A Frenchman who is taking a commendable interest in English political blogs asked me the other evening why so many of the blogs professed to be Libertarian. It was a good question, and one I struggled to answer for a while.
“Libertarian beliefs are very close to the ethos of the cyber world”, I stuttered (severely handicapped by having this conversation in French!) “The Internet was started by people who believed in freedom of information, and it was set up in such a way that there is minimal regulation, and that means people can speak their mind”, I continued lamely. (If you think you can do better and cook dinner at the same time – be my guest!)
“But there is regulation”, he countered, “self regulation, I found one blog that has just stopped comments because someone insulted his religion”.
“Yeah, but a blog is more like a pub, the landlord sets the scene”
“Like a café you mean, anyone can come in”
I knew the argument was lost at that point, for I would have to explain what a pub used to mean, how it was totally different to a café, how it had changed beyond all recognition.
Long ago, I was privileged to have as my local, one of the two or three remaining ‘medieval ale houses’ in the UK. Licensed only to sell wine and ale, it was quite literally Flossie’s front room. The décor was not designed to ‘attract customers’ nor to ‘make them feel at home’ – it was what appealed to Flossie, secure in the knowledge that her customers a) didn’t want to be at home – that was why they were in her front parlour, and b) it was her home and if they didn’t like it, they merely had to walk a mile or two further to find one they did like.
The conversation was started by Flossie each night, a subject that interested her. If cricket meant nothing to you, you wouldn’t have been there. It was the place you went when you didn’t want to have a conversation about your nippers – they were barred; when you didn’t want to mind your language – the wife was at home; and most of all, you accepted that – nay, expected – that others might have wildly differing points of view and a riotous argument was part of the appeal. The conversation would ebb and flow as tongues loosened with the ale, the air would grow staler, gossip would be exchanged, the font of local knowledge replenished, and if the discussion on the merits of far away town’s football team grew too heated, Flossie would smartly step in and change the subject.
Part of the appeal was ‘opening hour’ – a time dictated by mine host, the sense of anticipation, the bell heard only by those males of drinking age, when they were set free from the rigours of the workplace, unburdened by the social demands of a Sunday, entitled to a few hours of unbridled pleasure, still wearing the hob nailed boots that would never be allowed in the own front parlour, the soot stained trousers that would be chased away from their own comfy chair – the ale house was a private world in which they could let their hair down, metaphorically speaking, with only Flossie’s remarkably lax house rules to contend with, not the rigid world of home, work or church.
When the government started to mess with opening hours, it was the first salvo in a long campaign to gain control of the unbridled conversations taking place. Landlords were forced to hire staff to man the counters. Staff needed to be given set rules to impose, rather than Flossie’s ad hoc reaction to situations arising. A dress code was imposed. Rooms were set aside for the women, then – horrors – children, the very people the customers had sought to avoid in the first place. The longer hours demanded higher wage costs, which in turn demanded more profit – food was served, not the curled up cheese sandwich or packet of pork scratchings demanded by the working man to enable him to remain drinking, but the quiche and ciabatta that the women demanded and which returned higher profits. The children that arrived with the women – not everybody could stomp off down to the pub, someone had to mind the children – changed the nature of the conversation, subjects became forbidden, language had to be ‘minded’.
Murdoch reared his ugly head and commandeered the sport fixtures that used to empty the pub to be watched on television – only to refill it hours later as men gathered to discuss the stupidity of the referee. Sky television was expensive and so the sporting fixtures appeared on wide screens in every pub in the land, and when the sporting fixture was over, the wives demanded Eastenders, and conversation was silenced in the pubs for ever.
The final death knell of the pub was the anti-smoking legislation. A pub was supposed to be nicotine stained, so much so that the recreated Victorian pubs of the 1970s employed an army of specialist painters to make sure that the refurbished pubs still possessed a ceiling that appeared to have the glutinous residue of a thousand pipes still clinging to its ceiling.
The pub, that haven of peace away from the strictures of home, political correctness, work, children, had vanished. A new pub emerged. A back bedroom, a garden shed, a few feet seconded from the space under the stairs, that could hosue a computer, even a hand held device such as the Blackberry.
A place where you could mentally if not physically, leave behind the constrained world of home and work, ignore the children, express your views as you wished, secure in the knowledge that the other customers would argue with you, inform you, exchange gossip with you, be offended by you – and stomp off to another pub more to their liking, understand that sometimes you became tongue tied and couldn’t express yourself as well as you might, sometimes resorted to language that the wife didn’t approve of, sometimes had interests that the wife didn’t approve of.
The pub invented unfettered communal conversations. It terrified the government.
The government have killed the medieval ale house. In its place we have the blog. Mine host opens the shop by starting whatever conversation they damn well please, they let it ebb and flow as they wish. The décor is of their choosing. Language is of their choosing, where men and those women who understand the ground rules, can discus sfreely. You pick your blog in the same way that once you picked your ale house. If cricket is your mania, then you look for a host with similar interests. As you walk in the door, if you are assailed by the sight of a row of cricketing trophies, you either breathe a sigh of relief or beat a hasty exit.
In France, they still have the tradition of the Chasse, the essential chasse dinner, a place where women are tolerated, as was Flossie, but know their place, to serve, to enable, not to regulate. Where men, can discuss the important things in life. Where politically incorrect stuffed animal heads line the wall, where blood and gore do not reduce anyone to the vapours. Where guns and clay caked boots are an accepted manner of dress.
The French have kept their equivalent of the medieval ale house – and it is not the café. Perhaps that is why their political blogs have not become the refuge for the untrammelled mind that wishes to express itself as it damn well pleases in the same way that the British blogs have.
It is the only explanation I can offer.
Has anybody got a better explanation?