Thursday, October 06, 2011

I lied (3)

--Are you through with politics?
--I should say vice versa
               Citizen Kane



I think that when I ask questions about the logic of a political speech or interview or leading article or talk show, or wonder how the speakers theories might apply to the “real” world, I am making the same mistake as the man who asked what the piece of string did after it left the bar. 

I think that all those webpages which explain at some length that no, actually, Birmingham City Council has not banned Christmas are on the same level as the webpages which ask why the Death Star didn't just ignore the fourth moon of Yavin and blast the gas giant that it was orbiting. 

It’s not supposed to make sense, you dunderhead. It’s a story.  

Seeing little red spaceships whizzing around shooting at little black space ships is meant to make you feel excited; hearing the word "winterval" is meant to make you feel cross. 

Star Wars is for people who like feeling excited; politics is for people who like feeling cross.  There is literature for people who like feeling scared and for people who like feeling sad, and good luck to them.

I think it will be infinitely more profitable to approach any speech, any interview, any column, any talking heads show (and any Internet blog)  as a self contained, abstract structure of rising and falling sounds and disconnected images than to imagine that the speaker or writer is actually saying something

Because they hardly ever are.

Did you happen to watch the panel of apparently grown-up individuals discussing the recent lynching in Georgia on Question Time? The panellists were required to pretend to answer the question “Does capital punishment have a place in civilised society?” Readers will immediately spot that this is not actually a question at all. It’s only a bit of question-shaped-noise. The man in the front row you sir with the glasses might as well have asked “do some people wear pink ties?" or "does cheese exist?" Many civilisations -- the Greek civilisation, the Roman civilisation, the Egyptian civilisation, the whole of Western civilisation up until the 19th century – practiced capital punishment with great enthusiasm and some imagination. The questioner was at best making a man-goes-into-a-bar pun. Have you noticed how we use the word “civilisation” to mean “a complex political and legal culture” (“civilisation began in ancient Babylon”) and “couth, well mannered behaviour” (“don’t chew your meat with your mouth open, darling, it’s uncivilized”)? Isn't that funny, in a way? At worst, he wasn't saying anything at all. He was just making a noise, and inviting the panel to make a noise. 

Ian Hislop noted that his magazine had reported at least one miscarriage of justice every week for the past 25 years, at least 100 of which related to wrongful murder convictions. If the asphyxiation lobby had its way, those 100 people would all be dissolving in quicklime right now. Leaving all other considerations to one side, he said, this demonstrates why ritual asphyxiation will never be restored in this country.

Now, there are clearly only two sensible responses to this point:

a: It doesn't matter if you execute an innocent person: what matters is that the “cost” of murder should be as high as it can possibly be, otherwise the “value” of life is insufficiently high, like finding bananas only cost 5p a pound in Sainsburies and deciding that they can’t possibly be very good bananas. And anyway, the death penalty doesn't hurt much nowadays so it hardly even counts as a punishment. [*]

b: It doesn't matter if you execute an innocent person, because executions prevent murders, so the total number of people killed in a society with capital punishment is always less than the total number of people killed in a society which doesn’t have capital punishment.

c: The state, while terribly bad at running schools and hospitals, is infallible when it comes to determining guilt or innocence, so it is in fact impossible that any innocent person could ever be convicted. Which must be a huge comfort to Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley. 

No-one made either of these arguments. A lady on the panel who claimed to be a Tory MP made the following noise:

I do actually think that when we have a criminal justice system that continuously fails in this country and where we’ve seen murderers and rapists and people who’ve committed just the most abhorrent crimes in society go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to re offend and do the type of crimes that they’ve committed again and again I think that’s appalling and on that basis alone I would actually support the re-introduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent because I do think we do not have enough deterrence in this country for criminals and lets not forget that murderers and rapists and criminals of that kind chose to commit the crimes that they commit.

Hislop repeated his point about executing innocent people: were his 100 people all guilty? "No, I’m not saying that." "Then they would be dead." But apparently, this wasn't the point: 

The point is as I said earlier on this is about having deterrence. If you have strong deterrence like that, capital punishment will act as a deterrent. To have capital punishment would act as a deterrent. That’s the first point here....And also I put this in the context of I think far too many politicians run away from debating issues like this because they don’t want to associate themselves with an either or position and I think the other point to make here and this comes back to the issue about a deterrent in our criminal justice system is that we see the revolving door with murderers and rapists and paedophiles as well and nobody thinks about the human rights of the families and the victims and the people that have really suffered.

When David-or-Jonathan opened it up to the audience, a slightly different point of view was presented:

This is about having a deterrent. It’s not about the ultimate taking of a life. It’s about having deterrent....Because if you’ve got boundaries which are set then people understand the parameters of the crime that they’re going to commit, be it a murder, be it rape, if you’ve got a deterrent in place for that then it may make people think twice about what they’re actually going to do in order to commit that crime...I’m not saying it’s particularly right, but what I am saying is that, as a deterrent sometimes with the system that we have and the way its backed up and prisons are full I think that really and truly it should be looked at....I remember when I was at school, in Birmingham, and I remember that the cane was a deterrent. Just the thought that you may have the cane, you may get the cane, was a deterrent. For you not to do certain things.

Now, you see, the old me would have been inclined to approach this gibberish logically. Are there many actual examples of people who have been convicted of first degree murder, and then released from prison to commit a second first degree murder? Isn’t Priti Patel’s “revolving door” really about people serving a few years for some lessor crime and committing a more serious one on their release from prison? Isn't the logic of that position that you would have to have the death penalty for second degree murder and house breaking and common assault? Why do we keep talking about rape and paedophilia, when rape hasn’t been a capital offence since 1841? Did the man in the audience envisage having a rusty gallows in the basement of Wormwood Scrubs to represent the fact that the state could kill you if it wanted to although it isn't actually going to -- like having a vault of gold to make people believe in paper currency, even though it would use it's value if you actually spent any of it. (That’s the only sense I can make out of his schoolboy analogy. I think some teachers did keep canes in the cupboard as a sort of symbol and threat even when they had not the slightest intention of actually spanking anyone.) Or is he confusing “deterrance” in the criminal sense with mutual deterrence in the military sense – that nuclear weapons will never be used because both sides have got nuclear weapons and are therefore all too scared to use them? Or does he think that “deterrant” is a magic panacea, and once you say “Anyone who writes rude words on the walls will get the cane” the whole school becomes magically free of graffiti for ever after? (I wish Jonathon-or-David had asked him "Were you ever caned, sir?" I would bet several pounds on the answer having been "Oh yes, many times, and it didn't do me any harm.")

But in fact it is perfectly obvious that there is no meaning behind the words, any more than there is in Jabawocky or Visions of Johanna. The word "deterrent" was like the pun at the end of a joke -- it has a visceral effect on some members of the audience (making them feel vaguely good about killing people). The rest of speech "the reality is" "the main point" "I really believe that" "moving forward" were just like the scaffolding in the joke that gets us to the point when you can amusingly reveal that some words sound like other words.

[Well the point is as I said earlier on this is about] having deterrence. [If you have ]strong deterrence [like that] capital punishment will act as a deterrent. To have capital punishment would act as a deterrent. [That’s the first point here....]

I have the kind of brain which is inclined to read this sort of ga-ga as if it were an argument, in the same way that once I've noticed that "piece of cod" sounds like "peace of god" I can't help thinking of a story in which a vicar might confuse his fish with his benediction. (Pete Ashton suggested, not unkindly, that I might have a kind of high-functioning autism. I've never been diagnosed as such, but I have seen Star War forty four times.) But it's not an argument and there is no thread. They are just saying "deterrence" over and over again. "Deterrence...deterrence...deterrence" means "This is an argument in favour of hanging people" in the same way that "Come all you young fellas and list unto me" means "This is the first verse of a folk song." 

People sometimes talk about politicians using "dog whistles". The idea is that in the course of a speech, the politician smuggles in some words or phrases which are innocuous to normal people, but carry a special meaning to a particular claque. Hardly anyone could possibly object to "moral values", but if you say that you want to teach "moral values" to school children in the right tone of voice, a good proportion of your audience will understand you to mean that you want to promote homophobia. Clearly this happens. George Bush was apparently particularly adept at working regimental jokes into his speeches, (which isn’t a terrible idea when you are speaking to soldiers). But I think that political debate is much more like Glen Larson’s old joke about human-dog communication. The human says "Good Rover! Good doggie! Get off the sofa and you shall have a nice juicy bone!" and the dog hears  "Blah Rover! Blah blah! Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." 

This is also the only way of making sense of the Daily Express's front page article about ritual child-beating. (The substantive point, you remember, was "Someone asked some people some questions, some of them said one thing, some of them said another thing".) 

"Tough discipline... blah blah... the cane... blah blah..... strong leadership.... blah blah..... authority.... blah..... power....  freedom....  discipline.... corporal punishment.... smacking.... caning...... more discipline..... unions, wishy washy.... detention..... writing out lines..... more power.... poor discipline.... using force..... restore order".

And it’s obviously the only way of looking at David Cameron’s speech-shaped-structure about Teh Riotz. Obviously, his was more nuanced, because it was written for him by a professional speech writer and practiced in front of a focus group, but you search in vain for concrete statements like “the riots happened because half the police force were in their offices filling out paper work; as of next Tuesday, I am hiring 10,000 extra secretaries who will be able to do most of the routine paper work for them”. Instead, I found a lot of shout-phrases.

“Responsible majority... this country... determination... mend our broken society.... stronger... terrible mess we inherited... stronger society... stronger... stronger... stronger... stronger society..... mend our broken society... mend our broken society... human rights... personal responsibility.... health and safety... common sense.” [**]


It's literally clap-trap: sounds which are there to make the audience applause, and for no other reason.


And that, you will be glad to know, really is all that I have to say about politics. 

When someone says something I try to work out what must have been going on in their heads. When someone tells me that they have encountered and had dealings with fairies, I assume that what they are saying makes sense from their point of view. If someone says a wrong thing, I believe I can usually show why it is a wrong thing, unless it turns out that I believe a wrong thing myself. I really want to tell you what I think about the revelation that Daily Mail journalists write reports of trials before the verdict has come in, complete with descriptions of how the accused looked and what the defence council said afterwards. I really want to tell you what I think about the British Home Secretary using a fictitious story about a cat as grounds for abolsihing the Human Rights act, and that when policians say "I am not making this up" they mean "Someone else made it up for me." I want to tell you what I think about the last Archdruid lying about the BBC BC/AD thing, and his apparent belief that Jesus was born on January 1st. Or the American lady who thinks the unfortunate Troy Davies must have been guilty because every one executed in America since 1950 has been guilty. Or...


But no. There's no point trying to work out what is going on in their heads. There's no point trying to work out what they mean. They don't mean anything. Nothing is going on in their heads. It's only noise.  

Time to stop. Time to do something else.  

In a media age, there can be no political debate, and to pretend that there can be merely perpetuates the noise making.


“Piece of shit." as a very wise man once said. "Walk away.” 

I’m not going to swear to dress up as a bat and hunt down my father’s killer for the rest of my life,  although, barring one cheese and tomato sandwich, I really haven’t been in any branch of Tescos since the riot. But I am going to stop reading newspapers, at least until Christmas. Until the election, if I can manage it. And that means no radio or TV news, and no Eye and no News Quiz and no HIGNFY. And pruning my Twitter feed. If I ever feel the urge to pick up the Guardian, I'll get  magazine about science or guitars or birdwatching instead. Instead of watch Newsnight, I'll watch Smallville or Merlin or something with some vague connection to the real world.

If Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, please could someone write and tell me.






To see this age! A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!
Nay, that's certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
I would, therefore, that my sister had had no name, sir.
Why, man?
Why, sir, her name's a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton. But indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
They reason, man?
Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them. 
      Twelfth Night
 
--Shakespeare said some rather good things.
--I understand that he has given uniform satisfaction.
       Much Obliged, Jeeves.


[*] Guess which national newspaper seriously put this forward as an argument, in almost exactly those words. Go on. See if you can guess.

[**] “I have the very strong sense that the responsible majority of people in this country not only have that determination; they are crying out for their government to act upon it. And I can assure you, I will not be found wanting. In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever. Yes, we have had an economic crisis to deal with, clearing up the terrible mess we inherited, and we are not out of those woods yet – not by a long way. But I repeat today, as I have on many occasions these last few years, that the reason I am in politics is to build a bigger, stronger society. Stronger families.  Stronger communities.  A stronger society. This is what I came into politics to do – and the shocking events of last week have renewed in me that drive. So I can announce today that over the next few weeks, I and ministers from across the coalition government will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society. On schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities. On the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too: from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.”

15 comments:

Andrew Hickey said...

Beautifully written, but saddening. Because while most political 'debate' is, as you say, just about making noise (and thankfully, those noises are increasingly divorced from actual actions - we're not going to get rid of the Human Rights Act, or bring back the noose) there are a small number of people who will fall for the lies only if they're not shown the truth. And you've always been one of the better people on the side of showing people the truth.

So I'll miss your writing about politics. But I'll look forward to your continuing writing about Doctor Who, Jack Kirby, folk music, theology, C.S. Lewis and anything else that isn't quite so upsetting.

Pete Ashton said...

Hooray for this!

Seriously, thanks so much for writing all this stuff. It's really helpful for those of us also trying to get our heads around what this week I'm calling "the abuses of narrative".

Cannae said...

(I think) I understand why you're stopping. If most people can simply read these things and move on, but you take it personally and fight it in the belief it can be stopped, it must be emotionally exhausting.
From a selfish point of view, I am sorry, because your struggles with idiocy help reassure me that I'm smarter than lots of other people because I read both the idiocy and the comment on the idiocy. Not sure whether more regressions make you smarter or stupider, to be honest. You have decided stupider, for the time being, and that's a good thing for you.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the lead up to Winterval without your blood pressure being elevated. Again, selfishly I hope this allows you to recharge your batteries because I hugely enjoy your stuff, but even if you confine yourself to clearly marked fiction like Dr Who and comics, this would still be one of the first blogs I check up on in the morning.

SK said...

I'm with you right up until 'There's no point trying to work out what is going on in their heads. There's no point trying to work out what they mean. They don't mean anything. Nothing is going on in their heads. It's only noise.'

There is of course something going on in their heads: it's just that its relationship to what comes out of their mouth (or onto their keyboard) is much more complex and interesting than 'an attempt to put down on paper (or get across in speech) exactly what is in their head'.

I mean, if you walked in on a married couple having a blazing row about who failed to feed that cat last night, and you conclusively demonstrated which i=of them it was, and yet they still kept arguing, would you conclude 'there is nothing going on in their heads, they are just making noises for the sake of it' or would you conclude 'there is clearly so much going on in their heads, on so many fascinating and interrelated levels, that their relationship is a rich, complex, supremely human thing, and this argument, apparently about the cat, is actually a product and a reflection of the totality of their lives together and apart, and that is why human beings are the most most sublime paragons of creation: because when a dog is angry, it barks, but when we have vague dissatisfied existential angst combined with a fear of the future in an age of uncertainty, we pick a fight about the cat.'

And you'll never work out what someone is actually talking about, or how they actually see the world, if all you do is try to fit their words into some coherent logical argument, rather than by trying to understand the dark, silent, submerged-iceberg-like mass of thought processes that caused them to utter those words at those time.

Subtext. It's all about the subtext. And subtext is fascinating and amazing and wonderful. So much more fascinating and amazing and wonderful than language would be if we all just went around trying to lay out rational arguments that expressed out thought processes directly, even if that were possible.

Mike Taylor said...

Excellent observation from SK. Shame that he or she doesn't (seem to) have a blog of his or her own.

Andrew, I absolutely understand your frustration, but your blanket condemnation is too much. It may well be that our current Prime Minister, if you want to call him that, truly is devoid of actual thoughts, but we can't just extend that to all politicians. We need to be sceptical without becoming cynical.

Sam Dodsworth said...

We need to be sceptical without becoming cynical.

See also Paul Mason's famous Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere for what people are doing about it.

Paul Wright said...

Saunt Eliezer calls literal claptrap applause lights. His point is that if you invert the statement and it's very surprising, the statement itself is very unsurprising and so conveys little information.

I think your position on political speech is close to emotivism on moral speech.

SK said...

The guy with the funny name is almost always entirely wrong. I think his aim is to have the most ironically-named page on the internet ever. This time, though he's right by accident, it would be silly to present it as something he's discovered: it's an old journalistic maxim, in fact (if you're unsure as to how big a story is, ask yourself surprising would have been if they'd said the opposite).

So it applied, say, to that time when the US commander in Afganistan said 'our reduction is troop numbers will depend on the situation on the ground,' and everyone acted like he had said the President smelled of wee. Can you imagine him saying 'we will reduce troop numbers regardless of any military considerations whatsoever'.

I don't have a web-log of my own because I am not vain enough to think that my unprompted witterings are deserving of a worldwide audience (whether it's true or not that a given person's witterings are deserving of a worldwide audience, I don't think you can deny that the act of publishing them takes a certain vanity). So I'll just continue to respond to others, thanks.

Richard Worth said...

Someone once wrote a generic newspaper for when you have missed the days news: Overseas :various upheavals: Sport: England lost. Weather; changeable. The politics entry was 'nothing of interest'. I suspect that this will get worse for the next few years, as arguments about what to spend the money on are a bit redundant if there is in fact no money.

culfy said...

I don't have a web-log of my own because I am not vain enough to think that my unprompted witterings are deserving of a worldwide audience

Whereas you think your unprompted witterings on someone else's blog are deserving of a worldwide audience.

SK said...

Given they are in response to a published article, that's pretty much the definition of not unprompted, isn't it? Indeed, given that the article's published with a form to fill in reactions to it, you could even say they were invited.

Gavin Burrows said...

"Pete Ashton suggested, not unkindly, that I might have a kind of high-functioning autism.'

But... but Pete Ashton told me I was the one with the high-functioning autism?

Andrew Hickey said...

Don't worry, there's more than enough autism to go round for all of us.

I. Dall said...

Mr. Rilstone? One of the ways I keep up with Old Media is by having you transalate it. I managed to get through Mein Kampf once, wich is more than Herr Speer did; it is not something one cares to do every day.

What would be your going rate for reading newspapers, or, God forbid, watching telly programs?

I. Dall said...

Thank you, by the way, Mr. Rilstone, for making me aware of this article: http://tartarus.org/~martin/essays/burkequote.html
"The pseudo-quote is therefore without authenticity or meaning, and is just another of those political slogans which are used not as an assistance to, but as a substitute for real thought. It is not a deep truth, although it is constantly treated as one. Burke incidentally hated such things. He thought that cheap political slogans, or ‘maxims’ as he called them, enabled politicians to invoke principles of expediency, so they could pursue their own selfish interests instead of fulfilling their obligations to country, party and people. To him they were quite distinct from the deeps truths, or as he calls them here, ‘first principles’"