Sunday, October 18, 2009

Don't shoot the messenger

I've not mentioned David Mitchell recently because it's not cool to display your infatuations too prominently, but his article today on how we get the politicians we deserve has got some people worked up enough to call him a fascist, a warmonger and, most viciously of all, a C-list comedian.

Now it's blindingly obvious that he's A-list. Whether you like him or not it is a statement of fact that currently he's on every channel, apart from the barbaric ITV, often simultaneously and always in high viewing slots. Add to that the book, the film, and the newspaper column it's fairly crystal that C-list he ain't.

Mind you the fascist and warmonger attacks are no less crass in that the accusers demonstrably did not understand the article and therefore felt the need to name call rather than deal with an argument too sophisticated for them to grapple with.

Not that Mitchell went out of his way to produce a comfortable read, particularly for those of us who find ourselves generally opposing wars. Commenting on the fact that Mussolini was paid by MI5 to help keep Italy in the First World War by organising physical attacks on the anti-war movement;

"Money well spent, in my book. I might have felt differently if I were a Milanese pacifist who spent the last months of 1917 pissing blood, but there was considerably worse shit going down at the time and MI5 presumably figured that £100 was a pretty good price for keeping an army in the field, even an Italian one."
I think we need to accept that Mitchell does not subscribe to the school of revolutionary defeatism but this in itself does not make him a fascist, simply someone who tries to understand why people do things. But here's the crunch. Whilst the critics in the comments box have tended to see his argument as pro-fascism or pro-war in fact his main thesis is quite different;
"I completely agree that this sort of cynicism is immoral. What I don't like is people claiming it's all the work of a few malevolent patricians – a self-serving ruling class getting off on their own acquisitive misanthropy – rather than a political community responding obediently to our loudly expressed democratic will."
The article makes for less comfortable reading than usual because instead of blaming others for the state of things he attempts to suggest we might have some collective responsibility for the way things are and the actions of our government, even when we've verbally expressed that we disapprove. Well that's bound to make some people angry.

Whilst he recognises that there are individuals who make sacrifices and oppose the policies and practices of actually existing capitalism (and there are those who don't give a toss) there are also;
"millions of us in between, being told we can have it both ways – reduced carbon emissions and cheap air travel, an enlightened policy towards the Middle East and affordable petrol, cuts in spending but not services – because we won't vote for anyone who doesn't."
It seems to me, with caveats, that there is an element of truth in this. While we pass the blame to others we absolve ourselves of responsibility without necessarily challenging the way we may benefit from those actions. It's not nice to have that pointed out to you.

Millions marched against the Iraq invasion but did not challenge the economy that makes oil such a precious commodity nor did large numbers of people feel compelled, en masse at least, to escalate the protests when it became clear that Blair felt that once he invaded we'd all fall into line and 'support the troops'.

As such we expressed our dismay at what the government was doing, but we were not actually dismayed enough to take the required personal risks or sacrifices to actually change the course of government policy. The Mitchell thesis speculates that we can have it both ways. We take advantage of the cheap oil whilst not letting it stain our consciences. The politicians become our sin eaters, taking on the burden of actions in which we are all complicit. Our anti-war credentials established we then re-elect the government.

I should say I don't think this is 100% correct in that it ignores some key factors, such as the imperfections in our electoral system and the way that if we feel powerless to change something we don't tend to try, but that doesn't actually make us hypocrites. There are a number of institutions designed to prevent us expressing ourselves completely freely, like the police, and some designed to shape the political debate, like the press.

The idea that we are responsible for our society (and our planet) is extremely important and that simply passing the blame on to others simply isn't good enough, even when they are bigger than us. That does not mean it would be easy to change the direction we're going, but if we genuinely want an ethical foreign policy we have to be prepared to follow up on that desire, going beyond token gestures and moaning.

n.b. I have a very fuzzy head today so if this doesn't make sense I have an excuse!

1 comment:

weggis said...

The only TV I watch is football, and occasionally snooker, so you will, I hope, forgive me in not knowing whom this bloke is.

Nevertheless, I fully endorse the gist of his, and your, posts. It’s so easy to criticise others when you want to have your cake and eat it.