Wednesday, December 9, 2015

retro rhetoric

Hilary Benn's speech was just a shallow historical reenacment, says Spectactor fellow

"It was eloquent, yes, but content-wise it reminded me of those historical re-enactment shebangs where sad men in their fifties try to inject meaning into their lives by pretending to be a Viking in a field for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Only instead of donning archaic armour and a horned helmet, Benn and his overnight Bennites – those currently clogging up Twitter with wild claims that his speech was the best oration since the Gettysburg Address – are wrapping themselves in the moral garb of the mid-20th century warriors against Nazi Germany.

Benn’s speech, and the feverish reaction to it, confirms that British politicians, especially Labourite ones, really, really miss the Second World War. They crave the moral certainty of that conflict that pitted Us against the worst Them imaginable: a vast, murderous system of Nazism.

This is why Benn madly talked about the decision to fire a few rockets at the godforsaken city of Raqqa in the same breath as Britain’s long slog of a war against Hitler and Mussolini. Such a comparison is the height of historical illiteracy....

"But it’s clear why Benn rolled out the Hitler talk, like an elderly, nostalgic lady dusting down her Vera Lynn collection: because in an uncertain, values-lite era like ours – where relativism rules, ‘Britishness’ is treated as a swear word, and ‘Who am I to judge?’ is the cloying cri de coeur – nothing looks more attractive than the sharp moral divide and mass momentum of the events of 1939 – 1945. Benn was indulging in generational envy, bathing temporarily in the light of what our grandfathers thought and did.

But his act was unconvincing. There was a striking disparity between his descriptions of what British forces must do against Isis now and his citing of the war glories of the past. British missiles in Syria can ‘make a difference’, he said; we can give Isis ‘a hard time’. Scary stuff!

Try to imagine Churchill uttering such soft, schoolteacher-style platitudes during the war with Germany. Where’s the talk of blood? Sacrifice? Victory?" 

What's interesting to me - regardless of pro and con of the piece's argument - is how the use of retro-as-pejorative as become a standard fixture of political debate in the UK. The metaphor of Corbynism as an 80s tribute act is well-worn at this point. People on either side fire back accusations of being a revival, a throwback, a replay,  reenactment....

It's a week now and I have still been unable to bring myself to listen / watch Benn's speech.

I'm in the bombing-not-a-good-idea camp as you'd probably expect, but I'm also exceedingly sway-able by oratory, vulnerable to it.

Churchill's wartime speeches can bring a tear to the eye, even just read cold off the page. That sort of cadence seems to tug at the atavistic, the tribal. (In that case  Churchill was correct both morally-philosophically and in terms of geopolitical realpolitik - the survival of Britain as a sovereign state - not to mention Civilisation - but he was also deploying word-magic and oratorical rhythms in a way that bypasses rational argument - in this case a totally righteous use of those means, but they can be used just as easily for different ends).

Fascinated, if remotely and second-hand, by the drama of the speech and around the speech. Several elements here:

The stab in the back  - well, not in the back at all, but right in the front, in plain public view of all - of the man who had been mentored by his father, with whom JC had been as he put it  "very very close"  - so perhaps an element even of sibling rivalry there

The rising up and throwing off the weight of his father's towering reputation, becoming his own man, ideologically

The element of surprise -  nobody expected this, he hasn't had a particularly dramatic or publicly visible career so far

The high stakes nature of the gamble - everyone lauding him for rising to the historical moment, but given the likelihood of all it getting quagmire-y in Syria, this could end up being  not the audition to be Prime Minister one day, but the dooming of any such ambitions.

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