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How to make friends by infuriating people

Toby Young at an event in London. Photo: EMPICS ENTERTAINMENT - Credit: EMPICS Entertainment

MITCH BENN on the real problem with Toby Young’s unsuitability for the Office for Students

Disclaimer no. 1: I have never met Toby Young.

Disclaimer no. 2: I’m not even that up to speed on what Toby Young has been saying or doing recently as he blocked me on Twitter some years ago.

I couldn’t recall over what exactly, so I had a quick check; I think it was because I poured some well-earned scorn over his posting of that famous photo of a crowded street in Nazi Germany (or possibly a Nazi-occupied nation) in which one man (marked out with a circle) alone is refusing to do the stiff-armed salute, and captioning it something like ‘This is what it feels like to be a Conservative on Twitter these days’. I think that was what it was about; hard to say, as that photo, along with (apparently) some 50,000 other tweets has disappeared from Young’s Twitter feed (of which more in a moment).

The point is that not only can I claim no intimate knowledge of Young, I can’t even claim much in the way of non-intimate knowledge of him.

I did read – and very much enjoy – his 2001 confessional memoir How To Lose Friends & Alienate People (I haven’t seen the movie), although it is rather telling, given Young’s current difficulties, that his most notable literary work to date relates the true story of how, when given a massive career boost out of the blue (being taken on as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair in New York), he managed to blow it through arrogance, laziness and general ineptitude. Either nobody in our government had read that book, or they had read it, and that was the whole point (of which also more in a moment).

I’d experienced a twinge of sympathy with Young this week even before he had to withdraw from his new post at the new Office For Students (or Offstud, as I’ll bet cash money he was planning on calling it); he’d already been forced to undertake the aforementioned Stalinesque purge of his Twitter back-catalogue, presumably to expunge his fruitier, ‘edgier’ or indeed just plain stupider or nastier comments from the record (only to find that the really awkward ones had been screen-grabbed and circulated already).

I’ve been, and will probably continue to be, fairly intemperate in my use of language online (although never, I hope, as witheringly misogynist as some of Young’s posts, however ‘ironic’ they were intended to be); it wouldn’t take much Googling to find some statement of mine which could at least be framed in an embarrassing way, were I ever foolish enough to accept some position of civic responsibility, so remind me never to do so.

But it wasn’t just Young’s (un)suitability for the job that disturbed me. It was more the question of why they thought of him in the first place.

Many of the appointments made by the Trump administration in its first year have seemed to be based less on aptitude or qualification for the job in question, and rather more on which candidate would most upset liberals.

Jeff Sessions’s qualifications for Attorney General were highly questionable (as the president himself now acknowledges, although this is more because Sessions’s continuing presence in the post is the main reason Trump can’t yet fire Special Counsel Mueller); as a man once deemed by many too racially intolerant to be a federal judge, however, he was eminently qualified to annoy the hell out of progressives.

Similarly the almost comically aloof Betsy DeVos’s installation as Secretary Of Education, the anti-environmentalist Scott Pruitt being put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency; the list goes on and on. It seems to be less about getting the job done than about triggering liberals, and, more importantly, giving the increasingly vindictive Republican base a warm tingly feeling as they contemplate the discomfort of all those triggered liberals. One could even argue that the nomination and election of Trump himself was at least partly in order to see the looks on Democrats’ faces.

Likewise, Toby Young’s nomination seemed to be less to do with filling the right post with the right candidate than with generating lots of online protest against it, and pages of angry letters to the Guardian (and, more helpfully for the government, giving readers of the Daily Mail and Telegraph a warm tingly feeling as they contemplated the discomfort of all those irate Guardian readers). And now that he’s withdrawn, we can have lots of think-pieces in the right wing press about how the Intolerant Liberal Snowflake Thought Police Are Crushing Freedom Of Speech, so it was a win/win from the start really.

One thing I’ve always dreaded is the political discourse in this country acquiring the almost metaphysical level that American politics has had now since at least the 1980s. When division is not just encouraged, but deliberately deepened and widened for political advantage. I’ve long feared the arrival on our shores of the Culture Wars, and things like the Toby Young incident and Brexit are making it happen.

Since even before the referendum, Brexit has been presented, and discussed, as an ideological struggle, a battle between irreconcilably differing views of right and wrong, rather than a cost/benefit analysis, which is all it should ever have been. Because once Brexit takes effect, nobody’s beliefs about Britain’s place in the world, nobody’s deeply-held convictions about what’s best for the country, nobody’s gut feelings about what’s good or bad will matter a damn.

Then it’ll be all about the actual practical results of leaving, which, in a sane world, is all that ever would have been under discussion.

In politics, it’s inevitable that decisions made by one side will annoy the opposition.

The trouble starts – and this goes for us too – the minute we start making decisions for the sole purpose of annoying the opposition. That way madness lies. Quite literally, if Michael Wolff’s book is to be believed.

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