The Era Of Overload
‘Bernard-Henry Lévy and I debated populism, with Tony Blair as our warm-up act, at Google’s Zeitgeist event’
Meeting of minds: Bernard-Henri Levy (left) and Douglas Murray (right) debate (ZeitgeistMinds)
The moment Theresa May called the present election I had only one wish: for it to be over. There is a choice for the leadership of the country between Jeremy Corbyn and Mrs May. What more is there to say? I pity the politicians who have to find a way to string this argument out. Even more the journalists who have to cover it.
Even as someone who is interested in politics it is hard not to feel that we are living in an era of overload. Politics is just one aspect, but it is an overload of information in general.
Recently there was a helicopter crash in Wales in which a number of people died. One lunchtime in London I was walking behind a couple of women going back to their office in a well-known fashion-house. One of their phones beeped. The woman checked it and said to her friend: “Another person dead in that helicopter crash.” “Yes, I saw that,” the other woman replied, and into their office they headed. It seemed typical of the oddity we’re all going through: constantly receiving information, much of it sad, though little of it anything we might affect. We know we should demonstrate some attitude towards this, but it isn’t clear what (beyond a slight concern and sympathy). Even expressing so much shallow sadness or concern must become draining. I remember someone saying to me at the beginning of the internet era that they thought the short-term effects would be overestimated and the long-term effects underestimated. Perhaps we are beginning to live through the latter.
In the spirit of trying to understand more about the internet age I accepted an invitation to attend Google’s Zeitgeist event this year. On the first morning Bernard-Henri Lévy and I debated “populism”, with Tony Blair being interviewed as our warm-up act.
It is impossible to watch Blair these days without reflecting on what an extraordinary once-in-a-generation political talent he was, and also noticing the self-defensive delusion that now covers him like a carapace. When it came to discussion about the unhappiness of European publics he consistently presented this as a mistake on the part of the public. When discussing immigration he claimed that young British people wouldn’t take certain jobs whatever we did, so of course we had to continue to import low-skilled labour. Political adaptability was once his forte, but in retirement he seems incapable of it.
The matter he touched on is one theme of my new book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, available in any bookshops that can still be found. I was provoked to write it by the immigration crisis of 2015, which I saw as a speeding-up of a process that had long been under way. Travelling the continent over that period, I was also struck by hearing the same debunked clichés used that had been used for every wave of immigration over the preceding decades. It seemed time to explain this whole sweeping change to our continent in one book, not least because polite opinion is still trying to pretend that nothing has happened and our country and continent were always like this.
It is early days. Some reception has been warm. Some less so. The Guardian did not like my book, accusing me of “xenophobia”. This had no impact, other than providing a potential sales boost; a rave in the Grauniad might have killed it off. At present the book is in all the bestseller lists. Its principal competitors are a book on dieting and one on recipes that can keep you thin. All of which has led me to ponder a dietary or cookery book as the natural follow-up to this one: possibly Recipes for the End of Time?
Observing the capabilities of a company like Google is extraordinary. To describe them as “rich as Croesus” isn’t just a cliché but inadequate. Google would have bought up Croesus as a start-up. For their intimate two-day conference outside London they flew in statesmen, Formula 1 champions, artists and CEOs. The Green Room was one of those places that make one wonder whether the world might not in fact work and that everybody involved gets together on such occasions to exchange notes. After my session my old schoolmate Eddie Redmayne appeared and went on stage to recite beautifully, getting a slightly warmer reception than I had. Marvelling at his skill, I suddenly recalled another friend, a contemporary of Eddie’s at university, who once mentioned to me that ever since Eddie had beaten him to a role at a Cambridge drama audition he had wondered whether if he had got that role it would now be him who was receiving Academy awards and being admired and fêted around the globe. It is a rather touching fallacy, but one to which we are all, I am sure, slightly prone.