The Spectator’s resident whimsyist Hugo Rifkind has written many silly pieces in the last few months, mostly on climate change, but his latest surely takes the soggy biscuit.
“I’m not saying anyone who ever posts an internet comment is nuts….” it’s titled. Rifkind spends the rest of his essay, of course, saying pretty much exactly that.
It is, I think I can safely promise, one of the most deliciously annoying and wrong-in-every-way pieces you will read all year.
There is snobbery and arrogance, rendered even more repellant somehow, by the desperate attempts to disguise it with a veneer of faux self-effacement, knockabout vernacular and japesome mirthfulness.
I don’t mean to be abusive here. I’m certainly not suggesting that everybody who comments on an article, ever, is sitting at home in their pants, tinfoil on head, basically being batshit doolally. I’m just saying it worries me. Pretty much any journalist I know would say the same. I know of one who describes the comments below her articles as ‘the bottom half of the internet’, which pretty much captures the sort of distaste we’re talking about here.
A lot of this is pure preciousness. I know it looks like we just knock this stuff out, still half-cut from the night before, but actually there’s a fair amount of effort involved. The last thing any hack wants is some amateur next door lowering the tone. When Leonardo da Vinci painted the ‘Mona Lisa’, after all, he didn’t leave a blank bit at the bottom, on which any passing oddbod was welcome to scrawl ‘BUT WOT ABUOT IMIGRATON?’
There is left-liberal prejudice masquerading as sweet reasonableness:
Comments Britain tends towards the hard right, but does the hard left, too. Comments Britain is uniformly Eurosceptic, even on the Guardian. (Maybe a slim British majority now is, but everyone?) Comments Britain is overwhelmingly sceptical about climate change, but recent polls suggest that, while scepticism is surely on the rise, 75 per cent remain with the boffins. Most of all, Comments Britain is nasty. There’s fury out there, and bile and hate. Out there in the actual world, people just don’t seem to be that nasty. People actually seem pretty nice.
There is an heroic refusal to accept that the internet has any power and significance whatsoever:
So when people tell me of a new, grass-roots momentum in politics, and then tell me that this momentum is web-based, I start to feel both queasy and doubtful. ConservativeHome, LabourHome, all the rest — I often suspect the views expressed in the comments on such sites are actually representative of nobody at all, up to and including the people who are online expressing them. I wonder if they are like the comments everywhere else, or the letters page of the Daily Express, or David Wright. Full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.
Rifkind is not, of course, the first salary-cushioned print journalist to have suffered an attack of the vapours over the frightfulness of the internet. His ideological soulmate at the Independent Yasmin Alibhai Brown has often found herself in similar need of the smelling salts:
I never read the raving racists online but those who do tell me how revolting it is getting out there in the blogosphere. Ugly populism is fast food for the disillusioned.
This has not been my experience of the internet, I must say. Au contraire – without wishing to flatter you too much, you blog-addicted, foaming-mouthed, swivel-eyed loons – I’ve found the comments sections on blogs to be bastions of wisdom, rough-hewn common sense, wit, and often amazingly well-informed insight. And I don’t just mean on my blogs. What I always find equally heartening is when you look up an article online by, say, Polly Toynbee or some crack-papering fraudster from the Met Office and find its inconsistencies and idiocies being torn to shreds by a readership far more intelligent and on the ball than almost anyone in the liberal commentariat.
And this, I think, is the crux of the matter. The main reason so many left-liberals so loathe and fear the internet is that it is a medium that favours the libertarian right. It completely bypasses all those institutions that Gramscian Marxists fought so hard to capture: broadcasters like the BBC, the liberal-dominated print media, the seats of learning. It allows real people to say what’s really on their mind, unfettered by politically correct pieties. It is part of the same grassroots phenomenon that has seen the Tea Party movement flourish in the US and it expresses a wave of public revulsion at the dishonesty and cant of our political leaders, as well as a yearning cry for liberty in the face of growing dominance by the state.
And it’s not going to go away, however dearly Hugo Rifkind might wish it.