Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

The Booboisie

H.L. Mencken. Flickr/Union-Square

While still on the subject of H.L. Mencken, it’s worth remembering one of his deliciously light-hearted jibes at parliamentary democracy. In the course of warning of the dangers of popular ignorance, especially in a 1930s world bristling with economic and geo-political uncertainty, he forecast in Notes on Democracy that American politics would be damaged by its embrace of the fiction of an informed “people”. Mencken supposed that the gravest danger to the ideals and practice of representative democracy was not its dependence on the bourgeoisie, as Marx and American socialists of the period thought. The great weakness of parliamentary democracy was its deluded attachment to ignorant people. He waggishly dubbed them the “booboisie”.

No need for a language alert here. By “booboisie” he was referring to people prone to ignorance and stupid mistakes. Such people are still known today in America as ‘boobs’, and Mencken was surely right that democracies tolerate them, just as much as they’re challenged by their folly. Here’s an unfortunate local example: the recent series of organised diatribes of the Murdoch-owned press against the recommendations of the Finkelstein Report that a new regulatory media framework should replace the past-its-sell-by-date Press Council. There’s no space to dwell at length on the broadsides, some of which talk hysterically of the “new totalitarianism”, but one attack did catch my eye.

Space was given over by the Weekend Australian to Brendan O’Neill, ex-Trotskyite editor of the online magazine Spiked and author of a trashy satire on green politics, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas. O’Neill links together the Leveson inquiry into press ethics and the Finkelstein report to insist that they’re living proof that ‘the chattering classes’ of contemporary democracies are defined by their shoulder-shrugging attitude to press freedom. Writing as the ventriloquist of Rupert Murdoch, who’d like to kill off both the Leveson inquiry and bury the Finkelstein report, he concludes that “today’s bourgeoisie – in glaring contrast to the original and radical bourgeoisie, who created the modern world – are indifferent to the ideal of press freedom”.

Here’s the booboisie at its worst. Soon after publishing his diatribe in support of the liberty-loving Murdoch press, more bad news came its way, this time in the form of a most serious allegation that in Britain it sponsored hacking into the operations of the chief TV rival of its BSkyB. It did so by setting up a software company NDS to crack the smart code cards of its rival ONdigital, owned by the ITV companies Granada and Carlton. It then set about distributing the codes through a pirate website with the raunchy acronym of THOIC: The House of Ill Compute. The allegations, if they turn out to be accurate, underscore yet again the hypocrisy of a media Goliath posing as a freedom-loving David. So that’s a boob, Brendan.

But larger follies run though O’Neill’s potted account of the early modern struggles for liberty of the press. I’ve written on the subject in The Media and Democracy, and in a forthcoming new book called The Media and Democracy in An Age of Decadence, so I was sensitive to the details of his case. He’s right about the importance of the English Civil War of the 1640s in triggering calls, for the first time, for public freedom from pre-publication censorship. The ancients knew nothing of liberty of the press; it’s a modern ideal. But if O’Neill had looked carefully into the period, instead of mythologising the past and misusing it tendentiously for present-day political purposes, then he’d have seen that the “bourgeois” champions of liberty of the press were trapped in more than a few tangles and twists of their own making.

Many early defenders of liberty of the press were in fact God-fearing republicans, or constitutional monarchists, not men who “believed the press should be absolutely free of state meddling”. They were typically men; women were never included in their vision of press freedom. They normally paid homage to the doctrine of the sovereign emergency powers of government (the First Amendment of the US constitution was the first blow against that way of thinking). The early champions of press freedom were also Protestant zealots. John Milton’s great polemic Areopagitica (1644) specifically ruled out press freedom for Catholics and “the Turk”, on the ground that toleration of the intolerant would be ethically and politically self-defeating. Well into the 19th century, talk of press freedom spoke with a strong upper class accent. The propertied classes of the Atlantic region did everything they could to block the spread of press liberties to ignorant commoners. And so on.

Marching under Murdoch’s tattered and torn moral banner, chanting the slogans of press freedom, O’Neill trips up on matters of historical fact. In America, that’s again called a boob, which makes me think that our curmudgeonly critic of democracy H.L. Mencken might well have slipped a wry smile when noting that hired journalists of the fifth largest global media conglomerate have joined the ranks of the booboisie.