Dramas set in Parliament are out for a start. There’s something quite depressing watching your fictional counterparts – who are younger, sexier, and wittier than you – marching off to “brief the PM” whilst for you, the grim reality of the casework backlog beckons. Then there’s the trauma when the conversation you’re having with your mates in the local takes a political turn. “Tony Blair is a war criminal.” “Politicians: they are all the same you know.” “David Cameron is worse than Thatch.”
You sigh, and try to put across a more nuanced view, but your efforts are greeted with are cynically superior raised eyebrow that implies, well, you would think that wouldn’t you? You’re one of the brainwashed footsoldiers, a servile chump enslaved by your small-minded beliefs. We are the independent intellectuals and, untroubled by party allegiance, can see the political classes for the lying, disingenuous bunch of scumbags they really are. I’d go on a march about it or something but there’s no point. “They” would find some way of scuppering our noble aims – whatever we decide they are – because that’s what “they” do.
I recently watched the film V for Vendetta (plot summary: Guido Fawkes masks. Police state. Stuff blowing up. Natalie Portman looking hot) with a friend, but could not share his child-like enjoyment of it. For every time the masked hero hoved into view, I was reminded of a blogpost I had seen earlier in the day from a bunch of libertarians encouraging readers to similarly attire themselves and go on a march to Parliament to show the evil oppressors that they, like “V” in the film, would not cow-tow to “them” the evil establishment (church hall if wet). The fact that this march is scheduled for a Saturday when the representatives of the Orwellian nightmare will be in their constituencies listening to their punters complaining about their drains and the like, just added to the irritation somehow.
Being, in many ways, a traditional leftist, this is one that I’m going to pin on the failure of the church. These days, God is very much dead for most of us, but without the organising structure of religion, we’ve hardly risen to the challenge of creating ourselves in our own image. Instead, we have replaced the ordered view of the universe, and our place within it, with the narrative of conspiracy: ourselves as the helpless subjects of an overarching system that enslaves us and against which it is impossible even to try to be free, whatever being free means. The fact that this is what has kept Kevin Costner in work ever since JFK should act as a wake-up call as to the intellectual vacuity of this world view.
David Mamet went a step further in his book Three Uses of the Knife when he expanded on his theory of “anti-Stratfordianism”. Briefly, anti-Stratfordians believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his works, that they were written by someone else. Francis Bacon is the chap usually deemed to have inflicted Much Ado About Nothing on subsequent generations of A-Level students, but the recently released film Anonymous bestows this honour upon an Elizabethan nobleman, Edward de Vere. The fact that there is no evidence to suggest that de Vere was any more responsible for the Complete Works than Katie Price is glossed over. Question it, and you’ll simply receive, “Ah, but that’s what they want you to think” in return from the anti-Stratfordian community.
Mamet argues that anti-Stratfordianism is more than a conspiracy theory, it is a way by which individuals can elevate themselves in their own minds. By denying Shakespeare the authorship of his works, they are not only raising themselves above the unenlightened “ignorant masses” who, sheep-like, believe the version of the truth “they” want you to, they are making themselves superior to Shakespeare himself whose legitimacy they refute. You see a little of this in some militant atheists: they are not only above the faithful, they are above God Himself. I’m an atheist, but I’ve always been irritated by this tendency in my fellow non-believers, particularly on the part of Richard Dawkins who apparently got to this stage years ago.
How does this affect contemporary representative democracy? Well, badly. I’m not going to argue that all MPs are angels – Lord knows the expenses scandal and the fact that I’ve met quite a few of them that are quite the opposite is testament enough to that fact. But they are not really that much different from us, and certainly not the grasping, greedy, selfish, and evil individuals – the modern day Big Brothers – that some would have us believe. And yes, of course they dissemble and mislead. They are politicians. Their job is to bring about the commitments set out in their manifesto and this requires deals to be done and compromises to be made. Modern day politics is complex dispute resolution, not the quest for “truth”. If its truth you’re after, take a philosophy course, don’t lament that you can’t find it in Westminster and Whitehall.
If we’re serious about “progressive politics” (an odious term) then we, the public, need to man up, grow up, ditch the conspiracy theories and accept responsibility for and take the time to engage with our politics and our politicians. The myth of “them” is just that – a myth. We do not live in a police state. We, the people, are not totally good, and our politicians are not entirely without merit. Our democratic state structures are far too disorganised to impose 1984 on us and, even if the Cabinet Office did get beyond the planning stage on such a scheme, a civil servant would inevitably leave the minutes in the Red Lion.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, as someone once said. I am sure he meant in the real world, not a fictional Narnia or in a Natalie Portman film.