Entry from June 15, 2011

In his review in The New Statesman of Windsor Mann’s compilation, The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism — The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, $17.00), George Eaton cannot resist quoting himself quoting Hitchens quoting himself in an interview for, uh, The New Statesman shortly before the latter’s diagnosis with esophageal cancer a year ago.I interviewed Hitchens for the New Statesman last May and his mordant verdict then on David Cameron appears in this collection: ‘He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, “What do you think of him?” My answer is: he doesn”t make me think.’” This may be witty enough to be re-quoted, as it will doubtless continue to be, but I beg leave to wonder if such a flip dismissal is altogether just. Perhaps David Cameron ought to make Christopher Hitchens — and us — think. As Mr Hitchens’s hero Trotsky might have said, he may not be interested in political platitudes, but political platitudes are interested in him.

For David Cameron is just one of a new breed of politician — others of his kind have included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — for whom platitudes have become their political stock-in-trade to an unusual extent. Surely this cannot be mere coincidence. In America and other Western democracies over the years political rhetoric has gradually been purged of genuine substance — which is what now makes a background in public relations the perfect preparation for a political career. Just look at the alleged “debate” between the Republican candidates in New Hampshire on Monday. Not only was there no drama in this platitudinous palaver, there was no expectation of drama. When was the last time that a political speech even made news except inadvertently — that is, when the candidate or office-holder slipped up and said something interesting? That’s what is called a “gaffe” and something all politicians naturally try to avoid.

This new politics is not just an inferior version of the old, which is gone beyond recovery, I fear. It is, rather, something different in kind: a sort of public ritual of affirmation that our leaders have the right feelings about things, especially feelings of sympathy and compassion for the world’s victims — whose numbers are increasing out of all proportion to their supposed victimizers. These politically correct feelings have become the irreducible minimum requirement for getting elected these days, while frank discussion of the real problems of governance is a positive hindrance to it. Mr Hitchens is hardly the only one to miss the point. Here, for instance, is David Brooks in The New York Times yesterday complaining of how “Covering this upcoming election is like covering a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change.”

There’s a reason for that, however, that bears some looking into. What Mr Brooks is complaining about is a calcification of political rhetoric, not a fault in the parties’ programs themselves. The new politics forces parties into rhetorical straight-jackets of denial — denial of political realities such as the ballooning national debt and the coming entitlements’ crisis, not to mention America’s fading international competitiveness, which it has become impossible to speak to directly in any realistic way. Americans may not be rioting in the streets yet, but they are every bit as peremptory as the Greeks in their demands to be protected by politicians from economic reality. Somehow and for the forseeable future, both parties will have to find a work-around for these rhetorical no-go areas: touching them with policy where and when they can, and mostly out of the public eye while insisting that they are only continuing to govern by platitudes that everyone except nasty old “partisans.”

“Voters are in the market for new movements and new combinations, yet the two parties have grown more rigid,” claims Mr Brooks, not seeing that that rigidity is precisely owing to the people’s not being in the market for new movements and combinations. They want to be reassured that, with the right feelings, our leaders can carry on without making any radical changes to the status quo. Last year’s attempt at radicalism by President Obama was cut to pieces electorally in November; this year’s attempt by Paul Ryan looks as if it will suffer a similar fate. As Herb Stein used to say, when a thing can’t go on forever, it won’t. But the new politics is based on endless assurances that it will — combined with more or less surreptitious attempts to deal with unpleasant realities as much as possible out of sight of the public and the media, who of course are hardly more likely to want to believe that there is any need for radical change than the rest of us are.

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