Notes From the Margins…

Beware the Lies of March

  • March 29, 2020
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In difficult times, it’s comforting and perhaps essential to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also wise to bear in mind that there are always alternative possibilities. Historical tragedies are not like novels or theatrical tragedies.  They don’t come with redemptive endings or instructive moral messages.  They do not necessarily lead to collective sanity or wisdom.  There is no direct historical road to knowledge, self-recognition, rationality, or an upsurge in our better natures.

Such lessons may be there to be learned, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be.   Take the suggestion, which I’ve heard from various quarters, that the current crisis may halt the onward march of rightwing populism and its various manifestations.

This argument has various narrative strands, but its essential premise is that the flagrant incompetence and sociopathic disdain shown by leaders like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro in response to the coronavirus  will remove the scales from the eyes of their supporters and lead to a return to competent governance, a new reliance on expertise, and a renewed emphasis on international cooperation in managing and resolving the crisis, and avoiding repetitions.

More optimistic possibilities suggest that the coronavirus may generate new forms of transnational cooperation and solidarity, a new conception of the enabling state, new forms of economic and social organisation, all of which will leave us better-placed to deal with the impact of climate change, and repair and reverse some of the damage to the social fabric inflicted by decades of free market triumphalism and austerity.

These are all possibilities worth believing in and fighting for, but we will not have a chance of achieving any of them if we simply assume that political movements like the ones that have come to power across the world in recent years will simply melt or be shamed away in response to a disaster of these magnitude.

To do that is to to entirely underestimate the ruthlessness, dishonesty, and sheer political depravity of these movements, and the well-financed platforms through which they propagate themselves.

Take today’s piece in the Mail on Sunday, which invites readers to consider the question ‘Did Barnier infect Bojo?’  This is the kind of question that decent folk ought to turn away from with polite contempt, like a fart at a funeral.  Even more so, when the article goes on to ask in the opening line ‘ Could this be the ultimate revenge for Brexit?’

Some might argue that if mild Covid-19 symptoms are the EU’s ‘ultimate revenge’, then Johnson and the country have go off pretty lightly.   But the Mail clearly believes otherwise, in its dark suggestions that  Barnier might have been the ‘Patient Zero’ who supposedly ‘brought virus to No 10’.

It bases this hypothesis on the fact that on March 5 Barnier met the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost.  On March 19 Barnier announced that he had tested positive for the virus, and the next day Frost entered self-isolation.  The Mail‘s crack team of detectives accompanies this supposed virus trail with a picture of some of the officials the ‘stricken OM’ met in March with arrows connecting them, which tells us nothing about anything.

The article doesn’t mention that Johnson cheerily informed the nation on March 3 that he had been to a hospital with a number of coronavirus patients, where he ‘shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.’ It didn’t do this because that would have reminded readers that Johnson is a dangerous buffoon who ignored the public health advice that his own government was urging on the nation.

Instead it delivered an article which blamed foreigners – or more particularly the EU, for depriving us of our PM in our time of trouble, and accompanied it with an insert carrying a picture of Carrie Symonds looking winsome, cuddling a dog on a pillow and ‘keeping mum about her hideout.’

Pregnant mothers, cuddly dogs, dastardly foreigners infecting our PM as ‘revenge for Brexit’ – no one can say that the Mail can’t find its way to its readers’ erogenous zones.  Well this is an intimate relationship that stretches back many years, to the not so distant days when the Mail attacked Jewish refugees and cooed admiringly over Herr Hitler and Oswald Mosley .

So, at a time when the death toll from Covid-19 is rising dramatically, when the Johnson administration has been criticized for its initial refusal to join the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme, it’s not surprising to find the Mail writing a non-story whose sole purpose is to blame the European Union.  It’s a (toxic) dead cat right there, and it’s difficult to imagine that this piece was written without the cooperation of Johnson’s inner circle.

Not content with blaming the EU for infecting our PM, today’s paper also contains a piece blaming China for the virus, with pictures of Chinese markets asking ‘will they ever learn?’ and an article from Iain Duncan-Smith on why ‘We must stop kow-towing to these despots.’

So on one page Carrie is hugging a little dog.  On the next we see pictures of ‘terrified dogs and cats crammed into rusty cages’ and warnings about Huawei.  If this didn’t come from Downing Street, it might as well.  And the Mail’s anti-China attack lines  echoes a narrative that is spreading across a wide spectrum that includes the Trump administration, the Republican Party, Nigel Farage, and alt-right ‘news sites’ like The Daily Wire.

Just to be clear: there are perfectly valid reasons to criticize the Chinese government’s response to the virus.  Some of these failings, such as the initial attempt to control and conceal the information about the outbreak in Wuhan, are undoubtedly systemic, and it is not my intention to defend that system.

But that is entirely different to the ‘blame China’ narratives coming from conservative newspapers, Fox News, and alt right websites and social media.  They are deliberately playing to racism and xenophobia in order to distract from the failures of their leaders – failings which are partly due to the leaders themselves, and which have also revealed other forms of systemic failure.

These platforms will follow this new ‘Yellow peril’ line as far as it goes, regardless of its consequences for Chinese and Asians who have become victims of racist attacks and abuse, or its impact on fighting the virus.

Because regardless of what the Chinese government did wrong at the beginning of the pandemic, the world needs cooperation between the United States and China in order to resolve it, and we need international cooperation and concerted action to eliminate it and prevent it from reoccurring.  It does not need blimpish half-wits like Iain Duncan-Smith or Nigel Farage, who crowed ‘We are all nationalists now’ in the Telegraph this month, as states across the European Union began imposing restrictions.

For Farage, the re-imposition of border controls across the Schengen Area shows ‘that in a crisis the concept of solidarity – championed by the European Union and the globalists – counts for nothing.’

This is the kind of take you would expect from Farage, for whom any form of solidarity is entirely alien, and we can expect to hear a lot more of these from all the movements that he and his kind have profited from and exploited so ruthlessly these last few years.

Farage, Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Modi, Vox – all of them will use this emergency to promote hatred and division – while all the time denying they are doing anything of the kind or insisting that they are merely defending ‘their people’.

They will appeal brazenly to the fear, loathing, paranoia and the sense of vulnerability that underpins their movements, in order to reinforce their case for hardened, militarised borders, and nationalist ‘solutions’ to a problem that cannot be solved by any single nation, let alone by the sociopaths these movements have brought to power.

They will do this just as the Mail did today: ruthlessly, cynically, relentlessly, without a shred of conscience, regret or any consideration of the effects of their actions. They will do this because that is what they are.  And if we are to have any possibility of taking the world to a better place in the course of this crisis, we should never underestimate the willingness of these movements to make things worse, and to continue with the same lies, misinformation, and disinformation that brought their leaders to where they are.


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1 Comment

  1. Alison

    1st Apr 2020 - 11:54 am

    Thank you Matt Carr. People need to know this stuff, or at least have it confirmed for them, and then to know the best way to rise up and say: NO MORE! The trouble is, the majority of those who don’t believe the rubbish in the Mail and other populist propaganda are usually too polite to do much more than nod in agreement with your words. What to do?

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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