Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ideologically suspect

Back in my post-student days I applied for a job at Waterstones in Notting Hill and was asked in the interview to name a writer I particularly admired. I suppose this was my opportunity to align myself with the rather scruffy bunch sitting expectantly across the table from me. James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence would have done the trick, but the name that formed on my lips immediately drew out grimaces of disapproval: Plato.

There's no denying that my sympathy for this particular philosopher, and perhaps by implication his elitist masterplan for solving the general problem of politics, might be said to place me on the same bench as all those whose commitment to egalitarian democratic principles is at best lukewarm.

Yet Plato's principal mouthpiece is close to being a Jesus-like figure of love and self-renunciation for all non-believing rationalists. And underlying the parable of the cave is surely one of the best metaphoric ideas anyone has ever had, anwhere, anytime.

Anyway, wouldn't it be worth at least trying to let a selected panel of intellectuals run at least one small country somewhere as a kind of test?! Surely they can't make a worse hash of it than the fuckwits that currently control most of the world's polities?

Strangely enough the people I know who are most vociferous about democracy and freedom (especially information technologists turned amateur social engineers) tend to get by by ignoring the potential the masses have for spoiling their cosy peer-to-peer utopia. Computers inherently filter out a given percentage of dummies and the rest can largely be delimited by virtual barriers that are at present not legislated against. Nevertheless this smart, participatory Athens is without doubt surrounded by the babbling barbarians of trivia. And they want in.

For the last few years this horrible horde has spread their ideology of inverted snobbery to almost every corner of the mass media. Jade Goody, herself something of an iconic figure within this movement, surely had every reason to suppose that her treatment of hoity-toity Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetti would win further burps of approval from the habitual Big Brother constituency. Indeed, previous voting patterns suggested that foreigners and/or anyone native with a basic education and standards was likely to be villified.

Yet many of the Asian community in the UK remain as straightforwardly bourgeois in their aspirations as television (or at least the BBC) itself used to be before the mid-80s, and the dissing of their idol by this cackling pack of oiks not only had them rushing to exercise their television suffrage but stimulated, through their many complaints, the rest of Britain's slumbering middle classes to stir themselves into a decisive confrontation in which the offending vulgarians have seen their future earnings startlingly diminished and their dreams of celebrity perhaps trashed forever. Instead three vaguely eloquent, vaguely already successful foreigners came through. Unheard of.

Democracy is a system not a state of mind. But strangely enough a society permeated by snobbery and prejudice, such as Guatemala, can in some ways function better as a democracy than one permeated by the kind of inverted snobbery that has seemingly taken hold of our popular culture in the UK. A snob society does at least benefit from elite (and middle-class) participation. An inverted snob society tends to suffer from mass apathy, because to have what in the ancient world was the basis of status in civic society, is nowadays a sure way to single yourself out as a "tosser", and our current crop of politicians are only vaguely cool when they invite slobs like the Gallagher brothers round for a spot of vino.

A gang of teenagers behind the Phoenix theatre threw a rock at me tonight as I made my way home. I think they had just been to see Blood Brothers.

1 comment:

scott said...

Great post.

"But strangely enough a society permeated by snobbery and prejudice, such as Guatemala, can in some ways function better as a democracy than one permeated by the kind of inverted snobbery that has seemingly taken hold of our popular culture in the UK."

Additionally I think cultures
that have to fight for their rights--really fight, in ways many people in the US and in the UK simply can't comprehend--have a deeper respect for democracy. I know many Americans who really, truly don't want democracy (even the completely cynical and exploitative brand we have); they simply want to be taken care of.