Imagine there's no progress

It's easy if you try

Goldfinger was originally written as a film treatment and perhaps it should be read as the script to the first superhero movie. Admittedly, Bond has no personal superpowers beyond tolerance to alcohol, irresistibility to women, and the ability to con villains into doing what he wants. Even those may not lie beyond the bounds of the exceptional: did Bond drink more than Churchill, fuck more than Alan Clark, or charm more ruthlessly than John Le Carré’s father, Ronnie Cornwell? The superpowers he does possess or can summon are those of nation states. When he gets on the radio, presidents and prime ministers hasten to do as he tells them. Sixty thousand people play dead at his suggestion.

None of this implausibility stops one from reading on, agog to know how he’ll get out of each successive danger. What did pull me up short was the racism and still more the sexism of the story. The latter is very present in Sean Connery. Here it is in the book:

"Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them."

And here it is acted out, in a slightly different part of the plot, by Sean Connery and Honor Blackman

When I look at that scene today it far more closely resembles rape than seduction. In fact it’s really hard to watch for that reason. But in a sufficiently hierarchical society, rape and seduction can be hard to distinguish: seduction is causing someone to yield to their impulse as they should and in this instance the impulse is to submit to their ordained superior.

Then there is the racism. Its use as a plot motor is both disturbing and effective. It is an essential part of OddJob’s menace that he is alien as well as wholly unfeeling. He even eats cats (I think this was dropped from the film)

“you did well, Oddjob. I’m glad to see you are in training. Here –” Goldfinger took the cat from under his arm and tossed it to the Korean who caught it eagerly – “I am tired of seeing this animal around. You may have it for dinner.” The Korean’s eyes gleamed. “And tell them in the kitchen that we will have our own dinner at once.”

Later in the meal, Goldfinger explains to Bond what he finds attractive about the Koreans:

“They are the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world. My own staff are hand picked for these qualities. They have served me well. I have no complaints. Nor have they. They are well paid and well fed and housed. When they want women, street women are brought down from London, well remunerated for their services and sent back. The women are not much to look at, but they are white and that is all the Koreans ask – to submit the white race to the grossest indignities.”

I laughed out loud at this, but I did so from a comfortable distance. It is not only an example of racism as projection — for the Koreans here stand in for the Americans and other whites for whom Asian women may safely and satisfyingly be submitted to the grossest indignities — but a reminder of the role that rape[1] plays in ethnic hostilities when these are entirely unleashed. See the DRC today or the Yugoslav civil wars of the Nineties for the most recent examples that have made the news. We would never do such things or connive in them.

But that is not the only use of racism in the book. There is one tiny, quite gratuitous touch earlier on, when Bond is first stalking Goldfinger round a hotel: the owner tells him “You’d think he’d be a Jew from the name but he doesn’t look it. We’re restricted at the Floridiana. Wouldn’t have got in if he had been.”

The fact that this is a completely unexceptional establishing dialogue from the naturalistic portion of the book tells us an awful lot about the mores of the USA in 1964.

So, you read, or I read, and feel a rush of gratitude and satisfaction that the world has moved on so far. It really is moral progress to be shocked by the scene from Goldfinger, or the mention of of “restriction”; and to realise that the crudities of anti-Korean racism are ridiculous as well as repulsive.

The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains. Has the world really renounced racism or rape as instruments of political conflict, or sexism as the foundation of all other orders? Have we done so even in enlightened topless Europe?

With sexism, I think the answer is fairly clear. This has largely been renounced in the public, official sphere. But in the unofficial world where we spend most of our lives it is flourishing almost untrammelled. Popular culture is all about extreme gender dimorphism and constant sexual presentation. Men are unbelievably butch, women entirely femme; everyone is always, remorselessly, up for it.

I have the impression this is the case in porn. It is certainly the way that celebrity culture works — look at the Mail Online. In fact the only way to make sense of gender fluidity, or people declaring themselves “non-binary” is as an attempt to navigate through these immensely powerful gravitational attractions within the culture. It strikes me as odd that a culture that finds the ideal of chastity risible and virginity a shameful disability should have to construct its own ways of asserting that some people may choose to sit out the sexual dance. But people are complicated and contradictory, so a culture which is based around the idea that everyone should pursue happiness in their own way is bound to be confused as well as conflicted.

In any case, and by any measure, the kind of straightforward sexual equality and freedom that I thought we could almost touch in the Seventies, and that our children would certainly inherit, has receded almost beyond reach. The sexual attitudes of Goldfinger are not only orthodoxy in the non-Western world, they have seeped into the groundwater here. If Trump were not such a public shit with women he’d never have been elected president.

Similarly, the open racism, hardly worth acknowledging, that permeates the Bond books, is now publicly unacceptable on either side of the North Atlantic and for several hundred miles inland in both cases. But it is very strong in both India and China, in the Arab world and, for all I know, in Indonesia, too. Those are the places where the population is still growing, and to which power is gravitating in the world. The conflict between the US and China can hardly avoid racial overtones. The conflicts between Christianity and Islam tend to be understood that way in the West as well, even if they are bloodiest in places where both religions contend within the same populations. And there is a huge reservoir of racism beneath the politics of migration. Even without that, American politics is increasingly racialised, in ways that are ultimately subversive of democracy as we used to understand it.

Nonetheless, racism is not used to sell things the way that sexism is. It’s much less present in the landscape of advertising and entertainment. The definitions of “us” and “the other” are permeable, and do shift over time. There is still hope for the process of integration and family formation. The only place where I think it will be completely unavoidable, and increasingly important, is in the related issues of resource conflicts in time of climate change, and of migration. All the countries of “the West” are adopting versions of the Australian policy on immigration: poor countries on the border are bribed or compelled to function as giant prison houses for the populations of still poorer countries which are trying to flee. For the US this is supposed to be Mexico; for Europe it is the countries of the southern shore Mediterranean and Greece and Turkey too. And, although we would never openly or consciously promote rape as an instrument of policy, sexual violence and exploitation is intrinsic to this system and must function as one of the deterrents to would-be migrants.

What might a meliorist hope for? Is there any way to reorient ourselves towards the future that disappeared? I’d like to believe in the power of shame here; I’d like to believe that if only people understood the gap between what they profess and what they practice, or what is practised in their name, we might change the world a little. I don’t doubt the role of hypocrisy in maintaining and improving civilisations. The sight of vice forced to pay a tribute to virtue is a lot more edifying than the alternative and I miss it, because hypocrisy isn’t nearly as effective as one might hope.

Once it becomes obvious that conventions can safely be defied, they vanish like the dew, which at sunrise covered all the field ahead of us. One of the most anachronistic aspects of Goldfinger is that the villain yields at once to the threat of public exposure that he cheats at cards. Yet Trump is a notorious cheat at golf and this doesn’t dent his popularity at all. Bezos is caught sending dick pics to his mistress and says, in effect “publish and be damned”. Doesn’t hurt that he owns a newspaper, of course.

So hypocrisy won’t work. Neither, I think, will the journalist’s instinct to expose the naked lunch. We must still do it, of course. The craft of reporting involves getting out and talking to people and then explaining them so that both they and the reader recognise themselves. This is a discipline that has its own rewards. But we must abandon the vain hope of reaching those who do not want to be reached. Auden is no help here. In one of the poems he later suppressed, he wrote

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I love this, and I quote it often but he was right to detect a false note there. The falsity comes in the repurposing of a private hope as a public performance. The Just exchange their ironic messages in private, between friends. The affirming flames are visible, like the narrow beams of a lighthouse, only from the right vessels. There are public truths, and they need to be affirmed, but most of the time we are sustained by things that can only truthfully be said between friends.

I don’t really believe in the Benedict Option and still less in the alternative vision of the Woke City, but I admire the impulses behind both projects. The only way to bridge the gap between public and private moralities, or to stop it from growing impossible to bridge, is to do our parts to construct moral communities out of the people to hand, starting with ourselves.

Thanks for reading!

Incidentally, what the Koreans do would be read as rape in the Sixties because it is not part of the natural order when Asian men do it to white women; there’s no submission to ordained authority. When we do it to them it’s just free trade.