Friday, 8 September 2017

How politics has become a reality TV freak show

Guess what: we still haven't left the European Union. And if you were naïvely hoping that over the summer, someone, somewhere would have worked out how the UK might be able to negotiate a new relationship with its neighbours without inflicting immense harm on its own citizens, well, sorry, but dream on.

The government is at war with itself. Even the department in charge of extricating us from the EU is apparently at war with itself. There are also ominous rumblings suggesting tensions between some EU capitals and the European Commission. If I didn't know better, I'd say it could hardly get any worse.

So here's what I suggest. Ignore the lot of them. My hunch is that between now and March 2019, there'll be sound and fury galore, accusations and counter-accusations, insults flying in all directions -- and then at the last minute, there'll be agreement on a status quo transition deal which will allow the talks to continue until everyone drops dead of boredom. (And no, I don't think Theresa May will still be prime minister.)

If you need something to fret about -- and God knows, there's no shortage of reasons to be fretful -- fret about North Korea. Or the appalling atrocities being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, under the distressingly disengaged gaze of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fret about the fearsome hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern United States. Or the terrible floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, where hundreds of people have died and millions have had to flee from their homes. Or the unimaginable suffering of the people of Yemen, victims of a virtually unreported war, waged in part with weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the UK.

If ever the world needed political leaders with the wisdom, judgement and determination to work together for the betterment of us all, it is now. Instead, we are led by a clutch of politicians characterised by either extreme narcissism, ignorance, megalomania or sheer incompetence. (Match the descriptions to the names: Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Theresa May.)

If they all turned up on a desert island for a reality TV show, you'd avert your gaze in embarrassment. With the possible exceptions of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the world's leaders give every impression of being utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges they face.

(I don't know about you, but I still haven't forgotten Donald Trump's breathtaking remark last April: 'This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.')

Our leaders belong on reality TV. Donald Trump was created, nurtured and promoted by TV -- and now along comes Jacob Rees-Mogg, another two-bit entertainer masquerading as a politician. Hey, folks, look at me -- I'm different, I'm entertaining. Vote for The Entertainer because he's not like the rest of them. Who cares about his views?

You think I exaggerate? At the Edinburgh TV festival last month, the head of CNN International, Tony Maddox, said this: '[Trump] is good for business ... Our performance has been enhanced during this news period.' Last year, Les Moonves of the US TV network CBS (salary last year: $69.6 million) said Trump 'may not be good for America, but he's damn good for CBS.'

Matt Taibbi put it well in Rolling Stone magazine: 'Donald Trump gets awesome ratings for the same reason Fear Factor made money feeding people rat-hair tortilla chips: nothing sells like a freak show.'

So there you have it: voters are increasingly attracted to what's unusual, different, and entertaining.  Who wants 'strong and stable' in an age when disgust with conventional politicians runs so deep? Jeremy Corbyn is hardly a freak, but nor is he conventional, hence his appeal.  

The people to blame are the traditional politicians. They failed to notice that the banks were driving the global economy headlong towards the precipice, and then they glibly presided over a decade of stagnating wages disguised as 'we're all in this together' austerity.

In the US, Hillary Clinton gave the impression that the Presidency was hers by right; in the UK, David Cameron blundered into a referendum that he lazily assumed he was bound to win, and then ran for the hills when he lost. His successor, Theresa May, called an election when there was no need, waged the worst campaign in living memory, and now seems to think she can carry on as if it was a triumph.

The thing about reality TV is that it isn't real, even though it pretends to be. The world's problems, on the other hand, are very definitely real, which is why it would be nice to have some more grown-ups in charge.

A political world in which clowns like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg can be seriously spoken of as potential prime ministers is a world in which the nursery is mistaken for the university library. Any day now, I expect Liam Fox to throw his toys out of his playpen. It'll probably be entertaining, if nothing else.



Unknown said...

Excellent piece, thank you. I'm just hoping that university libraries aren't becoming nurseries as the new zero-hours/hot-desking/money-incentivised/corporate culture takes hold

Anonymous said...

The late Aldous Huxley got it pretty much pinned down in his essays - Brave New World Revisited. Written in 1958, though you'd think it was yesterday. Look at this:

"Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator's armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress has hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man.  (…....) In regard to propaganda the early advocates of uni­versal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democra­cies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions. ….

Anonymous said...

Your piece articulates my own thoughts, fears and cynicism perfectly. It's something of a relief to see that one is not alone!