Theresa May's Facebook Live Was the Perfect Way to Avoid Political Anger
You can't distill political into a little red dot, and you can't properly express it through a mediator.
Screenshot from the doctored images of Theresa May's ITV Facebook Live interview
I honestly don't know what kind of question I'd want to put to Theresa May. I had my chance; in yesterday's stultified Facebook Live interview she sat calm and cockeyed in an ITV studio as 40,000 people spoke their brains in her direction. She was exposed to the British public and their social-mediated investigative tribunal, but none of the questions she was asked felt sufficient. Why are you bringing back fox-hunting? Why are you cutting disability allowances? Why are you refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals? It's all scraping at the surface, darting around the real issue, half-terrified of what you might find out.
What I'd really want to ask is this: why are you? Why does something like you have to exist? After 6,000 years of human civilisation, why is this what we've ended up with? We could have done anything – we could have constituted ourselves into any strange social form imaginable – and instead we get Theresa May blandly lying about NHS spending cuts.
This was the first time a prime ministerial candidate had ever taken question from the public on Facebook, and it was, of course, a fundamentally pointless exercise. But it's a format that makes sense for her. Theresa May believes that the British public are about to deliver her a massively increased majority on a tide of nationalist bitterness and the queasy libidinal effluent that drips from every Tory's mouth as he utters the word "mummy"; and for her part she wants nothing to do with them. Her rallies are delivered in front of tiny clumps of the thoroughly vetted and absolutely glum; whenever she's confronted by an actual ordinary, hard-working person her eyes glaze over in invertebrate fury. Facebook Live offers the public without their actual presence, which is ideal for someone whose main goal seems to be purging the earth of the flesh and its weakness. Social media doesn't help bring politicians closer to the population; it's mediation, a distancing act, a hygienic bubble to keep her far away from the crowd and their filth.
WATCH: When JME Met Jeremy – full film coming to i-D soon
She didn't even have to look at the questions as they glugged up from the faraway depths of other people's heads. Instead, they all spoke through the big flat tombstone-face of Robert Peston, who briefly became a kind of universal medium through which people could scream their fury at the world, and see that scream transformed into the half-chortling limpness of a professional news presenter. Peston himself seemed to be utterly depressed by the whole ordeal; most of the time he didn't appear to be fully awake. I'm a care worker, he would announce, implausibly. I am a firefighter. I am Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader's brief gatecrashing – in which he reminded May that wages are stagnating and the NHS is in crisis, before asking why she wouldn't defend her record in a proper TV debate – was the most remarked-upon incident in the interview, but even that was constricted by the format. Jeremy Corbyn, it turns out, is a lot less impressive when he's actually Robert Peston.
"What I think is more important", May replied, "is that I and he take questions directly from the voters. I don't think people get much from politicians having a go at each other. I think people want to hear directly." Which might be true, but it's horrifying to imagine the kind of people who might really want to hear what she was saying.
Check out our politics podcast, The British Dream
Politicians are always cagey, and their main talent is usually delivering a useless non-answer to safely neutralise any question, but Theresa May didn't even sound like a politician. She spoke like a customer service chatbot, digesting each question for any word or phrase that matched her database and disgorging a short scripted statement. A question about food banks received an entirely irrelevant announcement on how she'd encouraged Jobcentre staff to make sure people knew about them; a question of weed legalisation yielded a story about people dying of heroin overdoses.
Much of the time it was utter tautology, adding nothing. Sometimes there were outright untruths. Why bring back fox-hunting? Well, you have to keep numbers down somehow – except there's no convincing evidence that hunting does. What about cuts to the NHS? In fact, they're getting billions in extra funding – except the population is growing, and in terms of per-patient spending the service is facing continued cuts.
Repeatedly, when pressed on her policies, all the Prime Minister had to say for herself was that, "You either agree with it or you don't." This is what it means to hear directly from politicians: a grisly sea-creature spits processed banalities in your direction, and the only way to talk to them is in another person's voice.
Of course, there are other ways to get yourself across. Over the course of her 45 minute interview, 10,000 angry-face emoji swam across the screen. A constant stream of sullen little bubbles, each identical face glowering like a freshly popped zit, washing away like cigarette ends in an overflowing gutter. In doctored pictures, retweeted by more people than were actually watching the broadcast at any one time, huge angry clouds of the things rise up to swallow the whole screen in a gleaming leprosy of discontent – and people (including news outlets) believed they were real, because they're not far off. Three times a second, someone was brought to fury by what they saw happening in front of them, and all that thought and frustration expressed itself as a mute red circle, identical to all the ones that came before it and all the ones that would come afterwards, vanishing in a second.
This is supposed to be an embarrassment for Theresa May; it's not. Finally, she's achieved the total abstraction of political anger. The same day, she was confronted in Oxfordshire by a voter called Cathy Mohan who interrupted a pleasant day's campaigning with the pesky fact that she's being forced to survive on £100 a month of personal independence payments – in other words, with her experience and her suffering, fully expressible, fully meaningful. This should have been Theresa May's Gillian Duffy moment; she nodded at her heckler with a vulturine stoop, mouthing banalities about resource prioritisation. It's excruciating to watch, because it makes clear that everything really has gone deeply wrong.
People are in need of help, and a witless gremlin like Theresa May is making sure they don't get it. How would that complaint look if it were expressed in the forms that are simply given to us? Another angry face, mute, and identical, and gone.