Monday, 22 April 2013

When a novelist becomes a flunky of the plutocrats

Plato hated democracy, the idea that everyone has a voice to influence the direction of society. Our dear old Plato recommended a sober oligarchy to vouchsafe the safety of Athens. And before Henry VIII broke with Rome, the vernacular Bible was barred in England from any but the "sober" men who would be able to appropriately consume its message. It was considered too dangerous to the status quo to let just anyone read its messages of hope and liberation. Even the framers of American democracy were never democrats, and recommended a limited franchise out of fear that the rabble might get to decide things that had always been subjugated to the will of men like themselves. Limiting information and restricting a public voice to a powerful  few has always been the way of autocrats despite technological changes that have tended to thwart their self-interested machinations. The internet is part of the revolution in communications technologies that is allocating space to anyone with the money to afford a computer (or a smart phone) and a broadband connection (or a data plan with a telco).

You'd be surprised to learn that even those who we turn to for spiritual recreation remain nonplussed by the democratisation of speech. Today, novelist Lionel Shriver has weighed in with a severe message of opprobrium to denounce "a whole swath of the human race" which "feels ostracised, under-appreciated, sour and fiercely resentful" and dare to use the internet to publish their views. And Shriver finds those views unpleasant. Stunned by what she finds online, Shriver glibly stretches logic and equates comments on blogs with terrorism.
Terrorism is merely a physical manifestation of the spleen that contaminates nearly all public conversation these days. The internet is awash in bile, sometimes so acidic that it drives teenagers to suicide. Vandals on the sidelines sneer at anyone foolish enough to say something, under the misguided impression that demolition is a form of creativity. Hence packing pressure cookers full of nails, ball bearings and explosive and crafting an especially vicious, below-the belt comment on a website seem to entail their own admirable flair and daring.
"Whether the weapon of choice is explosives or expletives," Shriver wisely and wittily opines, "the underlying spirit of violence is identical." "These days"? Or is it, Lionel, that the internet has finally given more ordinary people the ability to say what they were previously - in a world more consonant with your tastes - barred from saying. Once, it was easy for the letter's editor at the local broadsheet to filter out the distasteful, the profane, the embarrassing, or the overly revealing. The sober tone could be maintained through editorial fiat. Someone responsible was in control, but not now when every mad-as-a-snake would-be pundit can weigh in with his or her totally misguided viewpoint and disturb the otherwise serene daylight hours of distinguished novelists with fecund back-lists and the luxury of time to sit down and craft careful sentences. Secure that an admiring literary agent will be able to place your next opus with a reputable publisher whose eager and talented media flaks are sure to get plenty of exposure with a supine national press.

Shriver has decided that the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by hatred and is content to leave it at that, with a sisterly filip to the US president's condemning the "small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build"; but while he was talking in his usual unctuous tones about terrorists, Shriver is talking about internet trolls. It's as though Shriver had drunk a bit too much of whatever Rush Limbaugh imbibes every morning when he gets out of bed. How did it happen that a noteworthy novelist turned into such a reactionary gull? Was it after she bought the second house? Was it when she decided that she would regularly consume truffles for lunch? Did it have something to do with the price on the bottles of rare Chilean wine she has come to prefer?

But maybe I'm wrong, and there is nothing for anyone to get mad about these days. Maybe the indecency of a Russian oligarch paying US$90 million for a New York penthouse so that his daughter can attend a US college in comfort, is merely nothing after all? Perhaps it is uncontroversial that the minimum wage in the US is $7.50 an hour, and that single mothers have to work two jobs while their children lack the basic care that will enable them to exit the cycle of poverty into which they were unwittingly born? Can it possibly be offensive that a woman born to wealth can earn hundreds of dollars each second while hundreds of millions earn two dollars a day? We know that Shriver is aware of these things; Shriver is a bit of a wonk when it comes to demographics. When did it happen that she became a flunky of the plutocrats, though?

No comments: