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The smartening up of the culture: thoughts on some recent speeches by President Bush

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.

20 comments to The smartening up of the culture: thoughts on some recent speeches by President Bush

  • Good point. It is now more worthwhile for public figures to say things in their speeches since their words and ideas have a better chance of reaching an audience than when filtered by journalists. ICT really is changing things.

  • Harvey

    Yes, but you have also to remember that the reason politicians and other ‘big men’ don’t get much direct media coverage as opposed to ‘reportage’ is because the public consistently votes with their feet and changes the channel if their speech is televised. FDR used to have his ‘fireside chats’ on the radio, but that was before the days of media-as-entertainment, and before listenership-ratings.

    Point I am trying to make overall is that you’re only delivering the speeches to the sort of people that care enough to want read the speeches in full anyway – the proletariat are not suddenly going to become politically enlightened just because they can read the text of the speeches in full – they could do that fifty years ago when all such things were carried in full in the newspapers, until the newspaper editors discovered that NO-ONE CARED.

    I think for the majority of ‘the public’ ignorance is bliss and it keeps them from making dangerous demands that the politicians ‘sort something out’ – because they all have problems and they all have something they want to have fixed, and they all want it done for nothing by someone else. These are not enlightened people and I’m glad they stay ignorant.

  • Harvey

    You say that the Internet only delivers political speeches to the sort of people who would want to read them anyway. Maybe. But now, those who merely wanted to read them, can actually read them! That is already a change. That alone is enough to alter the incentives facing a politician who is wondering whether to make the effort to express his thoughts coherently or not. He used not to get any audience. Now he gets a bit of an audience. That alone changes things.

    Plus, in addition to those who already want to read such speeches now, more readers will be guided into reading the original speeches by bloggers discussing the speeches (such as the Powerline guy whose post I linked to).

    Your comment also neglects the possibility that whole new kinds of “speeches” – intelligent and thoughtful ones – will now be crafted by politicians to appeal to the new online readership. And listenership and viewership of course. Don’t let’s forget that the Internet is only just getting started.

    I believe your comment describes the dumbed down state of the culture now. It fails to describe what may now be happening to change all that.

  • the thatcher quote is dowdism. the context:

    “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
    –margaret thatcher, 3 October 1987

  • Brian, you’re right enough. The underlying motivations are a topic for conversation.

    In the US, there is a school of opinion that virtually all journalism is centered on personal destruction. Without a doubt, taking down more people means more career opportunities.

    And there is ample precedent for this in other forms of popular entertainment. What would an opera be, w/o a character singing his last breaths?

  • Jack Maturin

    Hi Brian,

    It’s a good point, and well worth the long-windedness, but I still think few are ever going to actually read these speeches. I’m thinking particularly of all those ‘full text’ print-outs of the Chancellor’s Budget statement, which have appeared in most heavyweight British newspapers for many years.

    The speech is right there in front of you, but I’d still rather skim the annotated graphic on page 3, with that picture of Joe Punter drinking a pint of beer and the Chancellor dressed as a stripe-vested swag-man sucking out yet more of Joe Punter’s beer, through a giant straw. Now that’s my kind of language.

    And if I must read more than summarised graphics, I’d still rather read you talking about what the politicians are saying, rather than actually reading what they’ve said themselves. I’m a lazy bugger, and I’m quite prepared to use you, or Peter Oborne in the Spectator, as trusted time-saving filters, to save myself the bother of flogging through the musings of the Great Men, myself, God forbid — Thank you for all your efforts, BTW! 🙂

    (And Peter, if you’re reading 🙂

    You and Peter are still therefore far more important than any mere Great Politician.

    Also, is your main point actually true? Have Great Men previously found no outlet for those soft-headed enough to want to catch all of their supposed pearls of wisdom? One of the main reasons politicians have worshipped at the font of public libraries, for so many taxation generations, is that these repositories of communism have not only helped educate many legions of feckless idiots into Marxism, via their thoroughly stocked shelves of Das Kapital, The Little Red Book, and The Gaia Hypothesis, etc., they have also stocked and presumably lent out lots of books written by politicians, often used to eke out their pitifully inadequate incomes.

    Let’s take an imaginary trip to a library of any reasonable size, in Britain, let’s say the one in Sheffield.

    On the politics shelf, in amongst all those sycophantic Paul Routledge biographies of Gordon Brown and sycophantic commentaries on Marx, by Friedrich Engels, you’ll find many other Great Musings by many other Great Men.

    If you have wanted to trace your way through these deep musings, in the past, without the aid of the Internet, you have been able to find them, albeit for the price of a subsidised bus fare and perhaps the price of a small folding umbrella to help you cope with Sheffield’s often inclement weather.

    And many people still get much of their subsidised Broadband Internet access, these days, in these very same libraries, perhaps to read Joe Stalin tribute web sites rather than flog their way through all those Joe Stalin tribute books — but these ‘Great Leap Forward’ style books are still available on the politics shelf, if you want them, with many great quotes from the ‘Great Teacher’ himself, including my particular favourite:

    Death solves all problems – no man, no problem

    Ah, good old Uncle Joe. Don’t ya just love socialists? 🙂

    And besides, when was the last time a politician ever wrote anything in a speech, anyway? It wouldn’t surprise me if one day we found out Tony Blair possessed some rare brain condition which prevented him writing a single word, which is why he’s so reliant on Messrs Campbell and Mandelson. Yes, this condition allows him to read the tele-prompter, but has he written a single word in the last fifteen years, except perhaps his signature at the bottom of all those nauseous pre-prepared ‘pledges’?

    And virtually everything Bush says in his speeches comes anyway from one of the very many word processors owned by one of his very many speechwriters, or finance-raising flunkeys, or other associated neo-conservative hangers-on. The quote about infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters spring to mind.

    And speaking of the joys of the Internet, if you want to be your own monkey, there’s even a website available where you can write your own George W. Bush speech and then hear him say those carefully crafted words right back to you!

    Give it a go. It’s simply fabulous.

    And if I’m wrong, and it turns out that Herr Blair, our own Dear Great Leader, does actually write his own words, why do we need to bother reading them anyway? Everything he ever says only ever seems to come from one of three books, anyway, just reviewed, regurgitated, and refreshed by daily events, with perhaps a hint of Nietzsche and Marx thrown in, for fun:

    An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, by Jeremy Bentham

    Utilitarianism, by John Stuart Mill

    Or, in some of his more frivolous moments, recently:

    Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

    If you want to understand the Great Man that is Tony Blair, all you have to do is read the three books above. Oh, and possibly the Bible, especially that bit about being the Son of God.

    Yes, Ok, the Internet has made it much easier to discover the words of all these Great Men, but I don’t think it’s been any kind of significant step-shift, just a quickening, precisely the same base-level quickening effect that it’s had on everything else.

    I think what’s far more important, is that in around 1970 there were only one, or two, or possibly three, great Austrian economists around, in the last few years of their life, and very few had heard what they had had to say; it seemed likely that the torch of Austrian liberty would just blow out. Fortunately for Britain, the very mad and the very bad Sir Keith Joseph heard one of them and then passed on his autographed copy of a Constitution for Liberty to M. Thatcher. The rest is history.

    But these days, we don’t have to wait for frizzle-haired prophets to help us via Lincolnshire Ladies. The rest of us now possess access to wonderful Austrian resources such as Mises.org*. This, I think, is far more significant than any effect the dissemination of any politician’s speeches is ever going to achieve.

    *Ok, it’s a shameless plug, but what can you do? 🙂

  • Julian Morrison

    I think the idea that “no-one cares” is actually an artefact of broadcast media. People aren’t dumb, but take the intersection of their interests (to achieve the largest audience) and by definition you snip everything they really care about – because those are exactly the same sort of things that other people really don’t care about.

    The media think they hold up a mirror to culture, but real culture is many small audiences. The internet’s mirror is better.

  • Euan Gray

    I’m not sure the internet will necessarily change anything in this matter. Most people aren’t particularly interested in reading the thoughts and speeches of politicians. Those few that are interested have always been able to read them anyway, as has been pointed out. Making something available to large numbers of people isn’t going to do anything if those people aren’t interested in it in the first place. In that case, why would the existence of the internet, blogs, etc. make the slightest difference to the content of any speeches?

    It’s perhaps also worth noting that if the MSM is full of bias, opinion and received wisdom, the internet is little different – except that there are a greater number of biases and opinions. Perhaps the “average” opinion – if such a concept means anything – will be different, but is is still a collection of bias and opinion.


  • J

    I find myself in agreement with Euan again!

    Don’t get me wrong – the internet has indeed made it possible for the thoughtful to read the speeches of politicians with great ease – but that’s nothing to do with blogging. The fact that the UK and other governments publish the proceedings of government online is a great benefit. I note that Hansard has been online prior to the rise of blogging, let alone the rise of mainstream awareness of blogging. In short blogging is catching up, not leading this movement.

    My experience of political blogging does not lead me to have much hope that will contribute more. I look at lgf, or dailykos, or whatever, and I see demagogic ranting, abusive attacks of the most puerile kind, and obsession with detailed, almost syntactic, criticism of every word and act of those that the blogger is ‘against’; in general, a most depressing display of choir preaching, sophistry and rabble rousing.

    I’d be grateful if anyone could recommend high quality political blogs, because there seem to be precious few of them.

  • Euan Gray

    I find myself in agreement with Euan again!

    Take two aspirins and lie down in a darkened room for an hour. The torment will pass 😉


  • Ted

    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.)

    Your point stands anyway, but I’m not sure your right about lack of Blairite blogs. UK A list blogs like Harry’s Place, normblog, and others like Oliver Kamm and Stephen Pollard (who I believe occasionally claims to be a blairite), I’m not sure they would all appreciate the description, but they are pro-war and a bit left of center. They are better represented at least than the lunatic fringe of the left, if not also Big C Conservatives.

  • Giles

    Harry and Norm are resdistirbutive so not blairite.

    Might another reason there are no Blairites out there be that, Foreign Policy aside, their beleifs are such a mish mash of contradictory ideas that they simply wouldn’t survive on the internet.

    Similarly there arent many pro Eu blogs out there – again because it ‘s an idea that cann’t really be sustained through bald written argument.

  • Adrian

    yeah, yeah, yeah…but what was that about Jenna Bush giving Alastair Campbell a blowjob ?

  • Brian, you’re seeing here in a political context what the Internet does best: disintermediation. An ugly word, but a useful concept.

  • Maybe the great advantage of the Internet is not only that one can read Great Men’s speeches, but that one can then find blogs where one can discuss the fine points of the speeches with knowledgeable and skilled analysts from around the world. Then you can go to your own blog, put up a complete fisking and wait for the commentary to happen.

    Before blogs, you had to take pot luck at the local watering hole or be very lucky in your selection of friends. Or you could write a letter to a newspaper or magazine, which may or may not print it in days or weeks. It’s better now.

  • Bernie

    “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.)”

    And that is my vote for quote of the day.

    Excellent piece Brian.

    I didn’t read all the comments as there were quite a lot of them so I may repeat what someone else has already said. Apologies if that is so.

    Many times in watching TV reports on speeches I’ve had the frustration of listening to some idiot (Paxman being one of the most cretinous) giving the “highlights” and focusing on the “concerns” of the speaker’s opponents without ever being given the benefit of hearing what the Great Man actually said. This is especially true at party conference time if you only catch the “highlights”. If such speeches are also published on the internet it gives the speaker at least a chance of communicating his full message to at least a few.

    I also agree that the internet has the potential to “smarten up” but I don’t think I’m as optimistic as you about this. Having said that I must also confess to being considerably smartened up myself as a result of internet usage.

  • 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

    What proof do you submit that Bush invaded Iraq knowing beforehand WMDs did not exist there?

  • Della

    Why would the “big men” need to bother with blogs when they have been controlling the news agenda through propoganda?


    The State Department claims that the ban on propaganda doesn’t apply to them; so, as The New York Times reports, they use fake news extensively to spread positive messages about Bush’s policies.


    at least 20 different federal agencies have been involved in producing hundreds – yes, hundreds – of fake TV news segments, many of which were “subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.” In fact, since President Bush took office, the White House has spent at least $254 million on these fake segments and other public relations ploys to spread positive propaganda about his policies.

    Ito tired of this even to invoke Godwin’s Law.

  • Millard Foolmore

    Is there the slightest evidence that fresher and fuller information whizzing about leads to better government? Overload can lead to paralytic indecision.

    OTOH, the Romans did OK examining birds’ entrails.

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