Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Jared Loughner, Laurie Penny, El Hadji Diouf, Anonymous of Stevenage and Derren Brown

What's the connection?

First it's worth considering who each are and what they represent.

Jared Loughner has been arrested for shooting Arizona Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords. He is described as a "troubled" and "mentally unstable person" who is known to have made 'rambling' and 'incoherent' comments on various social networking media.

Laurie Pennie is a prominent blogger/twitterer and New Statesman columnist. She has made a name for herself as a campaigning luminary with strong views on left-wing and feminist issues, recently tweeting from inside the police 'kettle' during student protests outside Parliament.

El Hadji Diouf is a Senegalese attacking footballer who plays for Blackburn Rovers. He is known as a tempestuous and tempramental talent capable of playing at the highest level. He made headlines this weekend by unloading a diatribe of vitriol against a seriously injured opponent. Although he did not cause the injury Mr Diouf does have a track record of belligerent behaviour.

Anonymous of Stevenage was also involved in events surrounding the FA Cup as he invaded the pitch after the final whistle to punch a player on his own team after completing the biggest upset of the round. Stevenage beat Newcastle 3-1. It's not known what songs this person sang on the terraces.


Amidst all the soul-searching as to why a 'lone-gunman' would wish to assassinate a politician acknowledged as a 'rising star', debate has emerged about the tone of political debate in the age of social media (discussed separately earlier).

As Mark Mardell notes, "While we don't know if the motive behind the shooting was political, it is very clear that it was immediately politicised, at least on the internet."

Except this debate has been mirrored in the op-eds of respectable newspapers almost as quickly.

Popular sports, on the other hand, are a manifestation of the political culture in which they exist. It is a stage where all the underlying tensions of a society are exposed to scrutiny as they are tested in a condensed and immediate physical format.

The objective measures which drive sporting results stand in direct contrast to the endless contention and subjective standards of all onlookers. Yet the inter-relationship between players and fans is there for all to experience and enjoy. Opinion swirls around and the context is forever changing, but what counts is still what happens on the pitch... for all their similarities politics remains somewhat different.

So when the globe-trotting Premiership multi-millionaires use the passion and compassion of English fans as reasons to move to some of the most deprived areas of the UK the potential reward of emotional and financial fulfillment is obvious, but the flipside of a more tumultuous pressure-cooker environment can also lead to more explosive and unacceptable reactions - as was evident in this FA Cup weekend.

It would be going way too far to suggest Mr Diouf has psychic powers which allowed him to control the mind of the unknown assailant several hundred miles away, but it is nevertheless blindingly apparent that they are both conditioned by the culture which holds them spellbound - either in contractual or tribal allegiance - and demands ever greater commitment.

Similarly it would be completely ridiculous to suggest any direct connection between Ms Penny (or any other political figure for that matter) and the assailant of the US Congresswoman who were separated by several thousand miles at the time.

Ms Penny has gained popularity and prominence from her incisive insights, such as this recent gem from inside Saturday's left-wing Netroots online campaigning conference which quickly topped retweet charts (a handy alibi):
"We’re listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn."
In this she clearly and succinctly expresses the same desire to be heard as Jared Loughner, and she gives voice to the same anger at the figures seen as standing in her way.

It's not to my personal taste, and it's striking for a lack of self-depreciation or irony (commenters elsewhere note Ms Panny's relative privilege of an Oxbridge background, as a paid-for social media activist with an iPad... among other things). Yet while the politicisation of the issues take on a partisan flavour with the choice of metaphor and allusion by the author the choice of wording can draw us in with the effect of distracting us from our complicity or allow us to overlook the implications by alienating out sympathies - it's only when viewed with non-plussed dispassion that it begins to look like an attention-seeker seeking a cause and a following.

In a global society where digital communication enables interconnectivity on an unprecedented mass scale the same tendencies are shown to be common among all of human-kind, so political disagreements (such as over the legitimate use of force) become played out beyond our own literal and conceptual horizons with a profuse variety of contribution. But opinion becomes amplified within the echo chambers of interactive media as people listen to what they want to hear until it creates a self-fulfilling directive: the more something is repeated, so the more true it becomes and the more urgent it feels.

When representatives of a cause make decisions which cross the line of acceptability and descend into negativity they should save their indignant outrage at others who follow in the same path because it is they who have helped create the monster they vilify. They have set an example and legitimised all interpretations of it.

And given the pressure-cooker environment of Arizona politics where immigration, gun-control, economics and religion are characterised by diametrically opposed groups with intractable and resolute positions and there is a respected charismatic moderate prospering while being demonised by fundamentalist insurgents it should have been predictable that this was a fertile breeding ground for a loose cannon to eventually go pop.

The incoherent reasoning of Jared Loughner's attacks and his bizarre array of targets (both regarding his focus on bad grammar and gold-backed currency, as well as his shooting of a liberal Democrat politician, a conservative Judge, a 'face of hope' and others) appear to suggest a randomness to his approach which would allow us to discount the significance of his action, but this would be wrong.

It is instead a reflection of the situation he found himself in and the skills he had to comprehend it and deal with it. His overwhelming confusion about these issues carried over into how he channelled his energies - the single grand gesture was the obvious move.

By comparison the fan of Stevenage Borough who attacked his own player on a day of triumph is also something of a headscratcher on the face of things, but for anybody who's ever been there when the red mist comes down and all your concentration and energies are focussed on a single target there is only a single option and it is the most logical one in the world: the fan's reaction was a perfect reflection of a testosterone-fuelled victor in the confused post-match melee with the uncomprehending nature of what unbelieving fans had witnessed, suddenly released from the intensity of the match. Add in lingering anger at various disparities or percieved injustices and inexperience at appropriate responses and in any crowd of several thousand you can find one or two who will lose their minds.

But perhaps the development of a deeper cultural awareness and understand the cultural conditioning we each experience is not simply something to be taken for granted, but that knowledge of our own and the differences with others is something which can and will identify likely problems and likely solutions before they ever even occur.

And perhaps the shock of recent events can be taken as a positive influence to knock us out of the complacency of some of our collective assumptions.


Talking of which, I almost forgot Derren Brown... do you remember the episode 'The Heist'?

What I'd like to ask is how did all of the participants feel so flattered that they completely let their guards down to be manipulated by him so easily?

Didn't the fact that it was Derren Brown start to make them suspicious?

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