Jonathan Franzen and the rage of the Twitter machine

We’re swamped by a tide of reaction and instant opinion churned out by the second on Twitter, writes Jason Cowley. But as Franzen, Obama and Miliband show, instant gratification won’t secure our grasp of events.

In a recent newspaper interview Paul Mason, the former BBC Newsnight reporter who has joined Channel 4 News as its digital editor, made the absurd claim that those who use social media are “more interesting” than those who don’t because “they have more to talk about”. I once had breakfast with Mason and he certainly had a lot to say – mostly about himself (I’m only joking, Paul!). Perhaps he should read the novelist Jonathan Franzen’s new book, The Kraus Project, in which he writes about what he perceives to be the idiocy of “our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment”.

The book reads as an extended meditation on the enduring influence of the fin de siècle Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who was known as the Great Hater, and as a counterblast against our veneration of technology. One could call it the cult of digital cool. Franzen – who is quite a hater himself – despises the look-at-me Facebook generation’s obsession with ostentatious display as well as the extreme self-promotion that social media encourages and indulges. He also hates Twitter not as an end in itself but because it has become the means to create a kind of mindless babble of instant opinion.

Deafening birdsong

I paradoxically agree both with Mason the techno-zealot and with Franzen the technoreactionary. I like the liberating potential of social media, as Mason does, and the way it allows a small publication such as the New Statesman to transcend old channels of production and distribution and have instant global reach and impact (more than a third of our ever-growing web traffic, on which we are making a healthy financial return, comes through social media). And yet, I’m thoroughly bored by much of what is said and linked to on Twitter, if indeed one has time to follow what is said and linked to, and I seldom do. For me, there are few phrases more dispiriting than “Twitter storm”.

The larger problem of Twitter is that it encourages a kind of crude, unthinking public evaluation – and evisceration – of the kind experienced the other week by the Labour minister Rachel Reeves. More generally, it allows the voice – to use a Krausian term – of mass man to be heard: scabrous, enraged, atomised. When people express outrage about the vulgarity and aggression of so much of what is posted on Twitter, my reaction is: what did they expect, a reasoned and nuanced conversation? Wise up.

Coulda been a contender?

Because it indulges brash opinion and rewards brevity and haste, Twitter has contributed to the even greater banalisation of the political and cultural discourse.

We see this all the time in the way politics is routinely discussed and reported. One need only consider the fortunes of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, who arrives for his party’s annual conference in Brighton at the weekend with, if you believe the way the polls are reported, his “personal approval ratings” in free fall and his party restively wishing it was led by someone else – anyone else! Well, if so, who is this person, and why don’t they make themselves known?

Smart as a vampire tortoise

“Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?” asked Milan Kundera. Miliband is in many ways the slow man of politics – a man out of time. He likes to think hard before he speaks; like a politician of the 1980s, he likes the long-drawn-out process of policy reviews and strategic deliberation. As a former Treasury wonk and Harvard lecturer, and the son of a Marxist academic for whom a family dinner could morph into a seminar, he is interested in ideas and philosophical concepts – “predistribution”, “the squeezed middle”, “responsible capitalism”.

David Maraniss, the author of a biography of Barack Obama, has written that the US president has “a writer’s sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating, and views much of the political process as ridiculous or surreal, even as he is deep into it”. This would fit also as a description of Ed Miliband. Unlike Obama, the author of two fine books of memoir, the Labour leader is not a writer, but he is cerebral and introspective. He refuses to be rushed. He is watchful and self-watching. He knows what he knows and has the strange confidence of a man who believes that all will come right on the night. It might not, of course.

The deliberative approach has taken him a long way – to the summit of his party and to a consistent, if shallow, lead in the polls. But the clamour of the mob grows ever louder. Miliband is a “vulture”, it is said, an opportunist who feeds off the carcasses of his weakened opponents – his elder brother; David Cam eron during the debate on whether to intervene militarily in Syria. We know he lacks courage, critics say, because he hesitated when others wanted him to fall in behind the hawks and demand the immediate bombing of Syria. According to the Telegraph, “Red Ed” has “turned into Dead Ed”: “Even those closest to Ed Miliband are beginning to ask whether they dare go into the general election with this guy as their leader.”

Tics of conference season

Politics has become rather like football, addicted to crisis narratives. Those who commentate on it are becoming obsessed with the superficialities of instant evaluation. And the cry is ever the same: sack the manager! I can’t see any way that Miliband will be sacked by his party before the next election in 2015, and I understand why Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, used the forum of his NS interview last week to woo him.

The message of the conference season is clear: parliament remains hung; the public distrusts and mostly dislikes our politicians; Britain is not one nation but several, and votes accordingly; and there is no one dominant political idea that will help one leader or party effect a grand transformation of the kind achieved by the Thatcherites, or by the economic planners during and after the Second World War.

Meanwhile, to paraphrase Kraus, the Twitter machine goes on humming.

Does using social media make you more interesting? Image: Getty

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.