It’s been an emotional week, but I can’t decide if that’s because of the caffeine or the culture war…
I do know I’ve been feeling a bit fraught; on a slightly paranoid edge that I can’t totally explain. Part of it is certainly down to an excess of caffeine. I normally limit myself to the odd coffee or bottle of the fizzy stuff when I’m outside. It means I never drink too much since I know how it can leave me a blubbering mess, searching for reasons why I feel so skittish. It’s the same reason I don’t imbibe alcohol or drugs. My brain has enough problems dealing with the absurdities of the world as it is. It doesn’t need too much stimulation.
The lockdown had changed my routine, however, and I had started to indulge my craving. It always begins the same way. I felt sluggish one Monday morning and needed a way to wake myself up. And, at first, caffeine provided such a useful kickstart to the day. When you’ve not had it in a while, there’s that wonderful moment when you feel the buzz. Suddenly, I couldn’t work quickly enough because there were so many ideas to chase down. I had a week of solid creativity but then, this week, came the crash. I’d been working too quickly and eating crap food (white bread!). So, caffeine is now out (again), though that’s not to discourage anybody from supporting the blog through the buy-me-a-coffee scheme, which, obviously, doesn’t pay for coffee but my continued living.
But I digress.
The main reason I suppose I’m feeling a bit edgy is that I’m properly saddened by the politics I’ve been reading, especially on social media. COVID-19 hasn’t just become the newest battlefield in the old culture war. It has become The New Culture War, complete with real corpses littering the field.
This morning’s Mail typifies this ugly business, trying to excite that cultural antagonism that exists around the matter of teachers. It’s a deep schism that isn’t just triggered by the fact that teaching unions remain some of the more powerful. Teaching is the matter of conveying ideas to impressionable minds and both sides of the culture war have pretty strong views on which ideas should be conveyed. It makes teachers easy targets and the obvious fodder to throw in the way of this bloody awful virus.
Even my slightly frazzled mind finds it ridiculous that I would have to remind people that none of this is over. They have 90,000 dead in the US and we have 33,614 in the UK (though that total is probably going to be revised hugely upwards once the ONS take a look at the figures). Yet some people look on those numbers and say they’re not that many, to which one feels compelled to ask: how many will satisfy them? Then they repeat the statistics about age. Segregate the nation, they say. Let the young go about their lives and the old stay safely indoors. Blah. Blah. Blah…
Notably, there are never any meaningful suggestions about how we might actually control this pandemic. There are no clever additions to the science. Just lots of signalling about freedom, human nature, and “common sense”.
Is there any doubt why there’s no Professor of Common Sense at any university in the world and why we don’t celebrate the achievements of famous Common Sensers? “Common sense” is merely another way of referring to the wisdom of a crowd and there’s definitely a reason why we don’t lock ten thousand dolts into a stadium and keep them there until they’ve solved the problem of nuclear fission.
We undoubtedly have a science crisis, but it’s made much worse by media pundits making provocative statements that are so wilfully ignorant and deliberately cruel, especially when you know that so much of this is driven by false demand.
Many journalists, especially freelancers, pitch to get work from media companies, a few of which clearly want to peddle the hard-line arguments favoured by their owners. It’s how the business operates and how many freelancers live their lives. The moment a story breaks, they begin to wonder how they might pitch an idea to a certain publication. This isn’t exactly a secret. There are writing guides which sell millions of copies by peddling such obvious advice. It’s clear where the political biases of the bigger publications lie. If you’re mentally adroit, you can write two pitches that are totally contradictory. One you send, let’s say, to Spiked, in which you would argue that all teachers are workshy and simply want their summer holidays early. In the other, which you pitch to The New Statesman, you argue that years of austerity have left schools overcrowded and totally unsuited to the new demands of a post-COVID world. For The Mail on Sunday, you cherry pick some outlier science, talk a lot of about your experiences in Soviet Russia, and then complain that lefties do nothing but insult you before you launch some heinous insults towards them (leading to Peter Hitchens suing you for plagiarism). For The Guardian, meanwhile, you list a person’s crimes against gender, throw in some personal biography, and end it all by plugging your new book of photographs, Dogs Dressed as Vaginas. It really is that simple.
I should add, however, that I don’t do any of that and never have. I’ve never been one to pitch articles I’ve not already written. I don’t see the point since I often don’t know what I think until I’ve written it. The idea of adjusting my thinking to fit an argument I’ve already sold seems morally wrong. That’s why, though I find writing immensely easy, I’ve never been a gun-for-hire. Never been able to write corporate blurb. Never been able to write advertising copy. I only write what I believe in the moment I write it (though I don’t discount the possibility I might contradict myself over time).
It’s obvious, however, that others write to their most lucrative market and the moral gymnastics that are required for that lifestyle aren’t too difficult…
Somebody else will write it if you don’t.
Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.
You only live once.
You owe it to yourself and your family to earn a good wage.
The rationalisations go on and on. The result is a media that doesn’t always publish what people think but publishes what people are paid to think; opinion pieces that are heavily indebted to the ideology of the people paying their wages.
Now, I’m not saying that every magazine is like this and, certainly, not every editor. There are also those journalists who clearly write out of their own deep convictions (all hail Nick Cohen). Yet there are others – obvious who they are – happy to argue one thing one payday, only to reverse it the next. The result: a crowded battlefield where the reasonable are chased off because there’s only room for those swinging swords and clubs. It’s a blood sport which the public love, even as it serves them poorly and now dangerously.