Tuesday 23 May 2017

The Political Economy of the Moral Lobotomy

It's a truism that the worst in humanity brings out the best in humanity. Yet amid the solidarity and support shown folks caught up in last night's suicide attack in Manchester, there were those for whom another concern came to mind: themselves. It takes a real decency bypass to think about how the murder of 22 people can raise one's profile, or score petty points, but the laws of probability indicates such people are bound to exist. A coincidence then that exhibitors of amoral psychopathy are clustered in our leading news media organisations?

Out front was, of course, the execrable Katie Hopkins who, for the sake of a higher profile and several hours as a trending topic, called for a "final solution" to Islamist-inspired terror. Yes, that's right, the language of genocide is fine and dandy for a few extra retweets. Paul Waugh of HuffPo got into the soulless spirit of things by using the occasion to imply Jeremy Corbyn was soft on terrorism. Not to be outdone, and in full knowledge of what had taken place, The Sun ran this front page penned by a former Special Branch plant in the IRA, while The Mail went to print with this cartoon. Then we have sundry trolls circulating fake news.

If this was a one off, we could put it down to individual turpitude. Unfortunately, it happens time and again. Any tragedy, any awfulness, there are commentators and "celebrities" eager to pile in. There are trolls looking to shock, poltroons sharing bullshit stories, and the vacuous scoring points no one's keeping track of. Unlocking what's going on requires something, and that would be understanding the political economy of the moral lobotomy.

Naturally, Hopkins is the queen of the scene, but she's harvesting what was long-cultivated by the likes of Melanie Phillips. Or, to be more accurate, benefiting from a media business model based entirely around trolling. As papers lose physical sales and have moved operations online, scraping profit revolves around selling ad space, and that demands large audiences. The Daily Mail, as a case in point, runs creepy celebrity stories because there's a huge international appetite for tittle-tattle and ogling celebrity bodies. Trolling with racism and the usual bigotry has the same effect - it cottoned on long before most that outraging left wing and liberal audiences who would never buy their paper could nevertheless drive page views. The Sun, was a late comer to running a free "news" website, now try and get the audience in to sell them services. Advertising, after all, is an unstable business - websites dependent on it for sole income are taking a risk.

The logical extension of trolling-for-business is adapting it as a strategy for personal media branding. It doesn't turn on advertising in this case, but the attracting of attention to remain relevant. Again, Hopkins is the master, even if it has led to occasional brushes with the law. And her notoriety gives her gigs. She'd be long forgotten as a former Apprentice contestant if it wasn't for a sustained and cynical outburst of calibrated bigotry. And what it required was a surgical removal of her moral centre and her continual parading of the fact. This logic then is abroad. And so Paul Waugh sacrificed what was appropriate for a smidgen of notoriety. The Sun and The Mail were banking on a surge of concern in terrorism for their hatchet jobs in their hope to reverse the slide toward Labour in the polls.

And the bottom feeders who do the same? The same attention-seeking logic is at work here, even though paid-for bigoted berths in the mainstream are already rammed. Retweets and shares means attention, and can flatter a mutilated sense of self-importance. What does someone else's suffering and pain mean as long as you're being seen to matter, that you are the centre of a storm you summoned? For people crippled by a sense of everyday irrelevance which, let's face it, is the lot of the overwhelming majority of us, it's a heady brew for some. Particularly as being and being seen to be a special individual is the pinnacle to which one can aspire in Western cultures. Having a moral lobotomy as a route of getting there as good as any other.

Why this happens then is because there's an economic logic underpinning callous hot takes. And, as night follows day, economic dynamics transmute into cultural dynamics, made all the easier by the quantitative character of social media. But there is only a market for hateful fare for as long people sustain it by serving it, and here responsibility lies squarely with the media operations of the right.


Speedy said...

Wasn't it Hume who remarked about caring more about the itch on his finger than the end of the world?

Following your logic, aren't you guilty of "virtue signalling" and exploiting the tragedy for yourself?

But of course it is the role of your site to think about stuff wot's happening within a sociological context, and one I appreciate very much. However, it is also the job of media commentators to comment on the news of the day.

You undermine your argument by making it so binary - Katie Hopkins, for example - and conflating all comment on the right with her idiotic tweet of a "final solution". Mad Mel, for example, may be swivel-eyed, but by refusing to engage with her arguments, by packaging analysis in such binary left/right, right/wrong terms you feed extremism (or extremist rabbits, as Morrissey might put it). The rage caused by the "return of the repressed" manifests itself in Brexit, Trump and Le Pen, and by refusing to confront evident moral evils you also feed into the false narratives or the terrorists (or "militants" as we must now call them) themselves.

Example - the Blitz spirit is constantly evoked, but during the Blitz "we" knew who we were fighting and had no hesitation in confronting it, and that's why "we" won. "We" certainly wouldn't allow British-born Nazis to return from a spell of rape and genocide and get on with their lives, as we do now. We act as if Islamic terror springs from nowhere and, as Andy Burnham says, "has nothing to do with our communities", but we all know this is a lie - yet we fear confronting, in public, the truth. And by failing to name it, we allow it to flourish. We are more afraid of losing our (false) sense of public virtue than be seen as "authoritarian" - oh yes, anything but that, and our enemies mock us for it by slaughtering our children. And now we have the army on the streets - by their terror they will force us to confront our true selves even if we refuse to.

But "keep calm and carry on", put it on your mug - but mugs the Blitz kids would have called us.

John Rogan said...

The issue of Jeremy Corbyn and Northern Ireland was always going to be an issue in any General Election so long as he remained Labour leader. The Sun story and the Mail cartoon would both have been published whether or not the Manchester atrocity had occurred.

Many of his supporters knew his views and knew his close working relationship with London Labour Briefing but decided he was still worth backing. Of course, the PLP knew Jeremy Corbyn's political history as well but decided, for various reasons we can only guess at, not to bring it up during either of the Leadership campaigns.

Unfortunately, for those who need a Labour Government, I've no doubt Andrew Neil will raise the issue again when normal service resumes and the interview with the Labour leader takes place on prime time television.

Ken said...

If it's a commercial station; find the advertisers and grow a noisy boycott campaign of the biggest spenders until she is sacked.

Anonymous said...

What an incredibly loyal and supportive post Mr Rogan.

I'm pretty sure that JC will deal with Neil's forensic questioning rather better than our PM did (though that is a low bar to clear)

I would also not expect you to acknowledge this if it happens.

MJW said...

It’s natural that Corbyn’s weaknesses would be attacked, and one of his biggest weaknesses is his ‘vulgar Leftist’ tendency to sympathise with violent degenerate movements (Islamists, PIRA etc…) on the grounds that they are ‘anti-Imperialist’. It’s Wolfie Smith/Student Union leftie stuff, and there’s a market for it in certain sections of the Left, like student radicals and hard left fringe weirdos e.g. SWP. There’s probably a small space for it in the fringe of the PLP, which is basically where Comrade Corbyn spent most of his career. But when it comes to ‘grown up’ politics it’s a no no, the mainstream recognises the dangerous naivety of such positions. Unfortunately Corbyn is now centre stage and people expect ‘grown up’ views on such things; that’s a problem. Now I don’t say this because I believe British administrations of all stripes don’t engage in deals with degenerate movements, they quite clearly do. But they do so out of ruthless pragmatism, because it suits the national interest for some reason (whether you personally agree with their assessment of national interest or not), they don’t sup with murderous regimes because they think they represent some romanticised trendy political movement.

Anonymous said...

Western society thrives on the self, self interest, self promotion, self preservation. Without fundamental shifts in the consciousness of individuals and of society we can expect such deep rooted and wide spread racism and sensationalism to remain.

David Parry said...


Corbyn doesn't support PIRA or Islamists, you slanderous sack of shit. As for British administrations' support for 'degenerate movements' being motivated by some conception of the 'national interest', I think what you mean is that the backing given to regimes like that of Saudi Arabia is driven by a desire to further corporate interests.

MJW said...

@ David Parry

I didn't say he supported those groups, I said he sympathised with them, and there's plenty of hard evidence backing this up. And yes, the British Government cosying up to Saudi for economic and geopolitical reasons is one good example of what I meant. Politicians at that level get their hands dirty, but it's not for silly romantic fantasies around fighting 'Imperialism'.

Your response suggests I may have touched a nerve with comments about naïve, 'vulgar Leftist', Wolfie Smith types?

Ed said...

"when it comes to ‘grown up’ politics it’s a no no, the mainstream recognises the dangerous naivety of such positions."

In Ireland, where people have far more detailed and intimate knowledge of the Provos and their record (including the many atrocities they were responsible for in the 70s, 80s and 90s), Sinn Féin are now the second-largest party in the North (overwhelmingly dominant in the nationalist community) and the third-largest in the South. So, nah, it's got nothing to do with 'grown-up politics'; it's just a parochial, blinkered mentality. Just note the fury towards Corbyn for saying that he condemned loyalist bombings as well as IRA bombings: they pretended to believe that he had refused to condemn IRA bombings, but in reality they were outraged at the idea that something they have forgotten about, if they ever knew it existed — the violence of the UDA/UVF against nationalist civilians — should be remembered. Doesn't he know some victims are more important than others? The responses to the death of Martin McGuinness from unionist politicians like Peter Robinson were far more thoughtful and generous than much of what we got from the British media; they had much more intimate reasons to hate him, but they kept those impulses in check.

What passes for 'grown-up politics' in this country means accepting the most brazen hypocrisy about what you call 'violent degenerate movements' in the name of ruling-class interests (what is what the 'national interest' always boils down to): Hamas are beyond the pale, but the Saudis, whose crimes are on a vastly greater scale, are our friends and allies and dear, treasured partners. You're recognized as a 'grown-up' politician or journalist when you internalize that hypocrisy so that it becomes as natural as breathing; appearing on Press TV is unforgivable, selling the Saudis weapons to bomb civilians in Yemen is just common sense. And it doesn't end when politicians retire from office either: Tony Blair certainly doesn't 'sup with murderous regimes' out of misguided idealism or 'dangerous naivety', he does it because they pay so generously for his services as a travelling spin-doctor.