Saturday, 19 May 2012

Good cop, bad cop. Still a cop.

Are you a Cavalier or a Roundhead? Perhaps you're a Cavalhead or a Roundier. Perhaps you occupy that third, indeterminate state where the light switch is poised between off and on. Tricky to sustain.

One of the key structural features of politics is the ready recourse to the false dichotomy, or false dilemma, where a topic is presented as a choice between two, and only two, options. This is not the consequence of the adversarial nature of politics (i.e. blaming the weird furniture in the Commons), or even a reflection of the dialectical method (the belief that knowledge progresses through contradiction, i.e. thesis and antithesis). It is not even a pragmatic simplification, excluding the also-rans and the don't knows, a la the BBC swingometer. There are grounds to believe that we humans are psychologically predisposed to prefer black and white propositions, i.e. extreme and clearly opposed choices, rather than shades of grey and nuance, however that doesn't necessarily mean we always reduce choices to only two options. Poker would be a different game if we did.

The main impetus in politics for the false dichotomy is a conscious attempt to exclude heterodox ideas from the frame of reference. In other words, when we said that Spurs could win the Premier League, we were only messing about. C'mon, be serious, only a Manchester club is allowed to win it (until Roman purges the ancients from the Chelski squad). A recent example of this was the minor spat over Lords reform, where the idea that we might just abolish the fuckers altogether was studiously ignored in favour of a debate about what percentage should be elected (the "angels on a pin" metaphor is surely in danger of losing its popularity in the face of such competition).

With the assimilation of the LibDems into the Conservative government, the false dichotomy has become even more pronounced as they have given up trying to establish a third position on many topics. Thus Clegg parrots the Tory line that our debt is unsustainable, it was Labour's fault, and the double-dip is a consequence of the Euro crisis. This display of wilful stupidity will come back to haunt him as much as tuition fees. The space between Conservative and Labour is too narrow to support much in the way of a distinctive position anyway, so this was always more cosmetic than real, but the absence of even a token attempt to establish a third way has been revealing.

The loud rejection of a plan B for the economy has helped give the impression that the binary clash between austerity and growth is a chalk and cheese choice. In reality, the growth plans being floated by Labour and the French Socialists include a lot of austerity, just not as much as advocated by the Tories. Even Syriza in Greece has been cautious about its policy beyond a generally anti-austerity and pro-Euro stance (and their sartorial policy is unconvincing - auditors enjoying Friday beers). Similarly, the government is now being criticised from the right because austerity is shrinking neither the state nor the deficit quickly enough. We are not facing a black and white choice, indeed the general air of frustration may reflect the lack of such a clear choice.

TV loves the simple and colourful clash of opposites, so we should not be surprised that false dichotomies are particularly rife in its treatment of history. A hilarious example this week was a programme that suggested that Britain has been spiritually divided into Cavaliers and Roundheads since the 17th century. The conflict was presented almost as a face-off over fashion, sober black versus beribonned cod-pieces. The vague attempts to introduce genuine substance were repeatedly undermined by recourse to the colourful (shots of those amusing nutters in the Sealed Knot) and spurious modern parallels: Boris as a Cavalier and Ken as a Roundhead (Boris is the City's man - The City was the key supporter of the Parliamentary cause).

There were passing references to the Levellers (but not the Diggers), but broadly the desire was to present the Civil War as a conflict between killjoys and roaring boys. There were no references to Catholicism, the Irish, or the Scots, let alone the economic basis of the rise of the Puritan bourgeoisie and the new gentry. No wonder the battle of The Boyne baffles the English.

In this the producers were unconsciously influenced by Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That, which characterised the Civil War as the struggle between the Cavaliers ("Wrong but Wromantic") and the Roundheads ("Right but Repulsive"). This comic classic had in turn been a 1930s reaction to the Victorian romantic rewriting of history in such novels as Children of the New Forest. It was, in other words, a conscious satire. How strange that in the early 21st century we should have missed the joke and taken this as a serious analysis.

Meanwhile "growth" is being recast as compassionate austerity. Cut back the welfare state, just don't do it so quickly or so gleefully. Don't cut tax for the "wealth creators" today, but be ready to do so once the storm has passed. Invest in infrastructure, but be ready to flog it off at a discount to private business ASAP. A false dichotomy was false because it presumed there were only two options. Increasingly the modern version is false because it presents two options that are merely variations on a single theme.

No comments:

Post a Comment