Liberal snobbery moves into ‘top gear’

The fuss over a joke about Mexican cars shows how the elite’s disdain for Jeremy Clarkson fans has turned nasty.

It really is a very tired old routine now. First comes the bad taste joke. Then comes the offence-taking. Complaints are fired off. Commentators weigh in. And, usually, after a lot of affected sound and proxy fury, the obligatory statement is issued: ‘We apologise for any offence caused.’ By which time someone else – usually a member of the Royal Family or a Tory grandee – has tried out their latest Dresden gag during an after-dinner speech. And the whole fandango can start again.

Enter the presenters of BBC’s jokey-blokey car programme Top Gear: Richard Hammond, James May and, most important of all, Jeremy Clarkson, the focus of more liberal scorn than George W Bush, Robert Mugabe and the Robertson’s jam golliwog rolled into one. ‘Why would you want a Mexican car?’, asked Hammond on the show last week, before pondering the extent to which cars reflect national characteristics: ‘German cars are very well-built and efficient… Italian cars are flamboyant and quick. Mexican cars are just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight, leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.’ May joined in, describing Mexican food as ‘re-fried sick with a bit of cheese on top’, before Jeremy Clarkson confidently asserted that they wouldn’t be getting any complaints because at the Mexican Embassy, ‘the Mexican ambassador is going to be sitting there, with the remote control, like this…’ – and promptly mimicked snoring.

Their work, as comic un-PC presenters, done, they might as well just have sat back and watched the offended rally their easily-wounded troops.

And rally they did. The wide-awake Mexican ambassador promptly sent a letter to the BBC labelling the comments ‘outrageous, vulgar and inexcusable’. An early day motion, pushed by Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, went through parliament asking members to ‘condemn the ignorant, derogatory and racist remarks about Mexico made by the Top Gear presenters’. And the legal firm responsible for bringing a complaint against Channel 4 for its handling of the Big Brother controversy with Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty is also now involved.

It’s an absurd spectacle. A not-very-funny joke about Mexican cars has become an international incident. As a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald put it: ‘Mexico demands Top Gear apology.’

But there is something more to this latest round of disingenuous outrage and eye-contact-avoiding contrition. In the myriad criticism aimed at Top Gear and its man-child presenters, one can hear the sound of sabres being rattled as liberal, right-thinking types affirm their superiority over a mass of people who quite like a programme about cars. For his critics, Clarkson, you see, is more than a person. He’s a phenomenon. Seasoned anti-Clarkson warriors are not just seizing the opportunity to have a pop at their bête noir. They are seizing the opportunity to have a pop at all those they think he represents: the ignorant, the selfish, the people who laugh at tongue-in-cheek references to Frenchies and Eye-ties.

This is why the Top Gear Mexican controversy doesn’t really have much to do with Mexico, despite the embassy’s best efforts. It’s more like a domestic culture war between aloof, self-styled liberals and their perceived enemy over in Top Gear land. This sentiment was best expressed by comedian Steve Coogan who, in a much-publicised attack on Top Gear in the Observer, turned his ire on the elfensafety-dodging petrolheads who watch it: ‘They often remind me of the National Rifle Association in the US who, I’m sure we can all agree, are a bunch of nutters.’ The pronoun is striking: ‘we’. It is the mark of an assumed consensus. It is a nod and a wink to all those, like Coogan, like Observer readers, who share the same spot-on, indubitably correct views. And it suggests that those who don’t agree, who like driving cars, who aren’t too concerned by a bit of silly national stereotyping, are in fact mad. You’re either with us or you’re mental.

All sane, right-thinking people over here, Clarkson fans over there. The same refrain repeats itself in almost all the criticism of the Top Gear comments about Mexicans. It’s as if the cultural battle lines are being drawn. ‘I never did get the appeal of the internal combustion engine’, writes Ian Bell in the Glasgow Herald. ‘I can explain those songs about “cars and girls”, if you like. I can talk Springsteen and Chuck Berry with the best of them. But the Top Gear types like music almost as much as they like pcgonemad. Those chaps – eternally “chaps” – prefer “rock”... I say only this: anyone who can join an enthusiasm for this week’s Porsche Girthexpander with a taste for “metal” needs a slap.’ Likewise, The Economist was similarly nonplussed by the people who like the antics of Clarkson et al: ‘Top Gear, an inexplicably popular television programme in which three paunchy Englishmen drive slender foreign sportscars.’

So not only does this ridiculously inflated affair have little to do with Mexico, it is has little to do with Clarkson individually. Rather, the momentum driving it derives from a loathing of Top Gear’s audience, with their elasticated waists and dreams of Ford Mondeos. This is why the tendency in anti-Clarkson tirades is always to generalise. It’s aimed at people who both like and, more importantly, are like Clarkson. It’s aimed at the portly and the middle-aged; the people who wear, as Coogan puts it, ‘uncool’ clothes.

The antagonism towards the legion of Clarkson fans is accompanied by a fear of them and their tiny brains. This is writ large when Coogan talks about what separates Top Gear’s alleged racism from that of his comedy character Alan Partridge: ‘If I say anything remotely racist or sexist as Alan Partridge, for example, the joke is abundantly clear. We are laughing at a lack of judgement and ignorance.’ There’s that ‘we’ again. ‘We’ are in on the joke. ‘They’, however, the Top Gear watchers, are not. ‘They’ can’t be trusted with Partridge-style rudeness from the mouths of Clarkson and pals lest it translate, in their prejudiced and petrol-addled minds, into actual animosity towards Mexicans.

What seems to have escaped those keen to educate the Clarkson masses in correct forms of speech and behaviour is that it is this stifling social etiquette, this cloying censureship issued from on high, that has always lent Clarkson’s Ye Olde Chauvinism its force. It is driven by an infant’s desire to say what his parents keep telling him he mustn’t say.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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