Known Unknowns

At the Plain Blog About Politics, Jonathan Bernstein reminds us that, despite the oceans of political coverage that seems to saturate the media, many people do not take an active interest in politics outside of election time.

If you asked [my Father] to name a NASCAR driver he’d probably look at you as if you were nuts…but if you named some of them, he’d probably recognize the names. The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics. It’s just background noise. We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season –we’re the minority.

Bernstein is writing about US politics, discussing former Governors and presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, two people who I bet few in Britain would recognise.  Nevertheless, Bernstein’s cautionary tale is pertinent in the UK too – At election time, I remember being amazed that the Leaders’ debates could increase Nick Clegg’s popularity ratings so substantially.  How had so many people not heard of him, or see him perform?  In my world, he was on TV all the time!
Here’s Caitlin Moran on Twitter:

I’ve made a decision – I’m not going to find out who Justin Bieber is. He’s going to be the first “modern thing” I’m going to ignore.

This has stuck with me, because it was via this message that I discovered that a person called Justin Beiber existed.  Whenever I have mentioned this to other people, they have, without exception, replied: “Who’s Justin Beiber?” which reassures me somewhat.  If I am being culturally ignorant, then at least a lot of other people I know are too.  There is a Facebook group called I bet I can find 1 million people who hate Justin Bieber.  Perhaps I should start one called I bet I can find 1 million people who have never heard of Justin Bieber?
That Bieber is, in many circles, a hugely famous global phenomenon – worthy of single-serving sites, mash-ups and parodies – matters little to me.  The most cursory research quickly reveals that I am not his target market.  In such cases, admitting ignorance becomes something of a badge of sophistication.  However, in other cases, the sudden exposure of my own ignorance leaves me more concerned.  It is more embarrassing for me to admit that I had barely any knowledge of Alan Watkins’ career, or the output of Tony Judt, until people I follow began tweeting and blogging their RIPs.  As a fully paid up agent for the liberal left conspiracy, Watkins and Judt were guys I really, really should have known about before they died.  Instead, both names were part of the ambient noise around me (like Bernstein Snr and the NASCAR drivers).  I’m grateful that at least the news of their passing found its way into my ‘streams’, and I can now set about reading Postwar.
Of course, knowing that there are influential people out there who you have not heard of is not very helpful, because of course, you don’t know who they are!  This can be remedied by reading an entirely new or random blog, or just by picking up a weekly magazine that you might otherwise avoid.  What might me more interesting, however, is considering who or what currently exists on the penumbra of your consciousness?
The answer that springs to mind is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, which I first became aware of when I began to see young teensm on trains reading improbably thick paperbacks.  Meyer’s series managed to become a global success story while I remained oblivious.  Again, this is easily explained by the fact that I am not the target market.  However, now that movies are being made and advertised on the public transport system, I would say that the saga, with its emo-vampire chic, is part of most people’s peripheral vision now.  It is no longer ‘background noise’ as Bernstein has it, but rather, a collective cultural happening that infiltrates our awareness via a kind of osmosis.
I would say that there are a whole class of public figures – people like Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Huw Edwards, and John Terry – who enter our thoughts this way.  We know about them, and their notoriety before we even consider consuming their cultural oevres ourselves.  Certain politicians fall into this category too.  I would expect even the most uninterested and sullen of the lumpenproletariat to know who David Cameron was, and possibly George Osborne and Nick Clegg too.  However, if they aren’t clear who David Willets or Danny Alexander are… well, I think that’s forgivable.

5 Replies to “Known Unknowns”

  1. I think you also have a ‘recognition threshold’. As soon something enters your world and consciousness it then has meaning to you and you start to recognise it rather than ignoring it as background noise – much like your red posty bands. By next week I will have found out who Justin Beiber is ‘seeing’ and know some of his songs, thanks Bert.

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