Turn off the stupid show

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz

I don’t know if this is a confession, humblebrag, or cry for help, but here goes: When I was in middle school, one of my favorite shows was PBS’s weekly rebroadcasts of Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK.

You might think that’s even weirder if you knew that, at the time, I hadn’t been within 3,000 miles of Britain, and that the PM back then was John Major, a former insurance broker with the personality of a wool sock.

But there was a clear reason I loved the show: It was hilarious. The prime minister would stand up, say something stuffy, and then everyone would yell at him and each other until the woman in an even higher chair told everyone to shut up. Then someone else would get up and tell the prime minister exactly why he was wrong.

It was how I wanted my school to be. It was how I wanted my government to be. My preteen brain interpreted it as an extension of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which it kind of was. (NOTE: I did have some friends.)

Anyway, Tesco Value Trump held his first PMQs today, and it was a disaster. A day after Boris Johnson’s short-lived parliamentary majority imploded in a shockwave of defections and expulsions, he got publicly mocked, then trashed in successive votes. One will likely result in another delay to his precious Brexit from the European Union. The other may have shut down his gambit at a sudden, possibly-Brexit-forcing election in October.

It was a typically bad start for a pasty former rich kid who got fired from his first journalist job for making up a quote (supposedly from his godfather, no less), then embarked on a career of settling imagined childhood scores and making things up, especially about the EU. Like his buddy in the White House, Johnson didn’t so much fail up as be born on top and convince the world to let him keep failing with other people’s money.

In the grand parliamentary tradition, though, it was also fun to watch. Unlike Trump, Johnson knows he’s a clown, but he shares his showmanship and instinct for TV:

Say what you will about the politics, but a referring to Jeremy Corbyn—sorry, sorry, the right honorable gentleman—as a “chlorinated chicken” is funny.

But wait, I will say something about the politics. The UK, once the world’s most powerful empire, is in the midst of committing an act of unprecedented domestic self-harm. Its new prime minister is trying to force the country to destroy its trade relationships, whether its elected officials or people really want him to. He is doing so on the principle of upholding a popular referendum so fundamentally flawed and riven with reported Russian interference that one scholar likened it to an Olympic event tainted by doping.

Ahead of the referendum, Johnson drove around in a red bus painted with a big lie: that leaving the EU would divert some piece of a fanciful £350 million weekly sum to the UK’s beloved socialized healthcare system. Now that system is terrified of what’s coming, and his ministers are arguing about whether there will be enough food.

Unlike Americans, most Britons seem to understand the threat of global warming. A nearly-three-quarters majority in one recent poll cited climate change as a bigger long-term threat than Brexit. Fair enough. But Johnson’s “fuck everything, we’re leaving” Brexit strategy could make the already dire climate situation even worse, further eroding already fragile international cooperation to address it.

Brexit is a lot like climate change in one way, though—in the same way it resembles other crises, like the out-of-control proliferation of guns in America, the spread of violent white supremacy, and the insane levels of corruption in the White House. Even though these scams keep getting revealed for what they are, the people most invested in them keep doubling and tripling down. Their need to keep going with the scam outstrips even the ill-gotten gains they’d hoped for in the beginning.

Oil companies who’d once profited from climate denial now know they have to admit the crisis is real, and plan for it somehow. But politicians who bought the original full-bore lie and resold it at a markup keep having to play or stay stupid; their constituents are too far gone to hear the truth now.

Clear majorities of Americans have made it clear they know that ending gun violence will have to involve reducing access to guns. But lawmakers have to go even further, finding guns in a bronze-age Bible, because they’ve built their careers on insanity.

The president’s lies are getting so dumb, he is literally resorting to forging hurricane maps with a fucking sharpie.

Concentration camps can’t be concentration camps, because that would be unpleasant. Trump can’t be impeached, because it might make him mad. Brexit must be done immediately, whether anyone likes it or not—not because it is even defensible anymore, but some voters were once successfully duped.

I learned a lot about debate from watching parliament as a kid—skills I gladly use today to dunk on idiots like Dinesh D’Souza, as a service to you, my readers. But I also eventually learned the big lesson: It’s a show. For those who want to manipulate the system, that show is a way to distract, discourage, and disarm us.

But the consequences are still real. While Boris was mugging for the cameras, one of his empire’s longtime colonies, the Bahamas, lay in ruins. A source of his country’s wealth and power, ravaged by a crisis its own industrial revolution helped create—a crisis the people behind big, fatal wastes of time like Brexit want us to ignore. You just have to change the channel to see it.

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Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA