Freelancing is a precarious way to make a living, as anyone who does it professionally will tell you, and that’s even more true for the ‘political commentator’. I put the phrase in quotes because there are actually relatively few real political commentators in this country; the majority of political discourse is formed by a background hum of what could be better termed ‘influencers’.
Influencers are maybe the modern trend that baffles me the most. You know the kind of thing, the person who has a million followers on YouTube and holds up a packet of biscuits and tells them “Eat Friskybix, they made me the person I am today.” I gather you can make a good living doing that; Friskybix pay pretty well for that kind of exposure.
It’s the same for the vast majority of political influencers in this country – and let’s face it in the US and elsewhere too – although they’re selling ideology rather than biscuits. Although some of them sell biscuits too.
When these influencers break through into the real world – on the news or in newspaper columns or chat shows – you tend to see the same faces over and over again. That’s because there’s a subculture of commentators, going from gig to gig, booked because they’re entertaining or their faces fit or their views align with the particular programme or publisher or broadcaster, or because they can be relied on to say something horrible and give the ratings a bump. Because we tend to see the same people, it’s easy to think this subculture is quite small, but it isn’t really. It is, though, a small pond, and the resources they’re competing for are limited.
Right at the bottom of the food chain are the social media users, thousands and thousands of them. We’ve all seen them and either blocked them or followed them, depending on our point of view. The more advanced of these will have blogs too, and Patreons or some other fundraising scheme to keep the wolf from the door while they’re doing the blogging. Somewhere up ahead in the misty distance is the golden destination, a gig at a ‘think tank’, a newspaper column, the newspaper review on the news channels or – the final, dreamed-of apotheosis – a television show of their own.
It goes without saying that gigs like this aren’t just lying around waiting to be picked up. You have to work for them, and that means gathering followers. A big following will boost your profile, make it more likely that you’ll come to the attention of that television producer or that think tank.
The quickest and easiest way to get a lot of followers is to pick a side on some issue and then shout loudly and continually about it. Brexit, vaccines, statues, taking the knee, whatever. There’s already an audience out there, you just have to stake out a patch of ground, get yourself a Patreon, hope that as your follower numbers grow you’ll be able to get sponsorship from a biscuit company or two as well. Thing is, that does actually work; biscuit manufacturers and political shysters are constantly looking for someone to get their message across. For some influencers, steps up the ladder do come.
You can never take your foot off the accelerator, though. No matter how high you rise in the food chain you have to keep up the follower numbers and attract more and more. Being righteously horrible all over Twitter will drive clicks to your newspaper column or listeners to your radio show and keep your employers happy, and keep you in biscuits.
It’s a narrow line to walk, though. Sometimes, and we’re all familiar with the cases, a commentator will Go Too Far and kick out the props supporting their career – they lose a high-profile lawsuit, say, and consequently lose their paid radio and newspaper gigs and wind up having to go to the States and suckle on the far-Right teat.
All of this is not to say these people aren’t horrible, but they’re being horrible for a purpose. It’s their job. It’s how they get their biscuits.
One of the big issues of the past year or so is facemasks. To wear or not to wear? Useful medical intervention or symbol of oppression? They’re a handy way to kick-start your career as a political commentator right now. All you have to do is drop a couple of tweets citing Professor AN Expert from Internet University, who says masks make your kids infertile, and sit back and watch people start following you.
Okay, maybe it’s not that easy, but you get the idea. Masks are interesting. Some people don’t like them, and some people can’t wear them for one reason or another, but for the vast majority of people they’re a fairly blameless and temporary inconvenience. As someone pointed out recently, if masks don’t work all I’ve done is wear a bit of cloth in Tesco’s for half an hour; if they do I might have helped save someone’s life. It seems odd, to me anyway, that they’ve become such a divisive thing, until you remember that they’re a rallying point for the commentators. They bring in the biscuits. And they’re still dividing people, even though the requirement to wear them comes to an end in a little over a week.
(Just as an aside, it’s baffled me that mask wearing has become such an issue in the US, where so much of superhero iconograpy is predicated on characters who wear masks. Is Batman, somehow, a victim of oppression?)
Whatever, the real point is that masks are an issue of division, something to be exploited, a ‘Culture War’ fetish object. The actual physical masks are meaningless. They’re just an argument to be had, a battle to be won.
The commentator subculture can’t stand still. You can keep an issue going for a surprisingly long time, if you’re smart, but even then it will eventually get stale and people will get bored and drift off. So the pot has to be continually stirred, new issues have to be taken up. Got to keep those biscuits coming in.
Which I suppose brings me to the Marxists.
I’m not sure how and when this got started, but I first heard of it in connection with Black Lives Matter. Suddenly, apparently, BLM was a Marxist plot to take over the world. Which surprised me, and probably surprised the Marxists too. So football fans booing their team for taking the knee aren’t booing an anti-racist gesture, they’re booing an Evil Ideology. Similarly, there’s a Tory MP who is boycotting the England football team because they take the knee and are therefore supporting an ideology which stands against everything right-thinking Englishmen stand for, or something. Anyway, it seems that ‘woke’ – itself a confected point of division – is now a Marxist plot and therefore it’s perfectly allowable to oppose it because you’re fighting the good fight for non-Marxist civilisation, rather than just making crap jokes about minorities.
More seriously, I’ve heard it used to smear scientists. One Tory MP (yes, they do keep popping up, don’t they) described one scientist who was advising caution in the government’s plan to relax covid restrictions, as a ‘long-standing Communist’. I don’t know whether she is or not, and I don’t particularly care, but what possible bearing does it have on her scientific opinion? Unless he said it to bring to mind images of totalitarian communist states oppressing their people.
None of this would matter particularly, except the scientist was a member of the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and undermining them and their advice could have quite serious consequences. On the other hand, the government seems to have cut that particular Gordian Knot by simply ignoring SAGE’s advice on relaxing restrictions, so there’s that.
Anyway, tl;dr, the country’s fucked and there’s no way to fix it, even if we do survive long enough to try.
Incidentally and in passing, I probably missed it but I haven’t noticed any of the Free Speech warriors and Freedom campaigners coming out in opposition to the recent Home Office legislation restricting the right to protest. I guess, as ever, the truth is that they’re protecting their freedom and not ours.
(Disclaimer: This blog is in no way affiliated with Friskybix, FriskyCorp, or the FriskyGroup of companies, including Frisky Incarceration Services, Frisky Oil Exploration and Frisky Security Consultants)