We are asked to call the years-before-the-event-we-cannot-mention BCE, or “Before Common Era”, and the years-after-the-event-we-cannot-mention “Common Era”, or CE. You should not underestimate the influence of this verdict. What the BBC decides, all kinds of other publishers and broadcasters will decide to follow. Schools will snap into line, and if people protest they will be told that they are following best practice – it’s what the BBC does, after all.
So this is not some trivial bureaucratic thing: it is a change with subtle but extensive cultural ramifications. I object, first, because no one is asking for this change. I once did a few history programmes for the Beeb, and we referred endlessly to BC/AD, and we didn’t get a single letter of complaint.
I object because no one is offended by these terms. We talked to loads of Muslim and Jewish scholars, and none batted an eye at my usage; and it is particularly mad to think that Muslims might be offended by a reference to Jesus, when he is an important figure in Islam, and when many Muslims are baffled by this country’s peculiar desire to exterminate cultural references to its Christian history. I should stress at this point that I do not object because I want to vindicate the literal truth of the Christian religion – since I am afraid my faith is like a very wonky aerial, and I sometimes find the signal pretty scratchy. I object because it is all so darned nonsensical. There was no Mr Common Era preaching a ministry in Galilee in the 1st century AD. There is no Eran religion, and no followers of Common.
There was Christ, and if the BBC doesn’t want to date events from the birth of Christ then it should abandon the Western dating system. Perhaps it should use the Buddhist calendar, which says that it is the 2,555th year since the nirvana of Lord Buddha. Perhaps it should have a version of the old Roman calendar, and declare that this is the fourth year of the fourth consulship of Silvio Berlusconi. It could say that this year was 13,400,000 or whatever since the Big Bang, or maybe the BBC should switch to the Mayan calendar and announce that 2011 is the year 1 BC – before the catastrophe that is meant to engulf the planet.
But if the BBC is going to continue to put MMXI at the end of its programmes – as I think it does – then it should have the intellectual honesty to admit that this figure was not plucked from nowhere. We don’t call it 2011 because it is 2011 years since the Chinese emperor Ai was succeeded by the Chinese emperor Ping (though it is); nor because it is 2011 years since Ovid wrote the Ars Amatoria. It is 2011 years since the (presumed) birth of Christ. I object to this change because it reflects a pathetic, hand-wringing, Lefty embarrassment about thousands of years of cultural dominance by the West.
The simple fact is that the Roman empire was programmatic of most of our modern global civilisation, and the decision by Constantine in 330 AD to make Christianity the official religion was one of the most important moments in the history of that empire. That is why we have used this system for 1,500 years and more, and that is why it is accepted in China, Japan and just about anywhere you care to mention that this is the year 2011. The BBC needs to stop spending time and money on this sort of footling political correctness. Someone needs to get out down the corridor and find the individual who passed this edict and give him or her a figurative kick in the pants. I know it sounds like a trivial thing to get worked up about, but one trivial thing leads to another. I urge all readers to get out their Basildon Bond and hit the emails – to Mark Thompson and Lord Patten. Let’s fight this Beeb drivel now.