President Trump’s visit to Britain today prompts one to wonder if that country is catching the American disease, which is a bio-spiritual ailment called irony deficiency anemia. The left-wing Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has authorized the flight of a giant balloon, tethered in Parliament Square, purportedly representing a caricature of the President as a big baby in a diaper (or "nappy" in British English). The "baby blimp" is then to follow him to Scotland, it is said, before going on a world tour. All this, mind you, without the hint of a smidgen of a soupçon of the self-awareness necessary to see the stunt’s own infantilization of public discourse.
Any regular peruser of the American media would find nothing unusual about this. In last Sunday’s New York Times, for example, Maureen Dowd, a woman who has made a highly successful career out of being "mean" (as she puts it) to people, was blurbed by the paper thus: "America is getting meaner. Is it Trump’s fault or the internet’s or both?" In the column to which the blurb referred, Ms Dowd wrote:
Trump has certainly made political discourse more crude and belligerent. But is he making the whole country meaner, coarser and less empathetic? Or was the pump primed for a political figure like him because the internet had already made America meaner, coarser and less empathetic? Did they happen simultaneously?
Not, in other words, that this unfortunate turn of events, this coarsening of the culture, could have had anything to do with her, you understand. Could have been Trump, could have been the internet. Nobody knows for sure, but in either case she and her fellow media pundits are presumed to have been merely standing by and watching while occasionally telling the people they routinely and savagely criticize not to be so mean.
In her own view, I would hazard, meanness doesn’t count as meanness if it’s against the people she thinks deserve it. And who doesn’t deserve it — apart from herself of course? That attitude, however, depends upon a failure of imagination — an inability to conceive that she and the people she likes or approves of could also deserve it in other people’s eyes. A week or so earlier, Chris Rukan of the Washington Post wrote an article headed: "How uncivilized: President Washington lived by 110 rules of civility and decent behavior. President Trump does not."
Of course, it turned out to be just another instance of the paper’s daily round of Trump-bashing for its own sake and nothing to do, really, with our first President or the American cultural history of which he was just as much a part as its political history. But then why would you expect it to occur to anybody at the Post to compare President Washington, not with President Trump but with themselves? I mean, it’s not as if Jeff Bezos’s gang of increasingly vicious propagandists behave in accordance with Washington’s rules of civility themselves, is it?
Yet it’s no news to say that American journalists have grown accustomed to thinking that there are no rules, of civility or anything else, which apply to them. It would no doubt astonish them to think that there were anyone on their side — if there were anyone on their side — who thought they really ought to practice what they preach and set an example of the civil behavior they pretend to desiderate.
It is not usual to find such self-awareness in the British media either, but it can be done. I could even point the reader to examples of self-criticism and a reflective hesitancy about the enthusiasm of the writers’ own political allies and confederates. Almost but not quite falling into that category is the column written for the Daily Telegraph about the Trump balloon by Tom Harris headed "Sadiq Khan's Donald Trump balloon decision is pure grandstanding — and it undermines Britain." Mr Harris, a former Labour party politician, is no better disposed towards Mr Trump than are Maureen Dowd or Chris Rukan, but he writes this:
The irony is that because of Trump, there has never been a greater need to cool debate down, to take a step back and try to restore the old norms of respectful debate and disagreement. Whenever I hear Trump referring to "lying Hillary", I cringe. And my first reaction is to shout something equally offensive and dishonest about Trump at the TV. And sometimes I do. But where does this infantilism take us? What does it achieve other than a pointless and value-free sense of our own virtue? The giant baby Trump balloon is funny for a few seconds, but ultimately its aim is simply to offend and to generate laughs. Is that what modern politics has now become, a contest to see how many "LOLs" can be generated from winding your opponents up?
I would say that the better irony is this: Mr Harris is only pretending not to know that that is what modern politics has now become — which is why we got President Donald Trump in the first place. But that insight seems to be just over his intellectual horizon.