“The world’s gone mad,” is an all too familiar cry, and meme, from social media to the 49 Clapham Borisbus. The divisiveness of our politics and public rhetoric and the fact we can never be sure what’s happening with Brexit, our Government, or even the weather, makes everything seem bonkers. But if the rest of the world seems mad, and you’re remotely cognisant, you have ask the question: Is it them? Or is it me? Because any definition of madness must compare with what’s considered “normal”. And if normal society is constantly outraged and at war with itself, it’s the calm and conciliatory who are the fruitcakes.
Madness is a slippery word in an age that recognises that we’re all on a mental health spectrum but last month in the BMJ Case Reports, a patient was described experiencing acute psychosis triggered by the “UK’s 2016 European Union referendum.” And though the right-wing press immediately branded him a pathetic snowflake, he is far from alone. The New Scientist reported, “The case is an extreme example, but there are signs of the wider mental health impact of the referendum result. Nearly two-thirds of people in the UK think anxiety over Brexit is bad for people’s health, polling has found. One study last year found that, after the referendum, self-reported wellbeing of a sample of people in the UK was lower than in samples from other countries.”
The future for everybody in the country has never felt less sure. We’re less able to rely on pragmatism winning through, than at any time since the war. It’s like we’re all collectively holding our breath and it’s got to that point when we feel our heads might explode.
Is it something in the water? Mob psychosis? Or could it be a mass delusion like the 17th century Dutch tulip mania; when people got so caught up in speculating on the value of tulips, way beyond logic, they crashed their entire economy? In 2015 few of us cared one way or the other about EU sovereignty or the customs union. Within three years it has become a hill many of us seem willing to die on.
If you want to know where this is coming from consider the word: “Disruption.”
It’s a revolutionary technique which first proved itself in television. In the 90s, a slew of low cost “reality” programmes, disrupted the orthodoxy of classical studio shows. The real lives of the sad, mediocre and untalented were absolute ratings magnets. Unscripted uncertainty about what real people might do next kept audiences glued and changed TV completely. This uncertainty disruption was adapted into politics by Putin’s closest advisor Vladislav Surkov as described by Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. “In contemporary Russia … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”
Whether Surkov also explicitly backed Trump and Brexit we may never know but the word “Disrupt” is tattooed on the heart of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest advisor. We’re all glued to his show now. There was no real need to prorogue Parliament, except to rack up uncertainty. And it’s incredible how many got caught up in this 21st century doubletalk newspeak. To defend democracy we must strip it away. The representatives of the people are the enemies of the people. To fight for Parliamentary Sovereignty you must curtail Parliamentary Sovereignty. This is deliciously disruptive, pure Orwellian theatre. It’s mad. Or maybe we’re all mad. Or… what if we’re just being driven to think we are?
“Gaslighting” has had a resurgence of meaning, a term now used for domestic abuse which is psychological rather than physical. It derives from Gaslight a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, and the 1944 film of the same name. Ingrid Bergman plays a young woman who, with her new husband, moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered. However, he has secrets to protect and begins to play tricks on her to convince her she is going mad. Moving things around the house, claiming that she is taking them without knowing it. Or turning the gas-lighting down and saying she is imagining things.
Their servants gossip. “What’s the matter with the mistress, she don’t look ill to me. Is she?” asks the maid. “I don’t know,” says the cook. “Not as I can see. But the master keeps telling her she is.”
“I’m frightened of the house,” Bergman cries to her husband. “I hear noises and footsteps. I imagine things, that there are people over the house. I’m frightened of myself too.”
Believing the world is crazy is pretty stressful but imagining it’s you who is going mad is terrifying. Trying to hold on to sanity whilst believing someone is actually trying to drive you crazy is next level nuttiness. So this may sound top notch insanity but what if we are all being convinced we’re crazy. What if we’re being masslit?
Even if all Cummings is doing is sitting in an attic in Downing Street playing Minecraft, the idea of the Master of Disruption’s presence is enough to make all our parliamentarians suspicious. Everybody wonders if each move Johnson makes is part of a master plan and question whether their response is “playing into his hands.” The idea is probably more disturbing than the truth but then, as Woody Allen said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
The cabinet, Parliament, we lumpen proletariat, we are all being masslit. And the extent of our craziness is that we’re half aware of this happening, that we’re being played, and we see shadows and we’re frightened.
As the victims of masslighting we struggle to know what is true and what we imagine.
Think about the theory that Johnson is negating bad news coverage by seeding Google search results using similar phrases and key terms. So when he described himself as a “model of restraint”, after the accusations of his funnelling public funds to a former model called Jennifer Arcuri, he was making negative search results for “Boris Johnson model” drop down the Google hit list.
“His speech in front of the police was meant to distract from reports that the police were called to the flat he shared with girlfriend Carrie Symonds following an alleged domestic dispute,” says Wired, “while the kipper incident was meant to downplay connections with UKIP (whose supporters are called kippers). The claim about painting buses, finally, was supposedly intended to reframe search results about the contentious claim that the UK sends £350 million to Europe branded on the side of the Brexit campaign bus.”
Is it true? Are we paranoid? Are billionaires really shorting the pound? In an age of mass information and fake news our filters are woefully inadequate. They have created circuses for us to gawp at and as long as we have to keep guessing, distracted, confused, our leaders and their machines will stay in power. Or am I just mad?