Bluntschli: My rank is the highest known in Switzerland: I’m a free citizen.
[G B Shaw: Arms and the Man]
In politics, as in war, the first casualty is always truth. This is doubly so during election campaigns, but raised to a whole new power for a referendum.
One wonders how folks cope in a more direct democracy, like the Swiss Federation, where many things are decided by plebiscites, at national, cantonal and local levels. Voting around four times a year, and on umpteen issues at a time, they must be permanently swimming in bullshit.
Except one hopes a nation built on and familiar (and perhaps even bored rigid) with this regular exercise of their democratic rights and responsibilities may well have developed a more mature approach by now, along with the proverbial cuckoo clock (which isn’t even Swiss). Where a major part of a political party’s rôle is to inform, advise and suggest, and not merely to sway, threaten and coerce, and the executive is there to enact the public will — well, it’s just possible that the public, more used to taking responsibility for its own future, is less tolerant of being fed a diet of cack on key issues. If we introduced direct voting tomorrow, we’d soon have the death penalty for littering and the right to hunt Welsh people for sport. But the Swiss, more used to taking responsibility and thinking things through only have the bit about the Welsh.
What sickens your humble bloggist is the sheer volume of this shite. From both sides. As I wrote in my Scots Neverendum poem, Salmond Chanted Evening, back in 2013:
Och, swallow a’ this propaganda
A’ this pathetic, trumped-up slander
Ye’d think this place the next Rwanda …
OK, as an anarchist, a deep-dyed anti-capitalist, I know that where I’m coming from makes many of my views irrelevant to most folks, but for fuck’s sake, people!!!
Almost all theories of and apologies for both free-market capitalism and democracy are posited on an informed and educated consumer base or electorate. And yet under those systems, education expends its energies increasingly on Gradgrindian ramming of facts rather than thinking into the brightest and best and consigning the rest to the menial waste heap, while more money seems to be spent on deceptive advertising and propaganda than on the products and services themselves. Everything possible is done to pull wool over our eyes on an industrial scale, that would have had the looms of our Victorian past working double time.
Millennia ago Mr Plato said that democracy would always degenerate to dishonest appeals to the lowest common denominator, to unthinking desires and greed (not that his authoritarian, hidebound alternative is much better: quis custodiet, indeed). Representative democracy, at least in a market system, is rarely representative or really democratic; even worse, in the present author’s opinion, is ‘proportional representation’, which is neither proportional nor representative, with the inordinate power a small party can gain, and the reduction in direct connection or individuality, when your MP comes from a list of apparatchiks, and depends more for advancement on impressing the party machine than on serving the lowly voters.
Maybe our problems stem from the adversarial system that underlies our legal and political life. There are strong arguments, obviously, for charging one side with putting a case and the other side with countering it. Randish neoliberals would argue that totally unfettered propagandising would cancel out and encourage us, the victims, to become better informed (and anyway we plebs get what we deserve if we don’t, life is only for the superman). It’s hard to believe that they really think this. If they do, that looks like self-blinkering, clinging to a belief in the desired model, the very thing that advertisers and spin doctors play on, encouraging rather than working to change the prejudices and ignorance of the admass.
But there are downsides to adversarial systems. Many claims are made for the benefits of charging a disinterested body with simply trying to find the truth, as with examining magistrates, and parliaments that try to encourage co-operation by doing away with the left and right layout of the debating chamber. I know we English are traditionally wary of intellectuals, and my American theologist friend assures me that anyone with a degree centred on thinking and analysis will inevitably be kicked off a US jury by one counsel or the other — but I says we needs more philosophers between us and the sewage farms.
Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.
[Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe]
Well, whatever the pros, the cons, the reasons or the results, your correspondent is truly pissed off by the constant drivel that fills his eyes and ears, and has come up with a simple institution, charged with cutting through the crap. We have bodies like Ofsted, overseeing education, Ofcom doing the same for communications — welcome to Ofpoff, the Office for the Promotion Of Facts and Fairness.
Douglas Adams dreamt up a universe run in accordance with the thoughts of a simple-minded but highly intelligent philosopher, living a life of splendid isolation (with his cat), who was, of necessity, totally unaware that he was running the show. Thus his proclamations, being hypothetical as far as he knew, were totally unaffected by personal prejudice or desire. Well, we can’t manage that in the real world, but at Ofpoff, we aim to do the best we can.
Our work is an extension of the Bullshit! button used on the popular Channel 4 comedy programme, The Last Leg, here in the UK, whenever a political guest descends into obfuscation or avoids giving a frank and direct response.
A team of Ofpoff inspectors is sent to every debate, hustings or advertising campaign. Free speech, with its implied right to speak from positions of self-interest, blind prejudice and utter stupidity, is not to be violated, but the right to get away with crap unchallenged is.
A team consists of five independent and randomly assigned expert members:
1. Fact checker
5. Icthypheron (fish-bearer)
Now this may seem like a typical bureacratic job-creation scheme (and it is); but a logician is not the same thing as a philosopher, and spotting all the tricks of rhetoric likewise needs particular knowledge — and special, nerdy skills are usually required of a perspicacious fact-checker. But in times of austerity, some of these may need to double up and anyone could wield the fish if sufficiently ripped. But it is essential that a team, rather than single inspector is sent, to sit close to the action, observing like erudite Wimbledon linespeople. And naturally, anyone with a special interest in the topic under discussion is ineligible.
And like the line judge, the job of each of these is to shout Fault!! whenever an infringement is spotted, calling out or signalling each type of trick or fallacy. Cries of Straw Man!, Partial truth!, Syllogistic Fallacy! Unsubstantiated Speculation! or Total Bullshit! will activate the icthypheron, whose job it is to administer a slap around the face with a large, wet fish (the size of fish and ferocity of slap being varied according to the severity of the foul).
So claims like “we send £350m a week to Brussels”, “the EU is ruled by an undemocratic body”, “hordes of immigrants are taking all your jobs and benefits”, as well as “leaving the EU will mean our businesses can’t sell anything, not to mention helping terrorists and starting World War III”, will all result in a slap, though the speaker or writer is at liberty to carry on regardless. What matters is the message sent to the audience, that an attempt has been made to hoodwink. And the laughs. Big wet fish are intrinsically hilarious.
And as shouting, misleading partial truth is insufficient detail, the ruling will be backed up by an easily-referenced entry on the Ofpoff website (not that anyone will look). Eg “we get loads back in rebates, it’s less than half a percent of our budget and some believe it brings in many times that in increased trade, etc.” All these rulings can themselves be challenged; eg, “yes immigrants may contribute more to the economy than they take out, but tell that to someone who can’t get a job because the employer prefers cheaper foreign workers”, leading to the counter claim that it’s the employers and employment policy that needs looking at, and so on and so on. The job of the Ofpoff team is not to say what the conclusive argument might be, merely to prevent the use of false arguments, half-truths and Sun articles to manipulate the public, thus allowing both markets and democracy to function in a manner more like they do in those Utopian theories brought to you by the University of Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
Welcome to the foundry of lies!
[Brenton and Hare: Pravda]
A special branch of the Office is dedicated to the press. These are a special case, being both the major manufacturers of egregious nonsense on all sides, under no obligation to pretend to be balanced, and also being consumed in a way that lacks the immediacy of public debate. Even when forensically castigated for being extremely economical with the truth, they are notorious for tucking away tiny apologies on an unvisited page, among adverts for support stockings and walk-in baths.
So if, even after being smacked about by a shoal of bluefin tuna, the editor proceeds with the intended falsification, the text will be overprinted but not totally obscured by a picture of a fish, and a link to the infringement elucidation pages.
It’s too late for the Euro referendum. That will be decided tomorrow when the bleeding-heart liberals and cost-cutting businesses go head-to-head with the xenophobes and those who think that the Westminster Billionaires’ Club, the unelected House of Lords and the British Civil Service somehow give them more democracy and sovereignty than the EU Commission and the MEPs they can’t be arsed to vote for. But it is our fervent hope that, in or aus, our future lives will be enhanced and our freedoms safeguarded by our learnéd friends at Ofpoff, and the cheery-slappy sound of fish on deserving faces will be heard once more throughout this green and pleasant land.
We would be kidding ourselves if we thought this would make much difference to human beings, who, after all, will always believe what they want to believe.
But what larks, eh Pip? What larks!