Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Observer's comment page has been overrun by zombies

...And I feel fine. These two columns appeared on the same page of today's Obscurer. I believe this is probably the most incoherent single page to ever appear in a British national newspaper.

For a start, there's Nick Cohen with a piece that accuses essentially everybody of being obsessed with Israel, because of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and then goes on to say that Israel's supporters are as bad for the same reasons. Further, it's because of this obsession that the media failed to report on the Tunisian revolution. And Peter Mandelson is bad. The impression I got was that if zombies wrote opinion editorial, this is what it would be like. Staggering, blundering...are they actually conscious? Sapient? Surely not. But they clearly have a restricted survival kit of dim perceptions and knee-jerk responses. They stagger about, crave brains, flock together with other zombies.

And that's what we get here. This isn't a document of the Decent movement - it's just a salad of disconnected stylistic tropes. Teh media. Protocols. One of either Auden or Orwell, from the sticky pages in the quotations dictionary. New Labour is evil (but not Tony Blair). What it reminded me of was a US right-wing comments thread around Obama's inauguration - a sense of absolute disorientation and futility, relieved by going through the reflex drill movements. And, well, the revolutions have surely rendered the Decent project as irrelevant as they have Al-Qa'ida. Cohen's hackery is best described by the fact he wrote a piece for a British newspaper about Libya that doesn't mention either Tony Blair or that there is oil there.

On the same page, we have a truly odd piece of work from Catherine Bennett that purports to say...something...about age restrictions, but seems to have been accidentally mixed up with another decrying the sexualisation of the young, yadda yadda, reality TV, the screen generation, you know, that stuff. As far as I can make out she's against age restrictions but only because our culture is so repellent that the kids are past saving, or perhaps she's putting it on. She also imagines that "tots" learn to swear from listening to Today on BBC Radio 4, which if true might explain a lot, and that your children might be watching porn on "iPlayer". Really? The BBC's Internet streaming service?

Also, there's a lot of tiresome in-joke stuff about various important people in the theatrical world. I'm not posh enough to know whether most of it is meant as a joke or not, and if so, what's meant to be funny about it. And there are paragraphs like this:

If the director-general of the BBC could be made to grovel for a baby-swap plotline borrowed from the Old Testament, there would be no difficulty in embarrassing a publicly subsidised production such as Frankenstein which, as well as naked adults, also features a stylised rape that may be slightly more graphic than the Forsyte grapple watched by 8 million people, although notably less disturbing and self-indulgent than the sexual imagery and violence that, in the absence of any comprehensible dialogue, captivated so many of the family audiences of Tim Supple's celebrated Midsummer Night's Dream.

You may find it helps to read this aloud. Pro tip: when you get to a comma, take a breath. That's some 93 words, a whole generous editorial page par, in one enormous run-on sentence. It is terrible stuff. It is absolutely no fun to read. It took me three runs through to work out what on earth the point was meant to be, and I'm still a little fuzzy. Does she mean that it would be easy to embarrass the makers of Frankenstein because of etc etc, or something about the BBC, or something about someone's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

I honestly don't know how I'd start trying to edit this into sense. I'd be tempted to spike the whole thing and suggest that Bennett comes back when she's decided what the column is going to be about. Or perhaps hand the half-page over to the cartoonists.

Actually, this idea is surprisingly tempting. Why not put the cartoonists in charge? Why not draw the entire opinion section? It would be reliably more informative than Martin Kettle or Andrew Rawnsley, more offensive and in a better way than Cohen, and better written than Bennett.

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