Maybe I am over-reacting but the second half of 2014 seemed to mark a growing boldness on the part of the politically ignorant to speak openly. And a growing willingness on the part of others to listen to them. It’s only a recent trend but such trends, in my view, should be strangled at birth. So here’s my contribution to the throttling.
Three examples over the last few weeks seem to stand out.
Firstly, there was the publication of Russell Brand’s book Revolution in October. Michael Moynihan over at The Daily Beast did a good job of revealing the book’s deep ignorance. This includes the notion that Mikhail Gorbachev did a deal with the West to let Germany join NATO, that George Orwell was a fan of communist collectivisation and that the United States has made clear its terror of “third world” technology. Revolution has sold in its tens of thousands and Brand now seems to be accepted as a worthwhile commentator on political issues if his recent appearances on serious programmes such as Newsnight and Question Time are anything to go by.
Then came Nigel Farage’s comment in November that the UK’s “open door” immigration policy was a major cause of traffic congestion. I make no comment on UKIP itself and the policies Mr. Farage promotes but this is a suggestion devoid of any evidence to back it up and which no-one who understands transport issues in the UK would take seriously. What is striking though is the fact that Nigel Farage clearly feels under no popular pressure to pass off his comment as a joke nor apologise for it. Indeed, I suspect he is convinced that such comments actually appeal to his electoral base.
Curtis sows confusion
I probably could have passed those two events off as a coincidence but then a short film by the documentary maker, Adam Curtis, appeared on a BBC2 programme called Screenwipe over the Christmas break. Curtis’s film is now on You Tube and has already been viewed nearly 120,000 times in the last four days. Screenwipe itself is written and presented by the usually intelligent Charlie Brooker. And the film has even won endorsement on Twitter from the respected journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow.
Curtis claims that governments are using new techniques to confuse their populations about current events in order to keep them docile. The arguments it uses to sustain this claim rely entirely on the assumption that the audience is politically ignorant. Either that or Adam Curtis is genuinely politically ignorant himself.
For example, the film claims that no-one knows whether the war in Afghanistan was a victory or a defeat; that we are told President Assad is evil but now bomb his enemies thus keeping him in power; and that while the Government is taking billions out of the economy through public spending cuts, it is simultaneously pumping billions into the economy through quantitative easing (QE). All of these developments, the film implies, have been made deliberately bewildering to confuse whole populations.
Anyone who has taken a reasonably close interest in political and economic debate over the last few years will know that this is baloney*. No-one knows whether the war in Afghanistan is a victory or a defeat because there simply is no clear military or political outcome just as has been the case in numerous wars throughout human history. The possibility that taking on ISIS may actually bolster Assad’s position has been a much debated concern since the bombing operation started and reflects the difficult compromises that are very often made in foreign affairs. Curtis might recall, for example, the military alliance the West forged with Stalin to defeat the more immediate threat of Hitler.
And it is an explicitly stated policy of the Coalition to cut public spending while expecting the Bank of England (not the Government as Curtis states) to maintain its policy of QE. It is an approach very widely debated by economists and others: some agree and some don’t but, right or wrong, there is a clear rationale for the policy. It is most definitely not a deliberate ploy to confuse people.
Who’s really doing the duping?
There are two reasons why we should hope these examples of political ignorance are just a blip and that they do not presage a wider acceptance of unfounded and wildly inaccurate claims in the public sphere during 2015.
Firstly, they degrade public debate misinforming the population about the causes of the problems they face and the likely solutions. Traffic congestion is a pain in the neck (tell me about it!) but cutting immigration really won’t make it any better. Inequality is a troubling challenge but the workers’ states of the past which Russell Brand seems to admire brought with it just the sort of popular docility (not to mention horrendous crimes against humanity) that Brand condemns in Western populations.
More worryingly, however, such ignorance always seems to shade sooner or later into an acceptance of conspiracy theory. Brand, for example, has made it clear that he is “open minded” about who carried out the 9/11 attack. While Curtis seems determined to cook up a whole new conspiracy theory.
The link between political ignorance and conspiracy theory is obvious. Because the evidence and rationale for such conspiracies is so threadbare, their acceptance relies on a culture in which respect for genuine evidence and understanding as a basis for political assertion is weak. The result, ironically, is that it is the purveyors of conspiracy theories who are really doing their best to dupe the masses.
As Moises Naim has eloquently argued (using real evidence!) governments, the media and corporations are actually less powerful now than they have been in decades. The opportunities for individuals to inform themselves, organise and work for change has been massively enhanced in the last forty or so years by a popular focus on creativity and autonomy and by new technologies. As we argue here at the RSA, these opportunities need to be seized by as many people as possible as the best route to solving the big problems we undoubtedly face. Ignorance and conspiracy undermines this by pretending that our problems can be solved simply by unmasking and destroying the malign cabals behind those problems rather than doing the much harder, messier work of meeting those challenges ourselves.
One only needs to look to Russia or the Arab world to see how widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories based on ignorance of history and the way politics and economics really works can utterly corrupt public debate, spread docility and, ironically, hand power to genuinely malign and anti-democratic forces.
So here’s hoping the trend for political ignorance does not continue into 2015. It is, after all, an election year that will inevitably set the tone until 2020 and I’d hate to spend the next five years hearing how Mark Carney is a member of the Illuminati using secret psychological theories to sow popular confusion through the evil force that is monetary policy.
My book ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’ is due for publication in late 2015. You can conspire to pre-order a copy here.
You can follow me on Twitter here: @adamjlent
(*The Curtis film is so ridiculous that a part of me does wonder whether it is a very subtle spoof by someone like Chris Morris. But Adam Curtis has built a career around cloak and dagger claims that secret forces control our everyday lives so it probably is not.)