By Emil Blake
It’s rare for politicians not to smile. Even the most insincere daren’t show anything but the warmth, comfort and confidence of a smile; the most sour-faced of politicos fake it until they make it. It’s government 101, it says ‘hey, I really do mean this.’
Weather-beaten by the political tempests and low fronts that have swept into our living rooms and bedrooms through television, laptops and the damp glow of phone screens, we probably no longer care whether the powerful smile, because regardless of who we are, there isn’t a great deal to smile about in the world.
But it’s symbolic of something far greater, a malaise and hopelessness at the very centre of power. The conservative right have been in government in the United States for four years; in the UK for a decade. For those concerned with governing in these administrations, and for their supporter base too, these should be encouraging times.
… regardless of who we are, there isn’t a great deal to smile about in the world
In the US they swept Trump to power against huge odds; it’s allowed him to appoint Republican attorneys to the highest offices, given him licence to make enormous tax cuts to the wealthiest, and set up detention centres to rounded up illegal immigrants. In the UK the conservatives slashed public services and safety nets and won four elections in doing so. They not only won the right to hold a public debate and referendum on leaving the European Union, they even won it – against all the odds they won the argument; despite all the setbacks they are on course to get the Brexit they wanted. The state has been rolled back and any threat offered by socialists has been quelled in the form of election victories.
So, why are they all angry? Why does modern conservatism lash-out at every cause, recoil at civil redress when injustices are highlighted? You have to wonder what a conservative idyll would look like, and what it would take to get there.
Most of us should by now have a fairly clear idea what this idyll looks like – and it ain’t pretty. It leads to orthodoxy, puritanism, ‘difficult decisions’ and ultimately, purges. Identity politics, while necessary to highlight injustices and give a voice to those facing discrimination, has unwittingly divided the left into competing tribes that focuses on difference rather than commonality; a market place of ideas where even six-figure salaried white columnists for The Telegraph can feel the sting of discrimination, merely for denying science.
The Right will now go after any cause – no matter how hopeless in the face of facts – like a rabid dog after a postman’s calf.
The culture war has enough mileage in it to maintain and drive the anger of conservatives for ever more, as it’s no longer just about freedom of speech, taking offence or personal identity; it stretches out into the horizon, when even wearing face masks in the midst of a global health crisis, is a sure sign that the marxists are in the driving seat even though election results show a social justice movement scratching in the dust through the rear view mirror of history. Where do we go from here?
Nationhood stands as the primary symbol of one’s political identity for the conservative; it is an abstract concept that is both irrefutable and intangible. God and country. Flag and country. Queen and country. But what even is ‘the country’ and what is it that they love so much about it?
Why is then not a patriotic duty to feed starving kids in the midst of a pandemic and oncoming recession?
For, one’s country somehow loses the same emotional power when homelessness and poverty of one’s compatriots is presented to the right-wing. Somehow, when a footballer asks for government help in ensuring that thousands of children’s school meal costs are covered for low-income families while schools remain closed, suddenly the issue comes back to the individual, and the responsibility of the family. Why is then not a patriotic duty to feed starving kids in the midst of a pandemic and oncoming recession?
The empathy gap in British, and I suspect, western society is a yawning one: as living standards drop, the politics of envy begin to take over. But this is no ‘normal’ envy, a keeping-up-with-the-joneses competition seen as healthy by the most enthusiastic supporters of the capitalist economy; no, this is not about a twitching of the curtain and a resentment at their new car or conservatory. It’s about the keen sense of injustice that other folk, other demographics are getting more attention and more help than you – even if you don’t need it. ‘Why them? Why not us?’
Prioritise our own people before refugees. White lives matter. All lives matter. Until of course, they don’t. Whether its the poor using foodbanks or ex-servicemen sleeping in the streets, it requires us to draw on our ever decreasing resources of sympathy. This envy, although misguided is in some way dressed as a fight-or-flight survival response, the bestowing of further rights by consensus to a minority, means that we might lose our own rights along the way.
In an age etched into tree bark and permafrost by pollution and over-consumption, when every day brings some reminder of our finite resources, perhaps there is some logic to the knee-jerk; yet rights are not a finite resource – in an equitable society they should be abundant and and not subjected to supply-and-demand laws of economics. Nevertheless the underlying mantra for our age: ‘there’s not enough to go around’ covers not only our societies in monetary terms, but in empathetic currency too.
The working class drift rightward towards a siege mentality nationalism can be mused upon in tomes, but perhaps we need to dump the word ‘privilege’ in order to clarify the juxtaposition of white-skinned advantage. Certainly, in the UK the word has a very loaded meaning in terms of class consciousness and identity: while the ‘average’ person might respect or even look up to the Rees-Moggs and Farages, none would be so self-deceptive as to believe they were peers.
We could talk about ‘black disadvantage’ instead but this still sounds as though it’s white people talking among themselves; although this might be a good starting point in itself. Our utterances now have been boiled down to sound bites – be it in 280 characters or updates to our ‘networks’ – the ‘friend’ is dead it seems – and in a seemingly uncertain world our announcements become ever more set in stone and bind us to fixed positions. We now build walls with words, in ways we could never have previously. Sadly, conversations have been replaced by ‘discourse’, ‘debate’ and any other euphemism you can think of for invective.
There is always someone else to blame – whether it’s Fake News, Black Lives Matter, Anti-fascists, economic experts or working class families struggling to feed their kids.
Social media is of course powered by anger, grievance and counter-claim. The masterminds behind Trump’s digital campaigns in the 2016, or Vote Leave’s Brexit campaign were all too aware of the growing dis-satisfaction that has been growing among a sympathetic demographic. Tyrants and dictators have been using communication manipulation throughout the ages to seize power, with very similar methods.
The malaise that western democracy finds itself in now, however, requires not just a blame game but a perpetual culture war: with every daily development there is a fresh angle to exploit, and the direct means to do so. Politicians no longer have to negotiate their messages through the traditional gatekeepers of journalist or editor, and it’s no coincidence that Donald Trump is the Twitter President – despite the US government being the world’s second most prolific PR machine.
Trump and his advisors clearly learned a trick or two from their junior partner in the ‘special relationship’: note how cleverly the British right-wing have taken the resultant ills of 50 years of neo-liberalist policy in the UK and managed to convince a large enough section of the electorate that the EU was responsible for the struggles that the UK currently face. There is always someone else to blame – whether it’s Fake News, Black Lives Matter, Anti-fascists, economic experts or working class families struggling to feed their kids.
The Right will now go after any cause – no matter how hopeless in the face of facts – like a rabid dog after a postman’s calf. Take The Telegraph’s recent article about Jacinda Ardern’s ‘disastrous’ leadership in the wake of her recent election victory, as a shining example of the dogged pursuit of a contrarian opinion in the face of hard evidence.
The bad news – for all of us, regardless of our political persuasion – is that the cultural war is here for good, and every good deed must be justified. The positives that we can draw from this is that the ‘whataboutery‘, the revisionism and the heaping of mistruths upon lies is not sustainable. Even in an ill-functioning democracy, they must sure run out of road.
Sometime writer, sometime journalist, sometime teacher, sometime dreamer
Featured image By Becker1999 from Grove City, OH – aaIMG_0755, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89313317