Join us on a whistlestop tour of the latest anti-democratic fad, the politics of distraction.
Prior to this millennium, political novelties like the Monster Raving Loonies, or intrepid American Satanists testing the limits of “religious freedom” protections, might reasonably have been considered among the most salient distractions to the democratic process. No more. Increasingly, both the left and the right are strategically employing actions or words that directly serve to divert the public interest.
On the right, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Sean Spicer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Scaramucci, and even the Donald himself are artisan diversion merchants. On the left, it is a whirling door of indignant proclamations; it is MTV and Buzzfeed goading people over identity politics; and it is the policing of language in a way so extreme that vernacular purity can seem to be more important than actually helping people.
Notice that the distraction used by the right looks far more intentional and that’s because it is. As a centre leftist, I can say honestly that the distractions springing from my broad side of the aisle are, in the main, accidental. The only thing the left detests more than the right is the left; we have not the time to cease our infighting and linguistic policing for long enough to be masters of the art of distraction. I would cry hot, bitter tears if the modern left had the organisation and unity/togetherness required to deceive a populace.
I say modern left as it is in the carcass of the USSR where our tale begins, with a man whose name barely enters the public sphere – in fact, the only time I’ve ever even heard it aloud was in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe. His name is Vladislav Surkov, the “grey cardinal”. Frankly, with a nickname like that he’s basically already a Bond villain. With a background in performance art but no discernible official title, I hope he would appreciate me introducing him as Vladimir Putin’s master of whispers. Surkov, in a sentence, is almost single-handedly responsible for the climate of paranoia that infects Russian political life.
When Russia invaded the Crimea, Surkov backed opposing sides of the conflict and did so publicly. He’s also happy to admit to the creation and backing of political parties opposing Putin. To reiterate, Surkov plays opposing sides off against each other and everyone is allowed to know. You cannot expose a man who has told you everything. Through such actions, the grey cardinal has created in Russia what he calls a state of “destabilised perception”. By replacing coherent narrative with a stream of contradiction, Surkov wields a brand of power that ‘keeps opposition constantly confused, shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is indefinable’. As a result of this confusion, we forget what political power lies with us, and challenge little.
The West is no better. The Trump administration during the time of Bannon might as well have been using the crib notes from Surkov’s short story, Without Sky. In it, multiple competing coalitions wage what Surkov terms ‘non-linear war’; conflict without coherent factions or narrative, with the primary aim not victory, but to create an environment where perception can be controlled or shaped. In Surkov’s own words, “Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.”
While we in real life are not in the midst of non-linear war, we are experiencing weaponised falsehood. Trump and his cohort employ outright lies and emotional language to subvert the truth in a fashion that would be quite elegant were it not so destructive. The end result in both the story and reality is that the news cycle grows more and more confusing, with both networks and viewers unable to tell distraction from vital import. As the Washington Post puts it, “2017, the ouroboros of distractions, where every terrible thing is a head-fake for a ruse for a diversion for a misdirection from something else much, much worse.”
As the dangers of climate change really make themselves known, and as Trump suffers a string of legislative defeats that George III himself would dub shoddy, it is only logical that the politics of distraction must come into play. We are living in a time when nuclear threats and vilification of legitimate sporting protests are distractions from the very real possibility that the President of the United States is guilty of, or turned a blind eye to, treason. This game of ballistic missile waving and anthem shaming allows a desperate Puerto Rico to consider selling off its electrical utility, and provides cover for the tabling of a draconian healthcare bill, the appointment of a former CEO of Shell to front official relief efforts in Houston, and the nomination of a climate change denier to head NASA. Naomi Klein describes these as instances of the “shock doctrine”, where crises are exploited to sneak policies through, to the detriment of the public and benefit of an elite.
In Britain, we possess our own perpetual motion machine of misinformation as Brexit trundles on. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s transcendence into memedom has imbued his abhorrent views with a post-ironic invisibility cloak. Meanwhile, food bank use is still perilously high, the DUP has become the Earl of Warwick (that’s a Kingmaker joke people, this is prime content), and both the infamous cladding and the PIR insulation foam (which releases hydrogen cyanide when burned) that lined Grenfell Tower also line homes, tower blocks, schools, and hospitals all over the country. To top it all off, the Conservative government seems hell bent on keeping any and all details on Brexit besides rhetoric out of the news cycle.
To borrow from the latest, patchy Game of Thrones season, the real world masters of political distraction are our Littlefingers. As Petyr Baelish says: “Fight every battle everywhere, always in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once…Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”
Now, spoiler alert, it turns out that Baelish’s advice is too good and he gets his scheming throat cut (a la Bannon being booted by Trump and Boris winning a referendum he had no intention of really seeing through), but the sociopath’s machinations had already destroyed countless lives. The would-be inheritors of Machiavelli’s legacy are more dangerous than Lord Baelish; once his deceptions were uncovered, he lost his life. Our politicians’ deceptions are open, frightening secrets but our attention is thrown somewhere else before we can ride them out of town and into the political wilderness.
I could conclude in bleak fashion and say that we are ever fated to whirl about in a cistern of frightening bafflement. Instead, I will ask you to do something the next time you are shocked or appalled by the flavour of the day smeared across your newsfeed. Step away from the flame war and really ask yourself, “What don’t they want me to notice?”