Saturday, 6 October 2018

The circle of ignorance

A couple of weeks ago I was in the car listening to Any Questions on Radio 4. If ever you need to know what state of the art stupidity sounds like then it serves that function superbly. It featured George Freeman, Emily Thornberry and Simon Heffer. It wasn't edifying.

Freeman made a pretty good go of the Efta arguments - though only by mainstream media standards. On the details of the subject he's no better than the rest. Thornberry is in a world of her own believing that the customs union is the answer and nothing is going to persuade her otherwise. She has understood as much as she wants to.

In their own ways they can at least be saluted for trying even though their efforts are pitiful. What struck me was the breathtaking ignorance of Simon Heffer, who argued that the Irish border issue had been overblown and that it could be solved with a free trade agreement. He then blethered about the benefits of "free trade" and went on to mutter something about corn laws.

With politicians you expect them to be ignorant, but as a leading columnist, it's Simon Heffer's job to be substantially more informed than he is. This is the dysfunction of our media where those who enjoy exposure think they do so because they are gifted with a wisdom greater than lesser mortals. and do not have to work to stay informed. They can simply bloviate and whatever excrement falls from their lips must be considered gospel. As it happens, had Heffer not been a lead columnist for the Telegraph in its dead tree days nobody would know or care who he is. He is a leftover from the pre-digital age.

Sadly, Heffer is not alone. For reasons that escape me, Spectator hacks routinely waste oxygen on BBC panel programmes, along with dribblers from the IEA and Spiked Online. The BBC does not seek to inform, rather it seeks to present the full spectrum of legacy media ignorance for the consumption of equally in the dark voters.

This dynamic also extends to wider televised politics where we often see equally ignorant television and radio presenters interviewing each other or other third rate hacks, none of whom have a command of the issues. It is a self-perpetuating circle of ignorance. Not only does it have no expertise of its own, it would not know where to look for it. If ever there is an informed opinion on TV it is wholly by accident and not to be repeated.

It is for this reason I have tuned out of virtually all television politics. The only time I see any of it is in snippets on Twitter which is usually used by party tribalists to score points. It is not there to inform. Television politics is largely there for the entertainment of political hobbyists who follow politicians rather than issues. Some use it for their weekly does of throw-the-remote-at-the-telly outrage and other to cheer on their teammate as though politics were a spectator sport. There is harm in this.

Sadly, most people do very little thinking of their own. They triangulate. They look at a policy and see who hates it and who loves it and they pick their side accordingly, defending that policy with whatever cliches and soundbites they are fed through various propaganda channels. It wouldn't be so bad if the gatekeepers they look to for confirmation were actually doing any thinking of their own but as we find with the likes of James Delingpole, Brendan O'Neill and Julia Dunning-Kruger, there is very little in the way of sentient thought. The people are propagandists.

The prevailing attitude in media is that the public are less informed than they are and do not wish to be troubled with detail. Shortly before the broadcast of Theresa May's conference speech i happened to catch a little of the pre-speech punditry. I don't know who he was but he asserted that Boris Johnson was an asset because voters don't want detail and detail is a turn off.

It may be the case that party activists and those still determined to vote for one of the two parties are not interested in detail but there is an ever growing segment of voters who are politically homeless and utterly sick to the eyeballs with vacuous, dishonest and patronising politicians. They do want to be informed and they do want the details. There is, though, nobody supplying that demand.

What makes it all the more terrifying is that politicians themselves get their information from these same sources ensuring that every ignorant soundbite snowballs into an indestructible parallel reality. There are numerous Brexit myths on both sides where for largely tribal reasons the nuances and realities don't get a look in. Politics is then reduced to two competing narratives neither of which are correct and both uniquely destructive in their own ways.

In the case of Brexit we have the likes of Spiked Online who argue that any enhanced trade cooperation with the EU is a betrayal of Brexit, themselves having deferred their thinking to others and accepting the lazy propaganda narratives of the Ultras. Everything is binary and complexity is shunned as "project fear".

Central to this is prestige disease. Each side has their respective thought engines capable of armour plating stupidity with lofty titles and a veneer of academic kudos. There is no attempt to validate or question what they say because what they produce is readily seized upon as ammunition in rapid fire daily debate. The whole of politics is thus reduced to binary tribal bickering where it doesn't matter  who is right just so long as the other side loses. The longer it continues in this way the surer it is that we will all lose.

The most successful countries are those which can moderate the excesses of winner-takes-all tribalism and governs in the national interest. In the past the British system has been an exemplar of this but across the west this system is breaking down as politics is funnelled through the social media meat grinder. Our politics is not equipped to cope with it and nobody has much of an idea what to do about it. Governments realise the threat but their only answer is more authoritarianism and censorship.

Arguably the success of the European Union is that it does stifle democracy and keeps politicians out of the mix. I have some sympathy with that view. The problem is, however that when things start to break down, they stay broken down and without the policy tools available to correct such issues, politicians will not take an interest. Eventually dissatisfaction is of such potency that the democratic correction is more turbulent.

It would seem, therefore, that the Brexit fever must simply run its course. We are powerless to influence it or shape it and our path is locked in by an administration held hostage by the bogus or obsolete narratives of 2016. Only when we are standing in the ruins in the aftermath will we take stock. By then it should become apparent that our politics simply doesn't work. The country may be sharply divided but the one thing most of us can agree on is that the traditional parties have nothing to offer us and the system as we know it cannot go on the way it has. If a Brexit trainwreck is what it takes to get that new politics then so be it. We cannot go on like this.

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