Sunday, February 28, 2010

Nick Cohen ponders the psychodynamics of Blair Derangement Syndrome

It may be that quoting oneself is a bad habit that ought to be avoided, but sometimes it seems like the most expeditious way to provide the context for a new example of a continuing problem. As I noted back in December 2007:
Here in the US we have had to contend for a decade and a half with the peculiar phenomenon of Clinton Derangement Syndrome--a pervasive, almost obsessive hatred of Bill & Hillary Clinton that seems to have infected large numbers of people toward the right side of the political spectrum (and not only them). That's not to deny that people might have good reasons to disagree with either or both of the Clintons, or even dislike them. But in a great many cases the intensity of this hatred is not just irrational but, I must confess, inexplicable. Of course, the fact that CDS is irrational and often outright delusional (here is one especially ludicrous recent example) does not prevent it from being a significant social fact that has had a real impact on US politics and may do so again.

Over in Great Britain, the equivalent phenomenon among wide swathes of the intelligentsia and sectors of the educated middle classes more generally is Blair Derangement Syndrome. Again, there are serious reasons why people might disagree with Blair's policies and his political style or even condemn them--and let me re-emphasize that point, so no one can claim that I am unaware of it or trying to ignore it. But in many cases these feelings about Blair go beyond serious moral and political criticism and slide over into the realm of pervasive, all-consuming, obsessional, and even hysterical hostility. (Anyone who thinks my adjectives are exaggerated probably hasn't been following journalism and public discourse in Britain very closely for the past several years. And I should add that a few of my own friends, otherwise quite admirable and intelligent people, suffer from BDS in clinically extreme fashion. I am too kind to quote examples even anonymously.)

There are some interesting parallels to the Republican Clinton-hatred of the 1990s here. As Blair survived one scandal and attack after another that were supposed to finish him off, the impotent fury of Blair-haters only increased and became even wilder as they kept asking each new time, with ever-growing frustration and disbelief, "How the hell did he get away with that??!!"
=> Anyone who followed the reactions of the British media, commentariat, and intelligentsia to the recent Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq war will be aware that the intensity of BDS has scarcely diminished. Far from it. Guardian columnist Martin Kettler, who opposed the 2003 Iraq war at the time and remains quite critical of Blair's judgment on Iraq and other matters, nevertheless felt moved to express some exasperation and dismay about the apparently never-ending tendency "for an angry articulate minority to rage with increasing hysteria at Blair":
To say Blair got the national interest wrong over Iraq, and that Iraq was the pivotal error of his premiership, is true. But to say such things now feels like weirdly perverse understatement. The level of hyperbole has been raised so high, and the level of Blair-hatred is so intense in some quarters, that anyone who says "Yes, but" about Blair and his era struggles to make themselves heard, much less have themselves taken seriously.

Yet heard we should be. And heard we probably still are – by rather more people than some may credit – the further one journeys away from medialand self-absorption and the rantings of parts of the blogosphere, I suspect. Only 29% of voters think Iraq was Blair's fault, said a PoliticsHome poll last night. The issue plays less in the hard-grind Britain that elected Blair and his party three times and that – who knows? – might even elect him again if it had the chance. [....]

I am dismayed by the mistakes of Iraq. But I am glad I do not live in a country that is ruled by the people who seem to want nothing more than to hang Tony Blair from Tyburn tree and hold up his severed head to the howling mob.
(For a few more touches of sanity on these matters, see this piece by John Rentoul and a series of characteristically lucid, sensible, and perceptive posts by Norman Geras on Blair after Chilcot 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8.)

=> Still, Blair Derangement Syndrome remains a social fact that needs to be understood and explained. The British democratic-left journalist Nick Cohen was never much of a fan of Tony Blair--in fact, he was a harsh critic of New Labour and its policies from the start--but he also has a good deal of exasperation and contempt for BDS and its practitioners, and he has an acidly critical insider's perspective on the world of British journalism. That perspective may help explain why, in the piece below, Cohen zeroes in on some of the social-psychological dynamics underlying BDS in such an insightful and illuminating way. This isn't the whole story, but Cohen has clearly caught a significant part of it--or, at least, so it seems to me.
Thirteen years on, it is easy to forget the depth of the media's love for Blair, or recall that New Labour was as much a movement among broadcasters and print journalists as politicians. [....] Like spurned teenage lovers, former Blairites wail that he ravished them and then betrayed them, and that he must pay by suffering every kind of humiliation. [....] The accusation that he was guilty of human error is not good enough. Blair must have lied to Parliament and the country. He must have known that there were no WMD in Iraq but went to war anyway. The result of the almost sexual revulsion behind the campaign against him is that we are now on our fifth inquiry into Iraq. Like the European Union with the Irish electorate, the media class will keep demanding inquiries until they get the right result and find that Blair conspired to steal their virginity. [....]

The peculiar rules of British television add to the adolescent atmosphere. Because they require broadcasters to pretend to be impartial, journalists cannot admit that they made a political misjudgment and analyse their own failings as well as Blair's. You can never ask them why they supported a politician they now damn as wicked, and invite them to explain their mistake. The ideological mistakes and betrayals must be on the other side and on the other side alone because they must maintain the fiction that they are innocents who do not possess political beliefs. Infantilism follows because only children can be the truly innocent victims. Political maturity requires grown men and women to accept responsibility for their choices.

Do not expect the fit of petulance to pass. [....]
No, I'm not holding my breath.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Standpoint
March 2010
No Advocates for the Devil
The BBC and the rest of the media elite will never forgive Blair for betraying them
By Nick Cohen

JW: This is excerpted, but you can click on the title above to read the whole thing.]

In 1997, Peter Horrocks, the then editor of Newsnight and now director of the World Service, told his staff that the hard-hitting journalism of the Tory years should cease now Tony Blair was in power. [....] Thirteen years on, it is easy to forget the depth of the media's love for Blair, or recall that New Labour was as much a movement among broadcasters and print journalists as politicians. Tory columnists and editors abandoned their party to declare their admiration for the inspiring young leader. Greg Dyke and his contemporaries sent profits from the sale of their London Weekend Television shares Blair's way in the form of Labour party donations. [....]

Blair's combination of social and economic liberalism appealed to rich, right-thinking media executives, as did his telegenic charisma. He was the finest political performer they had seen, as I found out in the late 1990s, when Verso, a left-wing publisher, produced a book of my determinedly anti-Blair essays. The hapless designer searched for unflattering pictures of Tony to illustrate the cover, and concluded that they did not exist. [....]

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in liberal London, you just need to tune in to Andrew Marr. Watching him reduce Alastair Campbell to tears after his appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry last month, I wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to the intelligent and principled Blairite I had known in the 1990s. "600,000 people" had died in Iraq, Marr told Campbell, as he made the case for the prosecution, and his battered interviewee did not have the wit to reply that 600,000 people had done nothing of the sort. [....]

Campbell complained that Marr was "settling scores". It was a weak reply, but it captured the element of vindictiveness in today's Blair-baiting. Like spurned teenage lovers, former Blairites wail that he ravished them and then betrayed them, and that he must pay by suffering every kind of humiliation. They cannot accept that Blair made an honourable mistake: knowing that Saddam Hussein had possessed the means and the will to commit genocide in the past, he believed that the dictator continued to possess them in 2003. The accusation that he was guilty of human error is not good enough. Blair must have lied to Parliament and the country. He must have known that there were no WMD in Iraq but went to war anyway. The result of the almost sexual revulsion behind the campaign against him is that we are now on our fifth inquiry into Iraq. Like the European Union with the Irish electorate, the media class will keep demanding inquiries until they get the right result and find that Blair conspired to steal their virginity.

The peculiar rules of British television add to the adolescent atmosphere. Because they require broadcasters to pretend to be impartial, journalists cannot admit that they made a political misjudgment and analyse their own failings as well as Blair's. You can never ask them why they supported a politician they now damn as wicked, and invite them to explain their mistake. The ideological mistakes and betrayals must be on the other side and on the other side alone because they must maintain the fiction that they are innocents who do not possess political beliefs. Infantilism follows because only children can be the truly innocent victims. Political maturity requires grown men and women to accept responsibility for their choices.

Do not expect the fit of petulance to pass. Blair is like Margaret Thatcher now — a politician for whom the broadcasters can never have a good word. In Mo, Channel 4's otherwise excellent drama-documentary on the last years of Mo Mowlam, Blair appeared as a despicable and vain figure who plotted to take the credit for Mowlam's hard work. Channel 4 could not say the British Prime Minister had to get involved in the peace process because the Irish Taoiseach and the American President were already involved. It ignored the realities of international diplomacy and dismissed Blair's achievements because, I suspect, the climate in broadcasting is such that to declare that he was not all bad is like announcing that you have seen the sweet side of a serial killer or possess sympathy for the Devil.

One day, probably about 30 years from now, a cultural historian will go through the political television of our time and wonder why, if Blair was such a palpably evil man, he managed to win so many elections.

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