07 June 2012

The unthinkable


I wrote in the last post that the unthinkable can become thinkable shockingly fast.

We can see an example of that on any day's news at the moment. As the current Private Eye reports, in 2002 the Mirror Group Chairman held a lunch, at which the then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan made a speech featuring jokes about various celebrities, based on the voicemails he had heard. These included even references to messages between then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and former TV weathergirl Ulkrika Jonsson, who was present at the event.

Private Eye is bringing it all up to prove the dishonesty of all those who are now denying that they knew or suspected anything at all of such outrageous activity as phone-hacking going on. But to me the fact that they're now hiding it is much less significant than the fact that only ten years ago they didn't feel any need at all to hide it. Almost overnight (and I particularly noticed how sudden it was because I left the country for three weeks in 2011 and it happened while I was away), what had previously been taken for granted became a huge scandal.

Another example was raised recently — that within living memory, leading US evangelical Christians were in favour of legalising abortion. I read an article a month or two back which explained how, like the 2002 Mirror Group lunch, writings of prominent protestants have been dropped from the narrative, not because they're embarrasing to the people involved, but because they simply does not make sense in the context of the narrative as it is presented today by everyone.

The conventional wisdom, as modulated by the popular media (but I'm not  sure their role is all that vital) is governed by the following constraints.

  • Everyone wants to say something interesting
  • Nobody wants to be seen to be wrong
  • People have very short memories

The result is that there are remarkably few public arguments about substance. It is much more effective, whether you are a media pundit or a political practitioner, to show that you are the most in tune with the conventional wisdom than to claim that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Since everyone important agreed with the conventional wisdom of five years ago, it is in nobody important's interest to remind people that it's the opposite of what everyone agrees with today.

Where there are disagreements, the number of things that have to be assumed on all sides — because they are part of the current conventional wisdom — but which are blatantly untrue make realistic argument about the facts impossible. So instead, we have emotional arguments about meaningless abstractions — things like "Austerity" or "Europe", that are safely divorced from the things that are actually going on, and can be consistently supported or opposed while one fictional narrative after another sweeps through the newspapers.

(It is also safe to argue about weak foreign countries. It doesn't matter what's really going on in Bosnia or Egypt or Syria: we can have an argument about who to kill, based on our fantasy conventional wisdom, and nobody who matters will ever know or care what was actually happening.)

There is, at the same time, a kind of debate among the elite that deals with facts rather than imaginary narratives, but it is not independent of the fantasy. It would be nice to think that the people who really run things could get together at a Bildeberg meeting or something and actually try to work out what real solutions exist for real problems, but if that was ever the case, it probably isn't now. I rather suspect that that was always an aspiration for those meetings rather than a reliable achievement.

As I said in a comment recently, P.R. is fundamental to government. Most of the hard problems in government are about how you get group X to accept A or group Y to support B. Many of the people who rise high in the elite are those who are able to solve those hard problems, and in many cases I suspect they are good at that because they honestly believe the fantasy narratives. If the media and the mob were really having their strings pulled by a secretive cabal of cynical technocrats, things would probably work a lot better than they do. It's much more likely that the tail is wagging the dog.

But the upshot of all this is that democracy can be thrown under the bus just as quickly and as decisively as The News of the World and Yugoslavia were. It doesn't even have to be for a good reason. By 2017, saying we should still have elections for government would be as odd as saying that journalists guessing celebrities' voicemail passwords isn't a big deal or that Yugoslavia was a sovereign country and forcibly breaking it up from outside was illegal.

Unfortunately, while I can see that it could happen, that's not the same as knowing how to make it happen. Predicting herd behaviour, contra Isaac Asimov, is probably the hardest thing there is.

 It might be worth collecting a list of huge non-partisan shifts in belief.


  • I've mentioned previously the idea that humanitarian political action can only be taken with UN approval. That went from not being suggested at the time of the bombing of Belgrade, to being generally accepted by the buildup to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
  • The notion that children up into their young teens can never be left unsupervised (as opposed by Lenore Skenazy) has arrived somewhere in the last 20 years, not sure exactly where.
neutrino-cannon contributes:




2 comments:

James James said...

The idea of sovereignty is totally dead. When I was in the military a couple of years ago, new recruits were taught that countries were sovereign and what they did within their borders was nobody else's business, except if it was really bad and then the "International Community" should intervene, i.e. nobody believed in sovereignty at all.

James James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.