Marshall McLuhan, in his famous book The Medium is the Massage, had this to say: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future”. In short, we see the present through the filter of the past. I believe that this fascinating idea can be illustrated by looking at Peter Hitchens, the controversial British journalist. In a recent debate, Hitchens went up against Matthew Perry (Chandler from Friends), who was in the UK to promote the idea of drug courts.
I am not going to talk about the increasing presence of celebrities (particularly comedians) on Newsnight, though that would be an interesting topic. Instead, my purpose is to use this debate to test McLuhan’s Rear -view Mirror theory. Though I also don’t intend to go into depth about the subject matter of the debate, some basic details are necessary for those did not see the clip. Perry wants the UK to adopt the drug court system so that drug users will not get caught up in the criminal justice system, which criminalises and eventually imprisons them. Addiction should instead be treated as a health issue. In drug court, judges are not there to judge but to befriend and help people out of addiction.
The Rear-view Mirror convinces us that we are living in the past – in the case of the West, the specific period is the 1960s. If we look at this debate through the Rear-view Mirror, we might see Matthew Perry as a brave freedom fighter, who is standing up to the oppressive views of Peter Hitchens. Hitchens, on the other hand, represents the hated Establishment – arrogant, uptight and old-fashioned. In reality, Hitchens is in the minority. He has not the power to oppress anyone. We are seeing the exchange through the Rear-view Mirror. This is surely the only way to explain the praise Perry received on Twitter as, in reality, his performance was incoherent, confused and unconvincing. In contrast to his actual argument (or lack of), the confidence with which he dismisses Hitchens as “crazy”, shows that the times are on his side. He is the Establishment figure, not Hitchens.
Some of the online abuse directed at Hitchens is appalling, and much of it wildly inaccurate. Perhaps this is par for the course on the internet. However, the strangest accusation levelled at him is that he is “ignorant”. At first this makes no sense as he had clearly done some research before coming on to the programme; certainly more than Matthew Perry, who was clearly not used to this kind of debate. If we look through the Rear View Mirror, we might see an argument based on logic, reason and the scientific method as a tool of oppression, and Perry’s life experience as “authentic”. More than this, Perry’s experience qualifies him as the one who “knows what he’s talking about”, whereas Hitchens becomes “ignorant”.
That this debate was about drugs was interesting, as you can see the residue of 1960s ideals all over the concept of drug courts. The Rear-view mirror shows us the 60s as a permanent revolution. The British Establishment is permanently crumbling, and the revolutionaries are permanently tearing it down. Meanwhile, the real world has moved on. We are a long way from the 60s, and we need to get with the program. Nothing can be revolutionary forever, and the 1960s outlook is a dinosaur, begging to be laid to rest.
In the future, it looks like the Matthew Perrys of this world will get their way, while the likes of Peter Hitchens will be increasingly marginalised. Some people might celebrate this fact, especially those who remember the horrors of Imperialism, and who equate religion with hypocrisy. But Peter Hitchens and his “crazy” scientific method have unearthed some interesting questions, eg: Does the War on Drugs really exist? Can addiction be properly described as a disease? Is drug addiction more widespread than we realise? What are the societal implications of the decriminalization of drugs?
As we face a future in which celebrities and government are increasingly close, dictating a (pseudo) liberal agenda and dismissing their isolated opponents with cheap jibes, it makes me wonder whether we have thrown out the baby (rational argument) with the bathwater (Racism, Imperialism, Patriarchy). If we are looking through the Rear-view mirror, Peter Hitchens is all the things people say about him. If we focus on the road ahead, he might just be someone we could do with having around.
VG – 22/12/13