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Flattering the people

Whenever I hear a politician saying, as I’m afraid they quite often do, that “people aren’t stupid, you know”, what in fact I know is that he (most often he) believes that they are stupid, stupid enough at least to fall for the flattery implicit in suggesting that they are not. This is called populism, and it’s a political strategy that doesn’t often fail.

Seven years ago most of us seemed to believe, or want to believe, that we could go on cutting income taxes, having more in our pay packets, spending more in pubs or restaurants, saving little or nothing and that, far from imploding, this splendid boom was based on a failsafe mechanism (the more you spend the more you have – anyway, Charlie McCreevy knew what it was) that would only get boomier. And of course we weren’t stupid ‑ because people aren’t stupid, you know. In two years’ time it seems (going on current indications) people will go out to vote and with some relish set about “punishing” the political parties who have been dealing with the painful consequences of our previous non-stupidity and reward those who tell them that none of the very unpleasant and difficult things government has been doing since 2010 were either right or in the slightest necessary. And that, of course, won’t be stupid either, because people aren’t ... yes, yes. But if people aren’t stupid, why do we have a word for it? Surely it wasn’t just coined for Afghan hounds.

The truth in this matter is surely the rather obvious one that some people are clever and some stupid, with an infinite spectrum in between, ranging from clever-clever to just a little dim to “I fell of the chair, Brian”. Of course the clever people will not always agree with each other either, for reasons of both interest and ideology. Clever Fine Gaelers with €150,000 a year coming in to the family home think it’s obvious that people who don’t contribute very much to national wealth (the “welfare classes”) should get very little more from the state than what might stop them falling down dead on the street. Clever Fintan O’Toole would be of one mind with the populist politicians, though for different reasons, that “ordinary people” aren’t stupid; on the other hand he thinks that government ministers, senior civil servants and specialist policy advisers almost universally are (stupid is in fact one of Fintan’s favourite words). But of course people are stupid, a little or very. And they can also be encouraged to be more so: indeed it is rather difficult to see what other function, say, the Evening Herald, is performing other than encouraging people to be stupid.

George Orwell dealt entertainingly with the problem of variable intellectual capacity through allegory in Animal Farm. In the new society that emerges after exploitation has been abolished all are encouraged to realise their potential. The results are generally positive but mixed:

The reading and writing classes ... were a great success. By the autumn almost every animal on the farm was literate to some degree.
As for the pigs, they could already read and write perfectly. The dogs learned to read fairly well, but were not interested in reading anything other than the Seven Commandments. Muriel, the goat, could read somewhat better than the dogs, and sometimes used to read to the others in the evenings from scraps of paper that she found on the rubbish heap. Benjamin [a donkey] could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty. So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading. Clover [a horse] learnt the whole alphabet, but could not put words together. Boxer [also a horse] could not get beyond the letter D. He would trace out A, B, C, D in the dust with his great hoof, and then would stand staring at the letters with his ears back, sometimes shaking his forelock, trying with all his might to remember what came next and never succeeding. On several occasions, indeed, he did learn E, F, G, H, but by the time he knew them it was always discovered that he had forgotten A, B, C and D. Finally he decided to be content with the first four letters, and used to write them out once or twice a day to refresh his memory. Mollie [a particularly pretty horse] refused to learn any but the five letters which spelt her own name. She would form these very neatly out of pieces of twig, and would then decorate them with a flower or two and walk around admiring them.
None of the other animals on the farm could get further than the letter A. It was also found that the stupider animals such as the sheep, hens and ducks were unable to learn the Seven Commandments by heart. After much thought Snowball [the Trotsky of the animal revolution] declared that the Seven Commandments could in effect be reduced to a single maxim, namely: “Four legs good, two legs bad”. This, he said, contained the essential principles of Animalism. Whoever had thoroughly grasped it would be safe from human influences. The birds at first objected, since it seemed to them that they also had two legs, but Snowball proved to them that this was not so.
“A bird’s wing, comrade,” he said, “is an organ of propulsion and not of manipulation. It should therefore be regarded as a leg. The distinguishing mark of Man is the hand, the instrument with which he does all his mischief.”
The birds did not understand Snowball’s long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all the humbler animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart. FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD, was inscribed on the end wall of the barn, above the Seven Commandments and in bigger letters. When they had once got it by heart the sheep developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating “Four legs good, two legs bad! Four legs good, two legs bad!” and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.

And yet, relatively speaking, “Four legs good, two legs bad!” is a fairly complex notion. Purely as a slogan, I think “End Austerity Now” has it beat.

1/09/2014