Politics, privilege and Barraco Barner: what we can learn from a Twitter storm
With the media’s short attention span winding away from Ukraine now that wild speculation about the possibility of a world war is over, it was almost inevitable that foreign policy wonkery would give way to tabloid storms-in-teacups at some point. This was signified by the Sun’s bizarre apparent coming out in favour of Russian imperialism, its front page adorned with a topless Vladimir Putin and the headline ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’ Perhaps they’ll stick Putin on Page 3 next. The story this time is a 20-year old beautician from Blackpool, Gemma Worrall, who tweeted her worries about ‘our president barraco barner’ getting involved with Russia. (What is far more concerning than misspellings of Barack Obama’s name is the fully-informed academics who will justify his drone strikes against civilians. ) Worrall’s tweet promptly sparked a Twitter furore and a Daily Mirror warning about ‘dumb Britain’ alongside the Daily Mail’s implication that GCSEs are getting easier. (Save it for the results day stock articles, please…)
One thing that has to be acknowledged is the horrifically gendered dimension to the case- a young woman misspells the name of the President of the United States, and instantly Twitter and newspaper comment pages are clogged with sexist abuse. More worrying even than that is the explosion of death threats that followed the tweet- sure, people using online anonymity to be extremely unpleasant is hardly news, but one has to question a society that sees perceived ignorance as warranting threats of violence. It hardly needs to be said that if you need to derive satisfaction by asserting your own ‘intelligence’ aggressively in regards to others then you are probably not all that intelligent. There is a sinister undertone of class hatred here as well- the fact that the tweet came from a beautician in Blackpool has resulted in the dredging up of worn-out Jeremy Kyle-esque stereotypes. The articulation of the abuse Ms Worrall has received is not simply in response to what she said, but to her gender and background.
Fraser Nelson wrote an interesting article in The Spectator where he argued that Worrall’s comment was actually a sign of ‘something going right’ in Britain, making the point that we shouldn’t have to know who our representatives are, that irreverence towards politics is a good thing and being politically uneducated is not a problem. I partially agree. We certainly should not revere our politicians, or feel any particular need to follow the parlour games of Westminster. It is worth adding here, however, that it is concerning that the concept of ‘politics’ in the public psyche is reduced to parliament, prime ministers and presidents. The 1970s feminists had it right with the slogan ‘the personal is political’, and the sooner we adopt a definition of politics that is broader than who your MP is, that recognises the essence of our interactions with one another, our culture and the freedoms and constraints upon us in our daily lives as political, the better. Nelson’s piece, though, is based on a libertarian catechism of ‘he who governs least, governs best.’ This is not to say that an overbearing, many-tentacled government is a good thing, but that if we are to accept the existence of the state then we must charge it with responsibilities and duties. His argument that Worrall’s comment is indicative of something positive because it proves that people are content enough not to engage in politics is predicated upon the notion that everything is fine. It isn’t. Recovery is shallow, the ‘cost of living crisis’ that has been appropriated for soundbites by Ed Miliband is in fact a crippling blight upon the lives of millions, and there are many, many things that are not right about our system, our politics and our government.
Gemma Worrall has said that she now intends to read more on Ukraine, Russia and politics in general. Good. Not because she would be ‘stupid’ not to, or is under some obligation to do so, but because the politically-uninformed citizen is a gift to the corrupt, and particularly to neoliberalism. It is fair to say that under any system the default position is to be ‘apolitical’ (a fiction that actually simply means endorsing the status quo), but the lie we have been sold in the post-Thatcher world is that we live in a post-political society. Part of the development of the last decades has not been all negative- far more people are involved in grassroots issue-based movements as compared to party-political campaigning. There have been two discourses that have led to similar results. One is a growing (and justified) sense of disenfranchisement, of all the parties being similar and similarly unrepresentative. Voter turnout has fallen, and parties govern with smaller mandates every term. The other is the neoliberal condemnation of ideology, encapsulated in Fukuyama’s pre-millennium comment about ‘the end of history.’ It goes something like this, ‘all parties now believe in liberal democracy and govern according to the public interest, and so to be ‘political’ is to be a throwback.’ Oxford might have got its student union elections out the way last year, but the rest of the country is in SU election season now, and the wealth of candidates based on cheap puns and promises to ‘represent everyone’ demonstrates a worrying aversion to policies and political ideas. It is interesting to watch how parties attack one another- a recent example was when the Tories were accused of ‘economic illiteracy’ by Labour over their plans to cut student grants. Of course they’re not- they’re university-educated with years of experience of economic management. If you believe they are wrong, it is because you are ideologically opposed to them. And yet even a political party remains afraid to admit that it is, well, political.
The education system is a further point to consider. Ms Worrall has hit back at critics, claiming that she has 17 GCSEs. This should not lead to another tired argument about GCSEs getting easier, but about the devaluing of the political in our curriculum. One can come out of secondary school able to solve a quadratic equation, have the rudiments of a foreign language, explain the basics of particle physics, and yet not know what their rights are, how to vote, or the difference between socialism and capitalism. When teaching is devoid, for instance, of economics, is it any surprise that so many voters are fooled by the myth that national economic management is governed by the same rules as managing a household budget? Gemma Worrall is not ‘stupid.’ The entire notion of ‘stupidity’ is a damaging one- firstly, it is constructed on an ableist view of the world. It dismisses anyone with learning difficulties, special educational needs or disabilities as of less worth than an able-bodied neurotypical person. Secondly, it fails to recognise educational and social privilege, sidestepping the reality that we still live in a society where your academic success and even your life expectancy remains heavily influenced by the area you were born in, the school you went to and the amount of money your family have.
The infamous tweet should not be used to victimise an individual, but the storm that has developed does shine a timely light on issues of discrimination, education and the place of politics in modern Britain.