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 curry — there’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.