Archive for June, 2016

‘In propaganda as in love, anything is permissible which is successful.’  – Goebbels.

If the ‘Leave’ vote has made one thing clear, it’s that we need to ‘take back control’ of something: language. I have never seen such a sickening barrage of propaganda in my country before as over the last few months, and the ‘Remain’ camp has been guilty too. The very nature of a yes/no vote led to horrific, divisive, black-and-white bullshit on both sides. Much as I hate to bring up the Nazis again, Johnson, Gove and Farage did continually remind me of an essay I once wrote about language and evil. They seemed to adhere very closely to the advice of Hitler in Mein Kampf that: ‘the art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses’ whose ‘intelligence is small’ so ‘effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.’

And the technique is most dangerous when combined with assertion, and the linguistic trick of phrasing opinion as fact – as Hitler observed: ‘It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle.  They are mere words and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas in disguise.’ Whilst showing Hitler’s utter contempt for reality, the telling phrase here is ‘in fact.’  The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the disturbing phenomena that ‘To the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated’ in politics they are often ‘Consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.’  Gove’s extraordinary statement ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ deliberately treated facts as just more hot air. Directly complimenting this is the transformation of opinion into fact, and the combination of these two processes might be said to mislead thought – to draw it into an argument with Truth whilst Opinion, in his disguise, slips past unquestioned.

Take Farage’s rant against Cameron: ‘ I just think that with ludicrous statements such as it’s the patriotic thing to do to literally give away control of your nation, to sign us up to a foreign flag, a foreign anthem and before long a foreign army…it’s contemptible.’ This is Farage’s paranoid opinion – what he thinks Cameron must secretly want – but with the noun ‘statements’ he frames it as a fact, as if someone in the Remain camp has actually declared such a thing. The sense Farage is giving us facts is heightened by that weaselly intensifier ‘literally’. But no one claimed signing Britain up to a ‘foreign army’ would be patriotic. This was just Farage’s own bizarre fever-dream.

And the videos. Oh god, the Leave videos, with their hospitals full of injured foreigners, as if every Polish builder was continually hammering nails into his own hands. This one by Leave EU clearly states: ‘You will benefit from better care provided by our NHS thanks to the reallocation of funds from the EU budget.’ It frames it as a fact.

And Boris Johnson is still carrying on now with his utterly unfounded assertions – ‘people’s pensions are safe, the pound is stable, markets are stable.’ How is he allowed to state these things not only in the absence of evidence, but against it?

Hitler also felt that in order to stem doubt he needed to treat ‘Essentially different internal enemies’ as if they were a singular force, creating a bipolar system so total as to be almost absurdly funny – head propagandist Goebbels continually surpassed himself with all-embracing insults, there being nothing he hated more than the ‘Plutocratic-Jewish-Masonic-Marxist-Communist-System.’  The tabloids have had particular fun with this technique recently, with Richard Littlejohn railing against Remain as ‘the vested interests of Luvvie Land, big business, merchant banks and almost the entire political class’ whilst metropolitan-muslim-rapist-intelligensia-snobs seemed to emerge as what Farage termed a ‘fifth column’. Simultaneously, UKIP has indiscriminately vacuumed up positive connotations: ‘This is a victory for ordinary people, for good people, for decent people.’ The human cost is to erase the many perspectives of public life and leave only Us and Them.

Let’s not let Remain off too easily though. We have also played Them and Us, with Them being the old, provincial, thick, racist white people, whilst We are multicultural, tolerant, intelligent, youthful and #lovelikejo (‘I know, let’s declare London independent!!’). And it now seems Labour is in meltdown because Corbyn can’t do propaganda. Nuance, it seems, is for losers. How can he win if he won’t simplify and deceive?

But does this have to be the case? Couldn’t someone regulate political propaganda? Couldn’t those in power, at the very least, have to comply with something like advertising standards, and be unable to assert that migration will be reduced without providing supporting evidence of a realistic plan to do so? Couldn’t knowingly lying to the electorate be made a sackable offense?  And also – call them naïve – but many people assume that those things reported as fact in ‘newspapers’ are actual news. How about a rule that any apology for a failure of accuracy has to be printed in the same position in the same-size font as the lie?

Public language has become so poisoned with untruths that it is wrong to sneer at Leave voters who only now grasp the implications of their vote. I’m interested, I read widely, I have a first from Cambridge (I know, what an elitist bitch), but I could still barely work out of the actual pros and cons of such a complex decision.

How can we expect anyone to recognise the truth in this age of infinite lies?

As a culture, it seems we currently agree with Goebbels that in propaganda ‘anything is permissible.’ Until we change this, I fear that things will only get uglier.



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A while since I’ve posted. My days have been busy with childish things. My daughter, Cate, is nearly six weeks old, and I have spent most of my hours since her birth nursing and rocking her, or being interrogated by her serious gaze, whilst there has been a stream of visitors: friends and family and midwives and postmen loaded with cards and flowers and pretty dresses and soft pale cuddly animals and advice and bottles of gin.

Then there is Gruff, who was three last week, and is warming to his sister (he calls her ‘babe babes’) but has also needed lots of attention. Between tears and poos and sleepless nights, we have taken him to the seaside for rockpooling, made popcorn, ridden rocket ships at the fair, set up a den in our garden, bought his first pets (fish he called ‘Bang’ and ‘Bong’), and watched real caterpillars weave chrysalides in a jar on our shelf. We also had a bug-themed picnic for his birthday, with snail-races as entertainment (which seemed a sort of metaphor for this summer – both thrilling and slightly dull; the sort of fun where everything takes everything takes forever.)

I had my first child-free night out this Sunday though, leaving a row of bottles of expressed milk in the fridge to go and see PJ Harvey at Field Day. Despite the weather forecast predicting lightning, the heavy skies held back and she was wonderful – slinking and hunching around the stage in a black feather coat like a cross between Richard III and a fallen angel. Some of her refrains are genius and have looped in my head ever since (‘They’re gonna put a Walmart here…’ or ‘What if i take my problem to the united nations?’). I was very happy to hear the fierce 50ft Queenie live, which I used to shriek along to as a teenager in need of catharsis. But it was also a dark, dark set about the nature of evil and our own complicity and guilt: Words that Maketh Murder. The Wheel. Working for the Man. Down by the Water (‘Oh help me jesus / Come through this storm / I had to lose her / To do her harm’.)

Let England Shake felt horribly appropriate in these ugly, Brexit times:

The West’s asleep. Let England shake,
weighted down with silent dead.
I fear our blood won’t rise again.
England’s dancing days are done.

Otherwise, the one adult pursuit I have had plenty of time for is reading, as I can do it whilst feeding Cate. I’ve read some brilliant books over the last month: Olivia Laing’s haunting The Lonely City, Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (which I was pleased to see on this year’s terrific Forward shortlist, along with one of my poems of the year, the blisteringly good i am very precious by Melissa Lee Houghton). I’ve also read lots of stuff online at 3 in the morning – half-lit nightmare articles about Trump and bleached Coral Reefs and Orlando, or important new writing by Alice Oswald and Brenda Shaughnessy and Zadie Smith.

I don’t have much work scheduled for this summer, but in this snatched blog-post (which I have written a few lines at a time over several days) I should probably share some links. I do have one reading – I’m pleased to say the Arts Council has agreed to support five more Ovid shows, and the first will be at the Ledbury Festival on Monday 4th of July. I’m also going to be guest editing the next issue of The Butcher’s Dog alongside Sophie F Baker and Amy Mackelden- it’s one of my favourite magazines, and has an anonymous submissions process which I think will make it really interesting, so send us your work.

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