The Blog

I NEED A HERO: Why Fiction, Not Reality, Is The Way Through This Election


My parents were journalists in the 70s and 80s. They weren't saints, but they were politically empowered and radical and principled. They uncovered corruption; they picketed corporate oligarchies; they fought for rights and absolutes in a time when they were few and far between.

Sure, it's easy to idealise. And if the worst thing we've got to face is the fallout from too much privilege, for too long, then that is our peculiar cross to bear.

But when I look back on my twenties, it won't be radical certainty I remember. It'll be radical uncertainty. Moral queasiness; something a bit grubby, lingering, all the time.

(I'm sorry if this depresses you. It depresses me too. But bear with me.)

I don't know anyone who doesn't feel grubby about some aspect of their work or their lifestyle. Or if they don't, they have no imagination and questionable intellect and I'd give them a wide berth anyway.

Political nihilism was a choice, back then.

Today, it seems to me, we're all nihilists, whether we know it or not - because we're all consumers. Moral compromise is de rigeur. Our lifestyles depend, inherently, on a scale of uncomfortable moral relativism.

You only need to head to to realise that your cumin is served with a nice side of exploitation and every piece of technology you own is causing horrifying, barbaric, turf wars in the Congo. When we turn on our heating we're effectively flooding coastal Latin America. I discovered I had 36 slaves working for me. And they're still working for me. Because as far as I can tell (as I frenziedly check my phone and write on my laptop while wearing high street clothing) apart from buying fair-trade cumin, I'm not about to jump off this bandwagon any time soon.

Professionally, well. The grubbiness gets a whole lot grubbier. You're pretty unsavoury if you don't work in the sustainable or not-for-profit sector (.... and even then, who are they kidding?).

If you want to REALLY dig your pristine nails under the skin of our consumer culture and get some dirt up their that just won't shift, I highly recommend branding, PR or advertising - the red pill of the professional world from which there is, I fear, no way back to that nice giant baby-tank and the illusion of spontaneous free will.

Learning how to manipulate people into buying things they don't want, believe things that aren't true or hoodwink them into staying in jobs they hate, sure feels great.

For the most part though, we get on with it and get pissed and forget to worry anyway. There isn't, thank god, too much time for introspection these days. We tell ourselves that it's tough to be ethical. It's expensive to be worthy. Ethics is a game for the rich, and they're not playing.

Occasionally, we purge. Huddled together, well into our second bottle on a Tuesday night, staring into the barrel of our wine glasses as we trade battle stories about our most recent moral indignity.

If you have ever stood at the back of an auditorium listening to the 'brand ambassadors' of a certain soft drinks company roll off speeches you have written that flagrantly bastardise the English language into nauseating - and grammatically incorrect - affirmations designed to convince employees of their ethical contribution while images of obese children and ravaged rain forests run through your brain and the only comfort is in the can of said drink you are chugging away on desperately (because it is free, and you are, by this point, deeply deeply addicted) in the ultimate act of sordid complicity - you will know what I'm talking about here.

It took me months, and hundreds of showers, before I could feel normal again.

Anyway, I digress.

The point is, we are the frogs in the slowly heating pot. Once you step onto that delicious, convenient, well-priced escalator, it's a long way down. Once you concede that everything is just a matter of perspective; once you broaden the frame; rewrite the narrative; filter the image; it's far too easy to rationalise away anything at all.

Malcolm Rifkind's just getting his. HSBC are no worse than anyone else. And so on.

You might not be skimming billions off the tax bill or flogging your dubious political influence to fictitious Chinese business men - but we all do it. We are up to our necks in moral turpitude. Entrenched in a game of ethical off-setting.

And like the broken window theory, when faced with such overwhelming ethical bankruptcy in ways big and small, it seems pointless, some days, to bother trying to improve anything at all.

Mustering outrage feels fruitless. We still do it of course, but it seems stale; we know the script, and the outcome. Stage managing our indignation through a show trial run by profiteers, bankrupt tabloids and weary MPs.

But lately, and far more worryingly, I've become aware that this relativism has infected my ability to imagine a better alternative. It's seeping into my principles; setting everything on a stinking, sliding scale of caveats and qualifications rather than the Rights and Wrongs we used to know.

Where I used to be certain about my moral absolutes, now I feel lost. I lie awake, suspecting, in my bones, that moral absolution went out with my dad's sideburns. Welfare - but for how long? Healthcare - but to what extent? The environment - but what's realistic? And aren't we all going to be washed away by a tidal wave in 2050 anyway?

I sit in front of, terrified in case, on a bad day, I come out 9/10 Tory and 1/10 UKIP.

My conclusion is that once we start thinking too much; once we start down this rotten path of moral carbon offsetting, nothing really looks the same ever again. I feel a bit like Hamlet, most days. And no one wants to feel like Hamlet.

But who to look to, to shake me out of this ethical indifference?

Our politicians, surely? By nature, the walking, talking advocates of a better, shinier, imagined future. That's the job. But no.

And the problem is, wherever we look, we're flat out of heroes.

The problem in this election, I think, is the lack of any particularly appealing versions of the future. I can't remember what moral certainty really looks like and neither can our politicians.

There's a dullness to their fight. A steady avoidance in their middle distance gaze while their political rhetoric bows to the lowest common denominator of public sentiment.

I wish they could just try a bit harder to sell us something we could believe in. I mean, not LIE. But creatively imagine better, alternative realities.

Or at the very least, give us one hell of a speech. In times of crisis, we need SYMBOLS OF HOPE. Grand Gestures. Great Orators.

Make like Obama and woo us with an expansive, (if ultimately hollow and still unrealised) vision of what we are capable of being; harness JFK and remind us of the things we used to like to believe about ourselves.

American politics isn't good for much. But they do know how to put on one hell of a show.

You know that saying - we can't be what we can't see?

Maybe, optimistically, where imagination lives, reality can follow.

But no one seems very hard to be trying to convince me.

The remedy, I feel sure, is less reality, more performance.

Maybe, if we hear the words said with enough certainty - no darting tongue, no parched lips, no skittish looks - we will start to believe it again. Maybe Obama was just a man and a great speech-writer but who cares? And SURE it hasn't really panned out the way it should've. BUT IT FELT AMAZING and people gave a crap.

But don't despair. Hope can spring from the oddest of places. To this end, I - unexpectedly - refer you to former UKIP Councillor Rozanne 'I have a problem with Negroes and I don't know why' Duncan as remedy to our lost faith.

Like most of the nation, I was fixated. Sure, by disgust. But also by a dawning hope.

Because this woman is a DOUBT FREE ZONE. It was the most convincing and committed political performance I'd seen all year.

When she lays her bigoted smackdown, there is literally NOTHING happening at a cerebral level that even hints at the wildly unfounded, socially repugnant, eye-popping nature of her tirade.

No twitch around the mouth, no flicker of doubt in the eyes.

Not a glimmer of recognition at the winded horror etched onto the face of her fellow tea drinker and onetime-UKIP-press officer.

Just, BOOM. Total, glazed, racial prejudice. Solid. Like a bar of Racist Kentish Rock.

Now, transplant the galling racism with unfounded faith in the human spirit then we'd be in business. THIS IS WHAT WE NEED TO SEE MORE OF. Leaders, take note.

So this is my plea.

Just... Tell us a better story. Or at least a different story. Pretend you believe it. Give us our fight back. Draw some clear lines in the sand.



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