Monday, 27 February 2017

Democracy, Truck Rallies and Spectator Readers

NOTE: What follows is a caricature. A lot of great articles have been published in The Spectator. Benjamin Franklin certainly thought so.

I will always remember watching a TV program back in the good old days of George W Bush, in the bad early days after 9/11. A smug, middle class white British reporter was interviewing middle-aged, white, overweight, tattooed Americans at a truck rally. Baseball caps were de rigueur. The subject of politics was broached. The general consensus was that the guys in Washington were ‘smart’ and it was best to leave them to get on with ‘it’.

I remember that watching the programme made me uneasy. Was this how democracy worked, a symbiosis between the hubris of Leaders and the hedonistic pursuits of their Followers, who delegate the effort of thinking on them?

On reflection, I decided, there had to be more to it. Otherwise, how had democracy worked so much better than any other system in history? 

Like a hen, I scratched away at the undergrowth until I found something that surprised me: 

Despite appearances, the guys at the truck rally were being smart too:

Let the guys in Washington get on with the boring stuff, leaving us boys back home to enjoy doing what is important, i.e., attending truck rallies. The problem was all just a question of horizons and Democracy was not rendered asunder by a divide between the hubris of the smart and the unthinking of the dumb.

More than a decade later, the programme provides a poignant snapshot of a bygone age of innocence. House prices were rising, Irak had been ass-kicked, things were tickety-boo and, even if some people were smarter than others, everyone could honestly tell themselves that they were smart too. Life was a bed of rosy peach down and truck rallies.

Then 2008 happens, as in that’s the way the money goes and pop goes the weasel. 

As in: Splat!

The problem wasn’t so much the guys back home taking Stability for granted nor the guys in Washington DC taking Stability for granted. 

No. The problem was EVERYONE taking Stability for granted. It was a problem of generalized complacency, not an intrinsic problem with Democracy.

But, even with hindsight, that doesn't help much, does it?

The only guys who are still floating are the 'elite', a conflation of guys who still 'look' smart, such as experts and politicians, and or guys who have a degree of financial insulation. Meanwhile, the wife is bitchin’ that if we can’t afford the mortgage, then we can’t afford to go down the truck rally either. With everyone trying to deny that they are feeling a tad foolish, being smart acquires a pungent, quasi-criminal whiff.

It’s pitchfork o’clock, in other words.

Down with the Leaders, say the Followers. Problem is, who’s gonna do the thinkin’? 

Me? I don't wanna think, thinkin’ is kinda boring. So folks gotta go get someone new to do it for ‘em. Only THIS time, we ARE gonna be smart, we gonna delegate thinkin’ on someone we actually ‘GET’ what they say. 

I.e.: EVALUATING what Leaders think is substituted by 'GETTING' what they say.

As in:

We’re gonna build a wall and the Mexicans are gonna pay for it. 

Your man can ‘get’ that. It is nothing other than exactly what he wants to hear: someone else is to blame. Two plus two means it must be true, even if, to work, it needs to be five, especially if you are a Mexican. 

One might call this kind of reasoning the ‘get bias’: you are biased towards believing what you ‘get’.

Us folks never did ‘get’ what them experts said, just like THEY never got truck rallies, so we ain’t gonna trust ‘em no more. Instead now we only gonna validate as true what we get. End of.

So what? Democracy, in practice, is not so much a delegation of authority and responsibility as a delegation of thought. The Followers delegate the act of thinking on Leaders. The problem is that this works when the Followers correctly evaluate their Leaders’ capacity to think straight. When they don’t, it doesn’t.

At this point, you might think I am an anti-American intent on lampooning the average US truck rally attendee. It is, I agree, a pretty easy target to hit, but think again. 

In Britain we are not doing much better. For example, we have gone from delegating our thinking on people who read The Economist to people who read The Spectator. To make matters worse, we have delegated our thinking on people who write for The Spectator, such as our national clown Boris.

This is not a good sign.

If you ask a Spectator reader why they don’t read The Economist, the stock answer is that The Economist is a bit too ‘serious’. 

This is not a good sign either.

If you then ask your average Spectator reader for a second reason why they don’t read The Economist they are likely to be stretched, not just because they can't think of a second reason, but because they probably have never read The Economist. After a while, they end up answering a different, easier question, namely, why they voted for Brexit. There will be mutterings about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘immigration’. Finally, after a bit of prodding, they will blurt out that they don’t like ‘liberals’.

Interesting. Are they in favour, for example, of slavery? Or despotic monarchs? Or any of the other evils that liberals and liberal democracies have successfully rid us of in the last century and a half?

No, they say, with varying degrees of indignation and discomfort. What they don’t like, they say, is political correctness. 

Aha. So political correctness and liberal ideas are one and the same thing, right?

Yes, they say with the self-righteous air of one who was lost but now is found, of course they are.

Well, sorry, but they ain’t. 

They are two very different things and when you say that, the Spectator flock will give you a distinctly ovine look, albeit tinged with a hint of panic (no one likes to feel ignorant, not even sheep). 

Not too dissimilar, in fact, to the look in the eyes of many a US truck rally attendee in the post-2008 era.

So, having established, at the very least, a tenuous intellectual common ground between your average truck rally attendee from across the pond and your average Spectator reading Brit, what should you do with this information?

Well, given that Spectator readers are, in most other aspects of their lives, intelligent and sentient beings and include many a barrister, the sort of person who goes on to become a judge (ie, someone who can both get you out of as well as in to jail), I would strongly suggest praying.

I am an atheist, but what the heck? Nothing better comes to mind.