Why should straight white men ‘pass the power’?

If you happened to be walking through Southwark this week you might have been accosted by a big public sign. ‘Hey straight white men’, the billboard bellowed, ‘Pass the power!’ Similar billboards apparently cropped up in other, equally squalid, parts of London. They are by a black artist from Marseille called Nadina. It will not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen her work to learn that Nadina is self-taught. Her other street art includes posters saying ‘Never forget George Floyd’ and ‘Nobody is free until Palestine is free’. It is brought to us by a gallery run, so far as I can see, by two white males.

Anyhow, if I were a straight white bloke strolling through Southwark I am not sure I would welcome Nadina’s sloganeering. Had I had just left one of the rougher estates looking for work, I might feel especially sore about the mythical ‘power’ I was said to hold. I might also wonder who exactly I am meant to pass this ‘power’ on to. Nadina seems to be doing pretty well. Should I just hand it to anyone who is not white, or not straight? Kemi Badenoch, say? Or Lord Mandelson?

When I see such a piece of public insult, a number of things cross my otherwise tranquil mind. The first is a desire to put a foot through the billboard in question. The second is to wonder whether Southwark council, the Mayor of London or anyone else would permit any similarly bigoted public messages if they happened to turn it round the other way. ‘Oy, black blokes. Give us your rights!’, for example. Or: ‘Hey, gays, hand over the cash!’ Those billboards would most likely be hate crimes, and the mayor of London, Southwark council, the General Synod and everyone else would immediately be out to condemn them as such. But when it comes to not just insulting straight white men, but actually hectoring them, then it seems no one can be bothered to raise a whisper of objection.

There was always going to be a backlash to this sort of overreach, and in the US, if not yet in the UK, the pendulum is very much on the return swing. For years the left have managed to insult and bully. For instance, they found it enormously advantageous to say that any right-wing politician was racist. They didn’t mind who they used this tactic against. In America they did it to any and all Republicans. In Britain the Labour party never restrained its MPs from claiming that Boris Johnson, Theresa May and everyone else in Conservative circles was racist, homophobic, misogynistic and more.

For a while I have been waiting to see what the right was going to retaliate with – and now we have finally got there. The first salvo from the right is to fire back with ‘groomer’.

It is clever, in a way. The only thing that our society abhors even more than racism is child abuse. Check in with anyone of any social class and they will agree that nonces are the worst. Even people in prison for murder famously look down in disgust on those who are there for abusing children.

So here the American right has discovered its new weapon. It originates in the fuss over something called Drag Queen Story Hour. This was a slightly overblown news item about groups of schoolchildren being read to in their local library by drag queens. Personally I have nothing against drag queens and it seemed to me that the story was partly a victim of context collapse. But the American right was all over it. Some even tried to whip up a fury at the disgusting cross-dressing tradition that occurs every year in the UK where people play members of the opposite sex for laughs in front of children. It was hard to explain that the Christmas panto season is not considered much of a problem.

Drag Queen Story Hour in Riverside, California (Getty Images)

But ours is an era of getting worked up, and the internet is a magnificent assistant for doing so. In the US there really are schools that give children the impression that ours is a hermaphroditic species. In Britain this week the appalling campaign group Stonewall announced that: ‘Research suggests that children as young as two recognise their trans identity. Yet many nurseries and schools teach a binary understanding of pre-assigned gender. LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming education is crucial for the wellbeing of all young people.’ To which a number of folks online and off said ‘groomers’.

Of course, it is worse in the States where there are now videos being passed around of drag-queen strippers performing in front of children and children being encouraged to put money into their underwear. Most of these cases seem to involve the recently passed Pride Month and straight people taking their children (or allowing their children to be taken) to wildly unsuitable events.

You will be unsurprised that the response to this LGBT overreach has also been ‘groomer’. And in some of these cases the allegation is not wrong, any more than it is always wrong to call someone racist. It is just that it is not true all the time. Still, a portion of the right has decided it doesn’t care. If you’ve been cudgelled long enough with false claims, you may well feel the urge to cudgel back.

Should you want a glimpse into the current state of political debate, here it is: two sides throwing out equally insincere claims. Except that this week Twitter banned the use of the word ‘groomer’ in this context from its platform. We will see if Twitter bans the word ‘racist’ as well, or whether Southwark council minds alienating the majority population. I suspect not. Which is why this asymmetric battle is likely to get uglier yet.

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