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Sending a message

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle round my skull

This is my latest rant at Comment Is Free. Faithful readers might find some of it tediously familiar, but I hope they will at least enjoy the Brass Eye reference.

Since its electoral meltdown, the Labour party wants to send a message. Unfortunately, Labour’s idea of “sending a message” over the past decade has not meant saying something directly in a poster campaign or a massive round-robin email. The approved manner of sending a message is through tortuous Unspeak and idiotic legislation, and the subsequent public insistence that, however boneheaded its decisions may look, they will at least “send a message”. Thus the government chirruped that its plan to “upgrade” cannabis (a curious verb, as though the public were being encouraged to buy new cannabis because it was so much better than the old stuff) would “send a message” to the yoof that drugs are bad, mmmkay? This plan, of course, depended on young people being too deliciously off their faces to notice that the government’s own scientific advice was that cannabis didn’t actually warrant the new classification. It was impossible to hear ministers defending the idea without remembering the immortal line from Brass Eye, “There’s no evidence for it, but it’s a scientific fact!”

Also engineered to send a message was the passage of the new Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which contained a little-reported and spectacularly illiberal passage on “extreme pornographic images“, criminalizing the possession of images or videos that only simulated things the government thinks no upstanding citizen ought to find erotic. Defending this brave new foray into thoughtcrime legislation, Lord Hunt of the reassuringly named “Ministry of Justice” blurted: “It is appalling that this material is available and we have to do something about it.” To this government, to be seen to be doing something, no matter how lunatic and swivel-eyed, is much better than to do nothing at all, or to waste valuable time trying to figure out what it might actually be sensible to do. Headlines, after all, wait for no man.

Meanwhile, here at CiF Hazel Blears came up with the excellent wheeze that the government should “hold some cabinet meetings on housing estates”. Naturally, it doesn’t matter what new manner of foam-brained policy those cabinet meetings come up with. The mere fact of their being held on housing estates will send a message that her party is in touch with the people. Won’t it?

It is easy (and important) for the media to mock. But the people on the other side of the political conversation can’t disclaim all responsibility for our decadent culture of messaging-by-spectacle. When we are treated to the fabulously uncouth sight of Andrew Marr accusing the prime minister of being “a bit strange“, the moral high horse has not only been abandoned but whipped to death and boiled up for a TV dinner.

The widely promulgated narrative that Labour’s troubles now boil down to some supposed personality defects of Gordon Brown, rather than actual policy blunders, is itself a symptom of the fundamental dumbness of our political culture. John Cruddas MP bleated that Brown did not have the “emotional literacy” of David Cameron or even, bizarrely, dead-eyed puppet Boris Johnson (one of whose first acts after being elected was to casually accuse Ken Livingstone of a corrupt rush to shred documents).

So political judgment now comes down to awarding points to the moisturized rich boys of the New Tories for their ability to feign empathy, or for their comparative skill at giving good sofa on Sunday-morning TV. If you think that “emotional literacy” might matter less in a politician than, say, statistical or scientific or historical literacy, you’re a pedantic throwback, and really not the kind of person at whom government and wannabe-government communications are aimed. Still, “emotional literacy” does have its advantages: with it, you can send a message that is all warm-‘n’-fuzzy feeling and no content whatsoever; and so, behind the scenes, you can carry on as usual with the business of screwing the people.

  1. 1  Roger  May 15, 2008, 6:17 am 

    I suspect “sending a message” is weasel-words rather than unspeak because the package is more important than the usually non-existent content. It is appearances that matter, as I think you are saying.

    Which brings us, obviously, to “sending signals” and the extraordinary personal sacrifice of George Bush:

    “I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

    Presumably, in solidarity with the moms’ feelings, he has generously restricted his activity to the backyard of the White House and minigolf in the Oval Office, where the moms can’t see him.

  2. 2  William  May 15, 2008, 11:22 am 

    dead-eyed puppet Boris Johnson


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