Tragicomic

James O’Brien: How to be Right … in a World gone Wrong
WH Allen 2018

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is a sense of a great divide where once there was only a polite distance between different viewpoints. Undoubtedly exacerbated by social media — or at least, the manipulation and abuse of such media — the world seems to teeter between reason and irrationality, calm argument and blind rage, sense and insensitivity, even between stability and chaos.

James O’Brien is a British journalist and talk show host on LBC Radio (originally London Broadcasting Company, now flying with the slogan Leading Britain’s Conversation). He has developed a huge following, not just for his broadcasts but also for his viral YouTube clips and incisive tweets (@mrjameob). In a Britain where much broadcasting is, to say the least, conservative with a small ‘c’, O’Brien is refreshingly left of centre.

But he is more than just the leftie his critics love to deride: he is one of the few radio broadcasters trying to intelligently engage with listeners, many phoning in with extreme views about current affairs; and he doesn’t just engage politely and rationally, posing pertinent queries and interjecting statements of fact, but actually asks the challenging questions that other broadcast interviewers seem to shy away from in their irritating vox pops. And now he’s written a book about it all, and more.

How to be Right is largely assembled around verbatim phone-in dialogues, with O’Brien giving context to what’s being discussed. Despite the serious nature of its topics this is a relatively easy read, light in tone at times but never flippant; often though it’s very hard-hitting. The introduction quickly brings us to the issue of immigration, a subject dear to those who like to rattle liberal cages: too many immigrants — they’re living off ‘our’ benefits — they’re taking ‘our’ jobs — ‘we’ wouldn’t do it for that money — they’re lazy but working all hours —they smell of curry — yes, I like currythere’s too many immigrants . . .

And so it goes on, circular arguments, non sequiturs, popular clichés, secondhand phrases, contemporary memes, political slogans. O’Brien patiently questions every assertion, tests the depths of their knowledge and understanding. Sometimes a listener will accept that their ‘evidence’ has no basis in fact, or that their ‘argument’ is illogical, but often it’s frustrating to eavesdrop on a conversation just to find it’s going nowhere even when the belief system is demolished. The first chapter goes on to discuss Islam and Islamism, and it’s dispiriting to hear similar points of view paraded in all their inglorious inconsistency.

You get the picture. Brexit, LGBT, political correctness: the conversations display pre-packaged prejudices and manufactured but misplaced rage in equal measure. Feminism, the nanny state and the victimisation of so-called ‘classical liberals’ — the latter better termed as neoliberals who want ‘liberty’, but just for themselves, to do what they like. When we get towards the end of the book, with chapters on the age gap and Trump, the verbatim phone-ins get fewer though there’s no doubting the interconnectedness of these subjects with all the preceding. They can indeed be shown as a graphic in crossword fashion, locked together as they appear to be in the minds of many, proof of a conspiracy by the ‘metropolitan elite’ and ‘unelected bureaucrats’ and other undesirables to deny the ‘ordinary man’ (and it usually is a man) their rightful due.

I snorted while recognising many of these false rationales, usually based on fake news, memes and the like, but after the smiles came a distinct melancholy. This was compounded when O’Brien expounded on the generational divide and how today’s youngsters have been denied all the social and economic benefits that previous generations have enjoyed, and when he went on to discuss the pernicious effect the election of Donald Trump has had.

It’s a tragicomedy of epic proportions, because if we didn’t laugh we would cry. But I wouldn’t blame James O’Brien for that: he has only shone a penetrating light on the mess society and the world is in, and he does it with a little humour and a lot of honesty, leaving us an aftertaste of sadness. A book to read, to perhaps agree with, and ultimately to ponder.

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11 thoughts on “Tragicomic

    1. I think you’d enjoy it, Stefy, especially as Italy (and indeed so many other European nations) are having to cope with a similar rate of ill-digested opinions, half-baked facts and meretricious arguments served up online, on social media and by, heaven help us, politicians who should know better.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. piotrek

    A courageous individual… I find it more and more difficult to accept the legitimacy of the opponents’ point of view in my populist-led, divided Poland. The supporters of our regime… the kind of people you describe here, heads full of cliches they were fed by the government propaganda machine… my opinions are often strong, but always nuanced, and constantly changing as I absorb new information. I’m tired of fools and reading such a book… would probably make me angry more than anything.

    The generational divide here is a very important and interesting topic, beyond the scope of a blog comment probably…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ‘generational divide’ is particularly marked here in England and Wales, where property prices have leapt ahead almost exponentially more than wages in the nearly fifty decades since we bought our first house (and I was able to afford a mortgage in my first year of teaching). London has been especially badly hit, with a perfect storm waiting to happen: all the lower waged who service businesses, firms and so on can barely afford a shoebox to stay in, let alone survive.

      As for being angry, Piotrek, this book rather makes me sad—sad that people who have facts paraded under their noses still find it hard to accept that the diet of garbage the rightwing press and now the once respected BBC are serving them up daily. I still think you would find what O’Brien has to say (and how he says it) enlightening more than enraging.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. “How did a movement that was defined by its belief in limited government, individual liberty, free markets, traditional values, and civility find itself embracing bigotry, political intransigence, demagoguery, and outright falsehood?” asks Sykes. The answer is simple: people desire certainty. And the individual who offers an apparent certainty, even though founded on the basest of human desires such as greed, prejudice and dominance over weaker individuals, gets the vote. Not just in the USA but in Brazil, Britain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Israel, India, Turkey, Russia… The list feels endless. Strong yet fair-minded principled leaders are much rarer and more likely to be aggressively attacked by the wealthy who can see their insidious power being eroded.

      Liked by 1 person

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