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Corbyn versus Snark

Bob Dylan provides a sound-track for Britains' liberal commentariat post-Corbyn: "something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”

Julian Sayarer
27 September 2015

Humans are susceptible to many things before truth; articulacy and eloquence fly high, rhyme and alliteration are resilient, and to trot out old Adorno, “he who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” All of the human fondness for ear candy (or text candy – most of it is written) are currently being deployed consistently in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. While usual suspects in the tabloid media have caused little surprise in their reactions to Corbyn’s loose collar and his failure to sing the anthem, the more painful indictments against him tend to come from the centre left; from those who espouse social justice and equality as their values, and who – sometimes perplexingly – self-identify as being of Labour and/or of anything else resembling the Left.   

As one opinion piece after another tears into Corbyn with great articulacy and logically-structured but often narrow reasoning, the only comfort you can take in moments of hair-shredding frustration at their lack of belief in Corbyn (for it is belief in, rather than a disagreement with, that seems to be their more fundamental resentment) is that the author is more raging than you are. Having Corbyn for their de facto, assumed thought-leader is having a worse effect on their mental health than their crushingly negative opinion pieces are having on yours.

Cowley, Ganesh, Behr; whether through praise of David Cameron, sycophantic praise of George Osborne’s clear path to office, or outright efforts at shredding Corbyn, they and a host like them can, so it seems, think to do nothing but write scorn all over what might have been interpreted as an opportunity for meaningful reform of UK politics. Supporters of electoral reform, reform of the Lords, regional devolution, the open source movement, of a UK republic, of a UK constitution and of green investment have all – varyingly – seen in Corbyn not a saviour, but certainly their best hope of enacting their own changes on the structure of UK governance. Others, meanwhile, do nought but snipe.

Since Corbynmania swept-in, the comfortable position from which the commentariat describes the political land beneath them has come in for some attention, and brief self-reflection. The Independent’s Frank Cottrell Boyce laudably noted that, as a journalist earning more than £30,000 a year, he could only truly empathise with the material comfort of the 25 per cent of the population with which he shares an income bracket. Extended to its perfectly fair conclusion, there needs to be a recognition that a political commentator on £30,000 and upwards each year understands the daily, existential reality of those struggling for money only to the same extent that a white person can understand what racism feels like for a black person. Behr, writing in the Guardian on September 16, accurately notes the need for humility on the part of the commentariat, then promptly proceeds to show very little of it for the remainder of his words.

Most frustrating of all is that the obviously substantial intelligence and eloquence of these people is being lent to such defeatist ends. They are individuals who are too smart to have themselves caught believing in change, and too comfortable for the need of it. In them you see a sort of technocratic tendency whereby they have devised the best system, have all the answers, and from that would rather ask for it to be implemented, satisfied enough in life that it is no real bother if the answer is 'No". It would be unfair to presume to know their varying personal biographies, but whatever hardship might once have existed in them is clearly removed by a present security, so that all urgency for a different society has long-since vanished. Instead, we are treated to wise counsel that Corbyn’s leadership will allow the Conservative Party to shift from the centre and to the right, a peculiar way of describing the manoeuvres of a party that has already sought to remove statistical definitions of child poverty. 

What should probably be acknowledged by their detractors is that much of the commentariat's reaction is itself deeply emotional. They see Corbyn and the opinions of his supporters as a direct attack on them; if their job has always been to speak truth to power, and hold the system to account, a robust rejection of that system is by proxy an accusation that they too have been doing their job badly. From such a starting-point, it becomes much easier to label 200,000 people as halfwits than to humbly accept your own limitations and narrow perspective. It is ironic that Corbyn and his supporters would be attacked for their lack of moderation by commentators swingeing in their dogmatic rebuttal of his every word, belief and action. 

Moreover, if a movement claims politics to be a simple case of raising demands and having those demands met, that suggestion simultaneously devalues the entire profession of political comment, the writers of which maintain a vested interest in the realm being esoteric and complex. If politics is represented as straightforward enough that anyone can have a valid opinion, the suggestion devalues the rubrics cube plaything with which commentators make their livelihoods fiddling through. None of this is in defence of politics by meme, or truthiness over fact, it is simply a suggestion that the commentariat might try – to paraphrase Malcolm X – standing for something rather than braying at anything.

The problem is compounded when the reticence of their position mingles quickly with the UK class system, so that the dividing lines are established as being between smart, learned people and dumb people in hock to their guts. We also return to the eternal Catch-22 whereby something has to become popular in order to become viable, and yet in becoming popular it is automatically decried as populist, and therefore a bad thing. The Britain of the commentariat is a Groucho Marx of a country, incapable of believing in its own betterment because that would mean something actually getting better.

Commentators doubtless do not see themselves in such a way. Describing the status quo in eloquent and energetic tones can eventually make even staunch conservatism seem febrile – you kindle change through vivid writing but stop at the end of each page. Praising or damning individuals and events can lend a commentator a set of principles vicariously, and by virtue only of the judgments they attach to others.

Behr, in a recent column (though we must allow that he perhaps didn’t write the title), candidly likens Corbyn to Farage – despite the fact that a look at the debating attendance of each would quickly shoot-down such a cheap comparison. The piece does, however, at least do us the original favour of introducing to the debate Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man, from the 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. Behr gallantly owns up to his role as Mister Jones in the line “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones” – the commentator failing to understand the changed land he now describes.

Humbly offering himself up as Mister Jones is a good start, but Dylan’s understanding of Mister Jones is as more than only a commentator who has missed a trick; Mister Jones is also a buffoon and a cynical yes-man who is complicit with the ills of his system. For greater perspective, move ahead to Dylan’s 1974 Blood on the Tracks, and Idiot Wind, from which

“We’re idiots babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”

a line by which we might understand how the thin man in Ballad of a Thin Man got so thin to begin with – a rebuke of that point at which intellect delivers you no more than a starving paralysis. Dylan is more scathing about the uselessness of Mister Jones than as only a confused bystander; the lyrics partially challenge him to find some principles, but also lampoons him for trying to impose strict laws of reason onto a world that does not correspond to it. For anyone who aspires to be more than just a passive onlooker in their society, the song is worth heeding.

Polly Toynbee, having no less stridently endorsed Yvette Cooper over Corbyn, has since his victory qualified that anyone of a mind to move Britain towards a more equal, socially conscientious place now has a duty to make his leadership as successful as can be. Intelligence is a quality that deserves to be honoured with more than just snark, and privilege gives a comfort from which better things than defeatism should rise. Toynbee’s is good advice.

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