My late dad, a man brought up in racist, rural Mississippi during the Depression, had limited contact with formal education. Instead, he became an autodidact. He read everything from philosophy books to Readers Digest. He would say to us: “They can take everything from you but what you know.” Education is sacred in my family.
So anyone lucky enough to get into Oxford who then decries expert knowledge would have been puzzling to him. Except if that anyone was a politician. Then Dad would have understood. He loathed them.
Back around the turn of the century when I did Newsnight Review in its rather raucous days, Michael Gove was an occasional critic.
While Tom Paulin, Germaine Greer, Tony Parsons, Mark Lawson and I regularly demolished what was considered to be art and culture, Gove was gracious, even shy. He was like a mascot; an anomaly from that strange other world: politics.
None of us quite understood him but he was, as they say, jolly company and his views were bright and incisive.
He also had a boyish, infectious smile which he would flash whenever he was not in agreement and I think most people really liked him.
Then he became education secretary.
I will sum up the reaction to this by the shocked lament of one fellow British Museum board member who leaned over to me and whispered: “What the hell happened to Michael Gove?”
This was a mystery more complex than any ancient, unknown script being deciphered at the museum. It was not just that his policies and, in my opinion, his lack of appreciation for state school teachers that were at fault.
There was something crude and muck-racking about him, qualities he had not exhibited before.
Was it power gone mad?
Was it True Belief?
How could a guy who had graduated from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, be so disparaging?
His ‘brother’ is the governor of Florida and evangelical Trumpist/Covid-enabler: Ron DeSantis.
Called by some Ron DeathSantis because of the appalling rate of deaths and infection in Florida, he is what Americans call a double-Ivy Leaguer: Harvard and Yale.
His pronouncements with regard to this plague have been so absurd that Harvard must have thought that a Harvard-educated doctor, rebuking him in public, would put an end to them. Instead he doubled down.
He has appointed a surgeon general for Florida who is a rock star among the anti-vax constituency, Dr Joseph Ladapo. He, in turn, is associated with a group called America’s Frontline Doctors, whose break-out star, Simone Gold, spoke on the steps of the Capitol on January 6 and even went inside the building.
When Joe Biden labelled Boris Johnson “the physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump,” he was not wrong. Besides the thatch, both have chosen a mixture of populism and Cult of the Leader.
Trump promoted DeSantis heavily during his run for governor when DeSantis referred to his African American opponent as “monkeying around” and then feigned ignorance of the offence he had made.
They usually don’t turn out that level of ignorance from Harvard and Yale.
As education secretary, Gove’s one-time insistence that Byron, Keats, Jane Austen, Dickens and Thomas Hardy, were enough to give a student a solid grounding in English went against all of the studies and trends in an increasingly minority/majority UK.
The crudeness of both of them is a sign of what the right, and most especially the far right, see as a winning strategy. The politics of the ‘left behind’; of ‘replacement’ are pretty much all that the right and far right have in the locker.
I’m not accusing Gove of this. But by driving in the lane of those who want ‘no change’, he risks becoming one of them. Or being thought of as being one of them. And I think he cares about that.
Not sure about De Santis, though. He has managed to make Florida a Republican state and for the first time, GOP registered voters outnumber the Dems. The Republicans have become, largely, a cult whose test of loyalty is fealty to Donald Trump.
Despite his haystack hair, rumpled façade and Billy Bunter approach to his job, Boris Johnson’s keen intuition appreciates that here in the UK we are not that gullible. The British may be, arguably, the greatest theatre-makers in the world, but they do not like looking backstage at the smoke and mirrors.
And maybe this is why Gove has been appointed to a department which has as yet no official function: the Department of Levelling Up. Not something out of a Monty Python sketch, it somehow fits Michael and his sure march into oblivion: the House of Lords.
DeSantis wants to be the Republican Party candidate for president and then the duly elected president at the next election cycle. The big obstacle is Trump himself. While claiming that he is actually the legitimate president, Don the Con aims to run again, thus snuffing the life out of any possibility of the GOP returning to any semblance of sanity.
And Gove, if Johnson is defeated or resigns – a real possibility – may suffer the fate of George Osborne after the ascendancy of Theresa May. Total blackout on the political scene.
No matter what the outcome, DeSantis and Gove, two highly educated men, have helped usher in the Age Of Stupid. They have both made it possible for the crackpot, the loon, the deeply ignorant and the shoddy to grab our attention and shake the world.
Both men, from the perch of their elite educations, would recognise this phrase: “O tempora, o mores!”