The Jeremy Clarkson Appeal

Jeremy Clarkson of longtime Top Gear fame, has recently gotten in a storm of trouble for mumbling the ‘n-word’ on an outtake for the show.

Predictably, there has been a media storm. People on the left condemn, and other on the right think the left is overreacting.  Either way, nobody learns a lesson; a post-racial has not come one iota closer; rather the cycle of racial stereotype, then gilt, then resentment for that guilt, back to stereotype is perpetuated.

What Clarkson embodies though is the continuing appeal of right-wing parties and politicians for Europeans and Americans. Whether its Nick Farage for Ukip in the UK or the Boehners, O’Rileys, and Koch bros and the Republican/Tea Party, the Right is back.

Clarkson is one of those figures that seem to make the mythos of conservatives seem true. Clarkson drives the finest cars, travels, and generally acts blissfully like a man-child who’s little tantrums delight us. The secret appeal of Top Gear is that it  is how we all imagine ourselves living. We live our fantasy lives through people just like Clarkson, TV personalities who seem just like us except they live and act bigger.

It only takes one example, it seems to confirm people’s beliefs. Not excepting myself in any way – I merely wish to point out the power of confirmation bias. The simple ability to persist in believing something that we have in some way attached a part of our identity too. Study after study has proven that even the the face of overwhelming factual evidence, people can cling to their cherished beleifs.

Continuing with the car theme – it’s like driving in a hypothetical car when a “check engine” light comes on. When do you decide to pull over and call a tow truck? How many warning lights and funny noises need to happy before we change our opinion?

I think Clarkson is hilarious; I love watching Top Gear; but I do not take him seriously when he rumbles on about some subject or nationality or whatever. I even think his take on cars is dubious. Clarkson makes for great TV, but a terrible role model for our society. I guess the real question is, why do people take Clarkson seriously? Why do we listen? Clarkson seems to be someone we love to hate, and hate to love, and then others love him because he is hated.

Part of it is obviously that some of want him to be right – and his existence and experience seems to confirm this mindset and lifestyle that we want to be right. A bit like walking out of Harry Potter movie and wanting to be a wizard, I suppose. I know after watching Akira Kurosawa films I want to be a samurai, and consider taking japanese swordsmanship classes, for example.

So that is one part of it; but what about the appeal of conservative politics? There are two main ideas that explain in my mind the continuing appeal of the Big No of the Republican party or of the simple answers and self-congatulatory stereotypes of all conservative groups. First, people are anxious; the world is changing very, very fast. The economy is in a permeant state of recession (more on this later), and people need to work above all other considerations.

Conservatives imagine an imaginary national past, that never actually existed, but it exists in our collective imagination. This is reassuring for one thing and a bit self-congradulatory. It’s something that most of us can look back on say, yes, we did that, we built this nation. Reassurance; a touch-stone is what many people think. When you are anxious about the future, you seek out those who agree with you.

Here is an extended quote from a great article I read recently (mea culpa: I’ve forgotten who wrote it):

The reality is, of course, not so simple. While everyone claims to speak for “ordinary people”, many of our institutions do not speak to them. The right is honest about its condescension – we are governed by those born to rule – but the certainties of a leftwing mindset can be equally patronising.

It is this gap between Little England and Big England that Nigel Farage exploits so well. He and his ever-changing cast of semi-barking compadres are not simply a joke.

 He (Nigel Farage) can present himself as a rebel with a cause because people feel very insecure, economically and emotionally. Change has come too fast and furious for many. To voice this is not inherently racist and yet for every problem to be blamed on Europe and immigration is ridiculously simplistic.

What Farage taps into is this sense of people not feeling in control of their own lives, of rules being made elsewhere, of things not being fair. He even rebuts the logic of the market, ignoring the fact that Europe is our biggest trading partner.

All these sentiments should be the natural territory of the left, not the right. In simple terms, ordinary people feel they have no power; in jargon, a neo-liberal agenda is concentrating wealth at the very top and all the main parties are signed up to this, as though this agenda is natural, not a man-made force. All across Europe, such alienation combined with nationalism fuels the right. It is dangerous.

If the left is to be meaningful it has to speak both to and about this alienation. But politicians are loath to do so as it would mean admitting they are not in full control (this is why in the US, democratic governors and presidents content themselves with bus lanes and legalizing gay marriage instead of tackling the real, deep seated systematic problems). Instead, figures such as Farage pop up as pustules of resentment on the body politic. His discourse is emotional, angry, unanchored, which is why Clegg’s mannered reasonableness and narcoleptic intoning of facts and figures was fairly useless against it.

The difference between the language of a managerial political class and the way that many people speak is huge. Half-hearted visions need to be translated into robotic nonsense such as the “squeezed middle”. Phrases have to be invented, as there are not enough words to convey the passions of Cameron or Miliband (traditional left leaning politicians).

Where there cannot even be a common language, there is no way of expressing common interests. We are linguistically divided.

This is about more than great oratory, it is about a kind of fear. The unmediated voices of ordinary people are a worry for every part of the establishment, including much of the media. They say the wrong things. They are ignorant of what is important. They are over-emotional. They can only appear on Radio 4, for instance, in oddly written dramas or asking experts about pensions. They remain unheard. Even social media serves mainly to amplify the already powerful.

So it is easy for Farage to play the underdog, the ventriloquist of pub wisdom, the ordinary bloke.”

This article nails the appeal of the right. Even though the material interests are very different, especially in the long term, leaders on the Right speak and act and seem to live the same emotions as the lower-middle class. There is a false sense of recognition.

The logic of “voting for the guy who you would most want to grab a beer with” is killing us.



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