Dissent


Here’s a fascinating story that I picked up from BBC4’s Rude Brittania.

George Cruikshank, who’d later seal his place in history by crafting illustrations for the novels of Charles Dickens, began his career as a caricaturist. He’d paint images of high society that mocked the vices and hypocrisy of its inhabitants. Merry Making on the Regent’s Birthday, for example, depicted the one-time Prince of Wales as a swollen drunkard, boozing and philandering while his people are killed outside. His satirical prints are said been purchased in their tens of thousands.

Once the Prince Regent became George IV he became increasingly disturbed by his public image. He’d always been a favoured target of the satirists. James Gillray, for example, had helped to establish the perception of him as a bestial glutton and he’d fought, with some success, to have his work destroyed. His tactics with Cruikshank were a little different, though: he offered the artist a £100 to stop ridiculing him. The caricaturist agreed and apparently stopped producing art one could interpret as dissident. His later drawings on political themes are said to have expressed little more than his jingoistic tendencies: mocking and demonising the Irish, the Americans and the Chinese.

To achieve the position of comic and satirist is to acquire considerable social opportunities. Not only because people will give you money to appear on their programmes and write for their publications but because, desperate to be seen as parts of whichever cultural trends are fashionable, and to remove themselves from the targets of popular disdain, they’ll want to be your friend. One must be aware of the fact that people will exploit senses of humour and moral values in their efforts to enrich their wealth and feed their egotism. And, indeed, that they might unconsciously inhibit their satirical gaze lest they compromise their friendships and financial endeavours.

I’d like to dissent from, er – dissent. No, forget that. Let me start again. What I mean is that I’d like to isolate forms of dissent that serve oppressive causes; counterproductive modes of opposition. For example, there’s a fallacy that’s suckered people, me included, since the dawn of time (or should that be “whine”?). I’d like to term it, for want of a latin phrase, the fallacy of honourable opposition. It states…

If X is bad and Y opposes X, Y is good.

It is, in other words, a formal (well, earnest) version of, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

The claim, of course, defies the facts that (a) something can be opposed for different reasons, good and bad, and (b) one’s opposition to something doesn’t encompass the entirety of one’s ambitions.

There are two patterns of thought that underly the fallacy. The first is a misguidedly manichean view of the world, where everything and everyone divides between what’s “good” and “evil”. Thus, a jingoistic Yank can roar, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, while a revolutionary can proclaim, “A barricade has only two sides”.

The second (often related) error is the projection of one’s ideals onto others. So, if one opposes X for reasons A, B and C, one assumes that Y opposes it on similar grounds. This has marked the words of interventionists – some of whom have felt the U.S. government stands for freedom, democracy and pony – Western observers of the “Arab Spring” – some of whom seemed to think the most authoritarian of Islamists are carrying the flag for liberty – and the clutch of would-revolutionaries who’ve convinced themselves that arson, looting and assaults in London represent some kind of fight for justice.

A depressing fact related to the point about the “Arab Spring” is that the oppressed needn’t recognise their oppression. Ultimately, there’s little one can do for them. It’s not an objective quality that you can demonstrate to someone – it has to be felt. And if you’ve ever sat next to a kid listening to Justin Bieber you’ll know perceptions of suffering aren’t universal.

There will be films about Julian Assange. And, yes, there will be books about him. There will a play about Assange. Paintings of him. There may be a finger puppet-pantomime with Assange as its hero or, hey, villain. And there will be many, many essays, articles and opinion pieces. All about Assange.

But, if I’m honest, I don’t care about Assange. At the risk of sounding like a tut-tutty, finger-waggy, “Oh, you’re so all naive” pseudo-serious person, I look at a case that involves the exposure of widespread killing and corruption, and a diminutive Aussie bloke, and don’t find my attention drawn to the latter.

Many commentators have suggested that the charges directed against Assange are part of an attempt to smear him and Wikileaks by proxy. There might be an element of truth to that – though his own defence suggests he has a serious case to answer – but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that by shifting the story from the information Wikileaks have been disseminating to one of the guys who contributed to that dissemination the media have already diminished its positive influence – not by discreding the organisation’s work but by distracting people from it. “Wikileaks” is almost as synonymous with one man and his alleged crime as it is with all the states and corporations whose crimes it has exposed.

It’s too obvious to say that groups and movements shouldn’t form behind an individual. The cult of personality that’s built around prominent dissidents is typically a response to the media’s isolation of them rather than a natural process. But they shouldn’t play the game. Because, win or lose, they’re likely to emerge worse off from it.

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