Manufactured Outrage and All or Nothing Politics

How Do You Say…?

Oh boy, I’ve wanted to talk about this columnist for weeks.

First time visitors to London are usually making their way to see Big Ben, the big clock who we shouldn’t actually watch, but do what it does (keep going). The venerable old clock tower sits on the banks of the river Thames, and first time visitors to the city will usually be shocked at how you pronounce that river’s name.

No, it doesn’t rhyme with ‘James’.

Well all right, I don’t actually know how to pronounce it, and I’m not here to teach you. The reason I bring it up is because I had a similar revelation with this particular columnist from The Economist. I’m just going to leave it here; Bagehot. You tell me how you pronounce that. Go ahead, guess.

The Economist has several foreign correspondents and columnists specialising in different regions and specialties. Chaguan covers China. Bartleby covers management and the workplace. Bagehot’s specialty is Good Ol’ Blighty — Britain. I think it’s fitting that the columnist then chose a name (or was given the name, I don’t know if that’s their real name or a nom de plume) that, I’m assuming, is either Anglican or Saxon in origin. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m assuming a hell of a lot about Bagehot. I’m picturing a Briton, large and wizened, hunched over his keyboard with a cigar under his venerable handlebar moustache, squinting at the screen through thick, smoky glasses. Bagehot may not be anything like that; they may be a woman, or Indian, or not even a single person but an entire Bagehot department. Well, until proven otherwise, I’m going with the old British newspaperman image I’ve concocted here.

I mean, a lot of the white people I meet assume I’m Chinese all the time. A bunch of cyclists yelled ‘Ni Hao’ at me in between angrily screeching at me to go back to Wuhan. I think just this once I can be allowed some assumptions. Oh Lord I’m turning into Lovecraft, aren’t I…

Give up? Yeah, I got it wrong too. When I first read the columnist’s name I pronounced it, in my head, as ‘Bag Hot’, presuming a silent ‘E’ and that you read it phonetically. You don’t. After spending some time with the audio version of the rag, I have discovered that the ‘Bage’ in Bagehot is pronounced ‘badge’, and the whole word sounds eerily similar to ‘Badger’. ‘Badge — ot’. Yes, I was surprised too. And white people think our names are weird. All right, that’s enough racism. Pack it in, now.

Populism Variant of Concern

Bagehot raises an interesting story this week. They contend that the Tories (members of the Conservative Party in the UK) are not, as widely believed, populists, but rather they are ‘unpopulists’, a term coined by Bagehot. A populist, by definition, claims to stand for the ‘little guy’, a representative of the underrepresented, the voice that will force the world to listen to what the people have to say. In theory, amazing. No longer will riots be the voice of the voiceless — the people now have a say in how they are governed and have an elected representative who speaks for them in places of power. In practice, like so many amazing things on paper, populism is shit. The term has come to mean something similar to demagoguery — someone who stokes up fear and panic in order to get elected into office, or to push an agenda that only benefits them.

The old maxim holds true. Power corrupts, and absolute power only corrupts absolutely. And people wonder why I don’t like talking about politics.

However, Bagehot’s claims about Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, and his conservative party is that they are not populists. The Tories have been raising merry hell about (checks notes) Brexit, “the charge of the woke brigade” and low traffic neighbourhoods, ostensibly because that is what the people want, but apparently the people do not actually care about what the Conservative party thinks they care about. Apparently 59% of their voters had no idea what ‘woke’ even meant. Bagehot lays the claim at the Tories’ feet claiming that these manufactured outrages do not truly represent what the people want, but rather what they want, and are using the excuse that the people demand it to kick shit up Westminster’s halls. This, Bagehot claims, is ‘unpopulism’.

As a side note I’ve noticed Bagehot is also big on neologisms.

This seems (on paper, and recall what I said about things on paper) like a doomed endeavour from the start. If nobody is demanding it, then no matter how much excrement the Tories kick in Parliament then nothing should get done, right? Wrong. Witness Brexit. The pet project of a bunch of EU — phobic day drinkers has come true, and the people have been convinced that yes, that is exactly what they want. Apparently if you tell the same lie enough times, soon it will become the truth. I’d heard that somewhere I can’t remember and I can’t actually be arsed to find out. Anyway, like many other commodities and forms of capital, outrage can be manufactured and recognised as political capital on the balance sheet. You just need enough suckers to buy it, and PT Barnum put it best when he says there’s one born every minute.

Unpopulism is a lose — lose situation (for the people, anyway) because at best there is wastage as public resources are poured into an effort that nobody asked for, and at worst the public is duped into getting the lying leaders what they want for no gain of their own — perhaps even at a net loss, arguably. Instead of getting what we want, our elected representatives, supposedly fighting for ‘our’ interests, have funnelled away our tax money into something that would benefit them and them alone. Any supposed benefit to the people is a happy coincidence. It gets worse when the people get fooled into going along with this, because now the damned fool has supporters, and you can’t naysay their selfish actions or be harassed by the group of idiots who have made politics their identity and any attack or question on that politician’s policies or views is an attack on them and God knows how easy it is to change their minds. (Not at all, in case the sarcasm has done a runner and flown over your head).

And people wonder why I don’t like talking about politics.

Bit of A Rant Here Mate

Populism, unpopulism or any other flavour of political manipulation wouldn’t be such a damned problem if not for one fatal flaw; the all or nothing stance in political discourse. Strangely, in a democratic society that promises that all opinions and points of view will be heard, not all opinions or points of view are heard, or at least considered seriously. Recall again what I said about things being amazing on paper turning out to be shit in practice. Tories only listen to Tory aligned viewpoints, and any other viewpoint is propaganda, misinformation or just something said to discredit the Conservatives. No discussion. No consideration that maybe Brexit is a bad idea, no, it’s a ploy and if you truly believe that you’re against us. That’s not even the worst bit. If you agree with Brexit but disagree with the Tories on something else, then you turn out to be some kind of political persona non grata, rejected by the Tories for being against just the one bit but also rejected by the other parties for supporting Brexit. You’re either with a candidate, party or movement and you’re with them on absolutely everything they do, or you’re against them. No middle ground allowed. No supporting the other guy even though you think they’re actually making a lot of goddamned sense.

I honestly don’t understand why this is. I mean, I get it — you support a candidate to either give your community a voice in the executive or legislative, or because you believe that their ideas and methods of governance are the best way forward, but you can’t agree with the stodgy tosser on absolutely everything. At least something’s gotta tick you off about them. Maybe you think their immigration policies are too lax. Or too tight. Or they don’t mention immigration at all. Maybe you think how they handle taxes makes your illiterate arse look halfway competent. Or maybe it’s just the fact that the other guy has a better idea for just this one specific thing. No, you’ve got to just keep a stiff upper lip, lay back, think of England, and just go with it even though you don’t agree. Because you want to be heard, you want to have a say, you want your voice to matter and if you voice any kind of dissent you won’t get paid any attention at all, and good luck getting the other guy to listen to your ideas. Why can’t someone voice an opinion and say, maybe in this particular case, we don’t agree with our candidate. Maybe, oh I don’t know, practice democracy and voice your goddamned opinion to your candidate and tell them that no, you don’t support this one specific thing and if a referendum is called you’re going to vote the other fucking way, unless the gormless bastard agrees to your demands.

From the language and tone I’ve used so far you can probably tell how high of an opinion I have of Malaysian politicians, but in my defence they’ve not done anything to disprove it. I mean, they’re public servants. They serve the public. It is us that makes the list of demands and they who get us these things. Why is this not what is happening? How have we been led astray by pretty words by populists or unpopulists and instead of public servants serving the public it is the public who serves the public servants?

I yearn for the day when all political parties in Malaysia are abolished and candidates apply for positions the same way we all do when applying for jobs. Their resumes are considered, their plans are scrutinised, and instead of partisan mud — slinging we decide who gets the job based on what we want for our nation. And if they turn out to be inbred idiots who can’t be trusted to tell which end of their gastrointestinal system that food goes into, we dump them out on their worthless arses. Suppose we have a candidate who, as above, is good at nearly everything except they can’t balance taxes worth a spit. Here comes Johnny Come Lately with his spiffy ACCA accreditation and ten years experience doing corporate tax. We support our candidate, of course, but for the taxes we put in Johnny even though the bugger is almost the polar opposite, because we don’t just blindly support a candidate through absolutely everything.

Populist, unpopulist or any other flavour of political manipulation wouldn’t be a damned issue if that were the case. How can they? There’s no single ‘base’ to manipulate. There’s just people talking it out and discussing things — like, you know, a civilised society is supposed to do. Maybe, if we want better governance, we have to be better people.

And there’s the rub, innit?

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