It happens. It shouldn’t happen, but it does happen. It happens on a Friday evening. It’s the end of the week, a chance to unwind, get out a couple of bottles of wine.
One member of the couple spills red wine on a pale couch. The other member of the couple is furious and says so. The wine-spiller is insufficiently regretful and, in no time at all, a screaming match with physical embellishments ensues, with the neighbours calling the police for fear the bigger of the couple will knock hell out of the lighter, smaller — usually female — one.
This Saturday, we woke to the news that this had happened in London and that the couple involved were Carrie Symonds and her boyfriend of recent months, one Boris Johnson, contender for the office of British prime minister. The couple have concerned neighbours. The neighbours, in addition to being concerned and public-spirited, are communicative. The neighbours tried to intervene, failed because of the volume of the fracas, quite properly brought the police into the situation and then, bless ‘em, started to talk to the media, even sharing recordings they just happened to have made of the proceedings.
Media quite properly passed on the delicious details to the rest of us. (It’s OK to find the details delicious since nobody seems to have been injured — no ambulance — or to have been sufficiently culpable to justify arrest.) Those details included the fact that wine-spilling on Johnson’s part was involved, although, in deference to the Irish Examiner’s pristine record of accurate reporting, we should admit that we don’t know if he spilled it on a pale sofa. We are extrapolating from his partner’s fury over the damage.
We figure if he’d spilled red wine on a burgundy-hued piece of furniture, her level of irk might not have been so stratospheric. As it was, she even called him “spoiled”. Imagine.
The neighbourly reporting also let us in on the fact that the woman screamed “get off me,” and demanded that the man “get out of my flat”.
Which brings us to the fact that, just a couple of weeks ago, on this page, I suggested that nothing on God’s earth would stop Boris Johnson becoming prime minister. No matter what he did, no matter what happened in the run-up to July and the final vote, I portrayed him as home and hosed, and that was not changed by the events of the weekend, despite anonymous senior figures within the Tories confiding to media that he could not possibly become their leader.
Looking through the rear view mirror of history, they are, of course, right. In any other era, a screaming match or “domestic incident” with your most recent girlfriend, conducted at such volume as to prevent you hearing neighbours ring your doorbell, would irrevocably constrain, if not actively terminate, your career. Now, it’s just part of the Boris brand. Just another aspect of the entertainment.
Yesterday and the day before, as journalists, most notably one named Iain Dale, tried to get answers from Johnson about what British tabloid media pleasingly call the “plate-smashing row”, some commentators described his campaign as being in chaos.
Which is true, but a little touch of chaos is not going to stop him becoming prime minister. That’s because he — like Donald Trump — meets the new, rather than the old, leadership job specs, which require the candidate to be three things. High profile is one. Not like the normal or traditional politician is the second. Entertaining is the third.
Lying, cheating, demonstrating incompetence in several jobs, and behaving like the definitive upper class English version of white trash, scattering offspring you don’t seem to have carefully counted, are all congruent with meeting these new specifications.
None of this should surprise us, because it was effectively predicted by a professor of communications back in 1984. That was when Professor Neil Postman delivered a talk at the Frankfurt Nook Fair, where George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was being celebrated.
Orwell’s vision of the future saw state control of the population by dint of control of information. Postman suggested that, instead of managing people by deprivation, overview, and punishment, an easier and more effective way to control a population was to keep them happy. He contrasted the Orwell work with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the population didn’t have to be tightly managed by the State because they were drugged to the gills. The state didn’t have to ban particular books because people who were high as kites on chemicals didn’t read or react to the written word. Too much trouble.
Postman published a book on this theme in the 1980s, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death.
“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognise, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” he wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”
One of his premises was that television had upended the rules of rational argument. Before TV, the capacity to prove your point through rational argument and make your viewpoint stick in the minds of others so as to inform their thinking was what defined the successful politician. After TV became a reality, an odd or repellent appearance could prevent people hearing what you had to say or taking it on board. In addition, TV shortened the international attention span, so politicians who could not hit the audience nail on the head within a matter of seconds got turned off. Another factor was that, while TV allowed for argument, it did not favour mediation. The viewer got the political view from the politician directly, without expert health warnings or pre-emptive explanations.
Postman explored these ideas in books written during his 40 years teaching at New York University, but died before social media collaborated with mainstream media to create a situation where the entertainer/politician could reach out directly to their followers through tweets, rendering irrelevant even the most persistent questioners.
Or, rather, could turn those questioners into part of the entertainment, as CNN’s Jim Acosta has been turned into a walk-on part of Donald Trump’s show, and Iain Dale into the same in Johnson’s. Each may interpret himself as a fearless truth-teller — Acosta certainly does — but neither has stopped or even slowed the onward momentum of the men on whom their firepower has been focused. The point is that it’s not media which is to blame for this. Media of all kinds gives its consumers what those consumers want. Decades ago, Neil Postman predicted the consequences.
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” he wrote, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk.”