My nephew Jude has started a new blog called Komodo Art and it looks good.
He asked me to contribute and you can see my article below. Being asked to write something is always motivating as it means somebody, somewhere, is interested in what I have to say and that (as a wannabe writer) is all I need in terms of motivation.
The Problem with Rebellion
I like Jude’s article about Extinction Rebellion’s week-long protest in London last October: Despair in Trafalgar Square.
I agree with his opening statement: “Like the Flower Power movement of the late 1960s Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) approach to rejecting the system is idealistic … and will ultimately be remembered as a wet dud.”
His description of the ease with which the Metropolitan Police dealt with the protestors, who attempted to block Central London, is masterful; how they chipped away at the edges until, at the end of the week, there was nothing left but … “a wet dud.”
But I disagree that “XR needs to be much, much more rebellious … to strike back with force.”
What Jude seems to be arguing for is violent rebellion and I sympathise with him; I sometimes rage at the machine, despair at globalisation and the way Big Tech is taking over our lives to the extent that most people I know spend their evenings being entertained by modern fairy tales from Hollywood.
The main reason I argue against violent rebellion in the UK is that it will almost certainly fail: the police are well trained, well paid, well equipped, flexible (they can turn violent in a heartbeat) and they operate as one unit under a particular vindictive Home Secretary who (in my opinion) would like nothing more than to crush XR with brute force. She could then brand them as a terrorist organisation and it would be game over.
After studying history and politics at Liverpool University I lived in Tibet, Bosnia, Albania and Romania. I witnessed a small rebellion in Lhasa, where a dead boy was dropped at my feet, I travelled through Bosnia when it was at war and spent 17 years in Romania after its violent revolution in 1989 (which I reported on for Scotland on Sunday). What I’m trying to say is that I have some relevant experience.
I’ve read a lot of history and I can’t think of one example of a rebellion that has actually succeeded. If the state is violently challenged it will respond with violence (unless it’s too weak, timid or indecisive to do so). In the old days the reprisals for rebellion were terrible — the leadership would be “strung up” as an example to others — but nowadays the state has the mass media at its disposal and they’re much better at manipulating it than the likes of XR.
When a rebellion is successful it becomes something else: a revolution. France and Russia are great examples of this (both started as rebellions) but both nations were in a state of collapse at the time, and the governments were no longer able to stand up for themselves.
Britain is a particularly bad place to organise a rebellion as we have hundreds of years experience of suppressing them; it’s worth looking at Wikipedia’s entry on the Peasants Revolt of 1381 as you can see even back then the English were quite subtle at suppressing revolt.
The most interesting thing about this process is how the government of the day learned from each of these rebellions: the Peasants Revolt taught the fourteenth century rulers to be wary about applying a Poll Tax (which was quoted heavily when Maggie Thatcher tried to re-impose a modern version of it); England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 resulted in our current system of constitutional monarchy; and the nineteenth century rebellions led to men over 21 getting the vote.
You could argue that it’s worth sacrificing ourselves for the environment, that XR’s revolt will make the government wake up and take global warming seriously. But I don’t buy it — the government, the police and the media are too wily — and there’s a much better way.
I may be coming across as some armchair naysayer who snipes from the sidelines and writes letters to the Daily Telegraph. I’m nearly three times older than Jude — I’ll be 57 in September — so you could call me “an old duffer.” Fair enough. But I’ve been a rebel ever since I was forced into school at the age of five — an experience I wrote about here — and I was happy to join XR’s October Rebellion in London last year as I fervently believe we must stop polluting our planet. I’m also “doing my bit” by giving up my car, going vegan (apparently factory farming produces more greenhouse gases than the transport sector) and joining non-violent protests.
Like Jude, I was camping with XR in the streets of London last October hoping that this non-violent rebellion would make a difference and, like him, I think it was a failure.
During the October Rebellion last year I saw for myself how XR were presented with the most perfect opportunity they could have hoped for — a chance to talk directly to the population of Britain via Prime Time TV — and they totally blew it.
XR’s protest was so huge that it made the news and suddenly all the big chat shows wanted XR representatives to come on and make their case: this was their moment; this was the most valuable PR that money could buy (corporations pay fortunes to appear on these Prime Time TV shows) and I think that the big brains behind XR just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that this was a unique chance to get their message into the living rooms of Joe Public.
If they had understood this opportunity they would have prepared; they would have spent months finding the best possible spokespersons and trained them up to deal with the “Big Beasts” of television who would do their best to demolish them — as they do with all their guests.
The Prime Time chat shows are a sort of intellectual wrestling match where the presenter does his/her best to make the interviewee into a fool, incompetent or liar — and (for them) the best case scenario is when the resulting fiasco makes the news; for example during the last election Andrew Neil demolished Jeremy Corbyn to such an extent that Boris Johnson refused to face him. Other top level TV bruisers who turned up the heat on XR included Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage: although these people are despicable they have millions of followers.
The key thing that any interviewee should know is that these well-dressed thugs aren’t interested in your perspective or your answers to their questions; they’re trying to demolish your argument, your character and your movement. So their questions are wrapped up in outrageous statements that you must confront if you don’t want to become just another messy patch of roadkill.
The political parties train their people to stand up to these TV bullies, to dodge questions and get a few messages across. It’s a nasty, vicious, sensational process but it’s one of the key elements of our competitive and money-grubbing news cycle, and if you want to get your message across you need to master it (and if you don’t master it you can compromise your cause).
But what did XR do? They fronted an academic spokesperson with the ridiculous name of Rupert and he came across as insipid, weak and unconvincing. He was unable to minimise the simple but highly effective message that the media and police were pushing: XR is blocking the traffic and stopping Londoners from getting to work. Rather than ignore this charge, as any politician would have done, they would apologise and talk in the language of the new-age healer, empathising with the drivers who were delayed. They fell into a trap.
If you look at this clip from the BBC’s Andrew Neil show you can see another XR spokesperson with an odd name who allowed herself to be utterly trampled. It’s painful to watch as XR’s hapless spokesperson nods in apparent agreement to every outrageous accusation he makes, and it’s clear that she’s flummoxed by Neil’s charm as he quietly takes apart XR’s credibility.
Here’s an extract:
Andrew Neil: Some of your activists claim on TV that billions of people are going to die…What’s the scientific basis for these claims?
Zion Lights: These claims have been disputed, admittedly. There are some scientists who agree and some who say they’re not true. But, you know, the overall issue is that these deaths are going to happen. We don’t know exact numbers…
In less than a minute into this 8 minute interview XR’s credibility was flushed down the pan by this Master of the Dark Arts. Rather than answer the question she more or less agreed — “these claims have been disputed” — and when I saw it at the time, I knew it was game over. XR had squandered this incredible opportunity and allowed the media to present them as “a loopy middle-class doomsday cult!”
What’s the answer?
I said above that there’s a much more effective way of changing things than violent revolt and it’s quite simply making people aware that it’s a serious problem and we need to take urgent action. This can be done by replaying the above scenario but with a new generation of spokespersons who are tough, well trained, experienced and convincing.
When a majority of people know that we must change our way of life, as a matter of survival, the media and politicians will do it as quickly as they can. Thus, XR must win the argument but I don’t think they have the humility to address people who don’t agree with them.
Jude is not alone in having no faith in the mainstream media. In his article he describes a “compliant media intent on keeping Big Oil’s agenda paramount,” and I don’t really disagree with him. But I also know that the media is a machine and, like any machine, it needs a constant supply of raw materials to keep it going; this machine doesn’t need fuel, oil and water — it needs scandal, money, sensation and murder (if anything is a Death Cult it’s the modern media).
What I’m saying is that getting on the news and knowing how to dodge the bullets is perfectly feasible. The fact is that the government and big business have worked this out, they invest in PR and the media plays along with their agenda (what the Americans call “talking points”). But there are enough gaps, openings and opportunities for a big player like XR (which is damn good at organising protests) to use the media to promote their goals.
If XR’s ruling committee were to ask my advice I would say: organise a massive demonstration in central London with the single aim of getting properly trained spokespersons onto the news.
The Coronavirus Example
My concluding point comes from the time of writing this article, when we are all isolating due to the coronavirus.
On the one hand the coronavirus is having a devastating impact on the global economy, but on the other hand it’s showing what can be done when everyone agrees that there is a real threat. It’s the first time ever when the global economy has been more or less shut down (and forget comparing it to the World Wars which were times of increased economic activity).
One of the news items that has come up over recent weeks has been the drastic reduction in pollution as aviation, transport and most of industry grinds to a halt. Some wishful-thinking journalists hope that this state of affairs will continue but it’s blindingly obvious, to me at least, that people are desperate to get back to work, to travel and shop relentlessly and that pollution levels will actually spike when the lockdown ends (and no government I can think of is using the crisis to promote the green agenda).
This is another great opportunity that XR seems unaware of: to take advantage of the moment and explain to the public that we can live perfectly well without constantly rushing about on planes, trains and automobiles. They should be hammering at the door of every media outlet there is — including Jude’s excellent new blog — to get their message across. Instead, they are just doing what they do best: preaching to the converted.
A final comment: why didn’t I get involved in XR’s PR operation last year? I tried, I filled in a form explaining my work as an EU-funded PR consultant to East European governments over the last 20 years — and was met with a deafening silence. I ended up working as a bicycle courier, fetching huge containers of hot meals from the Hare Krishna soup kitchen and I was quite glad just to be doing some honest work and not getting bogged down in endless meetings about PR and strategy.
Also, I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and here it is: Open Letter to Boris Johnson
What do you think? If you have reached the end of this long article you really should leave a comment below. Add to the debate. Disagree with me. Share your opinion.