In the last post, The Matrix and How to Escape It, I conjectured about the role of fiction – from fairytales to Hollywood – in creating our readiness to believe nonsense, such as conspiracy theories, New Age ideas or political propaganda, and I suggested that the escape route from this mind-numbing “Matrix” is through educating ourselves, learning critical thinking skills, limiting our exposure to biased social media and embracing realism.
I almost deleted the bit of the title, “and How to Escape It”, because I wasn’t sure about that part. Is there any escape from the Matrix? Can we wake up? If you do, does it actually get you anywhere other than depressed, watching the Pied Piper gathering in the sleeping children?
I suppose it depends on whether the goal is merely to become aware of what’s happening or actually change it, and then whether reform can take place through gradual increase in political enlightenment, peaceful protest and rational voting habits, or if we’re heading for a violent revolution. Our masters don’t show any signs of being ready to relinquish their power or cease abusing it to our detriment and that of the planet. I used to pity the poor deluded preppers; now I’m thinking of stockpiling, and perhaps “for a no-deal Brexit” is a good enough excuse.
I still have a little faith in my hypothesis: things get worse until they reach rock bottom, and then, with luck, you bounce, but my aspiration to realistic analysis demands considering the alternative where we just keep going down (and all my assumptions behind the model, of course, ideally:- Are things really getting worse? Is cyclic change part of the process? Etc.).
A while ago, I was unrealistically pessimistic about the younger generation being rather unconcerned about global warming. I hadn’t been paying attention to the news, while Greta Thunberg was organising school strikes, and the Extinction Rebellion protesters were beginning to hit the headlines. So I was wrong about that, perhaps, and there it was, evidence for my hypothesis at last. On public awareness and action on global warming, it looks like we might be near rock bottom, and starting to bounce.
I heard someone make an interesting point a while ago. Had Trump not been elected, he said, the festering anger that he tapped into would still have been there, perhaps made even worse by Clinton’s election reinforcing their conspiracy theories, but, because he was, his supporters will eventually be faced with the failure of his empty promises, and the failure of the populist experiment. So perhaps Trump, however awful, is better than the counter-factual. We have to make mistakes and fail to learn what we did wrong.
I speak of this now, of course, because I’m a Brit, and we’re in dire straits. BoJo the Clown recently became British Prime Minister, echoing the rise of the liar who blagged his way to the top position in the United States of America. While Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to be following the Law of Attraction and isn’t likely to have been in the pastoral care of Norman Vincent Peale, he’s similarly touting the power of positive thinking to solve the Brexit impasse (by playing Russian roulette with the country across the table from the EU negotiators) or to make a no-deal Brexit a good thing.
It seems more likely (given the circumstancs) that he’s using this trope, the common New-Age solipsistic appeal to optimism, to persuade the gullible voters that either of those is a good plan, rather than a desperate attempt to avoid certain realities, which are that the Brexit Referendum was idiotic from the start, you can’t have a clear mandate from asking a non-specific question, and the only solution is to gently explain that to the public, apologise, and ask more specific questions until the answers are clear (admittedly, something it’s almost too late to do now).
Eton boys – of which Johnson was one – are required to gain elected positions in their school by persuading their peers to vote for them by any means, rather than by genuine accomplishment or usefulness, and the result is the perfection of empty charm and empty promises, ideally suited to a political career. One has to develop the ability to lie convincingly, or distract someone from the potential humiliation of your having bribed them, and what better way than not to care what the truth is whilst becoming equally immune to ethical concerns? I imagine Johnson has very little idea how his ridiculous gamble will turn out; he just knows how to fight dirty and claim victory whatever the outcome. He has, like Trump, little use for facts unless they’re about the geography of his personal battleground.
On appointment to Prime Minister, Mr Johnson immediately sacked members of Cabinet who might bring critical balance to his headlong dash towards the Brexit cliff, along with a few who backed his rivals, perhaps remembering what he said was his favourite scene from the movies when asked: “the multiple retributive killings at the end of The Godfather“.
It takes almost no effort to discover what a self-serving, lying piece of shit Boris Johnson is and thus form the opinion that we shouldn’t trust the man with a cake fork, let alone the country’s rudder, yet the small minority of Tory members who had a vote on the leadership apparently haven’t enough grip on reality to make that assessment, nor, judging by his popularity in the polls, do vast swathes of this deluded land. Given an even larger stage on which to perform his impression of a people’s statesman, he will now persuade many more that he can untie the Gordian knot of Brexit and make Britain great again…until he doesn’t. And when it all goes tits up, he’ll persuade the same people that falling off the cliff (or being pushed) was a great success or necessary, or that whatever materializes was inevitable, and someone else’s fault, despite his valiant – nay, superhuman – efforts. As with the New-Age quack, he can just accuse everyone of not engaging enough optimism to pull it off; we didn’t believe in ourselves enough, and thus the cancer has unfortunately metastasized. The practitioner will be off fixing the next game only he can win while the patient fades.
I try not to attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity, but in this case a fair balance was involved: the malice of those with power and the stupidity of those without it. Some of the Leavers complain indignantly that we accuse them of being stupid and not knowing what they were voting for, which plea only demonstrates that they’re stupid enough to imagine they had sufficient grasp of global politics and economics to make a sensible binary choice given an unexplained compex question, and to ignore the possibility that they were deceived. Imagine we’d been asked to choose between different designs of rocket for our space programme, or the best technique for a particular type of brain surgery, and the only source of information we were ever likely to come across was partisan tweets and Facebook posts designed to get us to vote on emotion. But Brexiting isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. It’s more complicated by an unimaginable factor.
As it happens, somebody had been manipulating our beliefs since year dot, and BoJo had a big hand in that. When Brexit was hardly a glint in Johnson’s eye and he was Brussels Correspondent for the Telegraph (having previously been sacked from the Times for making shit up), he was instrumental in starting a wave of Euroscepticism based on lies about silly bureaucratic rules, which the Brits – enjoying both a good laugh and a good moan – lapped up and passed on everywhere they met. All and sundry on the Right joined in, soon persuading us that we, the Most Important People In History, were having to toe somebody else’s ridiculously unreasonable and undemocratic line.
It was horrific, the oppression by Brussels. We had always suffered from Continental meddling in this little island; we always lived in fear of invasion by the French or Germans, always resented any kind of foreigner coming to our shores. We let in some of our “colonial cousins” when we needed bus drivers and nurses, until we thought better of it and devised laws to strip them of their British citizenship; now suddently we were overrun with deprived Eastern immigrants selfishly doing the jobs we didn’t want to do for almost or literally nothing, and there were even Islamic terrorists, allegedly, one or two surviving illegal boat journeys from the Middle East, wanting to cut our heads off for farting. None of us were safe in our beds.
But worst of all, we had Brussels telling us what shape bananas ought to be. Of course, this wasn’t all Mr Johnson’s fault. The most virulent racist throwbacks had always been trying to drive the country Hard-Rightward, and Nigel Farage managed to present a pseudo-political narrative that condensed and conflated all these xenophobic proclivities and disguised them as nostalgia for how Britain used to be: jolly faces quaffing pints in the summer sun outside a quaint old pub to the sound of quoits and Morris dancers, our doors at home left unlocked.
To cut a long story short, what was happening is that the elites were continuing their project of stealing as much from the poor as possible. The gentrification and vanity projects and bank bailouts and lavish bonuses and tax dodging weren’t enough; they had to squeeze the plebs too with pay freezes, closure of libraries and youth centres, cut-backs in emergency services, cuts in unemployment and sickness benefits. We had to “live within our means” and “tighten our belts”. Austerity was a moral good. It’s just simple housekeeping, so, no, sorry, we don’t have the money to fill the pot-holes in your road.
What Thatcher started, selling the country’s assets to the highest bidder, had come to this: a capital city full of empty properties owned by absentee billionaires while citizens froze on the streets or burned in their inflamable tower blocks or hanged themselves in prison. But, somehow, just over half of us were persuaded all our ills were down to being part of the European Union, letting in too many foreigners and not being able to make our own laws about the colour of sausages.
By the time we got to the Referendum, Johnson famously wrote two articles about leaving the EU, one pro, the other con, and later claimed that this was just his way of thinking it all through, rather than preparing for a last-minute opportunistic decision which to back. Those who know him aren’t fooled; they know he is a calculating strategist, always choosing the path most likely to lead to his personal advancement. He saw the only opportunity was heading the Leave side, and pasted that enormous lie on the big red bus.
He didn’t come up with it, of course. The author of the £350-million-a-week-for-the-NHS lie, mastermind of the Leave Campaign, was the even more self-serving Dominic Cummings, whom the self-serving David Cameron once called a “career psychopath”. Cummings also penned the ear-worm, “Take Back Control”, which almost certainly won the day, so double-thinky it could be straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is an enormous physical and legal infrastructure that unites us with the Continent, built over decades, and much of the rest of the world is hostile or indiferent to us; we’re going to be about as in control as if we’d got tired of riding a train and uncoupled the carriage we’re in at the points.
Anyway, Cummings has now been given a chance to finish the job, appointed as a senior policy adviser, despite recently being held in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence to a committee of MPs. What were they investigating? Fake news during the Referendum, of course, all those extreme, baseless memes delivered as targeted advertising to us on social media, which nudged us to that “clear mandate” of 52%. At the time, the Committee lamented their lack of legal teeth in administering such an admonishment, and, as we now see, career psychopaths given a slap on the wrist just carry on as usual.
Rather than take condemnation by Parliament seriously, Johnson has put him in charge of the bus again. This is what the Matrix engineers need, highly motivated psychopaths with knowledge of the law, so they can bamboozle us right up to the legal line without crossing it, if possible. The same principle informs Trump’s career, although the immunity from indictment of a US President means you can actually cross the line with relative impunity.
Our Western democracies have been corrupted to the point of ruin. Politicians (many of them) now appeal to the basest instincts of humanity, whipping us up into rage against minorities, immigrants, the sick, the poor, anyone other than those actually responsible for the serious problems we face, whilst proclaiming the power of optimism to solve them. They need not stoop to presenting rational argument or unbiased facts: we’re trained now not to expect them, if we ever did, and in the main we did not. What we want is to believe somebody (the good guy) and/or blame somebody else (the bad guy). We’ll build a wall and push the bill underneath. We’ll wave a magic wand and disappear the EU’s intransigent backstop.
Mr Johnson was always a vacuous liar, and is now pumping out impossible dreams of a new British golden age, lies that almost rival the gall of the US President’s, who currently tweets that Boris is “great”, and “Britain Trump” (sic).
So, I don’t know. Is there an escape from this hall of mirrors? We are fortunate not to have descended into a mirror hell, like that of Russia or China. Not yet, but that must surely be a real danger, however unimaginable it may seem to us, the “free”. It seems as though all semblance of personal integrity and professional pride has evaporated from the Western political scene, just when we need it the most, leaving our democratic power as impotent as it was before Magna Carta.
I am sure those virtues are bubbling away still in the Labour Party, and perhaps more hotly than our media allows us to believe, but I fear that the Left doesn’t know whether to embrace populism, as the regrettable but expedient option in the modern world, or have faith that there’s still an appetite for realism and honour among the electorate. Jeremy Corbyn was uniquely doing both, becoming popular by telling us the truth, but he soon lost that skill. Why, when he’s interviewed now, does he sound like a smug prefect at school explaining that the teachers are doing a bad job and he’s ready to do a better one? Surely he’d galvanize more support by talking tougher, being angrier and exposing the corrupt capitalist machinery, describing exactly how it churns and spits people out, so we understand why we’re covered in our own blood. The usual complaint is that he’s too far Left and Labour needs a more moderate leader. What we need is someone to talk truth to power, loudly and continuously.
Because we really have been lulled into incomprehension and apathy, sucked into the Matrix. We’re living in a nightmare just comfortable enough to sleep through. There are even realists on the Tory side – like Rory Stewart – who can’t wake us up. We don’t want the truth. We can’t handle the truth.
We were unready for the Information Revolution, I suppose, having not reached a sufficient level of education via the printing press to resist the charms of rhetoric-peddlers. Given a voice by Zuckerberg and friends – indeed our own publishing house – the erstwhile silent majority had no idea what to do with it other than to rail with moral indignation against some other underprivileged section of our own class, which the rich have persuaded us is the problem.
Are we learning? Are we getting anywhere at all? I keep seeing those men and women stretching themselves across the road in front of Johnson’s cavalcade, ushered aside by the police. Maybe we’re bouncing, or about to. Maybe rock bottom is hereabouts. Maybe, somehow, before too long, we can wrest our governments from the grip of career psychopaths. If not soon, it’ll be too late.
This is, of course, a simplistic view, the descent and rebounding, and climate protests aren’t designed to change our entire political systems. I’ve been mixing up all sorts of stuff here, and I have no answers. I’m just trying to clarify things for myself. Like most of us, I’m trying to come to terms with what just happened. It may be now that a hard landing on the Brexit shore might teach us something we won’t learn by retreating to second referendums, and denying “the will of the people” – however badly that will was coerced – might teach us only what we already failed to learn from our long, disgusting history: how vicious, racist and insane the British people are capable of becoming.
I feel strongly that focusing on realism, resisting fake news and questioning everything, is the key to a healthy democracy as well as personal sanity. You can’t speak truth to power unless you figure out what the truth is.