People have always defined themselves by what they aren’t as much as what they are. It gets passed on from group to group: the Brits defined (and continue to define) themselves by difference to the French, and in turn Americans by difference to the English.
Otherness is a fundamental source of inspiration and aggression. Men and women, we are told, are from different planets. National pride and xenophobia continue their uneasy see-saw relationship, despite living in an age of global media, global business and global pandemics. As soon as the psychological power of the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire begins to lose its power, it is replaced by the power of the psychological boundary between environmentalists and Clarksonites. Everyone needs a Them.
Them has been one of the great subjects of the rise of the popular media. In particular, from the satirical pornography of the French Revolution to the neon Schwarzenneger epics of the 1980s, via rather a lot of good protest and faux-protest music in the 1960s, raw and paranoid rage against the secret machinations of those in power has been one of the driving forces of the development of what we know as popular culture.
This format has been endlessly rehearsed, and forms the plot of roughly 25% of serious TV drama and 50% of Hollywood’s entire output. For me, it reached its nadir in the execrable Adjustment Bureau, on which I expended 2 hours of a recent flight that I could have better spent waiting in the endless, awkward queue for the world’s smallest bathrooms. The Adjustment Bureau was full of a ‘They’ that were all powerful and yet at the same time totally bloody hopeless.
If you haven’t seen the Adjustment Bureau, it is a longer and less good version of this trailer:
Now I realise that power continues to be distribute unevenly and unjustly, and that governments like to get away with doing things they shouldn’t be doing (or at least haven’t asked permission for, like removing the tyrannical leaders of countries.) But as I watched the Adjustment Bureau, I couldn’t help but think of the material I had read from Wikileaks, and for the most part how unbelievably banal and even mostly well-intentioned it was.
The ability of the internet to scale discoveries at lightening speed and the ubiquity of the rolling news camera have largely laid bare the secrets of government. Those that remain buried are, unfortunately, deeper buried than ever. But, for the most part, we have see all the rough edges and hidden errors of our leaders. And frankly, they mainly seem like people we would generally sooner pity than fear. FDR was able to act as President of the USA for 12 years and only two pictures were known to have been taken that showed him in a wheelchair. Whereas with Dubya, we got a pretty constant serving of this:
Now was I thrilled that this guy had his finger on the nuclear button? No. But I knew he wasn’t really a monster, because I do stuff like that all the time.
But that merely moves us from the theatre of fear to the theatre of pantomime. It takes a real work of art to remind us that we aren’t in a theatre at all, and that if we are it certainly isn’t a paranoid retro-futurist conspiracy thriller. This is I think why the Wire is such great drama – not just because of its entertainment value, but because it achieves the almost unique attribute of making every single character rounded and worthy of empathy if not always sympathy. Everyone is trying, everyone is flawed, and everyone is connected.
He allows homicidal drug dealers to die worrying about their hair:
And he allows cynical politicians to express their intentions…which are, at their root, generally positive, no matter how the system may pervert them:
This is a recognition of the reality of the world that we live in – that it is not the puppet show of shadowy cabals or machiavellian geniuses, but a totally interconnected system in which everyone, actively or passively plays their part and affects every other part of the system.
And as the world we live in begins to run on a track of behavioural data and social connection networks, the reality it that more and more the world is becoming a great big human system, in which every one of us is a working part. And the structure of that system is as fragile as it has ever been. It is harder than ever to keep any part of the system secret or separate. And the system itself is much more fragile than it looks.
This is a positive thing and a negative thing. It is a danger and a responsibility. It enables some people to break long-standing taboos in the name of humanitarian action, and it enables others to create a pattern of chaos and looting without a cause. But ultimately it is all a reminder that the human system is there, and that everyone is connected.
In this context, it feels like we have taken ourselves down a blind alley and created a worldview that is far too centred on the idea of ‘Them’. You can’t get rid of a sense of otherness, nor should we try. But sometimes it feels like because of Watergate, and Hackgate, and Expensegate, and because of a moviegoer-level understanding of Orwell and Dick, and because of Grand Theft Auto and gang violence and all these things that seem not to translate across generations, we are really prone to devolving to a facile games of Us and Them – which is a dismissal of both hope and responsibility.
We don’t live in the Matrix. Rupert Murdoch isn’t a Bond villain. The TV screen is not the Newsscreen of 1984. We live in the most empowered and interconnected period in history. We all have to ability to reach out to other parts of society at any moment, or at least give their point of view. We have unlimited outlets for self-expression, and a legal system that fights bitterly for our right to use them.
It took mankind a lot to get us to this point, where we have so many tools at our disposal to feed our empathy and impact on our governance. And to watch the modern world slip by us like a bad sci-fi movie or a cartoon Lord of the Flies is a terrible waste of all that effort.