I don’t suppose you know who David Icke is. Even I had forgotten who he was till I read about his spectacular success as an author and public speaker around the world. Not bad going for a nutcase who believes that the world is controlled by lizards, I thought to myself.
Icke used to be a well-known BBC TV sports presenter in the 1980s. Though he presented Grandstand, the corporation’s flagship sports programme, he only became truly famous when he appeared on a popular talk show (Wogan) in 1991 and told the flabbergasted host, Terry Wogan, that the world was secretly controlled by an elite.
This might have been okay but Icke then described this elite as being descended from lizard-like aliens. Members of this elite included the British royal family, the Bush family and the Rothschilds. He was there to expose them, he said, in his capacity as the son of God.
The studio audience laughed at him and when the show was broadcast, most people wrote him off as a loony…
But, bizarrely enough, there were many who believed him. And so his books sold well, he addressed sell-out audiences and in the 28 years since that Wogan show was aired, Icke has continued to expound his mad theories: 9/11 was an inside job; Barack Obama was also a member of this secret elite; and so on.
Last month, decades after sensible people had concluded that he was a crackpot, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker (The Colour Purple) was interviewed by The New York Times and revealed that one of his books (as mad as all the others) rested on her nightstand. The book, Walker said, was “a curious person’s dream come true” and like the rest of Icke’s work, was something that made us think about “the whole of existence of this planet.”
Given that Icke believes that the ruling elite has been created by an alien race of shape-shifting reptilian beings who manipulate events to keep ordinary people down, Walker’s praise is the literary equivalent of Albert Einstein saying that watching Navjot Singh Sidhu on Comedy Circus had made him question his entire theory of relativity.
And yet, The New York Times ran the Walker interview and Icke continues to travel the world, warning about the danger from elites. His YouTube channel has over half a million subscribers, he has a regular show on Russian radio and his influence on the far right in the US is powerful. The Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US which monitors hate groups has said “Icke’s shadow is long indeed, visible across the far right media spectrum.”
According to The Times (London), a survey of American voters carried out in 2013 found that more than 12 million believed that ‘shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.’
Icke may be a nutcase. But clearly, he is not the only one.
What accounts for the popularity of Icke and his lunatic theories?
Well, like many right wing groups through the ages, he and his supporters tap into a suspicion (and fear) of elites. In societies where things are going badly or there is a new emerging middle class, it is easy to blame everything on an entitled elite that seems to have got everything by being born to the right parents (or lizards, for that matter).
The message from the Right to the disgruntled is always the same: these elites manipulate the system so that you do not get your fair share. And, unlike you, who have worked hard for your success, the elite has never had to struggle to rise to the top. Members of the elite are like some secret club. They co-opt each other in. Or, they are there because of an accident of birth. (What Indian Twitter often calls the ‘Lucky Sperm Club”.)
This appeal was used, most famously, by Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s. But rather than pick on a general elite, he was specific about identifying the enemy: the Jews. Hitler said that the Jews prospered while the average German struggled.
And because it is important for this elite to be portrayed as a group which denies entry to others, Hitler picked a religious group that you could only join if you were born into it. It is the same with Icke’s so-called dangerous elite. Though many of its members are Jewish, the key to its character is that you can’t join unless you are an alien reptile.
Why do people hate elites? Well, because there is a lot of injustice and unfairness in the world. In nearly every country in the world, the richest one per cent own a disproportionate share of the resources. A recent survey claimed that 26 Indians owned 50% of the country’s wealth. So there are genuine grounds for resentment.
But often the anger has nothing to do with injustice or the nature of the elite. It is just that once you identify a group as being better off than you in some way, it is easy to blame that group for all of your problems. In the US, the political Right has a long history of disliking better educated liberals. Richard Nixon and his Vice President Spiro Agnew packed their speeches with invective against so-called intellectuals and liberals (that is where “nattering nabobs of negativity” comes from) till both men were eventually run out of office for being crooks.
In today’s America, the Nixonian rhetoric has been magnified a hundredfold. Such sites as Breitbart and TV channels like Fox News work on the assumption that they can’t go wrong if they insult the intelligence of the reader or viewer — by telling lies, spinning tales and blaming elites.
That it works is evident. An obvious shyster like Donald Trump got into office only by blaming elites for the slowdown in America’s manufacturing sector and the plight of those on the cusp of being middle class. He has remained in office by suggesting that it is liberals and educated elites that allow brown foreigners to come into the US and harm white Christians.
In a country where 12 million voters think that lcke might be right about alien reptiles running the world, it is not hard to see how Trump got into office.
We have had our own anti-elite moments in India. Indira Gandhi railed against maharajas and industrialists and set our economy back by a decade with populist nationalisation measures and greater industrial licensing.
But now, the focus has shifted to the middle class. Starting with the liberalisation of the early 1990s, the Indian economy has expanded to create a new middle class comprising people whose parents had never thought of themselves as being in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that India’s economic growth would bring. The great thing about today’s India is that social mobility has greatly increased and that while 20 years ago, there was only one Dhirubhai Ambani who came out of nowhere to build a great company, there are many, many remarkable success stories. The old business elite, at least, is dying.
The bad side of all this is that many people who have not found great success in the new India, even if they are better off and better educated than their parents were, look for somebody to blame.
As has happened all over the world, many of these people have bought into the old right wing hypothesis that they have been denied their slot at the top because of the hold of an elite. Never mind that elites in India are actually fighting for survival or that we are a more equal opportunity society than ever before.
In right-wing terminology, the so-called ruling elite is often described, misleadingly, as a Lutyens group, after Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi. The people who dominate governmental Delhi are of course, the Prime Minister, his ministers and the civil servants who live in the city designed by Lutyens, often in bungalows that Lutyens himself planned.
But it doesn’t matter. The term is not meant for the real inhabitants of Lutyens’ Delhi.
It is a code-phrase for people who read English newspapers, went to English medium schools or speak English at home. Almost by definition, they differ from the new middle class so, like the liberal elite that Donald Trump attacks, they are blamed for everything.
I reckon this is a temporary phase. As the children of the new middle class social media warriors and the socially motivated haters on Twitter grow up, it will become harder and harder to distinguish between the old and new middle classes. More and more people are learning English all over India so the old distinctions (fluency in the language, accent etc.) will become meaningless.
But till that happens, this middle class resentment provides a huge opportunity for the Right. And while social resentments (at least within the middle class) in India are not so vast that people believe that we are being ruled by Icke’s alien lizards, you might well get the impression that this is indeed the case if you go on Twitter where trolls hail their version of the son of God.
I reckon, however, that this phase is ending. And that soon, social envy of this kind will become a thing of the past. At some stage, the better educated and better adjusted children of today’s Twitter trolls will tell their parents not to be so stupid.
We just have to be patient till that time comes.
First Published: Jan 22, 2019 18:28 IST