The liberal elite is smug and patronising

Anyone who unbalances the equilibrium is quietly excluded from the debate
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The Independent Online

Something rather strange is happening. The other day, when an invitation to support the local Conservative Party candidate dropped through the letter-box, I hesitated - just for a couple seconds but enough to make a chap worry - before dropping it into the bin. I have found myself feeling sorry for Boris Johnson, even experiencing a twinge of sympathy for the gay-bashing Italian who fell foul of the EU Commission.

Something rather strange is happening. The other day, when an invitation to support the local Conservative Party candidate dropped through the letter-box, I hesitated - just for a couple seconds but enough to make a chap worry - before dropping it into the bin. I have found myself feeling sorry for Boris Johnson, even experiencing a twinge of sympathy for the gay-bashing Italian who fell foul of the EU Commission.

Then there was the curious incident of The Archers, Michael Grade and a row with the CBI. Apparently, there have been objections that the programme has been showing an anti-business bias. Not so long ago, before my wobble took hold, I would have known, almost without thinking, where right resided on this urgent question. Michael Grade: basically sound, one of us. The CBI: worthwhile organisation, if a bit dull and rather too full of men who look like Neil Hamilton. Ambridge and business: who cares?

But, within a few days of experiencing a sense of kinship with Boris and the dodgy Italian, I find myself feeling strangely sympathetic to members of "the business community". Their complaint, expressed in a session with Michael Grade at the CBI conference, is that businessmen are routinely portrayed in radio or television dramas in a negative way - as dull, bent or bonkers. A conference delegate asked Grade why Matt Jones, currently a bit of a wrong 'un in The Archers, happened to be a businessman. "Why not a trade unionist?" Grade was asked. "Why not a bishop?"

Joining the fray, the CBI director general, Digby Jones, revealed that he had once contacted the makers of Coronation Street to complain that a business type had been revealed to be a serial killer. "Everyone hates businessmen," he was told. That was the kind of "irrational prejudice", according to Jones, that members of his organisation encountered every day.

Let us not get carried away here. In a world riven with bias and unfairness, members of the business community, even if they are characterised as being hoodlums, murderers or bores, are not serious contenders to victimhood status. There are few signs in the outside world of an irrational prejudice against men and women who can read a balance sheet, and that is mainly because, in a cheerfully capitalist society, business is life; the business community reaches virtually everyone in some way or another.

But the fact that an old media stereotype, handed down from hippy dad to liberal son, is still trotted out raises a larger, more interesting question. Why is it that, at the very moment when communication should have become more inclusive, there so often seems to be a growing divide between communicators - those in politics, the media and vaguely arty professions - and the rest of the world? Could it be that the reason why, to take this tiny example, Michael Grade was startled by the criticism from the CBI, or, to take a rather larger one, so many people were surprised by the result of the American elections, is that for too long the liberal establishment has been talking and listening only to itself?

In this comfortable and comforting world, all the right prejudices and preconceptions are played back to us by those who share the same general view of the world in the media. They are there in the easy jokes at acceptable targets on Have I Got News For You, in the smugly appalled reaction of audiences to a play like Stuff Happens or a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, in the approving applause of studio audiences attending Question Time.

There is no room here for argument. Those outside the bubble are rarely heard, hardly ever taken seriously. A mindless, almost fundamentalist form of rejection is taking place, one that brooks no disagreement, that responds to alien political or religious positions with an unthinking contempt.

The lesson of what has just happened in America is that the wider world is drifting away, alienated. Liberals find it difficult to understand why this should be so. For decades the belief has taken hold that, if decent, warm, modern values are carefully explained, then goodness will prevail.

Years ago, summing up the defiant optimism of a generation that was determined to change an ossified older order, Bob Dylan sang: "Something is happening here and you don't know what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?"

Now, weirdly, all that has changed. The Mr Joneses, beleaguered by forces that they do not understand, belong to the liberal elite. Where a previous generation deployed police and teargas to protect its position, resistance today is of a gentler, creepier kind. Those who disagree are shifted out to the margins and ignored. Columnists who break the consensus are forced to apologise. Politicians who let slip inappropriate views are vilified. Anyone who unbalances the equilibrium of decent, middle-of-the-road liberalism is quietly excluded from debate.

Clearly, it will not work. Far from winning new converts, it hardens positions on the outside. The time has come for liberals to take a less truculent approach towards those who disagree with them, to try persuading rather than mocking and patronising. The alternative is a smug, smiling intolerance that will eventually defeat itself.

terblacker@aol.com

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