Merry Arse. Mari-Arty. Fat Slob. Dick. Bastard. Cockroach, Arsehole. Shit. Muvverfucca. Weirdo. Lefty Loon, Twat. Complete (Emmanual) Kant. Weirdo. Disingenu. Freak. And according to one of my teachers who struggled to get beyond the 18th century: Dionysian Strumpet. But that’s enough about me, what do they call you?
It’s marvellous how one person can mean so many different things to different people but I earned each and every one of those names. I’m not exactly proud of them but at least the things I’ve done have inspired people to reach into their personal lexicons to find an appropriate way to define me, as much as my birth inspired my parents to call me something which even I am not sure how to pronounce.
But nowadays I, and I dare say you too (unless you are using this newspaper as insulation on a frosty park bench in which case I recommend the collected works of Don Grant sufficient to keep a gentleperson toasty for life), find ourselves with a name which we did nothing to earn. A name that just collects us together as one side, a contemptible enemy. For you and I, almost certainly, are the “Metropolitan Elite.” We have been united in a name, despite the fact that we have probably never met, and even if we did we might find the only thing we had in common was our desire to meet someone better looking.
“Metropolitan Elite” is just a handy term reserved for hate speech, one that smacks of exclusivity and money in a time of austerity because (a) you can afford somehow to live or work in a city and (b) that in itself makes you elite. There’s no name for the other side – The Rural Rabble? – because this collection is an illusion. Over half the country lives or works in a metropolitan area. But then “One Percenters” probably seemed a little too small, and actually elite, to explain 48% of the UK voting to Remain or the same percentage of Americans voting for Hillary.
Hate terms can, of course, be adopted and repurposed by the hatees. Rappers use the N-word as an empowered and exclusive term of brotherhood. And for the rest of us, to hear it and never wish to say it, lets us never forget where it came from; but then it perpetuation also makes it all the more attractive for white supremacists to use it as a badge of bravery, doubling down and challenging the taboo. Do I like being called “Elite”? You can bet your Top Gun I do; the OED says an “elite” is “superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” I didn’t ask to be one but if you insist…
We have been branded like very posh cattle, so would any of us adopt “Metropolitan Elite” as a badge of honour? Unless we own it and try to change its meaning it will always sound like we fret over avocado shortages at Waitrose and the dreadful accent the nanny is teaching Imogen and Hugo.
For 20th Century Marxists the “Bourgeoisie” was the collective bête noire. But the word literally means “those who live in a borough,” city dwellers or, if you prefer, “Metropolitans”. Living in a city seems to inspire a political paranoia: all those people living near each other must be colluding against the interests of the rest. Creating a collective enemy from an economic perception is an old political con. Bolsheviks inspired a poor, mainly rural, Red Army to march on Russian cities. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forced all city dwellers on long marches to start farming; declaring anybody with glasses “intellectual” and put to death. In 1918 in Russia, in 1970’s Cambodia, it didn’t end well.
Despite these examples its not an exclusively Left Wing strategy. “Metropolitan Elite” is a term bandied by Left and Right because, if you hold an extreme view, you need to create an enemy of the middle, a way to define them as a collective who mean you harm. It’s no good just going after your polar opposite, that’s just sectarianism. So for Nazis it was the Jewish conspiracy, for ISIL or Al Qaeda it’s the “Kafir,” literally anyone who does not believe the same thing.
The neatest part of political paranoia is that once you start attacking your made up enemy, you force those you’ve declared as working together to, well, work together; you create the conspiracy you made up in the first place.
Name calling is as old as the meth user Methuselah, and in the modern era of Twitter and Snapchat, limited by either number of characters or, simply, juvenile vocabulary, it is the easiest shorthand to express complex ideas. There is no room for subtlety or debate on social media. Just statements or reactions, anger or mockery, puffs or put downs.
America’s Right have forged “young liberals” into “special snowflakes”, leading what might have been disperate “snowflakes” to adopt the insult and rebut it with a “beware of avalanches” rhetoric. The Alt-Right have created their enemy, now they can start recruiting.
But even the sound of names can have an effect. Time and again, names that dominate the political narrative lead the day. Both Trumps and Clintons are types of cards, but Trumps win. “Brexit” with its novelty portmanteau, its plosive and fricative phonemes, defined the entire referendum, while “Remain” sounding weak and ineffectual was always the opposition rather than the lead. Even now the people pushing the leave campaign are “Brexiteers” sounding romantic and swashbuckling whilst “Remoaners” fail to set the agenda. Why haven’t we got Brexshits and e-Uniters at the very least?
When the political middle is given a name, forced to become a side, extremism is on the rise. And, in this climate, we need to ask whether we should adopt the names we’re called, refute them or try to ignore them? Metropolitan that’s me, Elite if you say so. But if you call us that to dismiss us, we need to stand… for something.
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