Entry from July 1, 2008

It’s remarkable enough that a conservative has been elected mayor of London. Much more remarkable, in my view, is the fact that a journalist has been elected mayor of London. That Boris Johnson should be both a conservative and a journalist beggars belief. It’s as if the late William F. Buckley Jr. had won his campaign for mayor of New York in 1965. I seem to recall that Buckley polled about 13 per cent of the vote in that year and that, when asked what he would do if he won replied: “Demand a recount.” Surely the whole point of a joke candidacy is that it should remain a joke. Now the joke is that, having won, he has had to start imitating the earnest political correctness of his predecessor, “Red” Ken Livingstone, and take part in Gay Pride marches and suchlike shindigs which would once have been grist for his comedic mill.

Yet even though I might otherwise regret that we have lost a comedian in order to gain a politician, I am immensely heartened that in a political and media culture hitherto dominated — albeit not to the extent America’s is — by the gaffe and the scandal, the electorate simply didn’t care that Mr Johnson had once written that, if gay marriage was OK, he “saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.” Nor did voters get very excited about the fact that, in his days as a journalist, he had ridiculed a Tony Blair trip to Africa by saying that it reminded him of a 1950s-vintage Commonwealth tour with the “watermelon smiles” of “tribal warriors” and the crowds of “flag-waving piccaninnies.” Perhaps they could recognize a joke when they saw one after all.

Writing in The Times of London, Libby Purves alludes to the new mayor’s vulnerability to the gaffe culture, which she calls “the politics of enmity”:

To succeed in modern politics you should take care to be a bland, self-preserving, sober, drugless, funless, dull-witted bore for years beforehand. Boris Johnson hobbled himself by being human, erratic and witty. His back catalogue of writings will follow him whatever good he does in real life: the politics of enmity decree it. In the mayoral campaign he was branded a racist merely because of two flippant expressions he once used. They occurred in pieces which, if read in full, were guying the patronising (slightly racist, indeed) way that British leaders love to escape unpopularity at home and be greeted by smiling Commonwealth ceremonial.

But maybe that’s all changing now, at least in Britain. Maybe henceforth the media’s invitation to people to be shocked and horrified by the discovery that, yet again, some public servant’s bland exterior hides a seething inward mass of corruption and viciousness will not be taken up with such alacrity. Maybe the secret all along was to lose the bland exterior and become a joker like Boris.

If his technique for beating the scandal-hunters seems less likely to work in the U.S., where we tend to take our politics more seriously, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few hopeful straws in the wind. According to Sunday’s New York Times “political freelancers” are now taking over for the campaign professionals and operatives who, for some elections past, have sought to advance the prospects of their candidate by destroying the reputation of his opponent:

Four years ago, the Internet was a Wild West that caused the occasional headache for the campaigns but for the most part remained segregated from them. This year, the development of cheap new editing programs and fast video distribution through sites like YouTube has broken down the barriers, empowering a new generation of largely unregulated political warriors who can affect the campaign dialogue faster and with more impact than the traditional opposition research shops.

In other words, political garage bands are slapping together skillfully-edited videos of those they hate and seek to discredit for YouTube. These may be expected, at least to some extent, to take the place of paid commercial spots either by the campaigns themselves or by their 527 proxies — and, of course, to come in much greater numbers and with much smaller accountability.

Nothing very hopeful about that, you might think. But given that there seems no way to back out of the gaffe-and-scandal politics we seem mired in, maybe the thing to do is press on ahead and hope to come out the other side. For on the Internet, pretty much everything is a joke. I can’t see such devastating ads as Willie Horton or the Swift Boat vets or Lyndon Johnson’s daisy girl (whose creator, Tony Schwartz, just died a couple of weeks ago) having anything like the same effect if they had popped up on YouTube first. Like Boris Johnson’s dangerous ironies, they will soon be too familiar to be shocking anymore. Maybe the scandal-seeking, character-destroying mentality itself will prove to have been debased by its migration to the Internet. The very profusion of opportunities afforded by YouTube to manufacture scandal-like topoi will diminish the power of any given scandal to do what scandal is designed to do, which is to shame its victim into retiring from the political arena or, failing that, to cripple him in his ability to maneuver there. And then — who knows? — we might get back to a politics of substance instead of one which seeks to portray the opposition as criminal, moronic or both.

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