Gareth Rees has been following politics for fifty years and has written about it for the Guardian, Contemporary Review and S&C. He chats to S&C editor and contributor to New Statesman and Private Eye, Tom Sykes, about how the Labour Party has changed, the ‘infantile’ clicktivists of Facebook and the need for scepticism towards the ‘back to the seventies’ slur and others.
Tom Sykes: What was the first election you were aware of?
Gareth Rees: Harold Wilson’s in 1964. It was exciting. There was a lot of involvement at my school – we had mock elections and it was a big deal. Posters were everywhere and there were vans with loudspeakers going round. I think today the parties know pretty much which constituencies they need to win and they focus on them. I’ve hardly seen a poster here [in Portsmouth South] because it’s not a marginal seat. It’s all decided in the marginals these days.
TS: Did you get a sense that there was a clear choice between Tory and Labour in ’64?
GR: God yeah.
TS: Was there a point in your life when you felt like there stopped being a difference between them?
GR: I suppose the Tony Blair era, wasn’t it? Everybody was aiming for the centre but that seems to have changed with the latest Labour Party manifesto. It’s clearly different this time.
TS: Many are saying that Corbyn isn’t up to the task of being Prime Minister.
GR: That’s media brainwashing. The old guard of the Labour Party have undermined him, betrayed him, so it’s made his position look weak. Having said that, I’m not sure about some of the people on his team. Emily Thornberry seems a bit flaky to me and so does Diane Abbott. They’re not masters of their briefs, which you need to be if you’re going to be in government.
TS: It’s interesting that initially he was trying to reach out to the right wing of the party and appoint them in positions in the shadow cabinet. It seems like he’s the one who’s been conciliatory.
GR: If his opponents in the party had got behind him I think things would be really really different now. What are people like that doing in the Labour Party anyway?
TS: Perhaps people called Tristram shouldn’t be let into the Labour Party in the first place. Do you feel the media coverage of Corbyn has been…
GR: Disgraceful. The tabloids are a disgrace.
TS: In the liberal media that we’re supposed to trust as being less partisan – the Guardian and so on – there’s been awful mud-slinging too.
GR: But how many people read the mainstream press anyway now? Younger people seem to be getting their information from social media. But are they going to vote? If they do then this election might not be such a foregone conclusion.
TS: As you know, I’m researching the ways in which, over two centuries, British and American writers have used often quite subtle methods to stereotype and belittle Philippine culture. I don’t see the point of studying texts from 1843 or whenever if you’re not going to relate what you discover to the contemporary world. While I’m working on my book I sometimes have the BBC News channel on in the background and the other day I noticed a funny parallel between what an American author called Frank G Carpenter was doing in 1929 and what the BBC was broadcasting here in 2017. I’d just critiqued Carpenter for being deviously selective about his sources: he claims in his travelogue, Through the Philippines and Hawaii, that he’s neutral on the question of whether the Philippines should be granted independence by the US (it was an American colony from 1898 to 1946) and then goes on to quote a range of ‘experts’… but they all just happen to argue against Filipino independence, which, you’d imagine, fits with his personal view.
A bit later I watched a brief BBC news report on Labour’s proposed tax increases on people earning more than £80,000 a year. The newsreader then said something like, ‘Let’s see what others think about this.’ Next we cut to a Tory minister who says the proposal is ridiculous and then to a supposedly independent economist who also says the proposal is ridiculous. So where’s the balance there? There’s no attempt to enlist one of the many economists who has got behind Labour’s fiscal policies. And it’s such a subtle ploy you’d barely notice it.
GR: It affects people in a subconscious way, as a lot of research has shown. I sometimes think objectivity is about as remote as heaven. It’s an aspiration. People – journalists and otherwise – try to put on a cloak of impartiality but are unaware of their own deep biases.
TS: Yeah, Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman explored that issue of unconscious self-censorship in their book Manufacturing Consent. Do you think that no one can be wholly objective, but our inescapably subjective view on a matter should be arrived at through weighing up the empirical evidence available and trying to understand a variety of other perspectives?
GR: Yes. And I think people who practise that are often calmer. How much are we all ruled by emotion rather than rationality or evidence-based thinking? I don’t know the answer to that – one day I might be ruled by fear, the next day hope.
TS: So perhaps it’s also about being guided by the right emotions? Love, hope and compassion – subjective as these feelings are – might not be such a bad agenda to base your political decisions on if compared to fear, loathing, jealousy and so forth.
GR: I find that people on the conservative side of the spectrum need Tridents in their lives. They tend to be anxious and insecure and afraid of the ‘other’. They like to hear the ‘strong and stable leadership’ mantra. What does ‘strong’ mean? Being prepared to obliterate millions of human beings? That’s quite sad. It shows failure and cowardice.
TS: Just press a red button and make the enemy disappear. The difficult and brave thing to do is to talk to your enemies and try and find common ground.
GR: In some ways I think this comes down to a problem of senescence. By that I don’t mean people getting old and doddery. I mean there’s a senescence of the spirit in a lot of people. Are you with the young shoots – the future – and want to join them in fighting for change or are you afraid of the future, would prefer to stay in the past?
TS: You mentioned social media earlier as being a means for Corbyn to circumvent the state-corporate press and get his message across. But are there problems with social media? I know you’re on Facebook yourself…
GR: Don’t tell anyone that!
GR: Well it’s the wendy house.
TS: The wendy house?
GR: That’s what I call Facebook. I think it’s infantile; it encourages playground behaviour.
TS: “Like” this person, turn your mouth down at that person…
GR: That kind of thing. It’s the playground. You can swear because the teachers aren’t about. And bullying goes on because you aren’t face to face with anyone. Being detached from people in that virtual world fuels aggression. You can say whatever stuff you like and your victim can’t take a swing at you.
TS: Do you think there are problems with the way that political arguments are constructed on Facebook? The quick-fire, instantly reactive nature of the platform stops people taking the time to think complex issues through properly. They’ll bash out some knee-jerk reaction to an event and quickly Google for something that will appear to back it up – and it’s usually a source of dubious authority. They tag it to their post and it’s job done. For those of us who are writers and academics – I know that aside from your published journalism you used to teach at a university in Canada – who know how hard it is to properly research and gain a rounded understanding of a subject, it’s disturbing when you see someone who thinks they can nail an unbelievably complicated subject like Brexit in a few lines.
GR: Often it’s just ad hominems without any real argument involved. Brexit is a classic case. On what basis was that decision made? Were there long studies of the evidence or did people just count on their darkest emotions? And we have to be so so wary of these gut reactions. ‘We have to fight Russia because they’re a threat,’ someone might say, for example. Not enough others will respond, ‘Who says so? Why are they a threat?’
TS: If it were a claim made on Facebook someone might see that 89 of their “friends” are “liking” it, and would feel pressure to “like” it too in order to feel part of that particular club or gang. Perhaps that mentality also plays on our fear of being left out by the herd. As we know, this basic human insecurity is manipulated by advertising. ‘Buy this car if you want attractive people to swoon over you’ and so on.
GR: You talked about speed earlier and I think it’s a cultural problem. My brother once worked with a remote Native Canadian community and he’d put a proposition to them only for them to fall silent for ages. He was bothered by it until he figured out that they were thinking deeply. They weren’t going to rush into a decision. Again, in our culture, we seem to think that ‘strong and stable leadership’ is about speed and decisiveness. Those characteristics can be dangerous.
TS: Another recent talking point on Star & Crescent related to Facebook is fake news. Some believe it’s a brand new form of propaganda that sows doubt in the public mind and undermines the very notion that there can be any objective truth at all.
GR: Like postmodernism?
TS: Yes. And I read in Private Eye today that there are no fewer than three major books coming out all with ‘post-truth’ in the title. Do you think fake news is in fact a new phenomenon and that we have just entered some unprecedented post-truth age?
GR: No I don’t. I’m bothered by this human need to believe, this desire for absolute certainty. You have to work out for yourself what’s true and what isn’t. I think you almost have to be in a position of total and constant scepticism about whatever’s thrown at you be it from Trump, Corbyn, May, whoever. It goes back to the menace of speed. If you’re sceptical you’ll necessarily be slow in working out what’s true or not.
TS: Surely we’ve been in a post-truth world at least since politics became a kind of postmodern spectacle – which was way before Trump, obviously – where surfaces and appearances began to matter more than concrete ideas or policies, and PR and advertising techniques invaded the political scene. Peter Oborne in his excellent book, The Rise of Political Lying, argues that it all came to a head with New Labour, whose spin doctors worked ‘under the assumption that political reality was not something that exists “out there”, checkable and subject to independent verification. On the contrary, it has suddenly become something that can be shaped and used as part of the battle for political power.’
GR: Sounds like a French philosopher talking.
TS: If only Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson had read some French philosophy, we might not be in the mess we’re in now. Or maybe the mess would be worse, I don’t know. And these ‘alternative facts’ – whatever that term means – have been deployed for decades by, amongst others, the PR industry trying to defend the indefensible.
GR: Smoking is good for you, that kind of thing.
TS: Exactly. They also tried to make out that the evidence showing the horrors of the Apartheid regime in South Africa were alternative facts not worth listening to. Now they’re doing it about climate change. If postmodernism is, as Fredric Jameson argues, ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’ then it stands to reason that any politician who defends the capitalist order, whether Trump, May, Farage, Blair, Thatcher or Reagan, will use postmodern methods to get votes.
GR: These lies get recycled and recycled until people will tell you things they themselves believe to be true – and they may do it in good faith, they’re not out to lie to you knowingly – but actually these things aren’t true.
TS: I think the danger of claiming that there’s only one source of fake news – that it is only Trump or these dodgy fiction factories in Croatia or only the Left or only the Right or whoever – is that you’re then compelled to trust whatever hasn’t been arbitrarily deemed fake news and almost not question what the “respectable” organs are telling you.
I think we need to distinguish between different kinds of orthodox beliefs. Some are self-evident and only the eccentric would disagree with them, nowadays at least: the earth is round, metal expands when heated, etc. But there’s another kind of orthodoxy in our politics and media that’s established because it serves the interests of the powerful, as Oborne’s getting at in his book: the United States is always a force for moral good around the world, people on benefits are all scroungers or whatever. This orthodoxy usually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and must be challenged.
GR: ‘What is truth?’ is the oldest question in history, isn’t it? Pontius Pilate said it. There are these competing narratives of course, but you have to dig beneath them and see how they relate to reality.
TS: The right-wing press tried to attack the Labour manifesto with this narrative of ‘we’re going back to the seventies.‘
GR: Well it’s not a valid argument. It’s just another slur. A valid argument would have addressed the substance of that manifesto.
TS: The counter-strike to that was a brilliant meme that showed proper research into how a Corbyn government would pay for its policies. And it all adds up.
GR: I bet the seventies slur took a second to come up with while the research into the economics took a lot longer!