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Monday, September 07, 2009

 

And on the subject of politics...

Am I the only person who wants to whack James Murdoch with a copy of Atlas Shrugged nailed to George Bush's skull right now?

For those of us who haven't followed this story, you can get the gist on Wikipedia: James Murdoch has recently declared that the BBC - the beloved institution that has given our nation such irreplaceable treasures as two free TV channels with no adverts at all plus radio and internet, David Attenborough's nature documentaries and a tradition of news reporting brave and free-minded enough to challenge politicians directly, such as Jeremy Paxman's asking the then-Home Secretary Michael Howard the same question twelve times in succession - is 'state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy.'

Yep. Apparently Auntie is out to get us all.

Coming from the son of the man who gave us Fox News, this bleating about independent news provision goes beyond taking the biscuit to looking like a serious case of projection: the attitude of someone who finds it impossible to believe that news can't be propaganda. Or, more seriously, it looks like a recitation of that wacky ideology that the most accountable government in the world is still inseparable from tyranny and private ownership will result in fairy dust and a free jetpack for everybody, all possible evidence to the contrary.

Let's just address the question with the terseness it deserves. A news organisation owned by a dictatorial government is indeed of questionable neutrality. A news organisation owned by an elected government, control of which changes hands at regular intervals, is owned by the people. It is, consequently, in its best interests to pursue the truth, because lying about the guys who may be in charge of you come next election is never a good strategy.

A privately-owned news body, on the other hand, has no interest in pursuing the truth. Its main business is to make money. It will therefore be in its interests to promote whatever government will be sympathetic to its business aims - and as any news body large enough to have any influence will be owned by somebody extremely wealthy, guess which wing that will support?Barring eccentric socialist billionaires, a publicly-owned news body is a country's best hope for news that isn't slanted so far starboard it's about to crash into the nearest lighthouse.

What's really worrying is how hard this comes on the heels of America's recent attacks on the NHS - our beloved if creaky institution that works on the principle that medical treatment is a human right rather than a commodity, and consequently struggles, usually successfully, to provide decent medical care to everyone without charging anything. Suggestions got at their stupidest when some muppet claimed that Stephen Hawking would have been euthanised if he'd been unfortunate enough to come under the NHS - a delusion Professor Hawking politely corrected by pointing out that in fact he does come under the NHS and owes his life to it, and I can only chalk off to that bizarre quality of American right-wing extremism that views everything non-American with such dark suspicion that they find it almost impossible to believe an accomplished person could be foreign, or that a non-profit body could possibly be anything less than National Socialism on the march again. But on the whole, our public institutions seem alarmingly under fire just now from people whose bloody business it is not.

Look: we know America's struggling right now. We know that the moderate right-centrist changes Obama's pushing through are leading to a backlash of delusions about euthanising grannies and Nazi schemes and all the rest of it. We're sorry you're having to go through all that. And we really don't want it over here.

In the case of James Murdoch, the explanation is to be found right there in his Wikipedia biog:

James Murdoch (born 13 December 1972, United Kingdom) is the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch presently Chairman and Chief Executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, overseeing assets such as News International (British newspapers), SKY Italia (satellite television), and STAR TV (satellite television in Asia).
At News Corporation, he sits on the
Board of Directors and is a member of the Office of the Chairman. He is also non-executive chairman of British Sky Broadcasting, in which News Corporation has a controlling minority stake.

Which is to say, the disingenuous blighter has a direct financial motivation to attack his publicly-owned competitor; his claim that the BBC is undemocratic is about as credible as a rival soap-maker claiming that Proctor and Gamble's logo represents Satan-worship.

But more generally: as a nation we have plenty of problems and we do plenty of things wrong. A publicly-owned news organisation and health service are among our greatest achievements. We owe the NHS our lives, and we owe the BBC a great deal of our freedom of speech and journalistic standing. We need these things.

So could everyone please just piss off and leave our great institutions alone? They are the cornerstone of our nation, as essential to our experience of ourselves as a nation as well as politically crucial: they are as British as Marmite on toast or rain at Wimbledon, and far less controversial. Nothing's perfect, but they work pretty well. They have done for decades. We like them: we, the people of Britain, whose institutions they are. Everyone's who's doing this: get your filthy mitts off our stuff.

Comments:
I can only chalk off to that bizarre quality of American right-wing extremism that views everything non-American with such dark suspicion that they find it almost impossible to believe an accomplished person could be foreign, or that a non-profit body could possibly be anything less than National Socialism on the march again.

Close, but not quite. The idea that all accomplishments are American is a corollary to the "God Bless the USA" / "Greatest Nation on Earth" rhetoric preached on both sides of the political spectrum. Without deliberate education, an American won't be instinctively aware of foreign accomplishments. This doesn't in any way excuse the Stephen Hawking slip, but it does reveal the unconscious attitude.

On your second point, the right-wing doesn't have anything against non-profit entities, but they won't hesitate to judge based on ideology. Focus on the Family is good, the ACLU is bad. The NRA (National Rifle Association) is good, Planned Parenthood is bad.

What you're seeing is more the inherent distrust of government. The Libertarian fringe of the right-wing deeply distrusts government spending that doesn't profit a corporation. In more precise terms, they oppose anything resembling transfer payments, including services directly provided (for free!) by the government. This distrust, fanned by self-interested lobbying, explains most of the opposition to public health care in the US.

James Murdoch attacking the BBC is two parts greedy self-interest and one part exploitation of ignorance. The coup de grace is that Americans don't have any concept of a Crown Corporation. The idea that the government can own a corporation yet not control it for political purposes is... well... foreign.

-- An American living in Canada
 
What you're seeing is more the inherent distrust of government.

I do get that impression. I wish they'd just keep their deluded fingers off our government. That ideology has poisoned things badly enough in America; the idea of it spreading frankly terrifies me.

This doesn't in any way excuse the Stephen Hawking slip, but it does reveal the unconscious attitude.

I think it reveals another unconscious attitude as well: a contempt for both the truth and for their listeners so profound that they feel no obligation to do even a quick fact-check. As far as they're concerned, saying any old cobblers that comes into their head is as much effort as they owe anyone. The hubris is amazing.
 
I do get that impression. I wish they'd just keep their deluded fingers off our government. That ideology has poisoned things badly enough in America; the idea of it spreading frankly terrifies me.

It's small comfort, but at least the American politicians are playing to the home crowd, rather than using their ignorance to advocate change elsewhere.

The UK also has a couple advantages over the US that makes this sort of nutjobbery harder to establish:
1) The UK has something closer to a multiparty system. The BNP, although (thankfully) not electable, draws off some of the nuttier support on the right.
2) There's a lot more money in the US system, giving fringe groups disproportionate weight. Campaigns in the US have no spending caps at all, and donation caps are ridiculously high. The last US Presidential election resulted in the campaigns proper spending over $850 million (US), plus more in issue group spending. In contrast, the UK has a limit of £18.96m/party.

In the specific case of James Murdoch, I'm puzzled at his comments. He can't be playing to the US for this, so he must somehow be trying to influence UK policy. But his views are outright loony -- something that should be first flogged for a few years by some paid-for think tank to shift the Overton Window.
 
What scares me is the idea that he's trying to get the window shifted. In the days of the Internet I fear there are probably at least a certain number of British libertarians who are picking up on ideas that started in America and applying them at home, despite the fact that they tanked America: there may already be a bit of a market for them. (Though I'm most likely panicking; last time I heard the BNP only had ten thousand members, which is ten thousand too many but pretty negligible in a country this size.) He's probably overplayed his hand this time round, but that doesn't mean he won't play it better another day.

I feel like I've just seen a little red dot appear on our most precious institutions and heard the click of a laser-sighted rifle some distance away. Maybe they won't hit, but I don't at all like the idea that the snipers have us in their sights.
 
I'm with you, Kit. There's a certain segment of the American public that simultaneously amuses and scares the crap out of me, and lately I've been more scared than amused. They've managed to make willful ignorance a virtue, and more, they've honed it into a political force by continuing to move that Overton Window.

We've seen it happening for years here in Canada. Since the States is right next door, literally, we tend to keep a sharp eye on the whackjobs while trying not to attract their attention. Mind you, our own health care system has come under fire lately, especially since a right-wing funded medicine-for-profit group paid off a Canadian woman to make commercials and lie about the supposed evils of our health care system.

I can't get the tag to imbed, but here's the link:

http://lies.videosift.com/video/American-Commercial-Misrepresents-Canadian-Healthcare

-Wife of the American living in Canada.
 
@Christopher Subich: Well, the US is quite a bit larger than the UK, so it makes sense for national political campaigns to be more expensive...but not 20 *times* more.
 
Kit,

I've been lurking on your blog for awhile now; the intelligence of your comments actually inspired me to go out and get a copy of Bareback, which I loved, and I'm eagerly awaiting the release of your next book. :)

I feel for you 100% in your annoyance with British institutions being attacked by foreign politicians, and have to say that I have this reaction quite often when I hear non-Americans attacking American institutions/politics/culture/etc. (Even those who have spent time in the US; I lived in Britain for about four months but don't think that means I can talk authoritatively about it, especially when people from there are around!) For some reason, in international culture--online and otherwise--it's totally okay to criticize America (and Americans are expected to join in if we're going to be good sports!), much more so than any other country. Of course, I realize that we're a huge country and watched by others more than any other country in the world, so I'm not at all suggesting you should cease to talk about American politics on your blog, only pointing out that this is how those of us who generally like the way our country works and are proud of it feel on a regular basis when we come into contact with non-Americans.

I'm actually a Democrat, but a year and a half abroad made me realize that I firmly believe in the "we can insult our own, but you'd better not!" principle. Which, to be sure, is one many Americans both on the web and living in other countries don't seem to hold to--with the right dishing it out but refusing to take it (this Murdoch jerk being Example A) and the left, bizarrely, refusing to dish it out but all too happy to take it and even join in the America-bashing.

I suppose really it's the other Americans who won't stand up for their own country that really irritate me--I wish more of them would be willing to say "get your mitts off our stuff!"
 
For some reason, in international culture--online and otherwise--it's totally okay to criticize America (and Americans are expected to join in if we're going to be good sports!), much more so than any other country.

Hi, and welcome!

I've heard Americans make this complaint before, but I don't think the reason is at all obscure. It's not that America is more watched, it's that it's more powerful. What happens to its economy shakes the world, its military power is just about greater than the rest of the world's put together, its energy consumption and pollution production are vastly disproportionate to its size (and that's resources we all use and air we all breathe), and it contains a lot of political and religious extremists with a decidedly expansionist agenda.

As a result of all this, criticising America isn't an idle sport. It's underdogs keeping an eye on the overdog in case it decides to bite.

America isn't a punchbag: we're scared of it. Really, seriously scared. Look at Iraq; America decided to overrule international law and start a war based on reasons that anybody half awake could see were spurious - and not only was the rest of the world unable to stop it, several other countries (including, shamefully, my own) went along with it, not because they thought the war was right but because they were too afraid of losing American favour. Bush managed to get our soldiers killed and a country trashed on a whim. If he'd been the leader of any other country, that could never have happened.

I understand the "we can insult our own, but you'd better not!" principle - but when it comes to America, the thing to remember is that its troubles don't stay within its borders. It's a superpower whose decisions knock on to all of us. That makes it everybody's own to some extent.

Look at what I said: we don't want it over here. That's not about criticising America for fun, it's about protecting ourselves. If America as a nation - and I know not all its citizens are like this by any means - was content to mind its own business, we'd all be more inclined to mind ours. But as long as it remains a superpower that flexes its muscles over everyone else, it's naturally going to get more criticism from outside. Heck, America still hasn't forgiven Britain for doing that before the War of Independence, and that was centuries ago. Nobody likes being on the receiving end.

To assume that America criticising Britain - or France, or Iraq, or anywhere - is equivalent to them criticising America, you'd have to assume an equal balance of power should either party decide to turn those criticisms into actions. And that's just not the case. Being big and powerful means people talk about you. It was like that when Britain was the imperial nation; now it's America sitting in that slot. It's not about America as a country, it's what happens when you're a superpower.
 
I left a comment yesterday, but it doesn't seem to have appeared. In essence, I think you're right that it's legit for governments to criticize more powerful governments (whereas a country like the US criticizing less powerful ones can be dangerous, as its desires are more likely to be acted upon) and for non-nationals to criticize other countries' foreign policies. But I don't appreciate people criticizing my country's domestic policies any more than you do with yours, and general vitriol toward the U.S. turns me off. People who want to say nasty things about America are within their rights to do so, but it's not reasonable to expect Americans to cheerfully go along with it simply because our country is more powerful than anyone else's. I loved your book, Kit, but telling me you can badmouth my country but I can't badmouth yours leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
 
Emma, I appreciate your comments. But speaking as a fellow American, and as one who recognizes that there is good and bad to be found everywhere, I would like to make a distinction between accurate and well-supported criticism and "bashing" or "vitriol."

There is no question that some American behavior is extremely problematic, and it is in part due to the network run by Mr. Murdoch's father that this behavior has gotten such public play. I'm related to some people who support the kind of thinking they hear from Hannity, Beck, and O'Reilly, and it is, frankly, scary. When that sort of thing shows up on television as representing a significant point of view in the U.S., I think it entirely reasonable for members of other democracies to notice it and look at their own societies for evidence of similar trends.
 
Dash--I think you make good sense, and I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, for which I apologize. Originally I just meant to point out to Kit, who'd displayed anger at an American's bashing of British domestic institutions, that I feel about the same when she and others bash American domestic institutions (and it's certainly not just her; I wouldn't be this upset about it if I didn't hear a lot of it), and that it bothers me when others consider my feelings less legitimate simply because the U.S. is more powerful. I completely understand why people from other countries are sometimes scared. I just think you have to be careful HOW you criticize a country, organization, family, whatever, when members of that group are present (physically or virtually), unless you're looking to alienate said people.
 
I feel about the same when she and others bash American domestic institutions (and it's certainly not just her; I wouldn't be this upset about it if I didn't hear a lot of it), and that it bothers me when others consider my feelings less legitimate simply because the U.S. is more powerful.

That's not what I said. I was addressing the specific suggestion that only insiders should be allowed to criticise a country's domestic policy, and pointing out that even if you accept this logic - which I'm far from sure I do - America's power complicates the question of who is and isn't an insider.

But I really think it's not a question of who's talking, it's a question of whether the criticism is legitimate. Saying that America's current healthcare policy is a mess and that the people opposing reform have some wacky ideas seems to be born out by the evidence. Saying that the NHS culls the weak and cuts off the elderly is slander and fantasy. And putting those two criticisms on the same footing is silly.

When it comes to criticising other people's domestic policies, it partly is a question of how much it's your business - and as I said, America's business is the world's business to a greater or lesser extent. But if an American commentator wants to remark that British politicians sometimes play to xenophobia by acting Europhobic, for instance, then I have to agree with them. It's true, and it's bad. And they've got a perfect right to point it out. I went to a live Michael Moore performance once, for instance, and he spent some time lambasting our government for refusing to meet the demands of our striking fire department. Nobody in the audience had a problem with that: what he was saying was fair, he understood the facts, and consequently everyone was fine with what he said and on the whole agreed with him.

A lot of the problem people have with American 'criticisms' of other countries is that they're not well-informed - or in the case of this healthcare business, shameless and ridiculous lies. If American commentators can up their standards of criticism when it comes to other nations, they may still run into a degree of national bristling but they'll be entitled to do it. It's the degree to which the criticisms are nonsensical that's really a problem. What with Bush, it seems like most of the sensible American commentators have had quite enough to complain about back home without having to point fingers abroad, so a lot of the criticisms we've been getting have been stupid. That, I think, is the main reason why people get so fed up. It's not that they're coming from Americans, it comes from Americans who don't know what they're talking about, or are just making stuff up.

This is a separate point from saying that America's business is everyone's business, which I was saying specifically to address the idea that people should mind their own. But the basic point is that what matters is whether the criticism is fair, not who's making it. Nobody likes their country being criticised, but that's not the point: the point is whether the criticisms are fair and in the public interest or whether they're stupid and suggest aims that will be to the public's detriment.
 
As a side-point: James Murdoch is not actually American. He's a British citizen. And I'm just as pissed at him as I am at the crazies talking nonsense about the NHS, if not more so; he might actually start things rolling over here. So my anger at the liars isn't about non-Brits criticising our great institutions, it's about people who do not have the interests of the British public at heart. Murdoch seems to be preaching the kind of radical free-marketism that's riding highest in America right now, but it's the politics rather than the nationality that's at issue. And I'm just as angry when my fellow citizens do it.
 
Emma -

Could you please provide us with examples of non-US (specifically Europeans or Canadians - Ahmededinijad or Qaddafi don't count) bashing US domestic institutions?

Just at the moment this Texan can't think of any examples which come within radiotelescope range of the recent misrepresentations of the NHS, for instance.
 
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