By Alex Shattock.
Open a newspaper, and what do you see? Yob villain beats up frail old man. House set on fire by welfare villain. Villainous dictator tries to obtain nuclear weapons.
The concept of the Villain, the incurably evil antagonist, is endemic in today’s political discourse. The right-wing press and the Tory-led government are obsessed with explaining the bad things in the world in terms of evil personalities rather than wider issues or events. Why do they do this? And what effect does it have on us, as the consumers of this discourse?
Talking about villains all the time has its benefits. For a start, everybody loves a villain. We like to read about personalities more than we do abstract issues, so a story is more likely to hold our attention if there are heroes fighting the good fight and villains trying to destroy the world. The idea of pantomime-ish heroes and villains also makes it easier for the majority of us who aren’t doctoral students in political history, anthropology or sociology to understand important events. It is far harder to get our heads around the internal mechanics of the National Socialist Party bureaucracy and power structure in Germany in 1939 than it is to say “One day Hitler (the villain) decided to invade Poland, and so he did.” The latter is, of course, what we learn in school. The concept of a “villain” is therefore a useful tool, both to keep us informed and to keep our attention.
But there are dangers with seeing the world only in terms of heroes and villains. One such danger is that the rhetoric of heroes and villains inevitably simplifies what really happens in the real world.
Simplistic explanations of the world can also be exploited to push a political agenda, and this is the greatest danger the concept of the Villain poses. The Villain is such a powerful figure that he poisons everyone and everything associated with him. So Mick Philpott, villain, the embodiment of over-breeding scrounger evil, can be gleefully described as a “VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK” (Daily Mail). The Mail ran this headline to attack the welfare state, using the associated Villain as its tool. George Osborne was complicit in this shameless exploitation of a tragedy. Likewise, Len McClusky, villain (according to the right-wing press and the government), the embodiment of militant trade unionism, has been gleefully used to attack Ed Miliband with, because of Ed’s association with the Villain.
I want to talk about one particular villain, Abu Qatada, an anti-Western extremist who is currently being used by anti-human rights extremists in the Conservative party to attack the European Convention on Human Rights.
Abu Qatada is a suspected associate of terrorists. There is no evidence for this that can be relied on in court, and so he has never been charged or tried. And yet, he has been a prisoner in a government “safe-house” for over ten years, because the government of Jordan want him to be deported to their country to stand trial for terrorist charges there. The UK government has been prevented from doing this because the Jordanians regularly torture their suspects or convict them using evidence obtained by torture. Sending him to Jordan would therefore breach a number of Qatada’s human rights under the European Convention, and so the government, quite rightly, cannot do it.
You wouldn’t have guessed that this was the issue in question from watching the Parliamentary debate on Abu Qatada (for there was a parliamentary debate on the issue of deporting this one individual). The debate was like that harrowing scene in Orwell’s ’1984′, the ‘Two Minutes Hate’, in which the public are encouraged to focus all their anger and loathing against the image of one individual in order to distract them from totalitarian state they lived in. In the Abu Qatada debate, there was a cross-party consensus of indignation that this individual is being allowed to stay in the UK. The Conservatives and their media allies have poisoned public understanding of the issue so successfully, through simplification and outright fabrication, that Labour are helpless to say “actually, we shouldn’t deport this man, because we don’t believe in torture or imprisoning someone with evidence obtained by torture. We believe in human rights”.
And so the Tories and the right-wing press can use the Villain to attack with impunity the human rights Convention they hate so much. But importantly, they can only do so because of the pre-existing consensus that Abu Qatada is a monster, that he is ‘The Villain’.
I’m not suggesting Abu Qatada is an innocent man, or even that we shouldn’t be imprisoning him without trial. But we definitely shouldn’t treat him as a pantomime villain, we definitely shouldn’t hate him, and we definitely shouldn’t be eager to send him to Jordan where he will be tortured or convicted with evidence obtained using torture. The suffering inflicted on terror suspects by Jack Baeur’s special brand of crypto-fascism cannot be replicated in real life, because in real life you are dealing with people, not pantomime villains, and people have rights. If human rights weren’t universal, they wouldn’t be human rights at all.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote in ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (a novel about the firebombing of Dresden by the RAF) that in the real world, there are no villains. I think it’s important to remember that. The concept of the Villain is ultimately a simplification, a half-truth and a smokescreen. Qatada will probably come to the end of his life like most ‘villains’ do in the real world: as just another frail old man.
Alex Shattock is a Young Fabians Member.