The whole Jeremy Clarkson saga is, largely speaking, significantly less interesting than standing waiting for an egg to boil. I am unsure how the story of a television presenter, suspended and now sacked for being an oaf, can possibly have occupied so much media space over the past few weeks. But it has. Indeed, so important has this news been deemed that the BBC put it above Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen on Wednesday night.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of things of interest that have arisen from this episode. The first is the almost inexplicable decision of more than 1,000,000 to sign a petition calling for Mr Clarkson to be reinstated. Why is this of interest? Well, can you imagine these sorts of numbers of people getting worked up about something of actual importance – say the government dropping bombs on a foreign country that has not attacked or threatened us, or the mass slaughter of almost 200,000 babies in the womb each year? No, neither can I. That tells us something about our state, and it isn’t what you’d call a flattering picture.
The second thing that is of interest is that no less a personage as the esteemed British Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, felt the need to weigh in with an opinion on the subject. A couple of weeks ago, he had publicly backed Mr Clarkson and called for his reinstatement, but after it emerged that Mr Clarkson had punched a producer, Mr Cameron backtracked, with his official spokesman saying, “If you do something wrong at work there will be consequences. Aggressive and abusive behaviour is not acceptable in the workplace or elsewhere. Jeremy Clarkson has to face the consequences of that.”
There is something horribly pitiable about the Prime Minister of a once great nation involving himself in this kind of trivia. It is not, however, without precedent. Back in 1998, David Cameron’s previous incarnation, Tony Blair, intervened to try to get Deirdre Rachid, a character in the Soap Opera Coronation Street, freed from jail. No kidding!
What are we to make of all this? As someone who has lived without a television for 14 years, I find it difficult to even connect with any of this. More than a million people care enough about who presents a TV show to sign a petition calling for his reinstatement? The British Prime Minister apparently thinks part of his job involves commenting on the suspension and then the sacking of a TV presenter. Doesn’t this strike you as being at the very least, mildly unhinged?
It all reminds me of what Neil Postman said in the foreword to his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s worth quoting at length, since it so accurately captures what we are discussing:
“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another-slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity arid history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies [Huxley’s sense stimulating movies], the orgy porgy [group sex in the novel], and the centrifugal bumblepuppy [a child’s game in the novel]. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
If the absurd circus surrounding the Clarkson episode was an isolated incident, I might be tempted to dismiss it. But it isn’t. In fact, it really is nothing out of the ordinary for our trivial, celebrity-obsessed culture. Perhaps we are close to that point of culture-death that Postman describes so well? What then?
PS. Actually Mr Cameron’s spokesman was dead wrong when he claimed that “If you do something wrong at work there will be consequences. Aggressive and abusive behaviour is not acceptable in the workplace or elsewhere.” His boss, Mr Cameron, launched a wave of aggression in the form of airstrikes on the sovereign territory of Libya back in 2011. Today that country is a failed state where chaos and lawlessness reigns, and where 21 Egyptian Christians recently had their heads cut off. Yet there have been no consequences for Mr Cameron over his role in this. Maybe we could start a petition for his removal.