Stop the sobbing
Every time i turned on the TV this summer, I seemed to be confronted by pictures of Bill Clinton crying or Tony Blair breaking up with emotion - and sometimes by the two of them getting upset together. The president and the prime minister are leading the world in the new politics of emotionalism. It is enough to make those of us who care about democracy weep.
First there was Clinton, tears streaming down his cheeks while he spoke, as the flag-draped coffins of 10 Americans killed in the Nairobi embassy bombing arrived home on 14 August. Two days later, Blair's eyes were red with tears as he broke off his French holiday to give a copycat speech, in response to the bombing in Omagh that was eventually to leave 29 dead. Three weeks later, when Clinton and Blair went back to Omagh together, the word most often used to describe the occasion was 'emotional'. Or as the Independent headline had it, 'Most powerful man on planet weeps as he visits Omagh' (4 September).
There is no need to be entirely cynical about these displays of emotion, by accusing our leaders of carrying onions in their pockets. After all, many people were genuinely moved by the terrible tragedies in Africa and Northern Ireland; why should we expect Blair and Clinton to be immune from such a human reaction, especially when they see the damage firsthand?
What we would once have expected, however, was for statesmen to keep their personal feelings private. It is hard to imagine Roosevelt and Churchill or even Reagan and Thatcher making such a public exhibition of themselves. But emotions are no longer a private matter - especially, it seems, for public figures. Instead, displays of emotion have become the political style of the nineties. Presidents and premiers are not just allowed to show their tears and trembling lips these days; they are expected to indulge in these grandiose displays of pain, and even admired for it. To fail to do so is to risk being branded uncaring or - worse - 'emotionally illiterate'.
It is not just tears, either. The language which today's political leaders use is peppered with the new emotional psychobabble. Blair always talks about 'reaching out' to people, emphasising how much he 'feels' and 'cares', while Clinton's early message of reassurance to the American people - 'I feel your pain' - could serve as a slogan for any aspiring politician.
Official reactions to Omagh exemplified the new politics of emotion. Emerging from his emergency summit with Irish premier Bertie Ahern the day after the bombing, Blair's statement was less about government policy than about the personal feelings that he, Ahern and others were experiencing. 'We are agreed first of all on our total shock, horror and outrage...We know the emotions of people are those of grief and sympathy for the bereaved and the families of the victims. We know also of the anger people will feel.' Always keen to keep up with the Blairs these days, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams ended his own condemnation of the bombing with a Dianaspeak postscript: 'I have spoken out about the way I feel.'
And when president Clinton went to Omagh on 3 September, he 'spoke out' to the people of Northern Ireland as if he were a counsellor in session with an emotionally disturbed addict of some kind. 'The question is', he asked the communities laid out on his couch, 'how will you react to it all - to the violence? How will you deal with all your differences? Can the bad habits and brute forces of yesterday break your will for tomorrow's peace?'. I was half expecting Dr 'Frasier' Clinton to spell out a 12-Step Self-Help Programme that could free his patients from their dependence on the 'bad habits' of violence.
What is all of this about? The rise of the new emotionalism is in part a response to the demise of the old politics. Over the past decade the exhaustion of the traditional movements of both left and right, and the loss of authority experienced by established political institutions, has prompted a lot of soul-searching about how politicians can 'connect' with a new constituency.
On one hand this has led to the use of US-style 'focus groups' or the Tory Party's recent 'Listening to Britain' tour, gimmicks through which desperate politicians like William Hague ask people what they would like their party to believe in. On the other hand it has encouraged a search for a kind of emotional lowest common denominator to which the authorities can appeal in the absence of any real popular support or political programme.
In the belief that The Nation Which Weeps Together, Keeps Together, a politician like Tony Blair has sought to exploit and manipulate public feeling over a series of tragedies - from Dunblane to Diana and now Omagh - in order to secure an elusive 'shared national experience' under his leadership. In a fragmented society of isolated and rather insecure individuals, the common expression of grief has become a precious opportunity for a Blair or a Clinton to stage-manage a display of unity of sorts.
The new emotionalism reflects the lowered expectations of leadership today. Not so long ago, our leaders were expected to stand at the head of society and to provide a broad political vision of a better world. Now they are only expected at best to be individuals of decent character (which helps explain the exaggerated importance attached to the Monica Lewinsky saga), who experience the same personal feelings and pain as the rest of us. The unheroic spirit of the age was cap-tured this summer by Norway's conservative prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who, at the height of his coalition government's vital budget discussions, announced that he was too stressed and was taking a week off to recuperate. What was even more striking was the sympathy which everybody else expressed for his decision to lie down in a dark room rather than run the country.
But perhaps this is all a change for the better? There are many who seem to welcome the new emotionalism as politics with a softer, more human face. They feel that today's leaders with a common touch, who can share the pain of society's victims, are far preferable to the elitist authoritarians of yesterday.
In fact the new politics of emotion is, if anything, even more coercive and undemocratic than the old order. There is an iron fist within the handkerchief that offers to dab the nation's eyes.
The outpouring of intemperate emotion - 'the rampant id', as Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has previously described it in LM - creates a climate that is highly intolerant and tyrannical. Open debate is impossible, since no opinion can be expressed which might offend the feelings of the victims and those who empathise with them. Without the checks provided by rational discussion and questioning, such emotionalism creates the context for authoritarian solutions to be ushered in on a wave of tears. This was clearly the case after the tragedy at Omagh. The emotional consensus which equated any criticism with sympathy for the bombers allowed the New Labour government to railroad through new anti-terror laws of a kind which, a few years ago, would have been considered the preserve of a foreign police state.
Nowhere is this dangerous aspect of the new emotionalism more powerfully illustrated than in the media. Major newspapers and news organisations are acting as the self-appointed minders of public life, enforcing a strict code of emotional correctness on what can and cannot be broadcast. The increasing tendency for news reports to become coercively emotional sermons is discussed at length in the new LM Special, Televictims. The extent to which this process degrades public debate was well illustrated by some of the coverage which followed this summer's bombings.
Take, for example, ITN's coverage of the aftermath of the horrific bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When the Americans blamed Sudan and launched 'revenge' attacks, including a rocket assault on what appears to have been an ordinary pharmaceutical factory, outraged Sudanese stormed the (empty) US embassy and stoned the (occupied) embassy of Clinton's closest ally, Britain. Typically, ITN chose to report this as a 'human interest' story, focusing on the plight of a single embassy official standing behind a broken window in the British compound. The reporter's first question to him was not 'what happened and why?', but, as it always seems to be these days, 'how do you feel?'. Not surprisingly, he felt frightened. Ignoring all of the big and complex issues involved - from Islamic fundamentalism to American imperialism - ITN had at a stroke reduced the entire story to an emotional appeal for sympathy with the poor little British victim of mad Africans.
Many people can see the dangers of the new emotionalism when it is used to justify governments riding roughshod over civil liberties at home, or over the sovereignty of small nations abroad. Yet we should also be alive to the less dramatic, more everyday ways in which the authorities are preying on our most personal fears and feelings. When education secretary David Blunkett issues new guidelines on how we should bring our children up 'safely', or the Department of Health pronounces on what we ought to eat, drink or inhale, they are exploiting the politics of emotion to legitimise more public interference in our most private affairs.
The overblown public displays of ersatz emotion which our leaders now routinely stage do not even do any good for those at whom they are supposed to be aimed - the victims of tragedy. As president Clinton won loud praise for his emotional 'healing' tour of Omagh, one or two small but sensible voices could be heard observing that this kind of wallowing in tragedy was the very last thing the town needed. 'It's terrible, isn't it, having this on top of everything else', said Father Michael Keaveny as the Clinton-Blair circus passed by. 'Just when we were getting things going again, we get this sort of interruption.'
I'm with the priest rather than the People's president or prime minister on this one. Those of us who are passionate in our commitment to freedom and life should insist that it's time to stop the sobbing.
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Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998