The Cummings scandal and political outrage as a diversion

The outrage over Dominic Cummings’s latest scandal takes attention away from the real problem with UK’s political elite.

Dominic Cummings
Journalists question Dominic Cummings, special adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as he leaves his house in London on May 24, 2020 [Simon Dawson/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is at the heart of yet another controversy. Earlier this week, British tabloid The Mirror broke the news that he had travelled 250 miles (400km) from London to the city of Durham to visit his parents after having been diagnosed with COVID-19 and once the lockdown had come into effect.

It was later found that not only had he travelled to his parents’ home but may have also visited a popular tourist town, Barnard Castle, some 40km away from Durham. Despite clear evidence of wrongdoing, including police statements, many senior Conservative politicians defended him. More surprising though was a tweet from BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who also appeared to come to his defence, claiming unconvincingly that Cummings’s trip was “within guidelines”.

So here we are, with yet another scandal involving a prominent political actor and a prominent journalist, both at the centre of dozens of similar scandals in the United Kingdom. And another wave of outrage and condemnation: surely this is the last straw. And yet we have been here before, we will be here again and at this stage the outrage expressed by their colleagues is nothing more than performance since we all know by now this is a sham.

That outrage is both targeted and limited says a lot about the situation. They all know how bad things are and how far we have moved from basic ideas of justice, accountability and democracy, and yet they also know that they are benefitting from this very system: these rogue agents are essential for targeting outrage and misdirecting rage as with a sleight of hand.

As such, they must remain in place so that others can benefit. It is not these individuals in and of themselves who are the problem but the system that breeds them. Their removal would not change anything, as they are mostly interchangeable and soon another pundit or political elite would replace them.

Considering how bad the latest of such scandal was, the denunciation was almost unanimous. Almost, as if on cue, our most reactionary pundits (and their admittedly huge platforms and followers) still managed to argue that what was there for all to see was not.

It is fascinating that even though they know that they have nothing to lose in joining the outrage, the state of play is such that absolutely anything goes. Their contrarianism is their brand and as such must know no bounds. They are not journalists, but jesters, here to entertain and play a role we are familiar with: the shock they create with their words and position is in fact what we expect from them, it is not radical but reassuring, we remain in known territory.

Perhaps more fascinating though is that despite the unanimous denunciation beyond our court jesters, there are no unanimous calls for heads to roll. Instead, it is the usual tiptoeing: X and Y must explain their actions or apologise.

We already know too well that nothing will happen if they explain their actions, that if they did, they would simply deflect and divert, and that whether they apologise or not, there will be zero consequences.

All of this cowardice in the face of blatant injustice and corruption is couched in terms of magnanimity, tolerance and moderation: we must rise above the filth. It is clear and there is agreement that what these people are doing is wrong, their politics is elitist and nepotistic and their behaviour utterly unethical.

Where cowardice lies is in the response: instead of fighting wrong with right, elitism with democracy, nepotism with justice and unethical with ethical, the opposition to such vile practices tells us we should be objective and stand in the middle.

But there is no middle ground and you do not have to go far down the ladder to realise that the magnanimity afforded to those at the top quickly dissipates. It is for all to see that austerity politics killed thousands and made many more suffer.

It is for all to see that this “tough medicine” did not make us stronger: the impact of COVID-19 was made a lot worse by both cuts and the political mentality it bred.

It is for all to see that unskilled workers were in fact always essential workers, and yet remain in precarious and dangerous positions in our incredibly classist society.

It is for all to see that, with the poor more generally, migrants and ethnic minorities have borne the brunt of the current crisis, and that this government will continue to scapegoat both. As the saying goes, the poor stay poor and the rich get rich, that is how it goes.

As most of us suffered to various degrees from austerity, Brexit, neoliberalism and racism whipped up by our elite, their makers escaped any form of justice, securing portfolios, juicy contracts and deals in various milieus, with no shame, remorse and again for all to see.

It is impossible not to be outraged by this latest scandal. But this should not be mistaken with politics. While it is not some carefully planned big conspiracy, such targeted scandals, or what Australian media scholar Alex Ling calls “simulacral scandals”, are not additional straws building up on the camel’s back, which would break it and unleash some natural and inevitable justice.

In fact, their very existence, repetition and our response to them precludes real change as our imagination gets bound up in the narrow present and our political will is guided by those with the means to shape the narrative these scandals follow.

If our outrage stays solely directed towards X and Y, nothing will change, the circus will move on to the next scandal and we will be here again tomorrow, pointing our finger at some willing scapegoat, while entirely missing the very obvious culprit – a sleight of hand. The past will continue to happen again and again.

There is no easy way out of that vicious circle and our current reactionary moment. American author bell hooks once wrote that “the rage of the oppressed is never the same as the rage of the privileged”, and this is as true as ever.

Only by forcing ourselves to act rather than react will we be able to break away from the false outrage which currently binds us to our oppressive class and system, and instead turn this just rage directly against them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.