The most dangerous ‘ism’ now is the new cynicism
The assumption that they are 'all lying bastards' easily extends into acceptance that there is no cause worth believing in today.
The ‘ism’ that most dominates political debate today is not Conservatism or Labourism, capitalism or communism, fascism or racism. It is cynicism. As the British general election looms on the horizon, cynicism about politics unites those who will vote with those who won’t, and infects every political party. The cri de coeur of everybody from radical filmmaker Michael Moore to Tory Party leader Michael Howard is much the same: ‘You can’t believe a word they say!’
The New Cynicism is often presented as something positive. It is claimed to represent a refreshing political outlook, a refusal to be fooled by false leaders again. In fact it is more like a grim mindset that believes in nobody and nothing. It is not just anti-politician, but anti-political. The grip of the new cynicism suggests that, whoever wins the election (and there is little doubt who that will be), the biggest losers will be anybody looking for a political alternative. Cynicism is no basis on which to engage people in a serious debate about the future or anything else.
In a major speech this week Michael Grade, the new chairman of the BBC, attacked the fashion for news coverage to indulge in ‘knee-jerk cynicism that dismisses every statement from every politician as, by definition, a lie…. [W]hen scepticism becomes cynicism it can close off thought and block the search for truth.’ (1)
Good point, well made – especially as the BBC itself has sometimes seemed to be in the forefront of media cynicism. Programmes such as Radio 4’s flagship Today, and BBC2’s Newsnight have helped to pioneer a school of journalism characterised by the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ interview, and the perpetual search for the next scandal or cover-up.
Whether Grade’s words will make much difference to this culture of cynicism in practice remains to be seen. So far, the BBC coverage of something like the Iraqi elections suggests not. In common with many other media outlets, the BBC has from the first seemed ‘more interested in the failure of the elections in Iraq than in their success’, as Alice Miles notes in The Times (2). She cites Today’s man in Baghdad, Edward Stourton, suggesting to the British ambassador that any result will inevitably be illegitimate because ‘It’s quite difficult, isn’t it, to see how people can vote intelligently in some areas of the country when there isn’t the sort of campaign we would recognise’.
These attitudes are often not driven by real insights into the political vacuum of post-war Iraqi society, of the sort that writers such as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill have developed (see Coalition withdrawal symptoms). Instead they reflect the cynical view that these elections must necessarily be rotten, because they involve politicians – and especially because they are supported by Tony Blair and George W Bush.
In fact these people have more in common with Bush and Blair than they might care to admit. The governments of the USA and the UK exported their domestic political problems to Iraq, seeking (but failing to find) a sense of mission and moral authority by overthrowing Saddam Hussein without thinking through the consequences. In a similar fashion, many of their critics now seem to be extending their bitter disillusionment and knee-jerk cynicism about Western politics into an unthinkingly cynical attitude towards Iraqi affairs.
The New Cynicism in the media reflects and reinforces a wider public attitude. People are not only cynical about politicians such as Blair or Howard, or particular political parties. They are increasingly cynical about political action itself. The assumption that they are ‘all lying bastards’ who cannot be believed easily extends into a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that there is no cause worth believing in today.
Worse, the response of the political class often seems to be an attempt to cash in on public cynicism, by posing as the ‘anti-politics party’ – once the trademark of the Liberal Democrats, now claimed by their rivals too. Political leaders feel so isolated and desperate that they will try any tack to make a connection with public sentiment, even if it means ‘connecting’ with people’s cynicism about them. Thus parliamentary debate is often reduced to an exchange of insults about which party is telling the biggest lies, or who is ‘playing politics’ (seemingly the worst thing a politician can do today) with the public’s health and safety. When all else fails, you brand the Conservatives as racist on immigration, and call Labour anti-Semitic for portraying Howard as a flying pig. Little wonder that many of those who do intend to vote in the forthcoming general election are just as cynical about politics as the growing numbers who do not.
There is nothing radical or challenging about the New Cynicism. Indeed its effect is to let political leaders off the hook. Because this uncritical criticism fails to engage with issues, beyond shouting ‘Bliar!’ from the back of the class, it cannot hold politicians properly to account for what they say and do.
So on Iraq, as we have pointed out on spiked before, everybody spent months obsessively gossiping about who said what to whom in Whitehall’s secret meetings, and who sexed up what in some dodgy dossiers. But on the central political principle, of whether the USA and UK have the right to invade sovereign nations such as Iraq to save them from themselves, we have heard hardly a word of criticism. Thus the shrill cries of the cynics disguise an underlying consensus around Blair’s school of intervention. This is phoney opposition.
The uncritical criticism of the ‘everything is a lie’ brigade also fails to see how politics is changing and new problems are emerging. So they have nothing to say about the rise of what one cabinet minister has called the ‘new politics of behaviour’, the attempt to connect with and control society through issues of personal health and lifestyle. Indeed, working on the assumption that everything the government does must be a cover-up, the cynical critics’ complaint is that the crises allegedly caused by obesity, passive smoking and binge-drinking must be even worse than New Labour’s lifestyle police say, so that even more must be done to crackdown on how people behave.
Through all of this, the never-ending search for the next scandal contributes to the trivialisation of political life. Seeing everything as a little soap opera of rumours, backstabbing and personal power struggles in Whitehall continually lowers the horizons of debate. It means that as politics meanders from one side-issue to another – university top-up fees, fox-hunting, licensing laws, etc – there is no attempt to put bigger questions about the future direction of society on the agenda. After all, if you cannot trust what anybody says about such trivia, you are not going to believe in anybody’s grand vision of the Good Society.
Scepticism and critical thinking about politics and politicians is more important today than it has ever been. But cynicism about all things political is antithetical to the development of any alternatives. It makes it almost impossible to engage people in serious political debate, never mind action. That is why it is the most dangerous ‘ism’ on the election map.
The New Cynicism threatens to drag the 2005 general election to an even lower and less memorable level than the 2001 poll, the election that everybody has already forgotten. As for post-election politics, that appears to be on course for the slough of cynical despond. Which makes it all the more important that those of us who want to see serious political change try to raise the horizons of debate. As the election approaches, spiked will be doing its best to counter cynicism with criticism, and apathy with some alternative ideas.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) The Times (London), 25 January 2005
(2) ‘Starting the day with a sneer’, The Times, 26 January 2005