Monday, 5 May 2014

Nobody Knows

I’ve learned a lot of things from the internet. It’s a marvellously democratic vehicle for getting facts and opinions out there. Despite its detractors, Wikipedia alone is a wonder, never mind project Guttenberg, the Library of Congress, Hansard and the Oxford English Dictionary. It has been estimated that it would take an individual, reading at 200 words a minute, something in the order of four and a half billion years to read it all… by which time, of course, there would be so much more of it.

But what if - and this will rock your world - not everything people wrote on the internet was actually true? I know! For instance the fact that it would take you four and a half billion years to read all of it just popped into my head. I made it up. But there have been estimates made, not one single one of which stands up to any determined scrutiny. I just made that up as well but think about it; nobody knows how many words there are out there and how many are in an easily readable form. Even if we did know the number it still requires the ridiculous construct of a single person reading 200 words a minute every minute of every day for four and a half billion years. It is a ‘factoid’ and of no use to anybody.

Did I say ‘marvellously democratic’? I believe I did and this illustrates one of the fundamental problems with democracy on the scale we try and practice it in the UK. The last few days of scrapping over UKIP, Jeremy Clarkson, Ed Miliband’s latest attempts at being taken seriously, AstraZeneca and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all have been a flurry of obfuscation, misdirection, disinformation, contortion and distortion. Oh, and downright lies of course. The problem? How do you sift through the source material - even if it is made available - and come to a decision?

Before you accept a new headline do you honestly believe you have carried out extensive research into its veracity and have come to a conclusion based on facts, economic reality and an impartial weighing up of the pros and cons? Or is it more likely that you have taken it at face value and adopted a stance based on which side you have already decided to be? In almost every case it will be the latter, despite the fact that this makes no sense. No political party has the monopoly on wisdom or stupidity, efficiency or ineptitude. Labour don’t want people equally poor, the Tories don’t exist purely for the betterment of the rich and UKIP really, really don’t hate anybody. (I’m still trying to get a ‘fix’ on those pesky LibDems.)

They all believe they have at least some of the answers but you don’t really want to know what those answers are. You just want to cheer on your side, to which end you will get out the bunting for whatever presses your particular partisan buttons. Some of you are so far off being objective you should only be allowed plastic scissors and school glue.

So, let’s examine reaction to the bald truth that the population of the UK will increase by 250,000 a year for the next ten years, much of it due to inward migration. Do you:

A) Hail it as a good thing. These people are coming here to work, which shows the economy is growing and British industry is getting back on its feet again.
B) Shout about how this government has reneged on its promise to limit immigration to the tens of thousands which proves you cannot trust the Tories with protecting our borders.
C) Thank goodness all the hateful racist talk has not prevented immigrants from seeking to make Britain their home. Without them our NHS, our whole infrastructure and YOUR pensions would not survive.
D) Insist that unrestricted unskilled immigration is harming the life chances of our young people and putting an unbearable strain on our services.

The trouble is that every single one of those statements is perfectly reasonable depending on what you believe yet not one of them is the unalloyed truth. Not only that, but they are merely repeating assertions made by others; these are not your thoughts, not your opinions, because you neither know the truth nor are most of you equipped to handle it. Our so-called democracy is based not on your ability to make decisions but on your ability to be taken in by one political tribe or another.

So wake up. You are never more than ten feet from a rat? Palpable bollocks. A million people in Britain would starve without food banks? Cynical soundbite – show me the starving. Reform the EU and offer an in/out referendum? I’ll believe it when I see it. Three million jobs depend on the EU? Even the man who wrote that report says it is untrue. You owe it to yourself to examine every unknowable generalisation and challenge every assertion.

I’ve learned a lot of things from the internet. One of the things I’ve learned is that as a species we don’t really give a shit about the facts. That population growth figure? Nobody even knows the actual population of the UK. How on earth can they claim to have the first idea of how it is likely to change in the future? Yes, I made that up too. Democracy? You can’t handle democracy! 


  1. US Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), ca 1980's: "You are entitled to your own opinion-- NOT your own set of facts."

    A risible old-school Great Society Dem (who nonetheless fretted whether its policies might not be destructive to minorities), whose alcoholism and being a closeted poofter was politely never mentioned-- but he got this one absolutely right.