In the gutter, looking up at the Stars & Stripes

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2006

When Simon Jenkins is good, he’s very, very good. Today is not one of his better days.

He’s posted to thegrauniad’s Comment Is Free a provocatively controversial article titled, ‘Bad at war, good at democracy’, which is deliberately aimed at getting a rise from lily-livered liberals like me. So here goes.

The following passage gives the flavour of Mr Jenkins’ glib assertions argument:

“Every time I visit America at election time I am left exhilarated by the sheer, pulverising potency of its democracy. … Yet ABC news this morning could announce judgment day with the downbeat message that it was “the nastiest mid-term election in history.”

“Nasty is right. Within two minutes of turning on my television I hear “Andrew Cuomo is lying”, Bob Menendez is supported by kickback hoodlums, worst calumny of all, Thomas Kean “supports George Bush”. Almost everyone is in favour of killing babies, rupturing stem cells and torturing Iraqis. The corridors of power are awash in corruption, adultery, mendacity and sin. The torrent of abuse is relentless and, to those used to the bland hustings of European oligarchy, gloriously refreshing.

“Above all the negativity is good. The Karl Rove strategy of identifying electoral difference rather than consensus inflames democratic choice as it should be inflamed. Voters cannot make that choice if, as increasingly in Europe, candidates are bland mirrors of each other. … I love it.”

All of which OTT rhetoric conveys a dismal view of politics, in which the only honest arguments are those which have been amped-up to the max; where simplistic, reductive binary politics rule; where cheap tribal loyalties trump genuine co-operation when common agreement exists; where personality flaws are exaggerated wildly to distract from policy issues which matter a damn; and in which intelligent civic discourse is replaced by proud-to-be-ignorant shock-jock rants which demean us all.

The campaign ads which Mr Jenkins lauds don’t set out to enlighten, inform or inspire: their job is to confuse, panic and rile. The best arguments – the most spine-tingling rhetoric – are imbued with passion, not anger; are truthful, not warped; are authentic, not contrived.

Few of us reach such dizzy heights – but we can aspire, can’t we? “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Do we really have to settle for Mr Jenkins’ conclusion that politics is a shitty business so we should all get down and dirty in the gutter?