Friday, January 29, 2016

Tickling John Bull's Lizard Brain

Sometimes you find yourself starting to clap even though the setting isn't quite appropriate; you simply can't help it. In this case, it was definitely problematic; the setting being the middle of a transatlantic flight and, with me looking, as I do, like a slightly older version of the underwear bomber, it certainly wasn't prudent. "No sudden moves" has been my catchphrase when traveling, but there I was a week ago, unable to stifle the handclaps or bravos that I felt were in order. How often does one get to celebrate the beauty of a perfectly executed journalistic intervention. For there is an art to putting a newspaper together, and, in this age of decline, I was compelled to salute the editors of the Daily Mail for their achievement. I am writing of course of pages 8 and 9 of the Daily Mail from Monday January 18 2016. Behold some media toli:

Targeting John Bull's Lizard Brain - Daily Mail Monday January 18 2016 pages 8-9

This wonderful two page spread is a deftly-executed visceral appeal directly targeting John Bull's lizard brain, specifically that area near the outer reaches of the jingoism gland, that murky corner somewhere in the liminal sections of the cerebral cortex - tickling the nativist quadrant of the medulla if you will. I am summoned to metaphorical excess at the accuracy of the editorial imperative displayed. It's like one of those newfangled drug cocktail therapies designed to overwhelm the many devious defenses of the E.coli bacteria. It's the bundling at work, the combination therapy if you will, that marvels. The choice of headlines, the placement of stories - a masterpiece of juxtaposition, the pull quotes accentuating fear, disgust and sexual anxiety at once, and the graphic design adding to the reader's sense of learned helplessness. Everything is connected and works together to reinforce the dismal political message; the keen editorial sense on display in service to agitprop. No search engine optimization can match the tabloid efficiency on display here. I dare anyone to scan these pages without experiencing agitation and confusion - this is the clear intent of the editors. I've annotated the features that caused my unbidden standing ovation.

  1. Cologne sex gangs could come here under EU law, PM is warned
    Predatory immigrants are threatening the homeland with their rapist impulses. Grooming be damned, the font size emphasizes the immediacy of the danger to us 'here'. The "under EU law, PM is warned" parts of the headline are necessary but secondary additions to the main theme, the imminent threat of those "sex gangs". It is clear that David Cameron needs to stiffen his resolve against EU law lest the "Cologne sex gangs" smuggle themselves past the concrete jungle outside Calais, through the Channel Tunnel and onto fair England's land.
  2. Muslims are impossible to integrate says Czech president
    As an editor, I have always found it best to get someone else to make the desired piquant quote for you and this headline is no exception. The provocative paraphrase of the authority figure, the Czech president (a "71 year old Left-Winger" whose opinion would normally be dismissed in the Daily Mail's thinking) underlies the essential trifecta: Muslims. Impossible. Integration. We might as well give up. The headline omits the 'practically' precursor that softens the 'impossible' task, but well, the headline writer has exercised editorial discretion. Clean hands after all that dirty work.
  3. 'Effectively throwing money down the toilet'
    This pull quote about waste of the bathroom sort raises the issue of disgust at bodily functions. The proximity of the scatological angle is intentionally tied to the specter of the sex gangs previously raised. Outrage is a close companion to disgust.
    Note: for the visually minded, the toilet and sex gangs are complemented to the right on the opposite page by the photo of woman in a state of undress - a presumed target, but we'll get to number 8 in due course.
  4. 'There is nothing we can do'
    This alarming pull quote emphasizes just how besieged 'we' are on all fronts, from "sex gangs" to wasted money.
  5. Ghettoes and excluded localities
    The locus of the problems 'we' are facing from "them" is outlined here. The language of the "surge... of refugee arrivals.. wave of mostly Muslim migrants" embedded in the article is overkill. "Ghettoes and excluded localities" does the job.
  6. Half of EU aid wasted, stolen or lost in red tape
    The plain message being articulated is that the English common man is being cheated. Our money is clearly being wasted by bureaucrats, and, further, we have been told "there is nothing we can do about it". It is galling to say the least. This is in clear contrast to those Guardian-reading liberals who would speak in praise of red tape
  7. Build fence 'using petrol tax'
    This inset's purpose is to sow confusion and it does so brilliantly combining an anti-tax agenda (for the proposed taxes would be "wasted, stolen or lost in red tape"), with protectionism (the need "to build a fence" to protect against the "sex gangs") with skepticism about the environmental agenda of the EU big dogs, the "petrol taxes". The small print of Wolfgang Schaeuble lurking in the story should raise the reader's hackles.
  8. Trixie the half-dressed blonde nun proxy
    Trixie, of Call the Midwife fame, is essentially the visual relief from the text - the right brain complement to the editorial assault on our senses. The title may well be "Midwives swing into the 60s... and face a tear jerking tragedy" but what grabs attention is Nurse Trixie herself - and it is unclear if she is dressing or undressing. The main takeaway is that there is a state of undress and the concomittant vulnerablilty. It doesn't hurt to have a nudge or wink towards sex: cleavage sells, sex sells after all. Still, the helpless blonde needs rescuing from the text-heavy affronts raised on the left brain. It is all of a piece.
  9. Thalidomide Scandal
    Ignore the rest of the title, the eye certainly ignores the preamble (Mail TV critic sees hit show return and tackle the Thalidomide Scandal)
    Disease is the inevitable metaphor for 'Them', those foreigners, those migrants, those sex gangs. In the past it was plague, last year it was Ebola, this year it is Zika, but the allusion is to the thalidomide scandal of yore - dead or deformed babies. The actual content of the review doesn't matter as much as the juxtaposition of Thalidomide with the Muslims, the sex gangs, and the red tape. It reinforces the point: we need urgently protection to build a fence against these depredations. It is galling that "there is nothing we can do' to protect defenseless infants or their mothers. The midwives need our help to avoid a tragedy. Save the children.
  10. A picture of chaos and disorder
    The helpful caption to this troubling picture makes the point: "Under attack: hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by migrants in Cologne on New Year's Eve". "We" are under attack. The gangs of youth standing ready to assault women that New Year's Eve might well be aimed at those half-dressed midwives. Their stances are mirror images. The eye flips from left to right and the sense of impending action, sexual violence and all, is emphasized.
  11. Asbestos exposure
    The "important information" of this advert is the equation of those "ghettos and excluded localities" replete with "sex gangs" with the perils of "asbestos exposure", mesothelioma and "thalidomide". The ambulance chasing firms got their money's worth in targeting the working man, while the editors scored a metaphorical triumph.
  12. Average pay at Goldman £250k
    Outrage is compounded by the injustice and inequality of this world. In this Great Recession, the symbolism of bankers continuing to grab all the loot even as wages stagnate for the rest of us is telling. Again, if one casts one's eye to the other side of the spread, we are visually reminded that 'There is nothing we can do'.
  13. Scots earn more per hour than English!
    This last item caused my in-flight commotion. Having been buffeted by all the preceding into a state of panic, the English reader is jolted into a state of blinding outrage. Poor John Bull has been repeatedly set upon, the Union Jack that those ungrateful Geordies tried to disdain in that referendum, the petrol taxes and EU wasted aid all adds up to seeing red. The exclamation point adds the requisite amount of indignation. The intended turmoil has been successfully sown: fear and loathing accomplished. The (almost redundant) punctuation mark is a knowing wink from the editors. You can imagine their craftsman's satisfaction at their day's work.

A decade ago, I published a piece that held the Ebola and Marburg viruses as proxies for Ronald Reagan and Jonas Savimbi's depredations on Africa and Angola in particular. The contrast between those 8,000 words and the brutal efficiency of these two Daily Mail pages is telling. I am further confounded because, in my views, I am the antithesis of everything the Daily Mail editors appear to advocate for, yet, well, I recognize the genius of their game and they very sincerely moved my emotions. The rhetorical precision that lies in the nationalist, populist and protectionist appeal to John Bull is compelling. Well played Dear Editors, the 2016 Toli huhudious awards have a nominee if not a front-runner, and we were only 3 weeks into the year.

Jingo Perils - Some Light Reading

Hilaire Belloc wrote an allegory On Jingoes: In The Shape Of A Warning in my favourite book of essays On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, a volume, as it happens, on nothing and kindred subjects. This whimsical folktale tells "the sad and lamentable history of Jack Bull, son of the late John Bull, India Merchant". This purported son, becomes bamboozled by the opportunist Sir John Snipe and the advice his retainers, Hocus and Pocus, who he called Freedom and Glory for some misbegotten reason. The story ends in the same vein as his earlier cautionary tales and I strongly commend it to you. Belloc was prescient as always: ruin lies in the way of the jingo... Sadly it is a message that the Daily Mail prefers to relearn by experience rather than avoid.

An anxious playlist

As usual, a soundtrack to this note:

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