What do X-Factor and waterboarding have in common? Apart, obviously, from the fact that they are both forms of torture. I think it’s that they’re both examples of the elevation of extreme behaviour above the context in which those behaviours are exhibited. I realise that many will find it distasteful to draw these two things into a direct comparison: to ask my readers to think about the excess of tastelessness in the same mental space as the excess of cruelty. But if so, I ask you to bear with me. I’ll be returning to this bizarre parallel later on.
Today, George W Bush has embarked upon an advertising campaign for his memoirs in which he claims that waterboarding is not torture because a lawyer told him it wasn’t. Today, also, David Cameron is in China, drumming up business to try and reverse our three-fold bi-lateral trade deficit, and trying not to talk about human rights lest that should blunt his efforts. Phil Woolas has been ejected by the Labour Party with as much moral force as if they’d taken an emetic. All three of the individuals I’ve cited are, as a result of their sins, currently the subject of great out-pourings of moral indignation. The psycho-drama which we are all invited to witness from the front-seats provided for us by the media turns on this individualised demonisation. If you’re thinking that this is thus some kind of apologia for Messrs Bush, Cameron and Woolas, then either you’ve misunderstood my point, or, more likely, I’ve failed to make it adequately.
My point, such as it is, is this. In each of these cases our moral outrage is not only misplaced, it’s convenient. So, in the first case, by concentrating on whether, by legal definition, the practice of waterboarding is, or isn’t, torture we are enabled to ignore the context within which the possibility of waterboarding arose in the first place. We are led towards a position in which we say that the only thing wrong with our “war on terror” is the torture aspect of it, and if that hadn’t happened, we’d be in a morally OK place. In the proper context of all that we have enabled our politicians to do – create the conditions for the 9/11 attacks, use those attacks as pretext for Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to use the umbrella of terrorism as cover for the pursuit of our economic and geo-political interests – the issue of waterboarding a couple of individuals is almost irrelevant. Waterboarding is the mote: our economic and political ambition is the plank. The West deserves a beating, but torture is the wrong stick.
In the second case, by concentrating on whether or not a dissident is under house arrest, or a Nobel laureate is free to receive his prize, and castigating Mr Cameron for not speaking out on those issues, we are enabled to ignore the context in which re-balancing our trade deficit is really about taking greater advantage than before of China’s much more general human rights abuse – the treatment of their workers. If Chinese workers were treated better, our trade deficit would be hugely greater as the price of imported Chinese goods would rise. Artists’ human rights are the mote: virtual slave labour and environmental rape is the plank. The oppression of the Chinese masses deserves a beating, but artistic freedom is the wrong stick.
And in the third case, by concentrating on Mr Woolas’ lying about one of his fellow candidates, we are enabled to ignore the context in which the smearing of a competitor by suggesting that he is in the thrall of Asian terrorists could ever be thought of as a successful electoral tactic. Misleading election leaflets are the mote: the constituency’s racism is the plank. The appeal to the electorate’s basest instincts deserves a beating, but inaccurate election flyers are the wrong stick.
But there’s more. This tendency to make the moral choices of others the touchstone for our righteous indignation means that we don’t have to make those choices ourselves. George Bush is an evil, torture-condoning bastard. Perhaps. But we were never in that moral place. We never had our clear sense of morality tested in that particular fire. Maybe you’re sure about what you’d have done if yours had been. Me, I’d rather be grateful that I’ve not been led into temptation.
It’s so much easier to hate Bush than it is to examine your voting record on the war. It’s so much easier to excoriate Cameron than it is to look at where your DVD and your 3G phone were made. It’s so much easier throw Woolas out of the party than it is to examine the party’s record on immigration and “counter-terrorism”. And the X-Factor? OK, it’s a trivial parallel to draw, but instructive all the same. The context is supposed to be the discovery of talented individuals. But they are merely bit-part players in the ego-mania of the judges, and the circulation wars of the tabloids. But we don’t notice that. This training in missing the point by having our attention drawn to the wrong things starts close to home, and in the the most subtle of ways.