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (voiced by Hank Azaria), is an Indian immigrant who runs the Kwik-E-Mart and is one of the funniest characters on The Simpsons. I loved him (and the programme) throughout my childhood, as did friends from many backgrounds. But in today’s hyped-up climate of offence, a climate in which Friends (Friends!) has been declared racist and homophobic, Apu has unsurprisingly come under miserable scrutiny.
Apu’s blacklisting began in earnest with last year’s documentary The Problem with Apu, made by American comedian Hari Kondabolu. In it, Kondabolu deployed the now all-too-familiar logic of the PC dictatorship. Rather than see Apu in context as a hilarious cartoon character – a brilliant trope in a programme of tropes – he and the many who now think like him chose to see Apu as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”.
The cartoon grocer was suddenly an agent of symbolic violence. Excise him!
Well, to the presumable delight of identity warriors, Apu’s excision now seems imminent. Last week, Adi Shankar, a producer and YouTube personality, said he’d heard rumours from Simpsons insiders that Apu was indeed for the chop. Simpsons producer Al Jean pointed out that as Shankar didn’t work for The Simpsons, he wasn’t in a position to make any declarations about the character’s fate – but nor did he deny that Apu would be axed.
I will hand the missionaries of offence one thing: they’re efficient. The flattening-out of the cultural and institutional landscape has happened at breakneck speed and with such thoroughness that almost no corner of human communication has been left out. Which is how UK supermarket magazine Waitrose Food editor William Sitwell came to resign from his post last week.
In a private e-mail to vegan cookery writer Selene Nelson, who had pitched a series on plant-based foods, MasterChef judge and meat enjoyer Sitwell responded to her promptly. “Thanks for this. How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat?”
The e-mail was leaked, with BuzzFeed the first to “report” on the exchange. Then came the fury of vegans, the shaming of the e-mail’s author, his resignation, a formal statement from Waitrose, and finally the Twitterstorm over the rights and wrongs of the whole sorry thing.
On the bright side, the Sitwell row signalled that we haven’t entirely lost all sense; many (correctly) saw this as a sign of dangerous, bonkers times. Others wondered if the choice to eat a plant-based diet should really be considered an imperilled identity, deserving of some kind of special protection from rude words and ridicule, concluding “probably not”.
Even some of those who normally toe the PC line were taken aback by Sitwell’s departure. But consternation at the guillotining of an editor for writing a funny/rude e-mail to someone pitching a series on animal product-free foods is not remotely enough to stem the tide. For what those who called for Sitwell’s head have done is far from superficial. They are part of a concerted attack on that bastion of basic decency I call the centre, and their endless baying for blood over speech deemed incorrect has chillingly opened the way for the far right to pile in.
As more and more is deemed “unsayable” in polite society, a growing army of alt-right-wingers are becoming cult figures on YouTube; crude, angry men like Sargon of Akkad and Count Dankula. These “personalities” – who troublingly lay claim to the label of “classical liberals” – have gained hundreds of thousands of followers. Their fans? Those fed up with being told what they cannot say or wear or believe. Or watch on television.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited