Monday, October 17, 2011

Boilerplate lizardry

It's a shame really. I liked Charlie Brooker when he wrote about gaming and television - he was reasonably witty, moderately original and tolerably fluent. It's unfortunate that none of this has made it across to what I suppose we have to call his political columns. Because they word that most reliably describes these is lazy. Lazy in thought, lazy in language and lazy in execution.

Fine, he's a Guardian columnist, and originality of thought is evidently pretty strongly discouraged. But, and this week's effort is a pretty perfect illustration of this, what a waste of talent. To recap, briefly. In one of Brooker's hilarious columns, he was criticising the BBC. Obviously, since the BBC occupy one of the two great secular thrones in the Guardian's pantheon (the NHS sitting in the other), he had to bookend his incredibly mild critique of Auntie with some boilerplate anti-Conservatism (because, you know, Guardian). And so he thought about it for maybe a second or two and came up with the idea that David Cameron is a lizard who becomes sexually aroused by the pain of baby animals. I know, hilarious right?

Graeme Archer, who has either read a lot less of this sort of thing than I have or an awful lot more, made the point that:

People who look at other human beings, but see lizards hiding behind masks, are the sort of people from whom one normally backs away, carefully, trying to avoid stumbling over the chairs behind one’s legs.

And went on to say that, generally, the modern left's style of debate is to assume that all Conservatives are not just mistaken, but malign; Tories don't just disagree, they are a force of barely human evil. Maybe it's just a perspective thing, but I don't think this is a terribly controversial point to make. Even mainstream left wing journalists - the Toynbees and YABs of this world - seem to start from the conviction that the Conservatives are setting out deliberately to hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Descend into the comment threads in the left-wing blogosphere and it's rather starker - Tories are Nazis. Simple as that.

To an extent, of course, this is a game that can be played by both sides. In the old pre-bowdlerised days the invective at the Devil's Kitchen was pretty unprintable, and the left certainly see the Daily Mail as a constant drip of hate (though I admit I haven't seen anything from them as unpleasant as the Brooker article). On this theme, Brooker used his Guardian column to write a response to Archer's piece, which he started by trying to prove that Archer was a hypocrite:

Archer has a point. It isn't fair to imply someone is "less than human". It would be unfair, for instance, to describe Geoff Hoon as "an overfed, self-satisfied cat, oozing smugness" or to describe Labour MPs en masse as a "legion of dead-eyed Brown spawn", as Archer did in his Conservative Home blog, presumably as part of some strange unconscious typing accident.

First of all, we should at least give some credit for the research involved here - both the pieces quoted date back to 2007. The google-fu is strong with this one. Of course, the actual merit of the argument is less impressive. Archer was saying that Geoff Hoon, did not receive his just deserts for his failings as Defence Secretary (we are reaching back into the Mesozoic Era for this one) but instead,

He was quietly refashioned and now sits as “Leader” of the House of Commons, like some overfed, self-satisfied cat, oozing smugness, ready to lecture us sternly about the importance of upholding democracy.

You know, a simile. Unfortunately, the effort required to miss the point of a couple of blogs written four years ago (so long ago that Charlie Brooker was still funny) appears to have been an exhausting one. Luckily he was able to outsource the rest of the column to his equally amusing Twitter followers. Nice work if you can get it I suppose.

Archer's main point still stands though. Weighting your arguments on the basis that your opponents are wicked sub-human scum is intellectually sterile. Why bother assessing the actual merits of anything? We are right because we are good; you are wrong because you are bad. It's a standard of political analysis that would shame a three year old. Worse than that, it's a line of argument with seriously dodgy antecedents. Maybe Charlie should take a little look at the sort of people that label their political opponents cockroaches or rats and consider whether he thinks this is the sort of thing he's proud of doing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Weighting your arguments on the basis that your opponents are wicked sub-human scum is intellectually sterile."

What argument? I've read the article in question, and I can't find one.

Brooker has no agenda other than to wind up people like you and the Telegraph team/readership. Glad to see he's succeeding.

1:53 pm  
Blogger Longrider said...

Brooker has no agenda other than to wind up people like you and the Telegraph team/readership. Glad to see he's succeeding.

Quite true. He has nothing to say and says it frequently. I can't speak for Tim, but for me I can't say that I am wound up by it. However it is worth pricking the illusion of cleverness from time to time. This emperor really doesn't have any clothes. Ne never did. Unlike Tim, I never found him amusing. Unless a dose of dysentery is something to laugh about. In which case, he is hilarious and mighty witty to boot.

2:18 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

"What argument? I've read the article in question, and I can't find one."

If you'd read either Graeme's piece or my own you might have seen that we both moved from the specific to the general - Brooker's piece was an illustration of a more general trend.

Guy Stagg actually summed up the Brooker element of it pretty neatly (but it's on the Telegraph, so naturally you won't read it).

"By assuming your opponent lacks some essential decency or compassion, you shut down the debate, and this is surely what made Archer angry."

9:54 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And normally, making sweeping and unfounded generalisations would be seen as evidence of a lack of actual content in your argument. But I guess here it's seen as a desirable quality.

I'll assume your piece is an illustration of the more general trend of piss-weak blogging.

1:54 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

Make all the assumptions you like. Although if you're finding sweeping and unfounded generalisations in this piece, then you're clearly reading it wrong.

As to piss-weak blogging, I'll defer to your judgement here. After all, I've read a lot of your stuff, anonymous, and some of it is jolly good.

10:22 am  

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