The rejection of expertise, the rejection of facts, embrace of sweeping, ill-informed opinions – welcome to the age of the oaf
If ever there’s a picture to sum up our times it’s the one disseminated widely last week of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage standing together looking unspeakably pleased with themselves in a lift made of solid gold.
These two men, the billionaire property tycoon and the millionaire former stockbroker, have somehow managed to portray themselves as the plucky have-a-go outsiders tilting against the establishment on behalf of the little guy, working selflessly for all of us against the elite of which they are most definitely not a part, no siree, not them.
The violently golden backdrop to the picture is probably the finest illustration yet of the preposterousness of that claim, yet it also confirmed something I’ve long suspected and feared: we have truly entered the Age of the Oaf.
In politics, in culture, in society, on both sides of the Atlantic the oaf is on the march, reaping the benefits of at least two decades spent embracing a heady combination of entitlement and wilful ignorance that have left the oafs feeling first legitimised by the result of the EU referendum and now triumphant at the election of the oafiest oaf of them all to the highest office in the world.
So who are the oafs? Who are these people who walk among us and now seem to hold our collective political and cultural futures in their hands?
The modern oaf has no truck with nuance and little tolerance for fact or debate. Instead the oaf is infused with ‘common sense’, a range of views and opinions so obviously correct they require neither evidence to back them up nor any need for debate or examination because they simply ‘stand to reason’. Argument of any kind, however reasoned, however politely expressed, is an assault on ‘free speech’. Any kind of dissent, therefore, can be countered with a dismissive scoff and a pejorative labelling that has evolved from ‘political correctness gone mad’ to the ‘snowflake’.
It’s important to have these no-comeback put-downs to hand because having to consider an alternative view, or even to concede that such a thing exists, involves introspection and nuance, and the oaf cannot have any truck with these.
While their oafish predecessors had to content themselves with little more than impotent muttering about ‘the silent majority’, believing that because their immediate social circle shared their opinions then it stood to reason this reflected those of society as a whole, the modern oaf has been first liberated and now vindicated to the extent that oafishness has entered the mainstream and is seemingly on its way to replacing debate and expertise as major tenets of a civilised society.
This trend has surged to the fore in the field that should be most resistant to it: politics. If any aspect of modern society should be about nuance and debate then it’s politics, but surprisingly the oaf has been allowed to run riot through that particular arena practically unchecked.
Nigel Farage has forged a successful career out of oafishness. The crass nature of the Leave campaign and the post-referendum chaos that’s followed has been dissected in these pages by far more forensic brains than mine, but two incidents from the last few months stand out for me.
The first was Farage’s speech to the European parliament after the referendum. Crowing and boorish, he spent a good seven minutes insulting the assembly and its members, telling them they’d never had proper jobs in their lives nor worked in either business or trade nor ever created a job.
Some might say that Farage, having spent seventeen years as a member of an institution he clearly found utterly distasteful, was entitled to seven minutes of triumphalism. But the fact that the accusations he levelled against the assembly were utterly and demonstrably untrue coupled with the hectoring tone and utter absence of respect and dignity confirmed Farage as a leading figure in the Age of the Oaf. He’d won, and he was going to gloat.
The incident that truly cemented his place for me, however, occurred on the day during the campaign when he led a Brexit flotilla up the Thames. As he stood sucking frantically on a cigarette a journalist on board asked, ‘Back on the fags, Nigel?’
Farage exhaled a stream of smoke, took a breath and announced, ‘I think the doctors have got it wrong on smoking’,
There, my friends, is the true essence of the Age of the Oaf distilled into one aside: opinion entirely trumping knowledge. Nigel enjoys smoking. Years of medical research and science show that it can be catastrophically bad for one’s health. This is a great inconvenience to Nigel hence he feels he has no choice but to reject it out of hand – he enjoys a fag, he’s not dead as a result, therefore the doctors, who are clearly part of some anti-oaf agenda, must have it wrong.
The thing is, he wasn’t asked for his opinion on smoking-related medical science. It was a semi-jokey question, more an observation, one that required little more than a ”yes’ or even just a wry, knowing smile. Instead Farage put forth an opinion about decades of medical research whose results happened to be inconvenient to him, an opinion based on nothing more than his own personal preference. His reaction contained no nuance, no self-deprecation, no acknowledgement that he might be doing something inadvisable.
This is the political atmosphere in the Age of the Oaf: the rejection of expertise, the rejection of facts, the embrace of sweeping, ill-informed opinions. It’s not just Farage either, it extends to politicians who have actually been elected in this country.
Michael Gove’s assertion that the British people have heard enough from experts is the most egregious example, but even more recently we’ve seen the MP for Montgomeryshire Glyn Davies tweet, ‘Personally have never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world’.
The utter nonsense of that opinion is obvious, but it distils the essence of the Age of the Oaf into less than 140 characters. There’s the rejection of expertise, especially when it confounds one’s own opinions. It’s graceless and nuance-free, it attempts to kill debate and contains another key tenet of this oafish age, a reference to the ‘real world’ – the sense that their own life and circumstances are immersed in an informed grittiness that provides a valuable insight that others lack. The ‘real world’ is where ‘common sense’ lives.
It’s a cornerstone of the cultural side of the Age of the Oaf too – the media. The Age of the Oaf is also characterised by the gobshite, whether they own media outlets and pull the strings of oafishness behind the scenes or whether they’re in the oafish frontline, spouting opinions in newspaper columns with byline pictures that ooze a no nonsense scowl with a hint of world-weary raised eyebrow that says, ‘can you believe not everyone thinks the same way as me?’
In a way I feel sorry for columnist oafs. Imagine having to pretend to hold extreme opinions about everything for a living. It would drive you doolally.
And ultimately it’s futile. The oaf thinks he or she is voicing what the ordinary person in the street is thinking. It’s this kind of patronising drivel that will be the ultimate undoing of the oaf. It’s founded in snobbery, a sneering assertion that the ordinary person in the street is a knuckle-dragging nitwit ready to absorb every kind of prejudice going like a sponge. It treats people as though they’re stupid and it’s not going to work.
Think about it. Hillary Clinton polled more votes than Donald Trump, more votes, in fact, than any president in an election than any candidate outside Barack Obama. This was despite a largely compliant media unwilling whether through bias or timidity to call out Trump’s racism and misogyny while trying to equate them with Clinton’s ill-advised use of an e-mail server.
Despite the overwhelming prevalence of oafish media, it was only the quirks of the US’s electoral system that saw Trump elected.
It was the same with the referendum. Faced with an oafish media that had been overwhelmingly hostile to Europe for generations, spreading lies and misinformation that reached their apogee with the most oafish campaign in political history, the Leave vote scraped through only by the narrowest of margins.
The oafs may be shouting the loudest, they may be having a considerable moment in the sun, but their foundations are flimsy because their world view is based on opinion and bluster. There’s no substance to it.
They talk about representing ‘the people’ but that phrase in itself reveals their view that society is a faceless mass they neither know nor understand. The Age of the Oaf is an age of patronising snobbery founded on ignorance and entitlement and its support is nowhere near as widespread as they think.
Now the Age of the Oaf is upon us, and the oafs can’t escape the glare of examination now their brittle opinions hare having their bluffs called, it surely won’t be long before reason, respect and nuance return to their rightful places in societal discourse.
The solid gold lift is going down.
Charlie Connelly is a journalist and author