Tom Sutcliffe: The potential for tyranny is there in any era

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The Independent Online

The journalists who boiled down Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio's Nobel Lecture into tabloid form can't exactly be awarded any medals for sympathetic précis. Read the whole thing and you'll encounter a thoughtful, occasionally romantic plea for the fundamental importance of literature – defending it against the self-doubts of the writer himself, and calling in evidence a pantheon of world writers.

What Le Clezio wants to do is make the case for the old-fashioned virtues of the book: both the physical object itself, which will endure humidity and dust far more forgivingly than a laptop, and the abstraction, a body of writing that observes the world as it actually is rather than as the powerful would have us believe it is. Unfortunately he also, very briefly, mentioned Hitler. As a result a passing aside in his lecture won most of the headline space. "Could the internet have prevented the Holocaust?" asked the Christian Science Monitor. "Nobel Winner: Internet might have stopped Hitler", added the Associated Press.

As I say, then, no medals for representative accuracy – but surely a pat on the back for salesmanship. It would take a very incurious reader, I would have thought, to pass over that headline without wanting to know a little more – or not to immediately start thinking about whether it was true or not. Le Clezio's argument – a rather wishful one – was that "ridicule might have prevented [Hitler's criminal plot] from ever seeing the light of day".

It's hard to imagine exactly what he has in mind here – YouTube spoofs of the bierkeller speeches? A Facebook group dedicated to attacking Brownshirt rallies with custard pies? – but the gist of his speculation is clear. Communication and information are seen to be political disinfectants. As Le Clezio puts it, "perhaps the generalisation of information will help to forestall conflicts."

It's a very big "perhaps", even if it goes with the grain of a contemporary piety, which is that more communication is always better than less. But it's hard to see why that is necessarily so. Had they had the internet in Germany between the wars, everyone might have been so busy looking at porn that it actually accelerated Hitler's rise to power. Or Hitler himself might have recognised that the low-entry costs and wide reach made it the perfect tool for moulding generalised discontent into a mass movement.

There's nothing to say that the internet enlistment model used to such effect by Barack Obama will only work for a liberal cause. It's arguable that the internet now makes it easier than ever for small and isolated groups to come together, numbers snowballing until they are small and isolated no longer. If they are sweatshop workers campaigning against exploitation, we'd be inclined to think it a good thing. But it's worth remembering that the world occasionally throws up people with a grievance who it would be far better to keep in a state of powerlessness.

It's true that, had the internet existed in Hitler's day, he would have made damn sure that he controlled what was accessible on it, just as the Chinese government endeavours to police its computer users. That's a kind of testament to its slipperiness as a medium – the way it has been designed to evade all attempts to pin it down. But that too isn't always and invariably a virtuous thing.

The internet has proved very useful to al-Qa'ida, both in disseminating its propaganda and in planning its attacks. It, in short, isn't on the side of the angels – and we're not really safer from demagogues now than Germans were back in 1923 because of its mere existence. Good thing, really, that Le Clezio's lecture was about something else entirely.

Bear with the accident-prone adventurer

Commiserations to Vinnie Jones and Bear Grylls, both of whom have sustained injuries recently. Vinnie was glassed in an American bar brawl that has left him facing charges of assault, while Bear Grylls, below, is thought to have broken his shoulder during an expedition to Antarctica.

Unpleasant and painful in both cases, I imagine, but – let's try and look on the bright side – not exactly brand-damaging events in either case. If Vinnie had established a reputation for playing gentle, scholarly types with a commitment to non-violence, the fracas in Wiley's Tavern might have been embarrassing. As it is, he's just advertised his main – indeed sole – theatrical product line. And since Bear has recently had to endure accusations of fakery with regard to his adventure programmes, the revelation that he takes real risks which result in real fractures may actually help to restore his reputation as an adventurer.

How to build your own soap opera

Watching Coronation Street the other day I added a new item to my collection of soap tropes – those by-the-book directorial tics from which soaps are almost entirely constructed. You could call this one the Over The Shoulder Face Fall. Two characters are talking – one attempting to persuade the other to cheer up/change his or her mind. Character One summons a wavery smile of resolution/agreement, Character Two closes in for a hug to seal the deal, and then the camera swoops on Character One's face, safely in Character Two's blind spot and so free to look utterly anguished for a beat or two. It's an indispensable bit of serial Meccano, and they used it at least twice last week. When I've got a full set I think I may build myself a soap of my own.

* I don't know whether Doctor Olivier Ameisen's claim to have discovered a cure for alcoholism with a cheap and readily available muscle relaxant will turn out to be true. Similar "miracles" haven't proved very resistant to scientific scrutiny. I can see that he's touched a nerve, though. The indignation that has greeted his suggestion stems partly from the fact that there is a lucrative therapeutic industry devoted to curing addiction. But it also testifies to the sense that addiction is a moral failing, not a disease, and isn't deserving of a cure that bypasses the sufferer's willpower. However often we're told that alcoholics aren't bad but ill (and however true that might be), there's something in us that insists that what is needed is penitence, not a pill.

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