I would like to start this posting with a long-windedness warning. Basically I have only recently thought of the notions that follow. The separate bits of these ideas have mostly been present in my mind for quite a while, but the bundling of them is, for me, new. And stuff you are still excited by on account of its extreme recentness is generally the stuff you write least well. Apologies, but there you go, that is blogging for you.
Anyway… here it is. Cough, all sitting comfortably, begin. (Or skip, of course.)
Much is made, and quite rightly, of the empowering effect of the Internet for the little guy. We can all have our blogs and our say.
Recently I have begun to wonder if a similar Internet impact might be about to become unmistakably clear at the very top end of society, the bit where Great Men (as opposed to us little guys) try to have their say.
Great Men trying to have their say?!? But do they not do this already, all the time? Well, yes they do, but they are often either misunderstood or just plain ignored, and often relentlessly so.
I have lost count of the number of times when a Great Man has given what he hoped would be a Big Speech, laying out a major strategy for the months and years to come, only for all the questions from the assembled mob of hacks to ask only about the latest scandal that they have either observed or invented, concerning the petty details of the life of the Great Man. So, what about your wife’s astrologer? What about those crazy daughters of yours? About this intern. About your mortgage. This dodgy land deal you and your wife did ten years ago. How about this National Guard skiving then?
In a kind of hybrid category are the scandals that are less personal but equally demeaning and diminishing, like the scandal of Blair and Bush invading Iraq in pursuit of weapons they knew were not there, or Reagan doing whatever wicked thing he did with the Nicaraguan Contras.
Now I certainly would not want the hacks to neglect such questions. The idea that they should be compelled to ask only about the high and mighty abstractions laid before them in the Big Speech, is repellent not to say totalitarian. But one of my many complaints about our mainstream media is that they have a tendency only to ask the embarrassing questions. The attitude of the mainstream media when reporting a speech given by a Great Man is to look only for clay at the bottom end of his body, rather than to pay any attention to the noises emerging from the top end. This is not a complaint that is unique to me, to put it mildly, nor is it new. It is the story of the age of the modern electronic media, starting with radio and then really getting into its stride with television. During this era, the only Great Men who have managed to get some piece of real Content past the cynical mob of hacks and through to the general public are the ones who managed to craft some soundbites that effectively alluded to their grand strategies. The first great exponent of this art was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Churchill was of course a particular genius at this. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher also did quite well.
But Margaret Thatcher’s career also illustrates how the electronic media can, by seizing upon some stupid soundbite that the Big Shot did say but wishes she had not said, bite you back. In Thatcher’s case the most famous stupidity was: “There is no such thing as society”, which was seized upon by her enemies to identify and denounce an evil attitude which they believed her (wrongly in my opinion) to personify. Another famous example of this genre, from a slightly earlier era, was Harold Wilson’s unfortunate claim that “the pound in your pocket” was not being devalued. See also John Major’s “Back to Basics” slogan.
All of which illustrates how, in the age of “the media”, as opposed to the mere newspapers, even the cleverest politicians tended to lose control of how they came across in public.
But this may now be changing. What got me thinking along these lines was a posting at Powerline, which included a large chunk of a recent speech by President Bush.
The Presidential quote was preceded by these introductory comments and questions:
President Bush gave another excellent speech at the National Defense University today. When was the last time an American president laid out his philosophy, his strategy and his vision in such a series of speeches?
For over three years now, Bush has given one after another: eloquent, determined, clear and persuasive. When collected, they may represent the most substantial body of speeches delivered by any President since Lincoln.
You absolute do not have to agree with Powerline writer Hindrocket, to the effect that these speeches have been “excellent”, to get the point I am trying to make here. I have not read these speeches myself, and if I did, I daresay I might have many complaints. Not my point. What I am saying here is that I think this may illustrate how the Internet, blogging in particular, may have changed the communicational climate within which people like President Bush now work. Simply, when President Bush now gives what he obviously wants to be thought of as an important speech, then all those who want to can now read it with ease. Even if the only thing that the mainstream journalists have to say about it is that however-many-people-it-was were today killed in car bomb attacks in Iraq so what a bunch of hot air that was – that is not now the end of the story, by which I mean the story. Just as we can all now say whatever we want on our various little blogs, and have at least some people read it carefully, appreciatively and thoughtfully, and then agree or disagree thoughtfully, so too, now, can the likes of President Bush. This changes the world, I think, and in a good way.
Why did President Bush make these speeches? Partly it was events, dear boy, events. Big ones, which demanded big speeches. But partly, he made this series of carefully thought-through orations because he could. He can now state the broad strategic outlines of what he is trying to do, in the sure knowledge that even if all that the hacks on the spot or the commentators and editorialisers in tomorrow’s newspapers want to take about is trivia, that his words will nevertheless get through with great ease to all those who want to learn of them.
And that does not just mean fans of his, like Hindrocket. Enemies can now fisk him. Above all, the many, many people who simply want to know what is going on inside the Presidential head now have a nice easy way of finding out.
Oh sure, you could read Presidential speeches a quarter of a century ago. But it was cumbersome, and probably costly. You could not read them within minutes or even hours of them being delivered. You relied on those hacks to summarise the speeches for you. So, if their summary was: blah-blah-blah President’s drunk daughters, or: blah-blah-blah blow job in White House, you had a real probolem trying to work out what The Man actually said.
Now I am not saying that the only way to understand a politician is actually to read his speeches, but it is definitely one way. I still fondly remember how someone wrote a book about how Ronald Reagan, in defiance of all expert mainstream media opinion, had first got himself elected President, in 1980. The writer in question adopted a daring and revolutionary strategy to try to find out what it was that people seemed to like about Ronald Reagan. He followed Reagan around on the campaign trail, and listened to what he said.
That brings us to another point about the mainstream media, highlighted in particular by this article: their deliberate ignorance. Deliberate because it is so often based on ignoring what is being said straight to them. Time and again, President Bush told these people that, for instance, the election in Iraq was going to happen, and that it would make a big difference. When it duly happened, and duly made a big difference, the hacks were amazed. Who saw that coming? – they asked in amazement. They were too busy writing their blah-blah-blah car bomb pieces to listen.
Much as I disapprove of Tony Blair in lots and lots of ways, I really feel for the guy when it comes to him getting his Big Ideas across. He has really suffered from the fact that political Internet commentary is only now getting into its stride in the UK, just as he seems to be running out of steam. (And what is more, although this could just be my ignorance, I get the impression that the last political people to catch on to this stuff are the Blairites. Conservatives and libertarians are doing it. Lefties are doing it. But the Blairites, unless I am way behind on this, are still at the blogs-don’t-really-matter stage. They are too busy being the government, I guess.)
A few years back, I recall listening Blair on the telly moaning about the exact thing I have here been writing about. He would give some great big speech, about something like the threat of global terrorism. And by the way, he was giving speeches about the threat of global terrorism long before 9/11, which is why he was so extremely quick off the mark on the day. He had already thought about it. Who saw that coming? – said the hacks, watching in amazement as Blair strode immediately to centre stage on the US media. I did, said I, because I happened to have read one of those speeches. If my opinion, Blair was a lot better prepared, in terms of his own preparatory thinking, for 9/11 than President Bush was. Not all his thoughts were wise (see UN vital role of), but at least he had some to fall back on, come the evil day.
Anyway, as I say, Blair would give a big speech, and all that the hacks wanted to ask about afterwards and write about the next days was: so what’s all this about your mad wife’s mad astrologer then? Or: tell us about your drunken son! Or: what are you going to do about Alastair Campbell’s swearing down the telephone at people?
I believe that Tony Blair probably regards himself as in many ways a failure. Not in the sense of being wrong about things, God no. But in the sense of not having been able to dictate the British national political agenda in nearly as much detail as he would like to have done, not just not to everyone, but to anyone. Instead, he has had to endure being told, day after day after day, by people who can only do this by ignoring what ought to be the evidence of their own ears, that he does not have any political ideas at all other than the idea that it would be lovely for him to win the next election, and the next, ad infinitum.
The default setting of the mainstream media is not so much leftism as anti-ism. Or rather it is leftism, but of a peculiar sort. It says that the Big Shots are all corrupt bastards, and their speeches are all such bloody lies and windbaggery that they are not worth bothering with. It is a kind of class warfare which refuses to concede that any Big Shot could ever, possibly, have thought seriously about what he wants to do with his power, and have anything to say about this that is worth listening to, or is of any predictive value in terms of what they Big Shot might then do.
(I am a libertarian, yet here I am apparently defending the Big Shot politicians. Well, yes and no. I do believe that these people, time and again, mean what they say, or try to say. It is just that, as a libertarian, I tend not to like what they mean and say. But I do not hate politicians because they have wives whom they cannot Stepfordise, brothers or sons whom they cannot keep from getting drunk, or because they sometimes get in a mess with their money. This is often the only stuff about these people that I do like.)
Anyway, my central point here is that all this may now be changing. Now, the Big Shots may be starting to regain control of their own public words and public thoughts again, thanks to the Internet.
I have long believed that the Internet will correct – is already busy correcting – the cultural havoc unleashed upon the world by television. Television, I believe, has dumbed down our culture (although the dumbness is not particular TV characters so much as the general habit of being immobilised for six hours a day in front of the damn machine), but I further believe that the Internet is now doing something equal and opposite. The Internet is, I want to believe, smartening up the culture. I have been told, and want to believe, that the latest batch of children are now spending more time reading stuff on the Internet and less time just staring in a state of stupefaction at their TVs, and that eventually a generation of children will come on stream who are systematically better educated and informed about the world than their own parents. Well, this change in the incentive structure of political speech-making could be a juicey titbit of evidence that my hopes will perhaps be fulfilled. It certainly illustrates my opinions on these matters, so to speak. I think, that is to say, that it is evidence, even if nobody else does.
I think that how the Top People in a society go about their business has a huge effect on society generally. In the USSR of Stalin, below the Stalin level, there were to be found lots of Little Stalins. Below Thatcher, in Britain, there were lots of Little Thatchers. Now, Britain abounds with Little Blairs. So, if the big politicians are now switching back to a more thoughtful, nuanced, less soundbitten, pre-television style of public communication, because they can, that example will likewise have consequences.
And, I think, good consequences.