The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, October 18, 2003

The Plawg credo on pols and journos restated

There is a notion, on which the blog is based, which I like to keep under review and tinker about with from time to time. It goes something like this:
  • Politics and journalism are activities uniquely tending to a combination of corruption and abuse of the truth; but

  • Both politics and journalists are indispensable to the operation of a modern state.

There are (at least!) two insidious notions abroad: that
  1. pols ought to be the object of the trust of the citizens; and that

  2. it's the pols currently in power who are corrupt, and they can be replaced by a bunch who aren't.

In other words, partisan loathing of politicians. It's only human nature, I suppose, to think - or hope - that every problem has solution and that the highly plausible and articulate man with a plan who's running rings around the incumbents is that solution. (We seem to be getting a heavy dose of that in Bolivia right now!)

Naturally, the man with the plan proves to be as equally subject to the temptations and pressures of the position as his despised predecessor. The cycle of hope and disappointment spins round again.

(The campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger in California neatly satirised that absurd notion - if Arnie is the answer, then clearly it must have been a damned stupid question!)

I know nothing about psychology: but there is something distinctly childish in the supposition that, for every bad thing, there is an equal and available good thing. (The word I want to use is Manichaean, but I'm quite prepared to believe that it's wrong in the context.) It's something of a filmic cliché that, for the hero of an adventure movie to be thoroughly satisfying, he needs a really high-quality baddie to work with: if the baddie is incredible, or feeble or unattractive (in a love to hate way), the ultimate triumph of the hero is devalued.

Indeed, the whole business of analysing events as narrative - something that the media do for very good dollars-and-cents and artistic reasons - is itself thoroughly corrupt, but seems to tap into ancient patterns of human thinking. In journalism, every story has to have not only a hero and a villain, but also an arc. It must be going somewhere, have a dramatic climax, and an ending, happy or otherwise.

Even soap opera, which clearly is intended to go on indefinitely, works with arcs: characters are introduced specifically to do a story (these days, about some issue or other, more than likely), the story concludes, and they leave (a few are retained for general use by popular demand, natch!).

The corruption of analysing real world events as narrative is at its worst, perhaps, when it comes to politics, because, crudely, politicians are vested with the power of life and death over the rest of us. Any such analysis is likely to be false; but, since politicians are well aware of the tendency, and of its power to inveigle their voters or subjects into supporting policies or actions clearly not objectively in their best interests, they will not leave the form of the narrative analysis to chance.

Spinning - the manipulation of truth, of which actual lying is a small component - is integral to politics of every kind and in every place and time [1]. Like pitching in baseball, say. Politics can't be done without it, not even by the latest tribune of the people in Bolivia or anywhere else. And journos pass on the pols' product, and add a few twists of their own. Again, that can't be helped: you cannot express yourself in any language without imparting spin.

It's no more proper to make adverse moral judgements about the place of spin in politics and journalism as to condemn a lion who kills a gnu for his dinner. That doesn't mean it's not wise to be pretty careful around hungry lions!

Mr Smith Goes To Washington - that I've mentioned here a lot, but not enough recently - is the locus classicus in popular art of the notion I started with: on the one hand, one has the smooth and easy corruption of the politicians, the hypocritical sanctimony of the journos; on the other, Our Hero, naive but true [2], who, mirroring the (equally hypocritical) feelings of his audience, is appalled at what he sees in the temples of democracy that hitherto he had blindly worshipped.

The moral of the story - which is well wrapped up by writer Sidney Buchman (he was a Commie in the era of the Dies Committee and the Smith Act!) - is that the mundane corruption of so-called democracy was better that the demagoguery of a hero. Yay for business as usual!

Just so long as they know we know...

  1. I thought I had mentioned earlier, but cannot trace it, the Gesta Henrici Quinti, written in and around 1417 to celebrate the triumph of Henry V in France in 1415 (culminating in Agincourt) and to drum up support in the courts of Europe for further English adventures in France. It's clearly an exercise in spin, and very far from the first: I'd be fairly certain you could find such documents in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Babylonian cuneiform.

  2. There's a thesis to write on the use of the word true about a person.

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