Opinion: Awesome?

We went to the Tate Modern recently. We saw early twentieth century art which explored ambiguous, disturbing images and dreams. Female sculptors depicted fantastical women as drinking vessels, or as Diabolo players entwined by their own diabolical game. The horror of war was a subject for art and contemplation, not just another brief film of routine carnage on the nightly news.

The mood was shattered by the eight-year-old whose T-shirt was loudly emblazoned with a twenty-first century slogan, “AWESOME!” It took me a while to work out just why this felt so incongruous. Being in an art gallery, I had time. Bear with me, please. The political relevance will shortly become clear…

“Awesome” is, of course, a weasel word these days. It does not literally invoke awe, nor does it truthfully convey anything much more definite than approval. What it does do is to jump to a conclusion. It is a word which seeks to bypass analysis, avoid critical thinking or debate, and shut down any argument. This is not, generally, because there is an actual opponent out there to be silenced. It is mainly just because neither speaker nor listeners want to be bothered with critical thinking. By using a word like “Awesome”, they declare pride in such a twenty-first century mindset.

Politics, I suggest, is not immune from such attitudes. We tend to feel superior to the twentieth century, with its Fascism, Marxism, and Socialism, a succession of isms born of too much political thought. Successful twenty-first century politicians prefer a more pragmatic and positive approach, and they do not believe in thinking too much. I submit that they think too little.

The golden years, when we abolished boom and bust and replaced them with bubble, were of course “Awesome”. Gordon Brown may not have managed the youth-speak, but he managed the attitude. To be fair, the Browns and Clintons did at least have the excuse that since things seemed to be going so well, they saw no need for deep thought.

However, even now that we are in an economic mess, many politicians still take an insouciant pride in choosing simplistic remedies. Eliminating the deficit in a single parliament would have been Awesome. The Paralympics were Awesome, even though they went hand in hand with increasing discrimination against the disabled. Getting Lib Dems into Government was Awesome. All our achievements, for example the rise in income tax threshold offset by the rise in VAT, have been Awesome. Claiming that 75% of the Coalition programme came from the Lib Dems was “Awesome”. Sadly, there are times when even a twenty-first century public is able to suspend its sense of awe!

Twenty-first century political attitudes do not come out well from these comparisons. Quite why over claim, assertion and soundbite have become so dominant in current political debate is something readers might like to discuss. Today’s fashion may be for the “Awesome” politicians like George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Mitt Romney, rather than the more cerebral early-twentieth-century types like Ed Miliband and Barack Obama. However, simple “Awesome” solutions do not work.

Most successful political leaders nowadays seek to have a “Vision Thing”, an Awesome Big Idea. The next Big Idea, I propose, should be not to have a Big Idea. After all, the job specification is to govern a country which survives mainly by blagging and financial manipulation, which now has to dig itself out of a hole, and which has no proven economic tools at its disposal. Awesome Big Ideas are just not credible.

Let’s hope that British politicians can learn to leave the word “Awesome”, and the attitudes that go along with it, to the kids.

* David Allen is a member of the Rushcliffe Local Party and has been a member of the Lib Dems or its (SDP) predecessor since 1981

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7 Comments

  • It takes a couple of paragraphs to begin to get this article but it is well worth it.
    Many moons ago, I read a couple of books by a chap called Alvin Toffler. One of them called Future Shock. I thought it was AWESOME. It was a trendy polemic on how technology, society and world politics would meld, and give us all, awesome ~ lifestyles, experiences and comforts we could previously only have dreamt of.
    However sometime around the mid 90’s, for a variety of reasons, I began to realize that, ‘The Future is Bright’, dream was not as assured as it first seemed. Despite our awesome technologies, awesome sophistication and awesome hubris, something didn’t add up. The scales lifted.
    There would be no colonies, on the Moon, or Mars. There would be no self driving Hovercars, transporting us between one exhilarating metropolis, and the next. Bionics would never make up for the loss of a limb or our sight. Sophisticated genetically engineered drugs, would never release us from the traumas and tragedies that life had imposed on us.
    In short, it was a self deluding, fiction. It was also, (at first), quite a depressing realisation.
    And today, we find ourselves on a planet that seems to have unexpectedly ‘stalled’, economically. It’s obviously temporary of course. Our brilliant insightful economists, are hard at work on their models and spreadsheets. Settle back and relax, it’s just a matter of time before they find the right economic levers to pull, and pretty soon we will be back on track, to a world of ~ awesome. Right?

  • I wonder whether in today’s 24 hour news environment a politician like Clement Attlee could ever attain high office.
    “An empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out”
    “The BBC here, Prime Minister. Do you have anything to say to the nation?” “No”.
    Probably not.

    Nick Clegg was ‘awesome’ during the first leaders’ debate in 2010, and yet I am sure I was not alone at the time in feeling very apprehensive about the huge boost that gave us in the polls. We had been building a constituency over many previous years based on our policies and values, not to mention the tireless work of thousands of activists on the ground, and suddenly all that seemed to count for nothing because an easy path to power had seemingly opened up before us. We all know what happened next.

    Boris Johnson – now there’s an awesome politician. I loved his Romney bashing peroration just before the Olympics, at least, until I heard the crowd chanting, “Bo-ris, Bo-ris”. Impressive though that was, I realised for the first time quite how dangerous the man might become. Despite the disarray in the Conservative Party at the moment I don’t think that they will ditch Cameron before the 2015 election, but if he loses to Labour or again fails to win an overall majority then he will be out on his ear and Boris will be crowned as leader/prime minister. If Labour win in 2015 then Boris will win by a landslide in 2020. If there is another Con/LibDem coalition in 2015 then Boris as Prime Minister would rapidly engineer a collapse of the coalition and win the subsequent election by a landslide. Thatcher’s re-engineering of the country’s institutions will be as nothing to the havoc Boris will use his popularity to inflict on us. Unfortunately I don’t think the dichotomy is between politicians who think too much and those who think too little: Boris (and those around him) have plenty of well- thought out plans up his sleeve, but he’s clever enough to realise that most electors would prefer to vote for someone who looks as though he doesn’t really have much of an idea of what he wants to do but seems like an amiable chap (cf Nigel Farage). The penny will drop eventually, but by then it will be too late for the NHS, the BBC, the social security system, local government, British membership of the EU, etc.

  • “I don’t think the dichotomy is between politicians who think too much and those who think too little”

    Perhaps I / we should try to be more precise.

    There is a kind of clever thinking, like Romney’s brilliant phrase “We can’t kill our way out “. Brilliant politics, because it (a) devalues at a stroke Obama’s boast to have killed Bin Laden, (b) hints usefully at a compassionate caring side, (c) commits Romney to nothing at all, so he can nuke Iran if he wants. A brilliant way to win an election. But beyond enjoying the adulation, what does Romney actually want to do with power? One suspects he has no idea.

    Then there is the kind of highly intelligent technocratic thinking about arcane complex issues, especially finance and economics, which people like Alex Sabine and Bill le Breton display on this site. Now I don’t want to devalue that at all, it is very useful and necessary. And yet it is a fiendish mental puzzle rather than a philosophical reflection. We do more technocractic analysis than they did a hundred years ago, and in itself, that is a good thing.

    But it does not substitute for thinking hard about the fundamentals – what you are in politics to achieve, what is happening to the world, what will be the long term effects of your immediate actions (such as forming the Coalition). That’s where the awesome politicians like Boris fall down.

  • Richard Dean 28th Oct '12 - 11:21pm

    You may have failed to understand, David. Like the famous “unmade bed with condom”, AWESOME is modern art! It is called “living sculpture”. It may be there again tomorrow. Or it may have been moved to your local high street.

    And it is not a weasel word. It is a way that people unused to expressing a genuine feeling can begin to learn how to express one. Very necessary in a world where every ad wants you to be s stereotype, even the ones that say they don’t.

    Here is another example of modern art … 🙂

  • jenny barnes 29th Oct '12 - 8:48am

    Are you sure that’s modern art, Richard? It looks a bit – erm – post modern structuralist to me.

  • ‘more cerebral’? – Ed Miliband? on yer bike!!.. I was just reflecting on the weasleness of ‘awsome’, just thinking that the PR surrounding Miliband’s conference speech was a weasel-worded confidence trick of the worst kind, the press saying how brilliant it was, a ‘tour-de-force’ as one put it. I thought it was a plate of cabbage! So to describe the man as ‘cerebral’, and compare him to Obama I find offensive to Obama, who has twice the vocabulary, and twice the capacity to accommodate the thinking needed to be a Leader. Miliband’s entire speech said nothing of interest of his own, the only interesting bits were plagiarised off Cam and Clegg.!

  • David Allen 1st Nov '12 - 7:33pm

    Late reply to Peter, sorry I have been away.

    OK, Ed M is no philosopher king, but nor is he brain dead.

    Anyway, no doubt the next Lib Dem tribalist will slag him off for being a head-in-the-clouds intellectual, while you slag him off for being the opposite. Any jibe will do.

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