Now, there’s a reason I’m releasing less wisdom than normal, and that reason is Twitter. This takes away the urge to blog for a number of reasons. The first is to find that my views are not unique, and the things that annoy me annoy others. I don’t need to explain about the national debt or the deficit or the causes of the 2008 credit crunch or the idiocy of Brexit, because others are doing it, and some of them are doing it better. Very much better.
Another reason Twitter diminishes my output is that I can explain my views on the world, or react to others’ views, whilst lying in bed or sitting in my favourite armchair. Now that the number of allowed characters has doubled, you can even include subtlety and/or irony. And, of course, Twitter gets more readers than blogs, especially if you’re part of a national debate run by a celeb columnist. Don’t think I’ve ever had a ‘like’ from an major economist or Times columnist on my blog, but I have on my tweet.
Twitter does, however, have disadvantages. The first is that it enrages you. I have given up reading it last thing at night, because you can’t get to sleep with all that adrenalin pumping. The second is that it is often inaccurate. I’m not talking just about fake news, though there is plenty of that about. Last week there was a terrorist attack in Oxford Street, only, er, there wasn’t. People retweet non-quotations from great men and women (I’ve written before about that, but it still amazes me that people can believe that Sophocles or Pliny agreed with the current Republican agenda in such a detailed way). Obviously posed videos show mankind’s essential badness, or goodness. There’s one going the rounds at the moment where a dog rescues a woman from a mugging, which would be more convincing if the camera weren’t to follow the fleeing miscreant in a way no security camera could or would.
Trolls are always there, too. Sometimes its people who simply cannot believe the possibility that they might be wrong. Recently, I corrected a tweet that claimed that the richest 1% paid 27% of government tax, by pointing out in a caring way that it was probably just talking about income tax, and when you take all taxes into account, the tax system is broadly proportionate. “I’d like to see the details of that”, the author spluttered, so I sent him the details, charts and all. His response was to say that tobacco and alcohol taxes are essentially voluntary, so the poor are obviously choosing to pay more tax. This response not only missed the point (in practice the bulk of indirect tax comes in things that are not voluntary like council tax, petrol tax, insurance tax etc.), but moved on from his first assertion, which had been proved plainly wrong.
However, right wingers who can’t bear to say “I want to keep all my money, and to hell with society” and so have to invent excuses (if you lower taxes you’ll raise more money; let the rich keep their money, and it’ll all trickle down to the poor; successful societies have low tax rates) are to be expected, and in their easily understood blend of idiocy and selfishness are not the worst. I have found three other areas where you can be sure of greater abuse. These are:
- Any suggestion that Israel might have a right to exist, or that its opponents are not angelic. I won’t argue my views now, but this is an area where sensible dialogue is not possible. No-one changes their minds, and the (true) assertion that being anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Semitic is often put under great strain. I’m a gentile with a degree, but have been called a Zionist moron on line (in a debate that was not about Israel).
- Green stuff. I recently attended a lecture by George Monbiot, of whom I’m a fan. I tweeted that it was a great event, but that sadly the only group taking the opportunity of energising local lefties en masse were those trying to prevent the removal of trees by Sheffield’s roadsides. The reaction was as if I had advocated murdering their children. The first reaction – that just because you wanted fewer trees removed didn’t mean you were impervious to other issues (true) – became a collective howl. And, er, the fact is that (in a world of shrinking welfare funds, wars in Yemen and Syria, staggering growth in inequality, health service cuts and so on) no other issue was raised. And the tree issue was absurdly exaggerated. Rather than saying that the council had mishandled a necessary programme, some seemed to say the tree issue illustrated the decay of late stage capitalism. Others people claimed that the street I had named in my defence as needing treatment was just fine. Indeed, they pushed their grandchildren’s’ prams or disabled husband’s wheelchair down there frequently (non-Sheffield readers will not realise this is mendacious nonsense).Similar reaction when I suggested, after a hairy journey in autumnal dusk – that cyclists and pedestrians would benefit from wearing more easily visible clothes in murky November weather. Angry respondents said it was cars that should be painted in hi-viz colours, as they were the criminals responsible for crashes; indeed, car drivers are the ones who should be made to wear helmets. These answers – tweeted with many ‘likes’ – share two things. They don’t relate to my comments (I never mentioned compulsion or helmets), and they would do nothing to reduce road casualties. Sadly, when a car hits a cycle, it is the cyclists who gets hurt. But the feeling of personal worthiness seems to have overwhelmed these obvious points, and the knowledge that most cyclists own cars.
- Right wing fans of Friedrich von Hayek. I once remarked that Marx had been proved wrong when he said that the working class would get progressively poorer under capitalism, and so was no longer seen as a faultless guru. However, von Hayek was wrong in saying that social democracies with welfare states would become more and more tyrannical, less and less free, yet has not been discounted for an equally flawed prediction. Nowhere in the world – certainly not the right wing autocracies – enjoys the freedoms of European social democracies. You’d have thought this was an uncontroversial statement, yet … wow ! Fritz’s fans piled in. They either denied he held these views (how can this be ? A simple quotation from his books – indeed the very title of “Road to Serfdom” – shows that he did), or felt it was outrageous, almost blasphemous, to suggest the god of neo-liberalism had misspoken. This wasn’t just one response, but a stream, and some very abusive.
I guess the thing these three themes have in common is tribalism, the warm feeling of knowing that you have a gang of mates who will leap in waving the same broad sword of truth as you are bearing. These tribes have a clutch of common views, and I guess their list of Twitter reading will have few deviants from the approved wisdom. If you are against fracking, you must be against nuclear power (not logical, as Mr Spock might say); if you oppose capital punishment, you must favour freer abortion. Oh, and the other supporting driver is virtue – the feeling that your views are not just sensible policy prescriptions, but represent moral excellence. The danger here is that anyone who disagrees with you is not only mistaken but wicked.
And that way lies a very dark path indeed.