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For Your Eyes Only

May 31, 2020

My friend Lindy (hi, Lindy!) put me onto the fact that the Hay Literary Festival was free and online this year so I got in line to see if there were any spaces left to soak in their bandwidth and watch the presentations live.

It was worth it even though I only got there in time for a few of the things that interested me. Michael Wood on the history and literature of China. Paul Krugman on the rather depressing state of western democracy. I’ve got Sandi Toskvig to come this afternoon and this morning I sat at my computer in my underpants listening to A C Grayling talk about the reforms that are needed in our British way of government to prevent recurrence of the sickness Paul Krugman talked about.

To be honest I only agreed entirely with one of his points which was electoral reform. I’m only half heartedly in support of a written and embedded constitution because I can see it becoming a mill stone around the neck of later generations the way it has in America. And from then on his wish list becomes heavy on things I have doubts about. Separation of powers sounds fine but is contrary to practices that work pretty well: it will inevitably lead to the sort of deadlock you get in America when Presidency and Legislature aren’t in agreement. Giving the vote to 16 year olds not only reminds me what a plonker I was at that age but makes me wonder where you stop expanding the electorate. And term limits! He wants term limits! The man is supposed to be a philosopher! (When he said that I shouted abuse at the screen and my neighbours must have wondered what I was up to.)

But criticising Mr Grayling wasn’t what I wanted to talk about and I shall buy his book for my Kindle nonetheless.

What I wanted to say was to acknowledge a point he raised about the dangers of targeted political advertising. Nowadays, you can send people political communiques that are intended to punch their particular buttons. You can tell them the arguments your advisors think will appeal to them and not only will they not see the things that your opponents are saying but your opponents will have to dig hard to discover the things you are circulating.

And when he pointed that out I flashed on how I had reacted to seeing the Tories’ New Labour, New Danger poster of ill fame and repute. I came around the corner near the old Unemployment Office (where I had spent so many days of my youth) in High Wycombe that day in 1979 and saw a picture depicting Mr T.Blair (MA Oxon) with glowing red eyes.

And I burst out laughing.

I can’t have been alone. It was so over the top and ludicrous. On me, who was not part of its target audience, it not only didn’t encourage me to vote Tory, it made me (briefly) inclined to vote Labour out of sympathy for a party whose leader had been so obviously slandered.

And the laughter of their fellows may have made at least some people think twice before swallowing the propaganda.

But nowadays we get the little doses of vitriol spread privately. And there is a tendency to hug those arguments to oneself if your fellows mock them. We all get to live in little artificial tribes.

I don’t know how you fix this though. I can’t imagine a law being passed telling politicians that they had to use only print and broadcast media to argue their case. But it worries me.

This is probably a thought that other people have had before me and possibly more clearly than me. Maybe someone has come up with a clear and workable solution.

I sort of doubt it though.

  1. Chorlton Voice permalink

    Glad you made it to Hay. For a small fee (£10) you can listen to all the events plus events from earlier years. I would recommend it. And no, Grayling said nothing particularly new, though his political vies were very obvious, and the danger with that is that one tends to isten to that whoich confirms ones own bias. It’s the virus that matches our own DNA that seems to be the most dangerous form of vitriol if I am allowed a very mixed metaphor…

    • One catches diseases more easily from beings that are biologically similar to you. Which is why you can eat fish raw, have to be careful cooking pork and should avoid all cannibalism, especially if it involves eating the brain and neurological tissue.

      Or is that straining a metaphor too much?

  2. I wonder whether perhaps there is a useful distinction to be drawn between laughter, which is essentially a public thing, and the more easily-monetised outrage, which can happen in private.

    • I don’t think laughter is solely a public thing though it can be modified and amplified by the presence of others: it’s catching in a group but like hiccups you can catch it when on your own.

      I laugh out loud when I’m all alone and something on the Internet or in a book catches my sense of humour. I even laugh on the Tube when I know I’m going to get stared at with disapproval (though less so since Terry Pratchett died.)

      I was standing alone in the middle of the street when I saw that Blair’s-the-Devil poster.

      Yes, outrage is a feeling more easily aroused alone… But not for everybody. The really dangerous bit of the spectrum are people who like to feel outraged in groups or mobs.

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