Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Littlejohn, Toynbee and the Politics of Opinion

I've caught up with this clip of Richard Littlejohn and Polly Toynbee on Question Time rather late but it's too interesting - and entertaining - to ignore. The first point to make is they are both right. Toynbee sees the strategic issue, reducing our dependence on oil, correctly and Littlejohn is right about the tactical issues, the near impossibility of achieving this politically. The second point to make is they are both wrong because they both think that strategy and tactics are opposite sides of the argument. They think, in other words, they are expressing opinions and advocating viable policies when, in fact, what they are doing is merely defining the terms of the argument, terms with which any thinking person will be entirely familiar. They delude themselves and their audience into thinking that the future will involve a choice between their positions, but, of course, this is impossible. There is one point of substance on which they genuinely seem to disagree - global warming  - but here their opinions are of no value because neither is qualified to assess the evidence. Meanwhile, in the Guardian - late again I'm afraid - Peter Wilby questions the need for the non-expert commentariat, the columnists hired to express their opinions in areas in which they can only ever have minimal expertise. To summarise Wilby: qualified voices are rarely heard on the comment pages these days; instead, we have a large number of people paid to be superficial generalists with pungent but probably worthless opinions. Opinions have, in a word, become entertainment. He's right but wrong if he thinks sacking inexpert columnists is the answer. They are necessary, but the trick is to get them to write differently, just as the trick with Toynbee and Littlejohn is to get them to think differently.  For example, a decent columnist would write about the fuel price/global warming issue in the round - balancing political reality with strategic goals and, perhaps, coming up with a tentative way forward. It is called journalism and the need for it is called democracy. They should do this not least because it would circumvent and, in the long term, discourage the empty demagoguery to which politicians so readily descend. Of course, there are columnists that do this - Nick Cohen for one - but  not enough. They are an endangered species because opinion as entertainment has become just too seductive for editors and readers alike. Perhaps blogging is the answer


  1. You are of course correct. And I am reminded of the situation during the first war with the Gen' Staff. Where while they were fiddling about with the various strategic and tactical options those in the trenches were having their lives blown to bits. It was not until a few simple rules with local changes, came up from the men, that the vast carnage stopped.
    And like with that war, there is little point in thinking of vast movements. It will be much better to probe different areas with visible and measurable goals.

  2. I'll go along with that apart from the seductive part. I just got so bored with it I stopped buying newspapers. blogging is the panacea, we should all know that by now!

  3. Quite brilliant. I almost agreed with you until I tripped up the end.

    The point where I disagree is that the attitude of the Littlejohns is the problem that campaigning journalists like Monbiot and politicians like Gore have to solve. For our children's sake I hope they do. judging by last night Obama looks as if he might be onto something.

  4. ha ha! yes, entertaining by QT standards. Punch & Judy without the profundity. A good point made in there though - how much do they get paid for selling second-hand opinion? maybe all opinion is secondhand by now, maybe that's what disappoints me.

  5. ha ha! yes, entertaining by QT standards. Punch & Judy without the profundity. A good point made in there though - how much do they get paid for selling second-hand opinion? maybe all opinion is secondhand by now, maybe that's what disappoints me.

    No charge.

  6. No easy way out of this one? Columnists seem to be sold as distinct brands, like cornflakes, and are required to provide a helping of tasty wholesome goodness every day! That's far too much for anyone if real substance is required. On the other hand, experts tend to think their area of expertise is far more important and interesting than it is, so the reader may be left baffled and sleepy.

    Less is more, perhaps. One or two articles a week tops leaves lots of time for other things. Or even a return to the anonymous article: "A lady of distinction writes from Tuscany ... ".

    Blogs are also driven by the demands of marketing, imho, and the form has to be short, for cyber-snacking. Try reading a 2000-word article on a mobile. The book still trumps all, the only really deep way for reader and writer to converse.

  7. The problem with most columnists is that they are shilling for one side or another. What is needed is someone to serve as referee, pointing out the inconsistencies and contradictions of both sides, making it plain that most issues are more complicated than either would have us believe, that there is far, far less that we can be certain of than they claim, and that, just maybe, government action is not the solution to any and all problems. That wise old codger Albert Jay Nock once suggested that before we ask the government to do something we remind ourselves that the government doesn't make anything or sell anything. Its income derives entirely from what others earn by making, selling, or doing something.

  8. Isn't the problem that many columnists are just too tribal and partisan to come up with interesting ideas?
    Take the Toynbee-Littlejohn case.
    Toynbee says we need higher carbon taxes to reduce global warming. L says this would hurt the poor.
    But any intelligent economist knows the answer to this, in principle. First, set carbon prices so the damage to future generations is reflected in the price.
    Then, use the tax and benefit system to redistribute income so the poor aren't hurt.
    The principle's simple. We use the price system to allocate resources, and the tax and benefit system to redistribute income.
    The rest is (important) detail.
    The tragedy is that neither Toynbee not Littlejohn have the wit to see this.

  9. The tragedy is that neither Toynbee not Littlejohn have the wit to see this.

    Perhaps they may well see it. But you could argue that both are trapped by their "brands" which are all about coming to any issue from a set position. Thanks to marketing pressures, this must be a difficult problem for many columnists and indeed for many people in other walks of life. How do you change your position or simply admit you were mistaken without foobaring the image on which the expectations of your customers (and possibly your livelihood) have come to rest.

  10. From what little i know of newspapers etc. i think Frank is right that most columnists belong to a party of some sort. Just as Dante liberated himself from the Guelfs (White & Black) and the Ghibellines and wrote 'faccio parte per me stesso' - i make a party of myself - so i think it'd be good, if extremely unlikely, if we could have columnists who just wrote what they felt was the case. But people - even intelligent people - are lazy. They automatically think "what is the party line on this?". i guess the more prominent you are the harder it is to step away from tribal allegiances and say something heterodox.