Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The problem with stupidity

Malcolm Walker – clever or very stupid?
Some years ago, great amusement was caused when Gerald Ratner, the boss of high street jewellery store Ratners, declared that his family firm sold tat.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors in 1991, he observed: “We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95.

“People say: ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say: ‘because it’s total crap’.”

Customers stayed away, shares plummeted, Ratner resigned and the group had to change its name.

And thus ‘doing a Ratner’ entered the lexicon.

If you believed that bosses would learn, you would be wrong.

For Malcolm Walker, the boss of the Iceland frozen food chain, has now just had his own ‘doing a Ratner’ moment.

As the horsemeat story continues to show that it has legs, he decided to weigh in, objecting to how the entire debacle was being linked to cheap, processed, supermarket food.

‘Neigh, neigh!’ he said (in effect). ‘It wasn’t us wot did it – it was those nasty councils. And the NHS. And, err, anyone else that I can blame!’

The premise appears to that these services are demanding that food be cheaper, so that is damaging the retail market.

Even assuming that the first part of this was true, it’s hard to imagine how that would somehow change the retail sector.

Supermarkets struggle to outdo each other in being seen as cheap.

When Asda, for instance, launches a TV advertising campaign saying it will undercut its rivals, it’s not because a hospital somewhere has demanded its suppliers give it a better deal on food, but because that is the core ethos of Asda’s owner, Wal-Mart.

And Tesco follows the Wal-Mart model absolutely.

It can hardly be considered a result of public service demands if Iceland – one of the country’s champions of cheap convenience food since it was founded in 1970 – has sold prawn rings and lasagne bites for a quid a piece.

This is a company that was obviously being so hammered by the same dreadful public sector that it could, in 1989, buy rival Bejam, having already spent the intervening years expanding massively.

Oh no – the public sector created the situation where Iceland sell shite at low prices – and where Aldi and Lidl could move into the very same market, and where every supermarket chain has some version or other of the ‘value’ produce.

There are a large number of factors at play in and behind this entire issue – which is largely why most news agencies opt for one simple approach – but the idea that councils and the NHS are to blame is utterly risible.

And anyone with an ounce of logic will be understand this too.

But, but …

While it’s nice to believe that this is Walker’s own Ratner moment, it could also be a somewhat cleverer ploy that will gain some traction with the easily persuaded. Or maybe the public discourse is so poor these days that nothing such a person says matters.

Let’s face it, there are plenty of people out there who still believe that the spending of the last Labour government was a) at record levels and b) the cause of the financial crisis and subsequent recessions.

And as the row over Hilary Mantel’s London Review of Books lecture on royal bodies past and present revealed, there is a swathe of the British populace that is very easily manipulated and doesn’t bother to look beyond what sensationalised headlines and selective reports tell them.

And then, in a state of high dudgeon, they decide that they can wage war on the likes of Mantel, defending the apparently wronged Duchess of Cambridge – in some cases by using social media to attack Mantel, including on the basis of her physical appearance.

On the Huffington Post UK, one reader, in a particularly stupid post, demanded to know whether Mantel – of whom she had not heard – was trying to get her “15 minutes of fame”.

You don’t have to like Mantel’s work – or even to have read it. You don’t have to agree with all the points in the lecture – but do at least try to read it before drawing conclusions. But Mantel is a double Booker winner and best-selling author. Just what “15 minutes of fame” could anyone really ‘think’ she seeks?

This is a bang-head-on-the-table moment that perfectly illustrates not only the dismal state of public discourse in the UK, but why it’s so bad in the first place.

The bulk of the media has dumbed down – at least a little – in order to appeal to the largest number of readers or viewers possible.

And the likes of the Daily Mail – which is now one of the world’s biggest online success stories – is a past master at whipping the unintelligent and unchallenging into a frenzy with its skilful misrepresentations of all manner of things.

In this case, it contorted Mantel’s lecture to suggest not that the writer was criticising the centuries-long, unflinching stare of the public on the monarchy, or the media that feeds that and profits from it, but that it was bitching about the Duchess herself.

Let’s not forget: when Diana and Dodi died in a speeding car in a Paris underpass, they were fleeing paparazzi that wanted to flog the pictures to papers and magazines and websites for that ravenous public to consume, pixel by pixel.

Mantel’s comparison of the attitude toward modern royals and that toward older ones is a salient reminder that, in this particular chicken-and-egg conundrum, the public demand for information (and gossip) preceded the commoditisation of that demand by (first) the print media.

On the other issues, however, we are left with the question of the relativism of pretending that all views are equal.

It’s entirely one thing to say that everyone has a right to air their views, but how should we react to those people who cannot be bothered to educate themselves beyond a tabloid headline, let alone those who, on that same basis, then launch into vile abuse?

The internet – and social media – does enable a democratisation of the public discourse, but it also facilitates the uninformed and the abusive, not just but not least by permitting anonymity.

However, setting the abuse aside, that doesn’t tackle the question of how society should include – or otherwise – those who cannot be trusted to make reasoned judgments that go beyond a headline that’s effectively attached directly to their knee.

Bringing things bang up to date, earlier today, the jury in the trial of Vicky Pryce for perverting the course of justice was dismissed by the judge after he expressed dismay at “a deficit in understanding” of some jurors.

And when you consider that the 10 questions posed by the jury to the judge included: ‘Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence?’ it’s difficult not to think that Mr Justice Sweeney was being overy polite.

There will now be a retrial. Hopefully, for the sake of both justice and the public purse, the 12 good men and true will be a tad more intelligent.

You cannot blame people for not being particularly bright – although willful ignorance is another matter – but how do you build a society that does not exclude those people, but doesn’t leave the rest of society at their mercy?

Do what we in the West routinely understand as ‘democracy’ mean an inevitable dumbing down, à la HL Mencken’s pithy 1920 analysis of US political life:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

It was a quote that gained rather more srecent attention when George ‘Dubya’ Bush was US president, but looking at the likes of Sarah Palin and Todd Akin and many, many more, it’s difficult not to worry – at least a little – that Mencken was not merely overly cynical but disturbingly prescient.

And, it’s equally difficult not to believe that Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale could actually happen.

So how do we ensure that democracy does not become dominated by the intellectually-challenged?

That’s a question that leads, inexorably it would seem, to one of how we avoid government of the elite by the elite for the elite. Because that is the reality of what happens when governments are both fearful of the bulk of the media, and spend their time throwing out soundbites that seek to play to the populist view.

Thus both prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband had comments to make yesterday about Mantel’s lecture. And both revealed, in those comments, that they had either not read it or not understood it or – worst of all – deliberately ignored the reality of that lecture to simply kow tow to the populist outrage whipped up by the Mail, the Sun and, even more shamefully, some of the broadsheets.

Perhaps Malcolm Walker is somewhat cleverer than it would be nice to believe on the basis of his idiotic statements – or perhaps he isn’t.

But increasingly it appears that we have a media that is not a fair and open one; that is determined not to present fair and transparent discussion and debate, but to promote agendas based on false representations of the facts.

And that the least intelligent members of our society are the ones whose views are afforded greatest credence by our politicians – a situation created (largely) or at least bolstered by our mainstream media – can hardly be seen as a good one.

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