The Churchill war-time leader
(Still confused? One says: "Oooow, yesss!" The other one said: "We shall never surrender").
Recent conversation on Twitter:
A: Is it just me that thought whinston Churchill was a dog?
B: [Quotes A in response] Wow!
A: F off [name of B] !
[Link sent by B to Wikipedia page on Winston Churchill]
A: he was priminister!! Do we like him or is he another Margret thatcher?
B: yeah he was prime during the Second World War and played a big part in us defeating ze Germans so yeah we like him.
This 'conversation' on Twitter, was posted up a couple of days ago. It came via a current student - who I 'Follow' - via another, former student, and a fiend of his. So let me see – that's either three or four degrees of separation from me – a couple fewer than has been argued has been the 'established' case. In the past, the chances of me eavesdropping, electronically or otherwise, on this thread would be remote. Twitter exposes to its pitiful gaze ignorance, absurdities of sessions, rants and personal attacks in both refined and vulgar forms. Including, unquestionably, from me. 'Tweet at leisure, repent at will' was my thought when I confused a recent but now expelled resident of Belmarsh high security jail with another rooster waiting in the departure lounge there for the lawyers to fight over the claims of his human rights, versus the expressed desire of the Her Majesty's Government and Parliament for him to leave the country as soon as possible, please.
My excuse was it was after midnight, and I had I drunk rather too much and well. At least it didn't land me in jail facing a defamation suit from a wronged Tory grandee. There are filters and alarm bells on the legal side of fairly solid in my case at least – as there certainly should be given what I teach and practice!
Now, there's no way that this next section will sound anything other than somewhat snooty, superior, condescending and patronising, but when I saw the Tweets, pasted above, it caught me up short, as I realised well, just how ignorant so many people are. I mean, this is a young woman, who has had a minimum of 11 possibly up to 13 years of state education, at considerable public expense, and yet she is evidently completely ignorant of the name and role of her country's Prime Minister from 1940-1945 in the first so-called People's and Total War - the repercussions, ramifications and impact of which are still all around us.
For mystified readers outside the UK, I should explain that Churchill is also the name of an insurance company, which prominently advertises on television, using a model bulldog (see above) and the human voice of a well-known comedian – who, by the way, does not speak in Churchillian tones, as it were. So the name 'Churchill' entered the brain of this Tweeter by an insurance commercial and because Winston Churchill is to be the face on a new five pound note. This fact this received a lot of news coverage explains these Tweets. The death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher within the previous three weeks and all the discussion around her time in office and her legacy, for good or ill, also appears to have entered the brain of this young woman. She had clearly picked up that Margaret Thatcher was not liked amongst her peer-group, even though, like her, almost certainly none of them were alive when she was in power. Normally that eliminates subject or person from any consideration amongst (this is definitely going to sound superior!) quite a chunk of our young people. It happened before I was born, or even before I was in my early adolescence, then why should I be interested in it? If it doesn't fit my rather narrow interests then, again, why should I be bothered? Why indeed.
Should I care? Should I just shrug my shoulders and think: 'oh well, I expect it was always like this.' But was it? (This is not a rhetorical question – I am genuinely unsure about it!). What I do know is thirty to forty years ago it was almost impossible to avoid news and current affairs programmes on the television, because there was hardly anything else to watch in certain parts of peak-time. As I've shown in my book – sorry for the blatant plug once more! – a quarter of the UK population were watching one or other of the early evening news bulletins on the BBC or ITV each day, and the figures were even greater for the mid-to late evening programmes, which contained significant proportions of international, political and economics' reporting. Every day! Newspaper readerships were vastly higher and even the tabloids generally carried some serious news and commentary. Not so long before that, virtually every street in working-class areas had Workers Education Association hall. Education was seen as desirable and, moreover, something that had had to be fought for in the recent past, and so was valued and treasured. Not by everyone, of course, but I'm sure as I can be about something so intangible that the general level of knowledge and engagement by the population was far higher than it is now, and of course at the time when most people left school at 15 or 16 and only a small minority went to university. It seems we have far more education but much more ignorance, plus – and this is crucial – a lack of curiosity about those outside your own age and social group. More than that, fear and suspicion, not just of recent immigrants, about which I could to write many thousands of words, but of anyone or anything but that immediately connected with your own social media's friends and followers.
Of course, it is common – indeed almost obligatory, when you reach a certain age - to moan on about younger generations; how fickle superficial they are; how little grasp they have their rich culture, history and heritage; how they only care about now and how they are dismissive of anything and anyone over, say, about 30. To this woman's generation, World War II is a long time ago and must seem completely irrelevant to her life today. She's wrong, of course, about that and it worries me – to return to the theme I know that I've explored before – that we seem to be returning to a pre-mass education, mass voting franchise age, where knowledge and reading is the preserve of an elite few, with the rest kept happy with the diet of booze, drugs, sex, football and TV talent shows. But it's more than that – there's a horrible conformity with, I detect, increasing pressures, and which is being exacerbated by social media.
Note how this young woman asked "what do we think" about this 'Whinston' (sic) Churchill. She could of course so easily have Googled his name – indeed her friend executed hopefully provides Wikipedia link – but that will take some effort, and even more so to form some sort of opinion or evaluation. So it's easier – and, crucially, far less socially risky - just to find out what those in a peer-group think and go along with it. Tick 'Like'. To do otherwise, invites ridicule and worse. I could be wrong about this of course (and by definition very hard to judge), but I think it's harder now to be something of one off as a young person than it was during my time or in previous generations – or even as recently as the 1990s. Social media provides a giant echo chamber but also slams the door on any dissenters.
Look at the pictures on any Facebook site for those aged roughly between 15 and 35. They might be in Malibu on Manchester, they are the same scenes: inside or falling about outside of pubs and clubs; the same expressions; the same rueful and gently mocking comments. The pressures to conform to a certain look, style, attitude seemed almost overwhelming. Unbelievable pressure on appearance, too –especially for girls – who must aspire to be a 'babe' (perfect clothes, perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect breasts) of some 'ripped' boyfriend, who, of course, must only ever add thoughts re clubbing, footie, video games, or occasionally, movies or TV shows. Or bile about a particular 'sleb' or, occasionally, political figure. Anything else would be poncy, nerdy, geeky, and – well – gay, which has been re-appropriated as a pejorative expression for something or someone (including, infamously a police horse, leading to a prosecution – only in Britain!) ineffectual/useless. Any signs of a well-stocked mind, let alone (God forbid) intellectual curiosity must be expunged from any discourse. This is not being a kill-joy: being young should definitely have a large measure of enjoyment, frivolity, irresponsibility. Even Margaret Thatcher's letters from her late teens and early twenties are – as we know from Charles Moore's newly published first volume of biography – dominated by discussions and anxieties about clothes, jewellery, parties, boyfriends, etc., and nobody would accuse her of not being a serious-minded person! I should think that at least half my Tweets are to do with trivia, and there are certainly a few pix on Facebook of me being in a slightly inebriated state, in convivial company. But it's a question of balance - isn't it?
Education and curiosity about the world around you; your own own history and culture, forces and factors and sciences that shape how we live and how we think; the freedoms that we have today, are crucial for the full rounded citizen and even maybe for our survival. Moreover, they all make life so much more interesting – and bearable. There is a solace in education for when the music and the partying stops and the bloom of youth fades. But if you don't have the means and the method inculcated when young it is very difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to make this mental switch when you are older.
There is also a worrying lack of perspective in today's culture: People seem unable to form instant judgements, and the speed – indeed instantaneous - quality of social media, leaves (another trap into which I've also fallen) to instant judgements, instant condemnations, in a blanket, 'we don't like this, we love that' attitude. There is a 'four legs good, two legs bad' mentality about. Subtlety and nuances seem to be in retreat. This is not good! If we do not have the context to put things in perspective you are likely to fall prey to all kinds of foolishness. Politicians must know all this but, with the notable exception of Boris Johnson, seem willing to pander to it.
Maybe it's all linked to (for the first time in our history let's not forget) the mass consumption of hard-core pornography, with one study suggesting that ALL (yes every one) in one sample of 14 year old boys had seen hard porn, and most 16 year olds have seen thousands of people having sex, and, shall we say in a variety of positions and situations. As I class myself as a libertarian I am not one to advocate censorship, even if my applies only adults (18 and over).In fact, I am rather impressed that my male students particular manage to get into classes in the morning, given the prevalence and ease of hard-core porn on their laptops and Smartphones for late light, erm, relief, and early morning 'wood'! Still, perhaps previous generations had to use more imagination: the scenarios were not, as it were, laid out before you. This must, surely have some effect on the psyche of young (and not so young) people, and in ways we've only just started investigating. It's also fascinating that all their/our lives are on the one (ahem!), handheld device: their social networks, Tweets Facebook status, comments, and Texts, their Apps for their coursework if at college, as well as their porn. We switch from to another of these modes with great rapidity. That must be doing something to our neurology! Our lives are no longer compartmentalised and delineated. This suits the Facebook corporation, the marketeers and the advertisers, as they can target their messages and campaigns far more effectively and profitably. But I am not sure it's good for the citizen or citizenry.
As you might expect me to argue, public service broadcasting is crucial in fighting this apparent ever spiralling descent to ignorance and stupidity. Proof of this was listening to some of the talk shows in the USA on my recent visit there. The most famous right-wing talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh was sounding off about the control of the media by 'leftists' – rather ironic as he is the most highly influential talk-show host and you'd be hard pressed to find any of his brethren who didn't follow similar lines of support for the interests of corporate America and the right-wing of the Republican Party. It is a struggle to find any truly balanced but lively journalism in the USA. This is little short of tragic, given their First Amendment on 'free expression'; the protection and seriousness with which they are guarded being in complete contrast to the UK. In the US, the cultural and political assumption is that everything public bodies do should be open to inspection and enquiry. It should be – and in some respects is – easily the best place on earth to practice as a journalist and citizens there should have the best media of all. But they don't. Journalists and journalism take themselves far too seriously (IMHO!), so serious stories are covered in a very dull fashion. You might balk sometimes in the UK about are (in)famously robust and partisan press. But give me that any day over the dull conformity of US newspapers, and the 'serious', almost reverential TV news and current affairs there, which mostly consists of middle-aged, grey-haired white man talking in a particular language and style that must be completely alien to most citizens. You only have to see the ads – for erectile dysfunction, prostate cancer, stair-lifts and retirement homes - to characterise their known audience. At the other end, the news coverage is sensationalist, dominated by crime, with (frequently sentimental and mawkish) 'human interest' stories. There is no way from exposure to this that the US citizen could join up all the dots to make sense of what's going on in the world, or even down their street.
There are some excellent radio stations, with National Public Radio (NPR) in particular containing some generally genuinely innovative programmes such as Radiolab, one of the subjects of my interviews when I was out there earlier this month. But NPR only reaches about 10% of the U.S. audience and the radio that most people listen to most of the time – the commercial terrestrial stations - has no news at all outside breakfast periods. In contrast, in the UK BBC network and local radio (all of which – even the 'yoof' service, Radio 1 - contains almost unavoidable levels of news coverage and reaches more than two-thirds of all 15+ citizens and over two-fifths of 15-44 year olds. Furthermore, even in the non-PSB commercial radio sector, I think all stations carry news throughout the daytime hours of week-days at least (try finding news on any commercial station in the US at, say, 5pm on weekdays). But that of course only suggests increased exposure to some national and local news by most of the population most days. It helps to explain why our Tweeter would have heard the name Churchill - it doesn't, sadly, give her the background as to who Churchill was, or what is his significance to her country's historic narrative. But it's a start!
We did have a period of perhaps less serious times – from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the financial crash of 2007-8 - almost a generation, despite 9/11, terrorist threats the breakup of some of the Balkan states. But that period, when we will probably had fewer wars and crises in our history, at least in the modern era (even if five million died in the Congo, perhaps the most under-reported war and genocide in the post-World War II era) is over. These are serious times – it is only history that will tell us how far we are into a new era. But a new era it is, for 'the West', with its declining power, wealth and influence, combined with the communications revolution and new challenges to what we thought were questions that had been settled in the European Enlightenment. We need to be smarter (and not just have smarter phones), be better informed, better able to connect those dots than ever before. And we need to have the confidence and ability to take a different tack from those around us; to challenge received wisdom; to be prepared to take unpopular views. Social media could be the catalyst for all this, but for all the excitable claims made for it, not least in a recent BBC Radio 4 series about the changing nature of news and journalism in the UK, it seems at the moment to be either consolidating the status quo, re-enforcing the barriers between 'us and them', narrowing our range of interests, and instilling a feeling sort of ennui, apathy and helplessness - which of course very well suits those with power and money.
NEXT TIME ON THE RUDIN BLOG (POSSIBLY): "so what do YOU do about all this, Rudin?' Or: The Undercover Lecturer.