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FUELLED by charges of anti-semitism, Brexit and the breakaway Independent Group of MPs, we are in the midst of another anti-Corbyn media feeding frenzy.
As with the British press coverage of Jeremy Corbyn analysed in the 2016 London School of Economics study, the current attacks are often highly personalised, such as the Daily Mail’s serialisation of Dangerous Hero, Tom Bower’s “exposé” of the Labour leader. The book includes such “bombshells” as Corbyn apparently liking to eat baked beans straight from the can, and that he was on the brink of retiring to Wiltshire to keep bees before he was persuaded to run for the leadership.
However, as media analysts Media Lens highlight in their new book Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality, it is important to understand the liberal media have also played a central role in attacking Corbyn. For example, while she dismisses many of the accusations presented in Dangerous Hero, in her recent review of the book in the Guardian former Observer political editor Gaby Hinsliff argues some “charges… are harder to dismiss.”
“Perhaps the most telling criticism is that Corbyn is simply not very bright, or certainly not as bright as leaders are traditionally expected to be,” she notes, her words positively dripping with contempt and condescension.
“A teacher’s son, educated at a fee-paying grammar, he nonetheless scraped only two Es at A-level before dropping out of a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic because the academic work (at least in Bower’s telling) was beyond him.”
And here is the similarly disdainful Oxford-educated novelist Martin Amis speaking to the Guardian Weekend magazine in September 2017: “Two E grades at A-level. That’s it. He certainly has no autodidact streak. I mean, is he a reader?” (Answer: yes, Corbyn has publicly, repeatedly and extensively discussed his love of literature).
I really didn’t expect to ever write an article explaining how problematic it is to uncritically elevate “intelligence” and formal qualifications.
Mainly because I’ve always found most people with a pulse have a broad understanding that “intelligence” is difficult to pin down; that there are many different types of intelligence; that IQ and exams are a pretty bogus way of measuring anything; that some people who don’t seem intelligent may well be, and vice versa etc. Indeed, does anybody, other than A-level students in the halcyon days between getting their exams results and the first insecure weeks at university, actually give two shits about what grades someone got for their A-levels?
There are, of course, many other problems with Hinsliff’s argument. The importance she clearly gives to the head of a political party being “bright” assumes a very conservative, simplistic view of the world — that it is great leaders and their personality and intellect which make history. Very obviously, Corbyn, whether as leader of the Labour Party or the next prime minister, is not running the show on his own, but works with a close unit of advisers, a core group of supportive MPs, teams of press, campaigns, strategy and admin staff, and a broader movement keeping his back.
Luckily, what the vast majority of the 500,000-plus Labour Party members seem to realise is that Corbyn — intelligent or not — is pretty much the surfer on top of a gigantic wave, with all this implies.
What all this shows is whether Corbyn is the smartest guy in the room or not isn’t that important to whether Labour win power, or its ability to institute significant, progressive change if they do form a government.
And anyway, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron all went to Oxford, and therefore are presumably considered “bright” by Hinsliff. Need I bother saying anything more?
So how should we begin to understand this fetishisation of “intelligence” and formal education being propagated by elite university graduates?
Though their target is nominally Corbyn, I would contend their contempt — and fear — is actually directed at the mass, grassroots movement he heads. “You can do analysis of Corbyn and his ‘movement’ (I have done it) but the essence of the whole thing is that they are just thick as pigshit,” tweeted Financial Times political columnist Janan Ganesh (Warwick University and UCL) in 2016.
This elitist contempt for mass participation — democracy, really — has been amplified by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the US.
“That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobin in 2017.
“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”
“For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage,” she continues. “While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?”
In 2017 a Sutton Trust report found 54 per cent of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, even though privately schooled individuals account for just 7 per cent of the school population.
Speaking to Andrew Marr (Cambridge University) in 1996 for the BBC’s The Big Idea programme, US dissident Noam Chomsky explained the significance of so many influential members of the media being educated at elite institutions.
“There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 per cent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination,” he argued. He went on to highlight George Orwell’s suppressed introduction to his 1945 book Animal Farm as a good summary of why the mainstream media tends to reflect the interests of elites.
“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… not because the government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact,” Orwell wrote.
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question.”
Like Chomsky, Jeff Schmidt, former editor of Physics Today magazine, believes the education and employment systems in capitalist democracies generate a conformist professional class trained to work within a very narrow political framework — Disciplined Minds he called them in his 2000 book of the same name.
How disciplined, you ask? Here are just a few examples of the power-friendly ideological blinkers a top education can provide. Commenting on the recent debate about Winston Churchill’s legacy, in January comedian and writer David Baddiel (Cambridge University) described the former British Prime Minister as “the man who saved Jews from complete destruction,” which is, er, certainly an interesting take on the second world war.
In a lengthy 2013 essay about democracy in the Guardian, David Runciman (Eton and Cambridge University, where he is now Professor of Politics) repeatedly referred to the UK as a “democracy” during World War One — news, I’m sure, to the women and millions of poor men who didn’t have the vote at the time.
And Hinsliff (Cambridge University)? A few months after admitting she got Corbyn’s electoral viability completely wrong, in January 2018 she tweeted the following canard about Syria: “I honestly don’t know if intervention would have made things better or worse. Not intervening has been pretty bloody dismal tho.”
In the real world, by 2018 the US and UK had carried out hundreds of air strikes against Isis in Syria, the US had 2,000 troops occupying parts of the country, and the US and UK had been working closely with Saudi Arabia and others to send massive amounts of support to the rebels fighting Assad, with the CIA having trained and armed 10,000 rebels, according to the Washington Post.
Further reminders — if any more were needed — that members of the liberal commentariat such as Hinsliff are the last people who should be questioning how “bright” the Labour leader is.
Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.
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