Outrage is an indulgence
January 14, 2022 12:18 PM   Subscribe

... however much you may wish he would go away, he isn’t going to. His Brexit moment might have passed. But the future probably still belongs to people like him. And it remains as important as ever to try to understand what the other side thinks.

Single Link The Guardian longread on "the most interesting writer about politics in Britain today" ... Dominic Cummings
posted by protorp (19 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've deliberately kept context away from this post to highlight the sheer cognitive dissonance I felt when the article popped up in my feed. If you need some backstory start here.
posted by protorp at 12:25 PM on January 14

First let me say that I enjoy Runciman’s Talking Politics podcast, as well as his essays, generally.

There’s a *lot* of weird in this article, but one odd thing that stands out to me is that Runciman seems to have bought wholesale into Cummings’ view of Lee Kuan Yew.

Now, I’m not an expert on Singapore history, but if Lee Kuan Yew had one defining quality, it’s that he was better at office politics than anyone else around him.

And if Dominic Cummings has one defining flaw, it’s that he can’t get along with people he works with.

Like most experts, Dominic Cummings is good at the thing he’s an expert in, namely running political campaigns, but like a certain type of expert, he thinks his expertise transfers to any area of life that interests him.

It doesn’t.
posted by Kattullus at 1:09 PM on January 14 [13 favorites]

if Dominic Cummings has one defining flaw.

Defining Cummings by a single flaw is like try to judge the Koh-i-Noor by a single facet.
posted by howfar at 1:34 PM on January 14 [29 favorites]

The paragraph where it talks about how Cummings likes the SSC guy, Yglesias, and Andrew Sullivan, among others, had me reeling and laughing. OF COURSE. It's like a list of people we'd be better off if they fell into a wood chipper.
posted by fleacircus at 1:35 PM on January 14 [12 favorites]

Under current editorship The Guardian has now moved well to the right of Tony Blair—and shows no signs of stopping there.

Though if wanted to try to use their own favorite editorial dodge I suppose I ought to have come up with a way of disguising that observation as a question
posted by jamjam at 1:36 PM on January 14 [9 favorites]

Like most experts, Dominic Cummings is good at the thing he’s an expert in, namely running political campaigns, but like a certain type of expert, he thinks his expertise transfers to any area of life that interests him.

Highly illegal political campaigns it should be added. The UK Tories ran roughshod over all kinds of campaign laws and got away with it. So his expertise is really more criminal than political.
posted by srboisvert at 2:31 PM on January 14 [11 favorites]

I have previously read some of Dominic Cummings blog. I would not pay money to read his stuff, it's really, really rambling and inane as well as having nuggets of interesting well-formed ideas. He is sexist without noticing it, which is infuriating. He fetishises maths, engineering and science in a way that I've only really seen a humanities graduate do. His views on the civil service reflect an assumption about what government is for that he doesn't acknowledge and also that I disagree with. He is clearest when talking about the need to tear things down, but his clarity, logic and arguments are shoddy when talking about what you might build up instead. Even if his ideas work, I don't think I want to live in the world they would create. Fundamentally, he appears to be good at running a political campaign, but there's no evidence he can do anything else.
posted by plonkee at 3:21 PM on January 14 [15 favorites]

Thank you for mentioning Dominic Cummings in the top post link .. just the clue I needed to skip reading more. I know burying my head doesn't make people like him go away, but as I'm far away from his influence it's much nicer not to think about him.
posted by anadem at 6:41 PM on January 14

I get the feeling that the author is trying very hard to convince themselves that giving Dominic Cummings money once a month is both a good thing and a smart choice, even though it clearly is neither.

I feel.like thee only interesting thing about Cummings right now is how little his rage at Boris and pals is part of anything that might bring them down. And how mad that makes him.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:09 PM on January 14 [9 favorites]

He's a weird Steve Bannon/Malcolm Gladwell hybrid that got (politically) engaged to someone who has spent their entire life betraying people, and is now stunned (stunned!) that he was left at the altar.
posted by kersplunk at 5:11 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Runciman's the epitome of the modern Guardian - more interested in chairing debates than in contributing to them. So of course he indulges the scattershot ravings of an autodidact - it's raw tutorial fodder. Point-counterpoint.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 7:07 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]

Boris is being brought to the brink by a ton of things. I just don't think any of them are Dominic Cummings, despite what he wants us to think.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 5:11 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Runciman is absolutely right. Cummings's blog is an essential guide to the current state of British politics. And for those of us who can never forgive Cummings for his role in the Brexit referendum, it's worth looking past our visceral dislike of the man to try and understand what makes him so interesting.

First, let's be honest about his faults. Cummings is a tech fanboy who thinks that the UK government should be run like Apple or Google, or maybe the Manhattan Project -- it's basically an exercise in project management, and the main thing is hiring the right people, i.e. very very smart people. This blinds him to the ways in which governing a country is not like running a big tech company. (Obligatory xkcd.) It also makes him intolerant of law and due process, which he sees as obstacles to getting things done. (E.g. his hostility to the Good Law Project, which has been asking awkward questions about the government procurement process during the pandemic.)

So, that said, why should we pay him any attention? Well, I think there are three reasons. The first is that he is interested in systems of government, i.e. the way decisions are made and implemented. This is a rarity in the British commentariat, which is almost entirely focused on politics and opinion polls, often in the most superficial and short-term fashion. Cummings's big argument is that the decision-making processes at the heart of British government -- some of them dating back to the First World War -- are now hopelessly out of date and incapable of dealing with major crises. He is not wrong about this.

Secondly, he respects science. This may seem surprising, when his former boss Michael Gove is famous for saying that 'the people of this country have had enough of experts'. But Cummings respects genuine expertise and, to his credit, has made a serious effort to understand the scientific modelling around the pandemic. This is no small thing, when the Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet are scientifically illiterate. If it's true that he forced a change in government policy after taking advice from Tim Gowers, we should be grateful to him for that.

Lastly, he was Boris Johnson's right-hand man and he knows where the bodies are buried. Some of the most fascinating revelations on his blog in recent months have been about Johnson's inability to understand the implications of his own Brexit deal. If you read the British media at the moment, you'd think that Johnson's main character flaw was dishonesty. (See here for one among many examples.) Cummings has been pushing a far more lethal argument: that Johnson simply isn't up to the job; that the problem isn't just dishonesty, it's a basic lack of competence. (And as Machiavelli might have said: the dishonesty can be excused, the incompetence can't.) Cummings has been pushing this argument for months and there are, finally, signs that it's beginning to cut through.
posted by verstegan at 6:59 PM on January 15 [7 favorites]

the problem isn't just dishonesty, it's a basic lack of competence.
I've never heard of a more obvious secret. Like, one of the longest standing pieces of evidence for it is Johnson's dependence on the stunted technocrat in the first place
posted by glasseyes at 4:01 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]

In fact, as with Trump, arrogant cluelessness was Johnson's major USP as a politician. What does it say about Cummings that his whole schtick and strategy was to enable such a man? All aspects of government may be improved by installing the worst figurehead available, so that competant civil servants will then set about doing wonderful things (/s)? That's like the delusions of either a manipulative 15 year old or an unprincipled would-be despot.
posted by glasseyes at 4:11 AM on January 16 [4 favorites]

>he respects science
He uses science writing as an excuse for having poor charismatic rhetoric. Good writing does move you -- but the style and his peers who do the same use the idea that it's the best science and should be automatically persuasive. That's lazy -- and I'm an expert in lazy.

I think also that he uses science when it supports his existing views. There may be changes in viewpoint, but not a full change of mind because he's re-assessed the evidence. That would be the difference between endorsing Singapore's governance structures which have individual savings pots for healthcare needs versus using the example of government housing in Singapore (which has been quota'd to mix together people from around the world) to provide large volumes of cheap-rent homes and to overcome racism.

We can't avoid that Cummings thinks it's OK to make promises to voters that you've no intention of keeping and he thinks it's OK to scare people away from other democratic options to give power to the people he supports. If you respected science you'd also respect what you don't know about the world and you'd have a level playing field with people different than you. He's part of the attack on how-we-believe-to-be-true-what-we-believe-to-be-true using both-sides equivalence to create uncertainty and eroding trust in expertise. He's also part of the drive away from enlightenment using fear-derived messaging (24-hour news channels thrive on keeping viewers hooked with terrifying and thrilling stories; Facebook told US Congress that they get more user engagement by promoting emotive items). This is the fear-derived messaging that the science knows short-circuits civilised higher-brain functions by engaging our threat-survival brain machinery and flatters our feeling of safety in nostalgia.
posted by k3ninho at 6:47 AM on January 17 [6 favorites]

I’ve been thinking about the weird way Cummings valorizes being at work all the time, and Runciman seems to do too. I think Zoe Williams got it exactly right: “The government is apparently run by people who don’t have other lives: they have nobody they want to rush back to, nobody waiting at home who cares where they are; they can’t even wrap their heads around the dignity of the cleaners, the people they see every day.”
posted by Kattullus at 1:08 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

Some of the most fascinating revelations on his blog in recent months have been about Johnson's inability to understand the implications of his own Brexit deal.

That is not a revelation to anyone surely. It's been obvious from the start that they didn't understand anything they were proposing or signing off on, including the Northern Ireland protocol which they negotiated.

Boris is as thick as all get out, but he wasn't elected because people thought he was brilliant, but because he fed into a whole list of -isms that the voters got on board with.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:34 AM on January 19

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