• 738

Louis Theroux

Updated: Jul 14

If you want an insight into the minds that govern Britain, then watch Louis Theroux. For over twenty years, Theroux has established himself as the premier BBC documentarist on human affairs—he is a quality act for educated people, especially for people who read The Guardian. To understand Theroux is to understand how our civic religion works—so watch how he works and thinks, and learn.

Theroux made his name with a series called Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends in which he embedded himself with people, mostly Americans, with “weird” beliefs. Now, the key word in the title is “weird”; it calls to mind my mother’s constant injunction “What’s normal, anyway?”—partly that is the feminine imperative, the desire not to be tied to any definite standards; however, there is a certain truth to it. After all, if someone says “that’s weird” or “what are ya doin’ that for ya big weirdo?” in the end this is social disapproval and control—“Who are you calling weird?” “Who’s ‘she’, the cat’s mother?”.

As a teenager I challenged an apologist for North Korea on his stance: “They have this weird cult around Kim Jong-il.” “We have a weird cult around the royal family,” he retorted. It was a good comeback: the Kims are only weird if you read tabloid headlines that say “STRANGE Kim Jong-il and his CREEPY family engage in a WEIRD holiday in deserted Swiss resort.” Nobody, apart from North Korean journalists, writes “WEIRD Prince Charles, heir to Britain’s CREEPY leadership cult, was received by thousands of FANATICAL flag-wavers to celebrate his MUM’S BIRTHDAY.” Admittedly, nobody will shoot you or put you in a camp if you fail to attend Mrs. Rathbone’s jubilee street bash—yet, in essence, it is the same phenomenon, only the degree is different. This is very relevant for Theroux because, as we shall see, he is a man with minimal self-awareness—a man who is essentially unconscious as regards his own beliefs and, frankly, prejudices.

As the detective in Hitchcock’s Rear Window observes: “You’d be surprised what people get up to in the privacy of their own apartments.” “I’m not one for rear window ethics,” replies the demure Grace Kelly. Theroux is all, as we shall see, “rear window”—all a voyeuristic glance into “the privacy of their own apartments”; and, no surprise, what we see there is “weird”. “But...but…am I weird?” “Is it right to spy on my neighbour…even if I prove he’s not a murderer?” Who is watching whom? Some people, Theroux included, never get that far.

The basic premise for Theroux’s shows is that we laugh at Americans with stupid low-status beliefs—you know the drill, “flyover beliefs” in Jeeessssusssss or UFOs; and, perhaps, for variety, people who practice “ethical gangbangs” or participate in Detroit’s Muslim rap scene. The shows are never entirely confined to America, but if they venture outside their target is still the same type—the UKIP voter, in British terms. Theroux cut his teeth with mini-docs on Michael Moore’s TV Nation, and that tells you everything about where he is coming from—and going to. There are many shows that deal with similar subject matter: you know what I mean, the shows about the person who raises white Siberian tigers from birth and lives in the same bungalow with ten of them—“They’re my real family.” “Are they?” interjects Theroux, slightly quizzical, his eyebrow raised. The interjection is key, for, as with any art form, it is Theroux’s style not his subject matter that makes him stand out.

Theroux’s style was aptly summed up in a quip from the sitcom Peep Show: “Louis Theroux’s wry smile at the orgy.” What Theroux does, unlike more in-ya-face documentarists, is to turn up and act like a naïf, an innocent man who will just be passively guided round the scene. He will never fully participate in, say, the consensual S&M orgy at the mid-California sweat lodge. He might, in a soi-disant way, let himself be tied up, fully clothed, to “Mistress Whiplash’s whipping rack” but he is never going to deep throat in a suburban living room before a dozen or so sagging suburban swingers. He will instead stand back and watch as events unfold with his “wry smile”—a smile that we, the viewers, share in.

Theroux wins the trust of people who take him in to explain their beliefs and practices—usually in a sincere way—and then, under the pretence of if not friendship then polite interested acquaintanceship, covertly sneers at the “weirdos” and invites the audience, through his “wry smile”, to sneer at them too. So what Theroux does is really a high-class tabloid hit job—except for Guardian readers; not “VILE sex den uncovered in respectable suburban street” but rather the implicit smug superiority found in an adult who deigns to listen to a child explain his play world. “So John, John—what do you believe will happen when Jesus comes back? With this ‘Rapture’? Because I’m finding it difficult to grasp…the particulars.” [Concerned, slightly imploring glance] “Well, Louis that will be a time of tribulation.” Pause. Silent, yet implicit, judgement. Look at this poor deluded idiot, do you not pity him—-oh, intelligent and educated viewer?

As usual, it runs in the family. Theroux’s father is Paul Theroux, a man famous for his travel books—his great railway journeys, so called. I pulled these down from my grandfather’s shelves when bored at Christmas and what I found was that Theroux Sr. (Theroux is American, as with, well, the pond guy) was like his son only more vicious. Paul Theroux’s books are like his son’s documentaries except that he uses a different conceit and is more direct—Louis’s mother must have had blood that moderated him.

Paul Theroux’s main wheeze is to take a long train journey, chat to and observe the people in his railway compartments, and then tear them to pieces afterwards for the reader’s amusement—the same deal as the Weird Weekends, really; except Paul Theroux is nasty, whereas Louis Theroux is more feminised—the father is a bastard, the son is a bitch. Masculine common sense says “it’s unnatural to keep a Siberian tiger in a bungalow”, feminine narcissism says “it’s weird to keep a Siberian tiger in a bungalow, what will the neighbours say?”—ergo, Theroux works from a feminised position. Anyway, this is the family business—just like Dumas père and Dumas fils.

The sensibility is mid-Atlantic—a bit like Loyd Grossman, a man whose accent has to be seen to be believed—and it is infused with the worst of Anglo-American smug assumed superiority. It is people from this world who, with complete arrogant self-confidence, would predict in the 1960s that Britain would never have a race problem like America because “we never had the colour bar” and “we never had slavery”—and would then look smugly down on Americans who had lived with blacks for generations, as if their views originated in some generally hateful attitude cultivated for no particular reason. This charmed circle manages to combine anti-American snobbery, directed against proley Southerners, with ignorant egalitarianism directed towards blacks and sexual minorities. If I say to you Amis-Hitchens-Rushdie you get the picture, there is no need to separate these names because they are all in one narcissistic circle-jerk; and you can add the name “Theroux” to the human centipede.

Unfortunately, this Anglo-American attitude comes from the top; it even comes from people who are considered non-decadent aristocrats, such as Lord Salisbury—as celebrated by Roger Scruton’s ultra-conservative Salisbury Review. Salisbury used to disdain “colonial types” and “damn nigger types”—and would side with the Māoris over the settlers, with the “noble savage” over the white man. Yet Lord Salisbury never lived in a colonial environment and was quite protected in his library, in his twilight-melancholy High Tory Lovecraftian world.

I think this view is unrealistic; it comes about from aristocratic snobbery and a detachment from reality. I am not, as a rule, “into” racial invective, but you can see how it arises organically in multi-racial societies—and, unfortunately, aristocrats, even supposed ultra-Tories, will side with lower racial outsiders over their own people because that is how status competition works; and it will only be reversed when an existential threat suspends the status struggle. Similar Salisburyian attitudes can be detected in Theroux—in his disdain for “Low Church types” and “Evangelicals”, as now represented by “that weirdo family with 18 children in Kansas who believe in the Rapture.”

What annoys me most about Theroux is not the betrayal—standard journalism and, I think, expected by his subjects, if they were honest with themselves, as the necessary price for fame—but rather the way in which he is unaware as to his own implicit stance. There was a moment a few years ago, after Theroux had finished a rather poor documentary on Scientology, where I thought he was about to have a breakthrough. In an interview with Joe Rogan, Theroux started to talk about a series he had made with “Islamic fundamentalists”. The Islamists had at one point, after Theroux challenged their belief in Sharia, asked Theroux what he believed in. To which Theroux replied along the lines “human rights, science, and being a nice ‘decent’ human being”. “Okay,” retorted the Islamist, “what grounds do you have for those beliefs?”. Theroux was stumped, a bit like I was stumped when as a teenager I glibly said North Korea was “weird”.

For a moment, I could see a little crack open in Theroux—a little light from the crypt, as if the tomb slab was about to be lifted. I thought: “Finally, Theroux is going to have an epiphany. He’s going to realise that he is full of all these beliefs and assumptions and that he jets around the world, completely smug and full of himself, to pass judgement on other people for their ‘weirdness’ when he himself holds completely arbitrary views he cannot justify—many of which would have been considered repulsive even when he was a child.” However, the crime-stop function, whatever double-binds keep the Theroux ego intact, snapped shut like a rubber band—I could practically see the crypt close and the light extinguish, back went Theroux to his “I’m just a decent normal person, not a weirdo” everyday life.

“What if…I have beliefs I can’t justify…arbitrary beliefs. What if what I think of as ‘normal and decent’ is just another set of beliefs—like Marxism or Catholicism. What if all these beliefs I sneer at…like Mormonism and Scientology and the Rapture and Bigfoot…what if some of them are real, or no more stupid than what the BBC says every day about transgenderism? What if I’m the arrogant bigot who is completely smug and self-satisfied because I’ve never actually critically examined the ground I stand on because, obviously, it’s just ‘being a decent normal person’…?”

However, such self-examination would have destroyed Theroux’s career. His career depends on his fanatical, one might even say “fundamentalist”, faith that the liberal Anglo-American intellectual view is totally correct and normal. Theroux has what the Marxists would describe as “an ideology”; it cannot stand self-examination, it criticises everything except itself (and so is invisible to its adherents, since it appears as “normality”).

You cannot follow Theroux around the BBC and say “I’m doing 738’s Weird Weeks, we examine strange fringe beliefs—this week we’re following this cult called ‘the BBC’; for many years, a central figure in the organisation was a rapist and child-molester and the organisation’s Director-General has called it ‘hideously white’. We understand that cult members venerate black men and homosexuals, but we are here to understand, in a non-judgemental way, what drives people to join the BBC…We’ll be following ‘Louis’ this week…”. After all, in the wide wide world the views put out by the BBC really are fringe—hardly anyone in the world believes them, except a charmed circle of powerful people in London, New York, and Los Angeles.

For a belief to work, you cannot examine the ground you stand on—to examine it would expose the illusion of “normality”. The ultimate way to ruin an organisation like the BBC, or at least induce severe cognitive dissonance within it, would be to produce a popular science book written by an anthropologist who has examined “the BBC tribe”. Put an anthropologist in the BBC and have him enumerate “the tribe’s” beliefs. “An important aspect to the tribal belief is a cult of sanctity around black African men, and there are particular unspoken taboos around how to address black men and even how they should be presented in imagery. As a participant-observer, I did my best to elicit frank descriptions of the belief system; however, tribal taboos are very strong around this topic—with some people permanently expelled from the tribe for even a minor infraction, such as a verbal indiscretion. After eight months, I managed to speak confidentially to Informant M, a tribal elder or “Senior Manager”, age forty-three, who elaborated the taboo to me in a private drinking ceremony at The Old Anchor, one of two ritual sites where tribal elders consume alcohol to facilitate group bonding …”

When Rush Limbaugh says “Barack the magic negro” that is water off a duck’s back. He is meant to say that, per the belief system, he is a racist and that is what racists say—so the belief system neatly files that contribution away as typical out-group behaviour, typical old white guy (immoral, taboo-breaker); we can ignore that. What would disturb the BBC belief system would be to see themselves described objectively in the mode of investigation they find high status—the popular science book; such a book would, in fact, become an immediate taboo. You can pull a similar trick on Marxists by applying Marx’s ideas to Marx—to say that, as an unemployed intellectual, he was motivated to create an ideology that would put people like him in power; in line with his own theories, ideas serve your relation to the means of production—and a similar game can be played with Freud (Freudianism is based on repressed sexual urges connected to Freud’s mother) and Nietzsche (whose ideas say vigorous bodies produce vigorous thought yet whose own body was palsied).

What would disturb progressives is to see their own beliefs described in the mode that they consider high status and that they use to delegitimise other beliefs—they can be as objective as the day is long about “Illinois Nazis” or Fred “God hates fags” Phelps, but press them with the same method applied to their beliefs and watch the coping strategies click in…

What is very ironic about this situation is that Theroux famously did a documentary about Jimmy Savile, a documentary he revisited after “the revelations”. Savile was a figurehead for the organisation Theroux works for; if the same had happened in any group Theroux visits, it would be a big deal in the documentary trailer—a senior figure in this “weird” organisation was involved in heinous sex crimes…how weird must they be…For Theroux, being in the cult, it has nothing to do with him; just as for most ordinary NSDAP members or Catholics the holocaust and pervert priests had nothing to do with them—being things they never personally encountered in what for them was normality.

What ultimately makes Theroux a genuine bigot—a real one—is that he is in a cult but is so incurious as to the cult’s nature that he makes films that demonstrate how “weird” other cults are. He is actually a component in a cult’s propaganda arm. Yet if you look at what the BBC pushes—for example, child sex-change operations—it is as “weird” as any group Theroux covers, and you could work that out on your own with minimal historical curiosity or even if you just reflected on changes as regards the BBC’s positions in your own lifetime.

The Scientologists infamously like to visit journalists with video cameras and make documentaries about them—they did the same to Theroux, and yet he could never grasp it. “Why are you filming me?” Why are you filming me?” “I’m with the BBC.” Oh. Yet all that means is “I’m with a powerful high-status organisation backed by the state”—so what, ultimately? “What’s normal, anyway?”. The problem with Theroux, what makes him a bigot, is that he has no awareness that he is in a cult—a cult with definite implicit beliefs: God does not exist, black people are special, homosexuals are special, extensive surgery can make a man a woman and vice versa and should be practiced on children etc.

The “weirdos” Theroux mocks at least have a minimal awareness that they have departed from some consensus reality, whereas in Theroux’s mind he is “totally grounded, just a decent normal human being”. “What makes you think you have a right to stick your camera in my face?” Exactly. If Theroux had minimal self-awareness, he would not be half so cocky with what other people believe—especially as he himself, playing too naïve, allowed Savile to manipulate him. Water off a duck’s back: the narcissistic arrogance remains, an arrogance the viewer is surreptitiously invited to participate in—stupid racists, stupid bigots; thank heavens we are ordinary decent human beings.

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