Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

 

When Religion Makes The News

On 8 November 2016, the National Union of Journalists and ITV Cymru Wales hosted the above-named event, at the Life Sciences Centre, Cardiff Bay.  It brought together journalists and people of belief (especially, media representatives), to discuss and improve communication and reporting.  It also offered a chance to “network”; over eighty people attended; and I got to speak to about a dozen, of a great variety of backgrounds, myself.

I should emphasise that the event came about at the initiative of journalists, not faith communities.  And it was a first in Britain.

The event was chaired by Roger Bolton, who has worked for many years in TV and radio – I have often heard him on the radio.

There were many speakers, throughout the day, both from journalist and faith groups.

The journalists’ situation can be summarised as follows.  The numbers working in traditional media have gone down.  Not only have they have been inclined, themselves, to be less religious than the general population, but also they have tended to subscribe to the idea that religious belief has been declining in importance.  (They have been proved wrong by events).  Those who wanted to report better were represented at this event, then.  They were challenged (loudly and clearly by Roger Bolton) (i) to inform themselves more deeply and (ii) to gain access to the wide variety of faith communities, while not relying solely on the contacts they already have.

In turn, the faith communities (Christians, Jews and Muslims) that were represented on a “panel” were challenged by Roger Bolton (i) to state explicitly what they have to offer to journalists and (ii) to outline the nature of their media operations. (The resources available varied widely between the communities.)

After lunch, journalists and faith communities met separately for one session.  For the faith group, the topic was: “Working with Journalists: an opportunity to consider your experience, your agenda, your media practice.”  It was led by three very knowledgeable women – with great communication skills – namely, Angela Graham (of the Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs), Christine Warwick, and Emma Meese (of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism).

Angela said that belief is wider than faith and includes atheism and secularism.  She set the context: relationships are more important than technologies.  She added that we all communicate through our daily lives.

Angela posed these questions.

What do I most want to communicate?

Why do I want to communicate this?

What results do I hope for?

How will I handle the reactions (the criticism)?

What are the implications of using media I don’t control?

We are always communicating, including with the Divine.  This helps us deal with failure.  We are vulnerable – we need to be prepared.  We need a strategy for dealing with consequences and people for handling risk.  We (believers) are making big claims and so are held accountable (eg by journalists).  Take care of the members of your own group.

Notice where the seed you have sown has grown.  Chase up the messages you have left.  Communicate widely, with discernment, creatively, painstakingly, persistently.

Journalism, she said, is a way to help us live well together.  Journalists must challenge us, push us to think harder.

What is noteworthy?  The novel, the topical, the relevant, the significant, the relational, the provable, the jargon-free, the researched, the practical, the visible.

Pictures help.

We should be contactable, available, responsible, ready for risk.

Avoid propaganda, preaching and proselytism.

Next, Christine Warwick gave us concrete advice on the writing of press releases.

Target your press releases accurately.  Know about deadlines.

The most important should be in the first paragraph and should tell the reader: who, what, where, when, how.

Include the body of your press release in your email, not as an attachment.

Finally, in this session, Emma Meese talked about social media.  What she said about this could be applied, in part, to the more traditional media.  Remember KISSKeep It Short and Sweet.

Make the most of your Twitter profile.  Sell yourself.  But “don’t feed the trolls.”

 

This was a very stimulating day.  Many of those present would welcome a repeat, where topics could be dealt with at greater length.

 

I came away wondering how Quakers – especially those in Wales – can best rise to the challenges posed so vividly at this event.  I am very grateful, both to the organisers, and to Meeting of Friends for letting me go.

 

David Harries