An age of shallow opinions and dizzy change

If short-lived Downing Street aide Andrew Sabisky was too youthful to be held to account for anything he wrote six years ago, he is arguably too young to hold down a job at the heart of government now, writes David Aaronovitch

February 20, 2020 16:38

“My old stuff online” was the phrase used by the short-lived Downing Street aide Andrew Sabisky to describe the various scribblings, the reactions to which precipitated his resignation this week. Plus he’d been selectively quoted. (Note: “selective quoting” is an absolutely essential part of any reporting or argument. Imagine a world in which everybody was quoted in full. Everything would be Hansard. Though, come to think about it, MP’s speeches reported in that ancient publication are full of selective quoting. So imagine something far more comprehensive even than Hansard). 

But it’s the “old stuff” element of this I want us to think about. The key killer quote that may have sunk Mr Sabisky was one about the IQ of blacks and whites, posted on Dominic Cumming’s blog in 2014. If you don’t know what he said google it; I really haven’t the space to quote it in full. 

2014. Way back in 2014. That far-off era when things were so different, when Latvia joined the euro, the Ebola virus epidemic began, the Russians shot down an airliner over Ukraine, there was a referendum in Scotland and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world faces “severe and irreversible damage” from CO2 emissions. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joan Rivers died. Before Love Island. When we only had the iPhone 6. 

Before writing this piece I took a look at what I’d written and published in 2014. And barring one or two small infelicities I’d be happy to publish it all again today. Of course Mr Sabisky was very young then. In fact he’s pretty young now. If he was too youthful to be held to account for anything he wrote six years ago, he is arguably too young to hold down a job at the heart of government now. In any case he hasn’t disavowed his earlier “stuff”. 

So — barring unknown Damascene conversions — it is safe to assume that the Mr Sabisky of early 2020 is, in important respects going to be a similar person to the Mr Sabisky of 2014. 

But then I read the JC report on the strange evolution of the far right Hungarian opposition party, Jobbik. The party has just elected as its leader a Péter Jakab whose great grandfather died in Auschwitz and who has told the world that his party “is not the same Jobbik it was five years ago.”

That’s a bit of a relief because five years ago Jobbik looked like a fully-fledged neo-nazi outfit, complete with black-uniformed combat section and a desire to draw up a register of Hungary’s Jews. In fact, back in 2014, the same Mr Jakab argued that “it is Jewish leaders who generate the prejudices that they can use to collect millions for more programmes fighting antisemitism.”

2014. Old stuff but not online. A year earlier (the unimaginably far-off 2013) the then party leader led a protest outside a World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest. He told his supporters, “The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves, because Hungary is not for sale.”

Now, says Mr Jakab, “the kind of antisemitic expressions which took place in Jobbik earlier are impossible to imagine.” Including his own, one presumes. 

I’m all in favour of banking one’s gains. And better the one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance (New Testament I know, but you have to admire the writing). I am very happy to have all these Jobbik types throw off the black shirts and leave off the Jews. 

But do I trust it? How can a whole political party believe one thing in 2014 and something entirely different in 2020?  How can Jews be money-mad manipulators at the time of the World Cup in Brazil but valued fellow citizens by the time of the Euros six years later? It’s a volte face of Communist Party circa 1939 dimensions. 

Here are the possibilities: a semi-miraculous genuine ideological conversion; a big but convenient fib; and finally something I’m beginning to suspect, a modern tendency to hold very strong opinions very unseriously. 

This latter fits the age and its shallow ideologies, much of them rooted not just so much in group identities, but in personal identities. It’s Instagram politics, worn for show and cast off in favour of the next thing with surprising ease. Central to it is an absence of real memory about how bad things happen and how hard it can be to stop them. Because all that is just old stuff, online. 

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times 

February 20, 2020 16:38

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