The Grift

an Editorial

This is an article about foxes.

The debates on Question Time are rarely debates so much as reiterations, and the interviews on This Morning or Good Morning Britain are filler that accidentally accrued ratings for the programmes.  There is now a completely deficient layer of broadcasting that offers the opposite of information, and it only exists to try and make money.  The feeble contrarian lot may seem to be the real profiteers but are instead working on their hands and knees for attention.  To be ‘notorious’, or just to be talked about for more than a day, a provocateur has to keep flooding the zone.  The most recent Question Time contrarian is now, for example, putting up pictures of his lonely dinners onto Twitter for – well who knows what for? So that people will buy his album? So that he can play the new sidekick on Vera? The point is he momentarily gets more interviews and press coverage, and some more Twitter followers, while a few men of a similar age at The Spectator, with a column they need to fill, can observe the aftermath of this tantrum and smirkingly call it Orwellian.

This actor is just an easy tool for the media, although he does not realise it.  The zone of media and information (that we can never log out of) has hinged itself on the superficial narrative of the culture war for over a decade.  “Wokism” is now the buzzword, but it was “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, and other good-natured concepts fostered at Universities that were then drip-fed to older generations by the mainstream and right-wing media, like spies returning from the enemy camp.  The approach of the mainstream media to campus culture and, by extension, millennial culture, is reminiscent of how The Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn – thankfully now a mostly forgotten figure in a previous age of contrarians – used to dig around for stories about “political correctness” (he once capped off a column about a random school trip by asking “when will it be a crime to be white British?”).  Littlejohn would find little harmless dramas and inflate them into a grand, endless conspiracy about the “Nanny State”, and this worked because he knew his audience.  The “zone” knows its audience.  It throws out chicken feed, like a very local incident on Oberlin Campus where international students issued a polite protest about modified dishes, and then pumps out an endless rung of stale articles and opinion pieces about the same non-scandal (this particular non-scandal has been dissected by Vinay Patel for The Chronicle of Higher Education).  A small-scale, entirely genteel protest about campus cuisine is not international news in any respect, but it somehow became one of those false synecdoches; a thing twisted from its original frame then treated as indicative of something that does not really exist.  The Oberlin Campus story was regurgitated as proof that students, millennials, and progressives in general are out of touch, instead of culturally conscious; power-hungry, instead of following all preceding generations and being to some degree at odds with those currently in power. 

The media’s fascination with progressive culture and the idea of a culture war has created an unhealthy imbalance within public debate.  Progressivism is, at its essence, egalitarian; the thesis of “wokism”, another term that has become meaningless in its snarky overuse, was fundamentally levied towards the notion of fair opportunity.  “Wokism” has become debased jargon for progressive overreach, a replacement for “political correctness” now that the Western world is led by a distinctly non-PC political class.  The term is now attached to issues that are of little progressive concern in order to humidify the movement from its more urgent aims, and the casual consumer of Western mainstream media is consistently sold the impression that “wokism” is just the gatekeeping of bakery produce and old sitcoms.  The clever contrarian operates solely as an antagonist to these non-issues – as contemporary media functions best with conflict – and launches themselves against an entirely passive enemy.  It truly would be a charmed time to be alive if the most important issue of the day was Greggs selling vegan sausage rolls, but before the pink faced Good Morning Britain host tweeted about it, no one had given the issue any thought.  As soon as he did, the media had a field day; it was the woke vs. the anti-woke brigade, even though the former never cared enough to take arms.  These stories are smoke-screens – and they are the real grift because they give the media easy clicks.  For the right-wing media, “wokism” is particularly necessary as a catch-all term because it allows them to attack a hegemony (and Fox News, The Daily Mail, etc., have fine-tuned their perspective to be that of a permanently besieged underclass, rather than the media arm of ultra-Conservative governments).  In mainstream outlets, “wokism” is made to be the opposite of contrarianism, rather than just an incidental opponent, creating two poles of equal extremity which they can play off by posing as the sensible middle-ground.  It feels particularly humbug, in the current political climate, that the latter portrayal of “workism” remains so potent. There is a vast autocracy who exercise an unwieldy control on people’s lives, but oddly this autocracy is composed of billionaires and their friends in politics, not students asking for content warnings in their lectures.

Some outlets are more blameless in this dynamic; the free press has to farm content from social media in order to satisfy their corporate algorithms, so when a scandal about “wokism” makes the rounds the story is reproduced with a pithy headline and quick explanation.  That is the game the free press has to play to stay alive.  It is far more unforgivable when the BBC, or The New York Times, or any outlets which pride themselves on their integrity and pedigree, co-opt the narrative of “wokism” for ratings or online traffic.  These outlets have developed a symbiotic relationship with controversy, even if the provocateurs themselves are dispensable.  They too have decided that their approach to the “zone” – the challenge of needing constant streams of content across multiple platforms – is to simply amplify disagreements that are small and loud.  Through this amplification, they create the impression that the Western world is facing a culture war between the omnipotent woke left and the underdog contrarian right.  A brief scan at the world outside of the trenches of social media only reminds one how shallow and inaccurate this portrait is.