Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Is Ed's #Milifandom a force for good?

I think it's fair to say that the news of Ed Miliband having his own 'fandom' has come as a bit of a surprise to most of the politics world.  While some people are content to praise the teenagers who have developed a strange obsession with the Labour leader for 'proving that young people do care about politics', and for 'helping other young people to engage', the whole thing seems to me to be rather sinister…

Started up by Twitter user '@twcuddleston', and gaining momentum and breakneck speed, the 'MiliFandom' is one of those strange, left-field phenomena which no one could ever have predicted would be filling news columns just a few weeks out from a general election.  Ed Miliband having his own ‘fandom’ of adoring teenage girls would’ve seemed extraordinarily unlikely even just a couple of weeks ago – but a quick search on Twitter and an article on BuzzFeed confirm that this is in fact the case.

Personally, I have always found the ‘fandom’ concept a little odd – it is a strangely cultish attachment to an icon whose cultural significance is transient and often quite flimsy (most likely a pop star, or television programme).  Ultimately, however – although these things do sometimes have a dark side – they tend to be relatively harmless; the kind of teenage obsessions many people have felt, fuelled by the passions and the certainty of youth, which subside as we progress into ever more bewildered adulthood.

When it comes to politicians, though, I’m not sure this is actually the case.  Most ‘fandoms’ start out as a genuine liking for that particular thing – but this quickly morphs into besotted fanaticism where the object of the fandom’s adoration can do no wrong.  This is why the most obsessive fans of pop singer Justin Bieber still leap to his defence even when he is caught drink-driving, or when he is seen on video spitting at his own fans.

From a rational, objective standpoint, this is disgraceful, indefensible behaviour and Bieber should be hauled over the coals for it; his ‘fandom’, however, make excuses for him and defend him, because their idol could never be to blame.  And in doing so, members of the ‘fandom’ signal to each other what die-hard fans they truly are; somebody who enjoys Bieber’s music, but believes drink-driving is just not on, is not enough of a ‘true fan’ – the more obsessive you become about your hero, the more of a real fan you are, and the more you prove your unwavering faith to the rest of your peers in the ‘fandom’.

I don’t believe we should see politicians this way.  We should respect them for taking on a difficult, often thankless, but incredibly important job – and we should give them credit when they do it well (something we currently do nowhere near enough) – but we should also view them with a healthy scepticism, not with wide-eyed adulation, or with the dogmatic devotion of religious zealots.  In despotic dictatorships, political leaders demand to be worshipped; they demand unthinking praise, and total fealty even in the face of rational criticism.  The cult of personality around 'the leader' in North Korea is particularly intense.  In such climates, questioning a politician – or any authority – is unthinkable.

Ed Miliband has not demanded this deification – in fact, he seems slightly embarrassed by it – but it is disturbing all the same.  The blinkered hero-worship of ‘fandoms’ is the antithesis of rational debate and the exchange of ideas; no matter how much it might help young people to 'engage' with 'issues', when politics becomes about the former, not the latter, we are all in trouble.

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