Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Reasons to be cheerful



Arthur Seaton: Abrasive irony and nihilism at its best.

I'm slightly torn on this one. On the one hand, I'm sort-of inclined to agree with Henry Porter here, commenting on the prevailing professional disdain and cynicism that characterises much of public life these days:
"My response ... is to ask what right have these people got to be so disappointed and world-weary? There is no sense that they have earned the privilege of this 'abrasive irony and nihilism'.

And I cannot escape the suspicion that the objects of their disdain - commonly politicians and celebrities who get into a scrape - may have done rather more with their lives and probably risked more than the wise guys in the TV studio or those who comment with truly jaw-dropping rudeness on the web. Weltschmerz and Cynic Inc have infected so much of the public discourse that you forget people are not like this. They are in the main more trusting, more hopeful, more resourceful and a lot kinder than is ever acknowledged in the public arena.

This could all be written off as a rather silly turn-of-the-century mood if the pessimism did not affect so much of our politics and our attitude to the huge problems we face, not just as a nation, but as a species. Speaking last week at the launch for Philippe Sands's book Torture Team, Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, mentioned in passing that he was an optimist. It was a striking admission, not just because the most senior judge in the land probably has every reason to view humanity with exasperation, but because so few people in public life will confess to optimism.

Optimism is held to be the preferred tipple of unrealistic fools; the optimist is still seen as Pangloss, the brave idiot in Candide who finds reasons to be cheerful as he is enslaved and faces execution. Voltaire casts him as the enemy of reason, a triumph of hope and faith over experience, if you like. Today, it is the other way round. The pessimists - the Panglooms - are the enemies of reason because they believe with a vigorous but untested faith that we are doomed and that nothing can be done. So they crumble into feckless nihilism.

The point about Bingham's optimism is that it has philosophical basis and is born out of a belief in reason, and the conviction that human beings can improve their lot if they believe in each other, the rule of law, and put aside fear and fear of failure to address the difficulties we have created."
On the other hand, Peter Ryley mounts a spirited defence of disrespect here, and I think that - if anything - he understates his case. So how can these two positions be reconciled?

Its actually quite simple. When Ian Hislop parades his ill-earned superiority over anyone who has ever actually done anything worthwhile in their lives, we can draw our own conclusions. Porter is right to remark that our debased market elevates useless turds like this in a fairly artificial way.

Hislop's main focus is political corruption, and he's jolly angry about it as well. Yet he lives in a country, and an age, where political corruption is no more than a residual sideshow. There is no comparison between Britain today and, say Italy, where almost every piece of legislation and judicial decision is bought and sold like so many kilos of Marscapone. Or Belgium, or even Ireland (though the latter is somewhat overstated IMHO).

And if you globalise this comparison, and anchor it in time, Hislop is probably in history's bottom 0.01% of the population as a 'victim of political corruption.'

This is not to say that we don't live in a corrupt age. We do. We are, daily, cheated by bureaucrats who take our money in taxes and do nothing of any value with large chunks of it while remaining unaccountable to anyone. We are cheated by the fund-managers who control what stock we do own in crude ways that damage our own interests.

We are cheated by the intellectual dwarves who claim that the massive disparities in wealth can be explained by our 'meritocracy' when, in reality, it can be explained by the simple formula: Wealthy parents nearly always equals wealthy children. We are cheated by a dishonest and lazy media, feeding us a low-grade Prolefeed that Big Brother would have killed for.

This previous paragraph could have quadrupled in length, but I think you get the picture.

The reason that Ian Hislop is a worthless little shit is because he is another cheat. He takes a seven-figure paycheck on the pretence that he somehow 'speaks truth unto power.' He is able to take the piss out of politicians because they are easy targets. They don't have the lawyers or the resources that their plutocratic rivals have. The old man had something to say about this, and it doesn't really need adding to.

Porter is right to be disappointed with his own cohorts - the paid commentariat. I can even understand his consternation with us rude bloggers - after all, no matter what we say, we really want to join that commentariat, that professional elite of critics, don't we?

But is he right to be pissed off with a wider, more incohate, public cynicism?

I think not. Most of us don't really aspire to actually run the country. I suppose I shouldn't include myself in that last sentence, but bear with me, will you? I think that the public probably understand that individual politicians aren't totally to blame for any recent ills in a way that our demagogic commentators don't. If this weren't the case, Labour wouldn't have even held on to 24% of the voters last week.

We don't really aspire to directly influence policy very much because we don't understand it, and wouldn't want the responsibility. As Chris has pointed out repeatedly, we make our best decisions in the same way that stockbrokers do - when our modus operandi is led by 'ironic detachment'.

We need no more get emotional about individual issues that don't directly effect us, or that we don't have a well-informed position on, than we need to get emotional about stock (if we were born lucky enough to own some, in lots of cases).

Part of me would love it if more of the electorate were able to leave the relatively nihilistic disdain for the forces that envelope them behind, and felt that they were in a position to change things themselves. But they don't, and the rate at which most people - those who live in that large pool - bleed into the much smaller pool of people who think that their opinions actually count for shit - is far too slow. If this process were to speed up, it would make sense to be annoyed about public cynicism. But it will only speed up when the people who compete with our elected politicians start to feel a similar heat, or a need to be accountable to the rest of us.

Everyone has their own magic bullets that would cure this, of course. Mine is political decentralisation and democratic socialism, and if you cast around the blogosphere, there are plenty of similar memebots churning out their own answers. None of them are perfect, of course.

But, in the meantime, a resentful and slightly contemptuous population will create a tide that is slowly lifting all boats - even if they do so by electing a shower of inbred clowns to run the country in 2010. After all, Things Can Only Get Better - like they have done in this country for the last century - regardless of who is temporarily in power.

12 comments:

SACKERSON said...

My magic bullet? Agree on the degree of redistribution of wealth - then let all the people spend as they wish. Not necessarily all of it in cash, but wouldn't it be nice to have an edccuation "credit card" that let you choose between local State schools, private schools (including any that you and like-minded parents might choose to set up), and say 50% of the budget if you home-school. At £6,000 per head, you might quickly get effective alternative education.

Ditto for non-emergency healthcare.

Are we democratic enough to trust the people?

Paulie said...

Jesus wept Sackerson! Are you a mindreader?

http://modies.blogspot.com/2008/05/in-praise-of-truants.html

John B said...

Have you ever actually read Private Eye? It's rammed with the misdeeds of big business and journalism, as well as the misdeeds of politicians...

stephen said...

Paulie, Sackerson - what would be the difference between this education 'credit card' and education vouchers? The problem with what you propose is that market forces would ensure that the better schools started costing more in whatever pseudo currency the credit card was operating in. Thus it would be necessary to top up the credit card with your own cash to get into popular schools. It would represent the privatisation of our whole education system.

On the question of Hislop, he was as hostile to Tory corruption as he has been to Labour corruption. You say When Ian Hislop parades his ill-earned superiority over anyone who has ever actually done anything worthwhile in their lives, we can draw our own conclusions. Well I think we can say for certain that Hislop does not have the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of deaths on his conscience which is rather more than you can say for many worthwhile members and former members of the cabinet. Frankly, I think we could do with rather less of that kind of wortwhileness, don't you think?

stephen said...

Paulie, Sackerson - what would be the difference between this education 'credit card' and education vouchers? The problem with what you propose is that market forces would ensure that the better schools started costing more in whatever pseudo currency the credit card was operating in. Thus it would be necessary to top up the credit card with your own cash to get into popular schools. It would represent the privatisation of our whole education system.

On the question of Hislop, he was as hostile to Tory corruption as he has been to Labour corruption. You say When Ian Hislop parades his ill-earned superiority over anyone who has ever actually done anything worthwhile in their lives, we can draw our own conclusions. Well I think we can say for certain that Hislop does not have the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of deaths on his conscience which is rather more than you can say for many worthwhile members and former members of the cabinet. Frankly, I think we could do with rather less of that kind of wortwhileness, don't you think?

Paulie said...

Firstly, can I make it clear?

I DON'T GIVE TWO FUCKS ABOUT EDUCATION VOUCHERS OR ANY OTHER PSEUDO-MARKET BULLSHIT FOR SCHOOLS. IF ANYONE WANTS TO TALK ABOUT THIS, PLEASE PLEASE FUCK OFF SOMEWHERE ELSE TO DO IT.

I hope that this is clear?

On your second point, I don't give a fuck how even-handed Ian Hislop in particular, and the satire / commentariat industry in general are in their approbation of elected politicians at the expense of the other forces that compete with those politicans.

And your "hundreds of thousands of deaths on his conscience" - well vote for the twat then.

SACKERSON said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paulie said...

I'm deleting any mention of privatising education as of now.

It's a new rule.

stephen said...

And your "hundreds of thousands of deaths on his conscience" - well vote for the twat then

Haven't you figured out that that is not what satirists are for?

John B said...

"I don't give a fuck how even-handed Ian Hislop in particular, and the satire / commentariat industry in general are in their approbation of elected politicians at the expense of the other forces that compete with those politicans."

I notice you've not said anything about the fact that Private Eye goes after corporations, journalists, bureaucracies and institutions too, and devotes just as much time to their misdeeds as to those of party politicians.

Paulie said...

"...Private Eye goes after corporations, journalists, bureaucracies and institutions too, and devotes just as much time to their misdeeds as to those of party politicians."

That may or may not be a fact John - I stopped reading Private Eye many years ago (same jokes every fortnight wear thin after a while / not very impressed at the quality of investigative work). I DO watch HIGNFY (for Paul Merton who I think is very funny) and I rarely hear anything other than the kind of stuff that can get by lawyers (sniping at politicians and little else).

And I don't mind sniping at politicians either - as long as there is some context.

My point is a wider one: Do you think that public ire is focussed (by those who make a living out of focussing public ire) on politicians, corporations, journalists, bureaucracies and institutions in a proportionate way?

I don't think that they do. I'd be astonished if you could make anything other than a partial point about a low-ish readership fortnightly to say that they do.

John B said...

I don't actually disagree with your wider point about blaming politicians over other people with power - it just seemed a bit weird that you were calling Hislop a useless turd when he edits the paper that's probably the least guilty of doing that.

(I guess as a parallel disclosure, I haven't watched a whole episode of HIGNFY for about five years, and it's possible that if you only really know Hislop through that you'll see him as a smug cynical arse.)