Loaf of bread

Maybe it all started with a loaf of bread. Gillian Duffy, a 65-year old former council worker pops out to buy a loaf of bread in Rochdale and happens to bump into the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, engaged in what is considered a ‘high-risk’ walkabout meeting actual, unvetted people. Back in the safety of his vehicle he utters a magical word into his hot mic - ‘bigot’ - and off we go. Labour lose more seats than they might have done in an unexpectedly close election. Cameron secures a coalition with the LibDems that means a) he gets to obliterate the LibDems in 2015, feeding off their corpse and b) he actually gets a majority, probably an unexpected one, where he now has to deliver on a risky referendum that he should in theory win - and here we are. Did Brexit embolden Trump voters? Trump and Farage seemed to think so. Will Trump embolden Marine Le Pen voters next year?

Certain, less ethical political forces probably took close note of the ‘bigot’ incident. It was a lesson they already knew, but the reinforcement was welcomed. Any conversation about policies in an election campaign is not worth your time. If instead you can find that chink, that gap between what a politician says publicly and the obvious contempt of their voters they exhibit privately, then you can prise that chink wide open, and their soft underbelly slops out for you pre-gutted. Got Brown in 2010, worked on Mitt Romney in 2012, probably whittled down limited enthusiasm for Clinton just enough in 2016.

Cynical? If you are in the political mainstream, decrying ‘cynicism’ and conspiracism in politics in the 21st Century is all very well, but I think the protest is undervalued if you fail to acknowledge that recent history has proved quite categorically there are organised attempts to play the system and the people trapped in it. Iraq, multiple finance scandals, phone hacking - it is not paranoia if they are out to get you. The fretting about ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ is actually addressing some very valid concerns about the structural problems in social media - but to feign surprise that people don’t believe in large institutions any more is increasingly disingenuous. Similarly, I think the rather shallow debate on the left about identity politics is so almost near to the actual point, but is being deliberately steered towards conflict rather than resolution.

I want to start looking at it from the other end, though. What if Brown had simply told Gillian Duffy to her face, politely but firmly, that yes, she was being bigoted thank you very much. Where would we be now instead?

David Mamet’s 1992 play Oleanna was a provocative skewering of identity politics as they existed on US campuses in the 1980s, into the 1990s, and caused plenty of discussion both in the US and in London where Harold Pinter directed a Royal Court production of it in 1993. A troubled student, Carol is disregarded and condescended to in a tutorial by her vain professor, John, and goes on to be instrumental in his downfall, backed by a mysterious ‘group’, via undermining his chance of tenure and a forced proscription of the texts he is allowed to teach. Given Mamet’s generally Republican politics (or whatever that used to mean), it is tempting to see him siding with the professor’s voice against forces which he believes are exploiting political correctness for aggrandisement and vindictiveness.

However, Mamet does make it even-handedly clear that John is pompous and arrogant, and the explosion of violence at the end is clearly presented as a question of provocation versus his own responsibility. Speaking as a former academic, the incident of John benignly putting his arm around Carol to console her in Act One is so obviously a stupid thing to do, he kind of does deserve everything he gets. Maybe in 1992 this seemed a much more innocent point of contention, but his insensitivity to Carol is pretty clearly underlined from the get-go.

The first act is a bit boring and slow. This is deliberate, with the first meeting between Carol and John presented as evidence for the prosecution followed in acts two and three. When you know what’s coming, it’s tempting to be shouting at the stage like you were watching a horror film when this exchange appears:

CAROL:  You think that I’m stupid.
JOHN:  No.  I certainly don’t.
CAROL:  You said it.
JOHN:  No.  I did not.
CAROL:  You did.
JOHN:  When?
CAROL: …you…
JOHN:  No.  I never did, or would never say that to a student 

Of course an academic hates saying this to a student. It seems counter-productive and blocking, and is an assault upon the teacher’s own ego - it is an admission of the limits of their own ability, surely?

But really, he should have said at this point, look, yes, maybe you are just stupid, maybe this course is beyond you, and you should consider whether there are better things to do with your life.

Or maybe stupid isn’t the word. Maybe she is an idiot. And actually, so is he.

The word ‘idiot’ derives from the Greek, idios - ‘one’s own’, or ‘private’. The philosopher, Heraclitus (c.500BCE), defined the idios kosmos (’the private world’) in opposition to the koinos kosmos, the shared world which we all actually live in:

The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

The idiot for Heraclitus is the private, closed thinker, who bases their thinking on personal experience, and the things immediately in front of them, as opposed to somebody with a willingness to consider the world beyond themselves, and thus the people in it. Is this ringing any bells yet?

Dismissing Brexit voters and Trump supporters as idiots in this regard is lazy and easy, and I’m not going to bother much here. In a recent television interview I saw the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt glumly suggesting that it was obviously going to be Trump all along, because whoever can deliver the lines better always wins, irrespective of what the lines actually are. One commonality that seems to be increasingly obvious between the Brexiteers and Trump is how cheerily ignorant they were about the reality of what they now have to deliver. Trump looks to be dealing with it by absorbing the Republican flavour of the Washington establishment like an alien blob. The Brexiteers are faced instead with a twenty-seven-headed monster insouciantly and constantly shaking its head - ‘Non’ - and so they find themselves thrashing around with rage as their actual scale in the world is revealed.

Clinton and the Remainers (bad band name) were not idiots (not entirely). They were the insiders who were well aware of the wideness of the world and the problems it faced, their desks full of serious reports on the advances of climate change, its resulting political instability, economic crisis - but instead of ever honestly facing any of this (at any point), they stuck to the age-old line : those other guys, they have no idea what they are doing (true), trust us, we do know what we are doing (debatable on recent evidence) and the world can trundle along as it has been doing (false).

Now, try selling that line with a straight cheery smile without something at the back of your mind freaking out with fear, and not having that fear bleed out to your audience. Tricky. Trump on the other hand is a proven pathological liar. The problem with pathological liars, however, is they also pathologically lie to themselves, and if they sound like they are telling the truth - it is because as far as they are concerned, they are.

On the other hand, this all amounts to a certain amount of wilful idiocy on the part of Cameron and the political establishment here, and the Democrats in the US. Which in its own way is much more the worse crime. So, you know, screw’em.

What about ‘us’, though? You know, dear reader, you and me, your humble blogger? Where does this leave us in the middle, the informed, worried body of the like-minded and open-minded, uncertain now of our numbers and our future? Well, screw us too, we’re the biggest idiots of all, and this is mostly our fault.

This is not to deny there are dark forces of money and politics seeking to muddy the waters. The East German Stasi had a technique, zersetzung (‘corrosion’ or ‘undermining’) involving a raft of psychological techniques designed to imbalance individuals to a point of inaction against the state. Rather than simply (and obviously) lock up a dissident, you imprison them in their own mind by orchestrating doubt about their reputation, their career or their personal relationships through rumours or innuendo, or directer tactics such as messing with medications, sabotaging vehicles and so on.

This is turn has been gleefully adopted and taken to new extremes by the KGB, and then in turn the FSB:

The officer explains that I’m not the first person to suffer at the hands of the FSB’s notorious “burglary squad”. […its] tactics are bizarre. After breaking in, agents often turn off freezers; they defecate in loos (which they then don’t flush); and - on occasion - they pocket the TV remote control. They return it weeks later.Luke Harding, Mafia State

The point is sometimes to just let a target know they are being targeted, sometimes is just to make a target doubt anything they know at all.

This strategy seems to be playing out at large now in Russian society as Putin engages in surreal political theatre to keep the people on their toes. Furthermore, it feels increasingly that Putin, via networks of misinformers is almost trying to do this to the whole world. This is not to suggest that the UK and the US do not have their own teams conducting ’psy-ops’ and social manipulation around the world, they obviously must do. But the interesting element is how much the Russians have seized on the idea of simply propagating confusions rather than any directed influence to a particular agenda. The world looks this way and that, Putin gets on with it. The suspicion now is that Trump acts exactly the same way, firing a discussion one way with a ludicrous tweet, while deflecting from something else. The terrible second possibility is that he isn’t even doing that deliberately.

Perhaps the Russians simply spotted an opportunity in the way our social media has arisen. The economic model of Facebook and Twitter (look-like-free-while-collecting-data-and-eyeballs) has created social platforms that need to seem as open and as close to being an intellectual ‘commons’ as possible, while still being, of course, private, shareholder-driven endeavours. There has generally been no conflict between the two interests - hits generate ad revenue, controversial content generates hits, algorithms can tailor the controversial content to the audience, and so on - but that has let the filter bubble flourish and now the spotlight of the ‘fake news’ issue is falling onto them.

Ideally Facebook wants to look like the platform not the publisher - you couldn’t get angry at William Caxton for the existence of The Da Vinci Code - but that seems unsustainable. The open web is the open web. Facebook is an ultimately closed platform that pretends to be the open web it is built upon - can it last? Facebook does need to be pushed to reconcile its quandary of being a publisher that does everything in its power to avoid the appearance and responsibility of being a publisher - I bet however, that the push will come much harder from those with more of an interest in censorship than openness, and that Facebook will not put up much resistance. The omens are not good.

Anyway, yes there is an obvious problem with its social media and those abusing it - but I think this is still a case of us as bad workmen blaming our tools.

The understanding of the ‘filter bubble’ is finally, ahem, filtering through (or maybe bubbling up) into the collective consciousness, but I hit upon a refinement of the image when giving a talk recently - the fish-tank factory. We are all in our little fish tank communities of like-mindedness and outrage about the same things - but on the shop floor of all these tanks next to each other it looks to us like we can see a lot further than we can actually travel.

Put it this way: Googling a subject, reading articles on Facebook - it dimly feels like research, or seeking out, satisfying that feeling of reaching out wider world. Give it a minute’s thought, it isn’t that at all. The actual work, the defeat of idiocy, that is in the evaluation, the consideration of the evidence and the argument. That is the journey outside of the fisk tank - but that is the exercise we have grown to rely on filter algorithms to do for us.

Moreover, that laziness in our thought is maybe something that has been encouraged for years anyway. Facebook was explicitly born out of US campus culture, and most of its equivalents are equally rooted in a academic world that has enshrined certain attitudes about openness and freedom - but without much questioning of the quality and basis of that openness and freedom. (Note that Facebook and many other sites will take down posts based on ‘community guidelines’ not corporate ones).

Now, returning to Oleanna, that culture has its roots in a lot of serious-minded and genuine political struggle. I was at university in the mid-nineties, a period of spectacular apathy in terms of student politics. Looking back, this was largely down to a feeling that a lot of those battles of identity had been won, and society was now opening out. An old order was falling away in politics, in education and the media, Blair was about to sweep to power, and a generation of those political activists that been fighting those struggles in the 1970s and 1980s were now in charge. As suggested by the likes of Naomi Klein in No Logo, this heralded a rise in corporate power that was completely in line with this new wave. The struggles of identity politics, after all, were just helpfully identifying new markets, and new routes of colonisation into cultural space.

There was however a fundamental problem with the nature of that victory - at its extremes, that drive to openness required some censorship - censorship that we could often all agree was a ‘good thing’, but censorship nonetheless - and in the recent resurgence of that political struggle on campus, it seems to be requiring it again.

Now I absolutely get the reasoning and the need for the likes of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the worry about ‘normalisation’ that drives measures like no-platforming. I do, I get that, just as I get the logic behind the ideas of ‘political correctness’ in language in their day. However, I will never be convinced that suppression of a unpleasant thought will ever cause that unpleasant thought to simply wither away and disappear, and I think to believe otherwise is, quite literally, idiocy. Language is a slippery fish that will do what it likes. Safe spaces are all very well and good, but given the onward march of the surveillance state and the painful shrieking death spiral of the tabloid press, the pendulum is worryingly swinging back towards a point where the battle will be to defend the ‘unsafe spaces’ where you can speak freely at all.

What seems more apparent now is that drive to push extreme and anti-social ideas to the fringes was fine as long as the centre was satisfied, but the unchecked corporate power that rose at the same time has, through excesses and failures or just simple oversight, pushed more and more people economically out to those fringes as well. I fail to see the explanation for the failures of the progressive left being about either economics or identity politics when it is so obviously both at the same time.

So, yeah, in summary, you are an idiot. And so am I. The ‘private world’ has been cultivated for us, a sunny, reassuring walled garden - but the ‘shared world’ really needs us now. The good news is that the means to start fighting back are entirely obvious - I have already hinted at them, I reckon - and they just take some work.

While I am decrying censorship, the one thing that has allowed the Farage-like demagogic creature to flourish is that our culture is not instinctively censorious, and treats suppression very seriously. What Farage has in his corner is the freedom to critique our political norms using a very ‘post-truth’ approach to his rhetoric (or ‘lying’ as we call it my house), while unfortunately having the ammunition of some examples of censorship to point to - that is, he can amorphously point to a labelling of people as racists for having ‘genuine concerns’ that scores him persecution points because it does feel to many that society does that (however falsely). How do we know society does that? Because, look, Gordon Brown did it.

But Farage’s freedom to critique the norms is our freedom too. Facebook, as far as I know, does not censor posts criticising Facebook - it would be bad business, given that it has to look open to succeed. That means there is still space to talk about how we use and abuse all this information that the internet has suddenly given us access to. We still have a space to critique the structure of these new social models. We still have a space to imagine new ones.

But the clock is ticking, and the window is closing. The edge of the fish-tank is getting surprisingly hard to find. Here’s a good start, try these goggles on for size:

Again, this is not about running at those that voted in a way we didn’t like, and calling them idiots, or trying to beat them down with reason, or waiting with perverse crossed fingers for reality to do the job for you. It might just be that the Trump or Brexit voter just doesn’t want to listen to reason any more - because what has reason done for them lately?

What can be done instead is maybe not to try to change or block the broadcast, but improve the receivers. Now, it seems to me that progressives are so often hamstrung by the old dilemma - how do you tell people to think for themselves - that they resist putting their own house in order. Talk of ‘freeing your individual consciousness’ or similar immediately makes you sound like a hippy - but at this moment I think it’s true. Start with yourself. Find the limits of your private world, and push beyond them. Share what you find, but moreover think carefully, diligently about how you found it, and think about how you can share and improve that. And the more of us that meet properly in the shared world, the bigger it gets, and the less idiotic.

December 2016