You couldn't make it up…

In his first column of the year Richard Littlejohn got stuck into the first ‘you couldn’t make it up’ story of 2009:

The supermarket chain Somerfield, which has taken to electronically tagging meat to deter shoplifters during the credit crunch. Be honest, how many times have you been approached by a shady-looking man in a pub asking if you want to buy a packet of pork chops, no questions asked?

Now, the Mail website has notoriously biased moderation, where normally any dissenting comments you make never appear on the website, whereas comments praising the Mail seem to get through just fine. Littlejohn’s columns seem to be more heavily moderated than any other section of the website, which no doubt explains the numerous fawning comments and barely a hint of criticism.

However, normally servile Mail readers objected to this little story, and ‘being honest’, flooded Littlejohn’s inbox with stories about the times they have been offered meat in pubs – so much so that Littlejohn was forced to answer his readers in his next column under the heading ‘Two pints of lager and a packet of pork chops’.

Maybe I should get out more. After it was revealed that Somerfield had started electronically tagging meat to deter shoplifters, I wondered if anyone had ever been approached in a pub by a bloke offering to sell them a packet of pork chops.All I did was display my ignorance. By all accounts, some pubs shift more meat than Dewhurst.

I’ve heard from readers, coppers and store detectives that more meat goes missing from supermarkets than almost anything else.

‘All I did was display my ignorance’. That is a really significant confession; one that begs the question: in what other aspects of your articles are you simply displaying your ignorance? The implication is that he was writing a column making assumptions based purely on his own view of the world (or reality). A Google search would have told Littlejohn in seconds that Somerfield’s actions were trying to counter a very real problem. That Littlejohn was unable to perform such a simple search should – for any reasonable reader – call into question the professionalism of Littlejohn as a journalist1. Subsequently readers should feel inclined to no longer assume that the rest of his column displays any more determination to uncover the reality or truthfulness of the points he makes.

It is important to question the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ of any news or opinion that you consume, and none more so than the articles you will find in any edition of the Daily Mail. For the Mail is pre-empting any questioning of its articles and opinions by using the very Unspeak phrase (or variations of it): ‘Here in the real world’. This phrase is used to discredit an opinion or fact that the Mail or any of its writers do not agree with by using anecdotal evidence, or entirely irrelevant observations. So if the government claim that immigration statistics show a net loss, or small net gain, the Mail would put forward this information before knocking it down with something like:

But here in the real world, immigrants are flooding demand for local housing, putting a huge strain on public services and placing more pressure on the benefits system.

So the Mail use ‘here in the real world’ as an introduction to anecdotal evidence that they know will have the support of the majority of their readers. Indeed, the inversion of ‘reality’, so that it becomes the anecdotal worldview the Mail wishes to create, makes it very hard for readers to question there being any alternate reality which they could inhabit.

No-one would like to admit not living in the real world, so, if we disagree with such anecdotal evidence then we immediately become not just outsiders, but we are no longer considered of this earth. We become ghostly, alien; or to put it another way: we actually become mythical beings. So the phrase is used instantly to discredit idealism above all other things. For example, you could put forward the argument that we are all human beings, and therefore share the same basic needs: food, shelter, love etc, and that as these needs are basically the same why can we not exist peacefully?

Now, anyone could pick holes in the argument being put forward – you could put forward that cultural differences override our basic needs and that as these are ingrained in wider societies it is these societies that will always come into conflict with other societies, it is not normally a matter of individuals conflicting with other individuals. However, to argue in this way takes serious thought and effort, and would then lead to counter-arguments (such as: society is created by humans, so it can be changed by humans, we do not need to repeat the same cycles of conflict and so on) – it is far better to instead have an easy phrase to discredit any intellectual approach to any topic. And this catchphrase is ‘here in the real world’.

So, the above idealistic argument could be destroyed in seconds with something like:

Here in the real world Muslims want to destroy the West, Asian communities don’t make any attempt to fit into British culture, Israel will always fight Palestine and on and on and on

Here in the real world is normally followed by lazy stereotypes and assumptions, or information selected that may not discredit the argument directly, but reflects reality in the mind of the reader. Subsequently, as such information is clearly grounded or self-evident in ‘reality’, the other assumptions must be equally self-evident and grounded in ‘reality’ (no matter how absurd they might seem to someone viewing the arguments or anecdotes from outside of the Mail reality). Furthermore, by implication, any arguments or evidence put forward before the phrase ‘here in the real world’ must not exist in the real world and can be dismissed as myths or lies.

As the phrase is often used in the Mail to discredit government initiatives it goes further than simply implying that such initiatives are false or not achievable in reality (i.e. they will never be more than a theory, a proposal) it actually implies that the government is actively seeking to subvert reality, or impose their own world view on the reader (hence why the Mail refers to the government existing in a ‘bubble’).

As the government is this force existing outside of ‘the real world’ in a ‘bubble’ then the Daily Mail on the other hand becomes a beacon of light and truth, existing in ‘the real world’ outside of the ‘bubble’ of unreality. The Mail therefore, is not a media outlet trying to enforce its own world view onto its readers; it is actually simply trying to subvert the government’s false world view from being inflicted upon the populace. The Mail becomes a force for good and becomes essentially anti-establishment; it is a reflection of reality in the face of lies and spin.

However, this is of course not true. As intelligent readers we can see through the deceit and we will not be tricked by the false logic involved here. The Mail has its own world view and is enforcing it on its readers everyday. The Mail tries to avoid this accusation by claiming to be reflecting the ‘real world’, but actually dissecting the majority of Mail articles shows this to be untrue; they are simply reinforcing presumptive stereotypes and positing this as ‘reality’ to avoid anybody questioning the veracity of such observational evidence.

The reason for the above examination of the ‘real world’ argument is that Littlejohn employs this argument frequently. His columns are normally little more than one or two anecdotes extrapolated to represent the whole of society. His arguments almost solely consist of being sent an anecdote by a reader; for example: about how they were asked for ID in a supermarket. Littlejohn repeats this anecdote (tough being a writer for the Mail isn’t it?) and uses it to demonstrate how the UK is in fact turning into a police state. Such an argument is ludicrous, but Littlejohn always makes sure he grounds his arguments in the ‘real world’ of his readers, hence why he states he received a letter or email from someone (someone in the ‘real world’) – when for all we know he could have just made it up.

Anecdotes are popular with Mail readers – and any of the comments section on the Mail website will confirm this. They can often testify: ‘Hey I was asked for ID in a supermarket – the world has gone mad!!!!’. Whether or not they have been asked for ID does not actually support the argument that Littlejohn is making, as there is no context provided for why they have been asked for ID, and indeed being asked for ID for buying alcohol is not indicative of a police state. However, Littlejohn relies on the ignorance and implicit agreement of his readers to carry his argument, he does not need to construct rigorous arguments as he is already preaching to the converted.

However, Mail readers do correct Littlejohn, as we can see above with the supermarket chain tagging meat. However, the Mail readers only correct Littlejohn when the correction is minor, when the correction does not actually affect their own (or Littlejohn’s worldview). Furthermore, the correction can only be made when the reader has direct access to reality. In the above instance they happened to be aware of this problem: they may work in a supermarket and know that meat is frequently stolen; or they may have been offered meat in a pub. As they have personal experience of the reality in this case they can identify that the world view of Littlejohn is false in this instance. However, there are far more significant falsities in the world view of Littlejohn that his readers do not have the personal knowledge to indentify: such as Littlejohn’s ludicrous treatment of climate change. Furthermore, to identify Littlejohn’s position on global warming as being false, they would then have to alter their own world view (and this is difficult for readers who often want to be fed opinions).

If the reader was actively seeking the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ in any given article then they would need to research any aspect of the article that they did not have a significant amount of knowledge in. As Littlejohn’s articles rely so heavily on lay stereotypes and crude generalisations they are able to flick quickly between different fields of perceived knowledge, making it unlikely that any reader would research the veracity of his statements. This is exactly what he wants; he doesn’t want his readers actually informed, just given his own world view in order for them to parrot it. An intelligent reader would take his admission that he was ignorant of the meat situation as the first domino that knocks the rest down; but there is very little expectation that most Mail readers would fall into this bracket (assumption made on the basis that they have purchased the Mail in the first place).

For example, Littlejohn’s assertions that the cold weather experienced in the UK makes the claims made by ‘eco-loonies’ entirely false, is laughable and extremely ignorant of the reality of global warming (climate change is another form of Unspeak to be avoided). Littlejohn does not understand the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ which is why he treats a cold spell as evidence that the earth’s climate is not actually getting hotter. This is a subtle example of ‘here in the real world’ mentality: the eco-loonies tell us the world is getting hotter, but here in the real world its freezing cold and snowing! This then leads Littlejohn to not imply that the eco-loonies are involved in putting forward a false reality (he is not in the habit of being subtle), but actually accuse them of being part of a wider ‘conspiracy’ – no doubt linked to the ‘war on motorists’ or the ‘war on the middle-class’.

I left a short comment on his article suggesting that ‘Someone needs to Explain to Richard the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’’ and the comment currently has a negative rating of 117. It seems Mail readers will only accept small intrusions into their own reality, as global warming requires an intellectual awareness of complex issues (or simply trusting the IPCC) it is outside of their reality. In this case the reality being posited by Littlejohn is a localised one: it is cold outside, ergo global warming is not happening.

The position of global warming as some kind of government conspiracy to tax us more or change our ‘right’ to buy ‘proper’ or ‘traditional’ lightbulbs is an example of how far some people are removed from a consensus understanding of the world. Disinformation spread by pseudo-science front organisations paid for by the oil industry has been taken to heart by some journalists and instead of the mainstream media focusing on the actual conspiracy to deny global warming (including the successful change of ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’) the debate has been inverted so that people now discuss global warming as the conspiracy.

Littlejohn is not alone in assuming the position that global warming is some kind of conspiracy, and his labeling of those concerned for the environment as ‘eco-loonies’ implies that he has never engaged in any discourse with environmental issues or campaigners, and has no intention of starting. Labeling a group ‘loonies’ serves to shut down debate, to shout down any engagement, and it is a tactic Littlejohn uses when confronted with any intellectual superior2 or anyone who has the nerve to actually research a given topic and dares to question him on it.

Littlejohn is not concerned with facts, and nor in the vast majority of cases is his audience. Littlejohn is aware that his audience already agrees with his opinions and only want them confirmed in his columns, as the reader is given exactly what they want, they are then in the position for labeling Littlejohn a ‘genius’ and worship him as the voice that dares to speak for them. The only argument worth considering here is whether the audience is passive or active. Are they passive, did they read a Littlejohn column, become convinced of its accuracy and have read it ever since (i.e. essentially brainwashed); or, are they active: they have their own opinions and seek out the Daily Mail and Littlejohn to merely reinforce their own worldview. It could be argued that some readers are a mixture of passive and active consumer, and that if they were challenged by different content or tone from the Mail they may adjust their views (but the way that Littlejohn and the Mail dismiss any opposition to their world view with such hatred I doubt whether this is really possible).

Either way, Littlejohn’s articles in 2009 have continued in the same way, an unchallenged worldview receiving glowing comments from readers, interspersed with the occasional correction of some small point – a point that can be easily corrected without any need to change or challenge Littlejohn’s or, subsequently, their worldview. Such as his admission that Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge doesn’t carry the Great Western Railway’, even though he stated it did in the column before. But these are such minor corrections, none of his readers seems able to spot his deliberate distortions that are far more damaging.

As Johann Hari points out:

Littlejohn’s Britain doesn’t exist. Literally. He spends much of the year writing from a gated mansion in Florida, and admitted in a recent column that, when he is in Britain, he rarely leaves the house. He is describing a country he sees only through the pages of the right-wing press and his self-reinforcing mailbag.

The Mail reader is much the same, they spend so much time wallowing in the hatred and depressive obsessions of the right-wing press that they become increasingly removed from reality – only able to spot minor (almost pedantic) mistakes in Littlejohn’s columns when then whole is is an concoction of lies and distortions.

You couldn’t make it up? Littlejohn does in every column.

1 Though perhaps treating Littlejohn as a journalist is a little unfair, he does not practice journalism. Journalism implies something rather more considered than simply flicking through the Daily Mail picking out a few already dubious stories and selecting tiny bits of information to then use as proof that the country has gone to ‘hell in a handcart’.

2 For example: a teabag.

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