Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sanctimony in the UK

I've been trying to determine exactly why I feel so uncomfortable with the condemnation of MPs over their expenses claims.

The answer is I have been revolted by the sanctimonious priggishness of the newspapers. Sanctimonious priggishness is only fun when it is me directing it at others: even seeing someone else direct it at a third party is unpleasant, possibly because of rays of sanctimonious priggishness being reflected in my direction.

Daniel Davis calls it right: the MP who said that he deserved his taxpayer-funded duck house is exactly the kind of guy I'd vote for. Honest, to-the-point, pro-duck. Too bad he was a Tory.


During my working day I am exposed to a lot of newspapers.

As such I end up reading a lot of front pages. I'd rather not, but it is an occupational hazard, just like putting up with idiots buying shitloads of crap they don't need and then objecting to paying one penny for a bag "on principle".

Newspaper headlines are full of bile and self-rightous indignation at the best of times, but the tabs, and The Telegraph, have outdone themselves with their inane rantings on the issue of MPs expenses.

My objection is not to the reporting of the facts of MPs expenses (they should of course be public knowledge as a matter of course), rather it is to the attitude of the reaction to the reporting.

There is my visceral dislike of the vox-pop faux-outrage of TGBP as they rant away at their elected representatives whilst ignoring the various ways they're being fucked over by businesses, the media, their bosses, popular culture, and 21st century life in general.

But there is more to my dislike of this story.

Let's step back a moment.

In a society there are a few problems that need to be solved. One is the problem of how you identify error in a complex society. Another is how that error is broadcast, such that a solution may be found.

In a civilized society (or, in the absence of a civilized society, a pluralistic liberal democracy such as wot we 'ave 'ere) if you identify a problem you broadcast it, it is debated, critically analysed, and many solutions are proferred.

A solution or group of solutions will be selected after various deliberations and debate and compromise, then you move on. At some indeterminate time in the future the solution is tested or re-evaluated.

The way our system of liberal democracy has developed has lead to an important part of this process (primarily the identification and broadcast components, or as I shall call it "I/B") being carried out as a worthwhile byproduct of the profit-seeking activities of a collection of businesses called newspapers.

Newspapers are run by humans, so as I/B systems newspapers are subject to all the usual cognitive biases, and are therefore prone to horrible failure modes.

I suspect in the phase space of all possible ways of solving the I/B problem newspapers occupy a local maxima. There may well be better ways of dealing with I/B (some kind of universal Panopticon and a million bored apes?).

But here the press has failed in that is has chosen to concentrate on a minor side-effect of the wider problem:

MPs were writing the rules for their own expenses. To whom are they accountable?

Half our legislature is unelected. This is a bad joke.

Our executive is more powerful than our legislature. This is a bad idea.

If there is a problem here it is bigger than the problem of MPs expenses, it is a problem with the way our legislature is set up and our government is elected.

So why are the newspapers focussing on the sneering, snide, grumpy, petty, priggish, holier-than-thou, expenses-obsession rather than the actual issues.

The British are possessed of the same peasant mentality as the Americans. Easily distracted by the threat of external foes but fundamentally incapable of addressing the real problems.

I agree with what Joan Smith writes in The Guardian

The British public – not all of them, but the smug guardians of morality who are enjoying this crisis so much – say they are disgusted by the behaviour of our elected representatives. Let me say that it works both ways: for the first time in my life, I am sick of my country. I am sick of the daily undermining of democracy, and sick of the sadistic pleasure people take in humiliating decent public servants. Even so, I will go on urging my friend not to give up her seat. She is a brilliant constituency MP, and I don't believe anyone should give in to bullies.


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