2011

I read ‘Anti-Gay’ in February this year. It was around the time Gaga released ‘Born this Way’ and the ‘gay community’ seemed to collectively suspend all critical faculties. Only a couple of weeks later, Johann Hari wrote his awful, racist lies about ‘Muslim homophobia’ in Tower Hamlets and the piece went viral, shared by countless educated people who should have known better. That piece and the reaction to it (from Hari, from his colleagues, from his readers) proved to be the catalyst for a serious appraisal of my own beliefs and approaches towards the media, identity politics and wider politics.

It took in ‘gay activists’ in Tower Hamlets, Caitlin Moran, Johann Hari, Patrick Strudwick and Sunny Hundal (repeatedly – exactly a year ago I actually followed Johann, Patrick and Sunny. I would sometimes engage in harmless banter with them. It was only when I criticised them that they turned (quite insanely) nasty and this response proved to be quite typical of their peers like Caitlin and Grace Dent. An honourable mention to Eva Wiseman, who somehow tracked down a criticism I made of one of her articles (I didn’t send it to her) and responded in very good humour) and the John Snow “kiss-ins”. The Hari scandal, by complete coincidence, unfolded only weeks after my own disillusionment with him and the response to that further informed my self-criticism. It led me to be depressed at the ironic cynicism which passes as ‘writing’ for so many prominent figures in the media (and the ironic responses they receive). 

The response by many of my peers to the London riots only added to the sense that I had been living in a cosy bubble for many years, not really questioning anything around me but instead being happy to have my opinions reflected back at me. My disgust with identity politics led to a re-focusing on class and in increasing disdain for the petty politics of Labour vs Tory (something which, again, I have been frequently guilty of). I have been bored to death by the tedious and irrelevant chattering about Ed Miliband being replaced by someone more presentable. It seems that ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’ have in many quarters become just another form of ‘identity’, signifying something while meaning nothing. My thinking of late has been around trying to form a coherent narrative relating class to many of the above issues and why identity politics inevitably reaches a cul-de-sac that inevitably ends up serving the powerful and diverting from the real problems.

I’ve come in for a lot of flack while thinking through all this stuff. Of course I know that I can seem smug, vitriolic, aggressive in my writing but really I think many of the responses I have received are more to do with the things I’m questioning and how the person relates to them than with anything relating to me. I don’t claim to know any great ‘truth’ or to be ‘correct’ but I think it’s fair to say that my politics and my approach to politics has completely altered this year, more so than it has done probably since university over a decade ago. A decade seems like a long enough time to coast along without seriously having my beliefs challenged. That is the fundamental thing – whomever else has been a part of this, it’s my own thinking and beliefs that I have ultimately been criticising. I feel much better for it and feel excited about what 2012 will bring – in terms of what I will learn and also what I can do to help fight the battles I believe are important.

Edit- and in the spirit of continuing to learn, if anyone has any recommendations for future reading please comment below and let me know.

Black Mirror

Generally, I’ve quite liked Charlie Brooker. His misanthropy may be caricatured and repetitive but he does it very well. It was put to especially good use in his series of BBC shows deconstructing the media, which I didn’t always agree with but found very funny.  I don’t, however, tend to read his columns with any regularity these days. This is probably party due to the ‘Hari effect’. The Hari debacle really blew apart my previous, complacent notions about the liberal media. Not just what Hari did and the insidious subtexts that I began to notice in his work but also the defensive response from many of his ‘liberal’ readers. Since then I have approached ‘liberal’ columnists far more critically, not only in terms of their narrative and subtext but also on the very straightforward level of whether they are actually achieving anything. To put it briefly, columnists like Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn are able to be so histrionic and demagogic because they play to a very specific crowd and reflect their own prejudices back at them. I’ve long thought this the case – these days, I’m far more conscious of the exact same trend in the liberal media.

Now that Hari has been forced off the stage, Brooker is easily the most shared writer on my Twitter feed. His columns certainly don’t offend me in the same way Hari’s ultimately did. He doesn’t really pretend to be offering anything other than a humorous take on random topics. The reason I rarely read him anymore is that his entire shtick seems to be based on an implied (though often just explicitly stated) ‘other’. The barbarians at the gate. Far more than ‘just’ being humorous, it seems that Brooker’s appeal relies on flattering his audience that they are superior than most other people, raising the spectre of hordes of right-wing morons who believe everything you would expect them to believe while he (and by extension, his readers) are beleaguered beacons of enlightenment. I’ll expand on this as I go.

Last night the first of a new Brooker series, ‘Black Mirror’, was broadcast on Channel 4. I wasn’t initially intending on watching it. For a start, Beyonce was on ITV at the same time (I mean, come on!) Then there was the fact that, on Saturday, numerous retweets of Brooker proudly linking to a negative review of ‘Black Mirror’ from the Daily Mail appeared in my feed. The implication was that, if the right-wing, moronic Daily Mail hated it, it must be good (of course, the logic of this would suggest that any positive reviews in the liberal media are equally meaningless, which was unsurprisingly not followed through). This didn’t exactly raise my hopes for the show offering something other than another version of the barbarians at the gate.

However, lots of people seemed to love it last night. I saw people calling it ‘brave’, ‘hilarious’ and countless claims that it was the best show on tv in a long time. What really intrigued me was the frequent praise of the show’s ‘satire’. So, using the magic of Channel 4 + 1, I thought I would give it a go.

So, the premise of the show: a royal is kidnapped, the kidnapper unleashes a Youtube video demanding the Prime Minister fuck a pig live on tv for her safe return, people joke about it a lot on Twitter, public opinion turns against the Prime Minister, he performs the act, people gather around the world to watch it, it turns out that it was all an art-prank. If that sounds unnecessarily blithe it’s because it really was that simple. As someone commented on Twitter, it was a ‘Monkey Dust’ sketch that should have lasted a few minutes stretched out to an hour.

It could, of course, have stretched out this premise had it had anything of note to say. I struggled to find it. I couldn’t see where the ‘satire’ that everyone was praising was. Politicians want to be popular, the media is exploitative, people are prurient and lack basic compassion….what ‘observation’ was ‘Black Mirror’ making that you wouldn’t find in the pages of aforementioned right-wing, moronic Daily Mail? Its representation of the general populace was especially horrible. They were only ever seen as open-mouthed, juvenile voyeurs staring at screens (the ‘black mirrors’ of the title). If this was an attempt at making a point about the media it was lost on me, as the show stressed that the public was learning about events through the internet, unfiltered. If it was a point about the logical conclusion of ‘reality tv’ and the base emotions it appeals to, it was far too generalised. It lacked any countervailing perspective or sense that most people don’t actually watch reality tv and rejoice in the humiliation of the famous and powerful. No, it offered up images of deserted streets and scores of people gathering in workplaces and bars to watch the event with glee. The sole concession to any humanity was some uncomfortable looks and a lone voice wanting to turn it off, but carrying on watching nonetheless. This was a bleak view of human nature.

The show ditched all attempts at plausibility in its effort to push this idea of people as base, passive idiots. I don’t believe for a second that public opinion in such a situation would ever swing behind the ‘terrorist’. You could perhaps envisage people rejoicing in the humiliation of a much-hated despotic Prime Minister but we were offered absolutely no context to this. He just seemed like a pretty average guy, albeit one who debased himself for ‘his people’ and for a princess. The speed with which events moved from the kidnapping to a consensus that the act should take place was absurd. People have a strong sense of natural justice and the situation would have aroused mass outrage. Outrage that a skilful and mendacious politician/media could have used to demonise the powerless, which is what would actually be the most likely outcome of any such situation. They would have blamed Muslim terrorists, or feral youths. The spin and manipulation that would have occurred would have been far more sophisticated and would have included social media rather than being made impossible by its baying masses. There were certainly social points that could be made from such a scenario, just very different ones from those offered by ‘Black Mirror’.

From what I have read, Brooker seems to be on the left of politics. It is surely a fundamental, passionate and unbendable tenet of being on the left that you ultimately believe that people are, on the whole, good? Yes, the media, politicians and our wider culture can conspire to mislead people and encourage the baser aspects of their natures, but that is a perversion and interruption of their central humanity. I believe that, I really do. Someone offered me the scenario of people gaping at a car crash as proof that human nature is ‘naturally’ prurient and passive. Yet if people witnessed a car crash and no-one was around, they would do something, wouldn’t they?! That certainly was not the humanity offered in ‘Black Mirror’.

It was an hour long expansion of ‘the other’ that so much liberal media relies on. Few people watching and applauding ‘Black Mirror’ would have believed that any of its points applied to them; instead they would have laughed at its representation of other people, other idiots. Far from being instructive or attacking the powerful (for me, the basic requirements of decent satire) it flattered its viewers with the certainty that people ‘out there’ are lesser than them.

The other recent example of this which springs to mind is the film ‘Weekend’. I’ve seen much praise for this film focusing on the fact that it presents a ‘gay couple’. The film itself emphasises this point, with one of the characters complaining of a homophobic populace that would rather watch violence than a gay couple in love. Yet it is surely clear that no-one would have a problem with representations of gay romance would ever go and see ‘Weekend’. Instead it preaches to the converted, going to pains to offer ‘provocative’ scenes of gay sex as if it is blowing the minds of bigots when it is just cementing the idea that its viewers are inherently liberal merely for watching the film in the first place. By positioning itself (and by being positioned by many of its supporters) as a ‘gay film’ it is completely self-defeating in its message and its intent. Deliberately so, it seems, because its success relies on this notion that there is a lack of representation of gay people (and it’s notable that it’s two white gay men, but that’s a side point I won’t go into here) in 2011, which is a debatable point at best.

We are rightly critical of tabloids and of right-wing media in general when they do nothing other than affirm the beliefs of their readers/viewers, however wrong they may happen to be. We seem to be far less willing to do this of the media which reflects our own views back at us. This is a  ‘black mirror’ we love to stare into and the only satire I can take from Brooker’s show is the highlighting of his audience applauding his hateful presentation of human nature while believing none of it applies to them.

This touches on something which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – namely the reaffirming of liberal identity by the world around you. A few weeks ago I read a review of a play called ‘The Faith Machine’. It sounded like a subtle, complex piece which took standard liberal themes (such as the wickedness of religion and the superiority of First World attitudes to homosexuality) and turned them on their head, offering different viewpoints. Specifically, the review seemed to indicate that the play argued that humanity needs faith in something. Heck, even the Daily Mail raved about it, expressing much the same sentiments as the first review (which was from The Guardian).

So off I went, roping in my friend Matt. I’m not sure he has yet forgiven me. The play was absolutely nothing like I had imagined. It wasn’t complex in the slightest and instead was a one-note bore which served only to reaffirm the superiority of the liberal audience watching it. It offered up grotesque caricatures of Americans to laugh at and dismiss as they launched into idiotic diatribes about ‘terrorism’. It featured hysterically po-faced observations about ‘globalisation’ and religion which you would expect from the pen of a 16-year old particularly lacking in self-awareness. Worst of all, it featured a ‘heroine’ who was so smug, hectoring and caricatured (she reads LOTS OF LIBERAL NOVELS! She ADOPTS AFRICAN CHILDREN! She’s been HORRIFIED BY WHAT SHE SAW IN IRAQ!) that it was impossible not to root for the other characters, most of whom were imperfect but trying to do the right thing.

In short, it was utterly dreadful.

What really struck me, however, was the fact that everyone seemed to love it. I was sitting beside a couple of students who were whooping and clapping hysterically at the end. One of them even made a disparaging comment about me and Matt due to our less-than-enthusiastic reaction (okay, we may have laughed at a few ‘profound’ moments). We looked on Twitter afterwards and people writing about the play were universally raving about it and celebrating how it ‘really made (them) think’. I was dumbfounded. I don’t think there was any point in the play when anyone who fancied themselves as a liberal sort would have felt remotely uncomfortable, felt that something they believed in had been credibly challenged. Perhaps these people were all Daily Mail readers who were having dramatic conversions but I doubt it. Instead, like the films Ellen Jones writes about in this piece, they were people who were leaving having had their egos stroked and their worldviews confirmed.

I have been as guilty as buying into this as anyone but more and more I try to force myself to seek out views and opinions which challenge me. I am infuriated that there is an entire industry of columnists (Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Morin, Grace Dent, Barbara Ellen, Deborah Orr, Patrick Strudwick etc) who build careers on reaffirming the views of their readers (and some of them do it very well and are very entertaining). Can we imagine anyone reading anything by these people and feeling challenged anymore than we can imagine any of their audience reading Melanie Phillips and thinking ‘oh well she has a point there’? The high priest of this was of course Johann Hari and I’ve written enough about the response to his misdemeanours and how people seemed more interested in ‘agreeing’ with him than in any accuracy or integrity. Faith in your superiority has become an industry; a self-serving machine.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying things which present views you agree with, of course. ‘The West Wing’ built an entire series on doing this very well (though even then, it frequently offered shades of grey and a messy morality where sometimes good people did bad things for the right reasons etc). If, however, we wish to avoid descending into a comfortable, smug sense of superiority to the world around us we need to actively seek out new information and new opinions (and, again, I am speaking from experience here – I have certainly been comfortably smug). Ones which we will not feel comfortable with. We need to avoid celebrating bad works of art and bad journalism merely because we ‘agree’ with it. We need to engage critically with the world around us and avoid the attempt to shut this down by painting it as ‘being negative’. By keeping an intellectual hunger, a sense that we might be wrong about things and a belief that other people have valuable insights to offer us even if they are distant from our own, we keep ourselves grounded, aware and (I think) humane. Perhaps you do need faith in something more than yourself and your own rationality to aspire to this, I don’t know. I certainly would not have been caused to dwell on it after ‘The Faith Machine’.

The Faith Machine

Better

By far the most depressing aspect of the whole Johann Hari thing was the realisation of how far many people see the world in a binary ‘right/left/bad/good’ way. It sounds ridiculous to say now but it somehow had not properly occurred to me. I of course knew that this happened in party politics – that there were Labour people who were uncritical about all things Labour, who hated everything Tory etc etc (and of course all of the variations of that for other parties.) The Hari thing really helped me to see how far this extends into people’s entire view of the world, their way of processing information. They believe their world view is the ‘right’ and ‘good’ one and anyone sharing that is ‘right’ and ‘good’. Conversely, anyone who deviates from it is ‘wrong’ and very possibly ‘bad’ (the most obvious illustration being the countless appeals to Richard Littlejohn and Melanie Phillips in defence of Hari). After Hari I’ve seen it in countless discussions, even over complex, emotive issues such as abortion and religion where there cannot possibly be a ‘right’ opinion and disagreements cut across the political spectrum.

I can understand it to a degree because I have engaged in this to a degree, especially when it comes to hating Tories. I of course still fundamentally disagree with much of what it means to be a Tory. However, the other evening I found myself telling a friend that I had more respect for a Tory who had clearly thought about their opinions and had a coherent world view than for someone who blankly repeats ‘progressive’ viewpoints but, when challenged, has not thought about them beyond the most reductive and unchallenging level. More often than not, they will still have an absolute certainty of the ‘rightness’ of their opinion (this of course is not reserved to ‘progressive’ opinion by any stretch of the imagination but this is the opinion I am immersed in and surrounded by, hence why I write about that and not conservatism.)

Perhaps this acceptance that many of my opinions don’t necessarily hold any superior moral weight and could even be ‘wrong’ at times is simply a by-product of getting older. Perhaps it’s a ‘creeping conservatism’. Yet I still strongly believe in many of the same things I believed in a year ago. I just don’t want to believe any more that I’m a better person merely for believing them.

And usual proviso that we’re all hypocrites and human and fail etc etc etc. This is just something I’m working through.

‘Reasonable’

I read this comment earlier in a discussion about Johann Hari, but it could (sadly) be applied to countless ‘liberal’ writers. ‘Reasonable’ is the thing to be. This means framing the debate in centre-right terms, smearing anyone an inch to the left of you as a lunatic ‘Trot’ and being seen as eager to ‘compromise’ with those to the right. The editorials in The Guardian/The Observer are particularly adept at this.

“He’s a thin end of a thick wedge that attempts to discredit any thought outside a thin veneer of acceptable public and political life by smearing it in whatever way he thinks necessary. I’m not ever gonna defend someone who negates innovative thinking like that, or radical questioning politics. This stuff creates far more intellectual zombies than a month of Suns, precisely because people assume it’s critical.”

Please Hari, Don’t Hurt ’em

The pathetic Johann Hari ‘apology’ is a classic case of framing the debate in your favour. Hari has completely ignored all but the very mildest of the ‘allegations’ against him and, sadly, most mainstream journalists seem to be taking the bait. People keep saying that he has used his interviewees’ ‘writing’ to clarify points. While that is still dishonest, it’s far more defensible than his tactic of lifting quotes from interviews conducted by other journalists. The evidence for this is undeniable. Given that a huge part of interviewing is gaining the trust of an interviewee and encouraging them to coherently explain themselves to you, being unable to do this and lifting portions from an interviewer who has succeeded is plagiarism of their work, pure and simple.

To go further – as I linked to in my post on this yesterday and as has become even clearer in the past 24 hours, he makes things up. He doesn’t ‘borrow quotes’ for an ‘intellectual portrait’, he flatly makes up things that did not happen.

So we have a lying, plagiarising writer with (as already written about on this blog and in many other places) an apparent inability to check basic facts.

But he’s a lefty.

As I mentioned yesterday, the rush of the liberal clique to defend Hari was depressingly predictable. Deborah Jane Orr, Polly Toynbee, Caitlin Morin and Grace Dent all leapt to his defence. Laurie Penny and Sunny Hundal joined Patrick Strudwick in calling Hari’s critics ‘homophobic’. Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent, defended Hari due to the claim that there had been no complaints from his interviewees (yet as seen above, an associate of one of the interviewees clearly complained, and it’s widely known that Noam Chomsky previously complained about made-up quotes in a piece Hari wrote about him). With quite ruthless cunning, Kelner also played up to the prevailing attitude amongst Hari’s defenders in calling the criticism ‘politically motivated’. Again and again I have read the absurd suggestion that the people who care about this are right-wing and ‘have it in’ for Hari because he’s a ‘left-wing’ voice in the media. Again and again I have read comments like Sunny Hundal’s ‘I don’t see why we have to flagellate ourselves’. To these people Hari is ‘one of us’ and so ultimately beyond criticism.

The absurd accusation that people were ‘bullying’ Hari was repeated time and time again, as if ordinary people making fun of the deception of a national journalist (and one who happens to be impossibly self-righteous) was comparable to picking on the weak kid at school. Hari prides himself on being provocative and ‘pushing buttons’. The final paragraph of his ‘About Me’ section on his website consists of a list of attacks and insults he has received due to his work. I doubt he’ll be rushing to add this one.

A point about his apology. I’ve seen people congratulating him on ‘apologising’ and ‘learning’ from this experience and from his readers. When the Negri plagiarism (a very serious case, as Hari uses old quotes to imply that Negri is being evasive when accused of murder) was brought to his attention a few weeks ago, Hari witheringly responded that his ‘accusers’ couldn’t grasp that someone could say the same thing on more than one occasion. That was his ‘explanation’. This apology has only come about because this story has exploded and threatened him. Additionally, his ‘thanks’ to people for pointing out his ‘mistake’ is hilarious given his well-documented tendency to insult and block people who question/criticise his work on Twitter. He also does not allow any comments on his pieces. This is not a man who invites constructive criticism in any sense.

It’s just impossible, once you look at the facts, not to see that he is a poor excuse for a journalist. Agreeing with some of his views does not excuse this. It does, however, mean that many are not willing to listen to the facts.

I have banged on about this for the past day and a bit not because I have a personal problem with Hari but because I think it’s important. I think it’s important that left-wing journalists are held to the same standard we would expect of anyone else (and all of the ‘but right-wing journalists are even worse’ defences are moot – we know they are bad because we are continually pointing out that they are bad). I think it’s important that we do not sweep misdeeds under the carpet because we happen to largely agree with someone or (in the case of the journalists) because someone is our colleague and friend. I think it’s important that our principles are not person-specific. I think it’s important that when someone whom thousands of people clearly trust is shown to be a liar that this is exposed and that trust is destroyed – especially when he uses his unwarranted power to spread lies.

I fully expect this to blow over and Hari to be back writing ‘liberalism-for-dummies’ column by next week. I fully expect people to retweet these by the hundreds. I fully expect the squadron of ‘left’ writers who have leapt to his defence to soon be criticising other public figures for their lack of rigor and critical thought. Still, at least this episode has exposed the deep hypocrisy at the heart of this ‘politics-as-a-lifestyle-choice’ industry.

#interviewswithhari

Some Johann Hari quotes that take on a whole new meaning in light of today’s events:

“Nick Davies is right in Flat Earth News. (There is) lots of recycling of extreme superficiality (in the media)”

“Teachers are supposed to be the front-line guarding against plagiarism and cheating, but – in obeisance to the great god of League Tables – they are often acting as its cheerleaders.”

“Mr Bombastic, a regular poster on the Medialens chatboard, e-mailed my questions to Chomsky. He summarises the Professor’s reply: ‘[He] says that he has nothing to do with the website Hari refers to. He also says that friends in England send him some of Hari’s articles, and he’s noticed unsourced material there that Hari probably lifted from the aforementioned website, “since it’s highly unlikely that he (Hari) could have discovered it on his own.”’ Ah, innuendo—presumably about plagiarism—one of Chomsky’s preferred techniques. I challenge him to provide a single sliver of evidence for this extremely serious accusation, or to retract it and apologise. “

“I am constantly learning from the links you send, the news stories and life experiences you tell me about, and – perhaps most of all – the critical emails where you write to tell me where I’ve gone wrong, lost the plot, or generally screwed up. The best gift any journalist can have is a big, disputatious, noisy readership that talks back – and I’ve got it in you.”

“I was on Women’s Hour this morning talking about being wrong and why I think we need to own up to it more often.”

Every columnist likes to imagine they’re a lone gunslinger, but in reality every column is a collaboration with a circle of people who deserve a huge amount of the credit.” 

As good as some bloggers are, they don’t have the army of foreign correspondents or in-depth investigative teams that are necessary to make sense of the world. If print newspapers – for all their manifest flaws and corporate biases – die, there will be an aching hole where newsgathering used to be.”

“(My mother) hates to see people being talked down to or patronised or treated like they are worth nothing, and she hates anyone who thinks they are better than ‘ordinary’ people. It enrages her…So I guess the ultimate lesson she taught me was to never be deferential, and to never be superior. “

And today has thrown up this old column from Private Eye, which accused him of making things up way back in 2003: http://student.cs.ucc.ie/cs1064/jabowen/IPSC/articles/article0003736.html

DEAR OH DEAR.