Rhetoric, Responsibility, & the Problem of the Political: Some thoughts after reading Andrew O’Hagan on Grenfell Tower

Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘The Tower’ is neither radical or neutral, but a symptom of a middle-class journalism that upholds and supports the given political order through its dishonest claims of objectivity

“The ideology of white supremacy ends lives, as the evidence of hundreds of years attests. But even where it does not actively kill, it commits smaller, more insidious crimes, too. It belittles and dismisses humanity and accomplishment, and it does so by using words that appear to be innocent.”
Bim Adewunmi

Andrew O’Hagan is a teller of half-truths. This is not, in itself, a damning statement—he is, after all, a ghostwriter, a professor of creative writing, a published author with several novels to his name. It is the business of fiction writers to craft compelling narratives, to tell stories, to build and shape the worlds in which their stories live in order to best accommodate them. As that master of the unlikely narrative, Stephen King, reminds us, “We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with.” The context of fiction, then, has less to do with plausibility than with storytelling. But what happens when a writer of fiction switches lanes without indicating? What is at stake when somebody like O’Hagan reframes his writing as reportage? What are the issues of trust and deceit at play? This is what happened in May, when the London Review of Books chose to publish 65,000—the length of a short book—of O’Hagan’s ill-considered, crypto-racist words on the burning of Grenfell Tower.

This article isn’t going to enumerate the factual inaccuracies of the piece: for an outline of these, informed by concrete knowledge of both the specific case and the broader regulatory context, refer to this Twitter thread, by Inside Housing’s Luke Barratt. What I’m going to do, below, is try to draw out some of the philosophical, political, and social implications of what O’Hagan’s piece does. Every text does something—there is no politically neutral intervention into the public sphere. The danger of pieces like O’Hagan’s—which is itself symptomatic of a particular kind of contemporary journalism—is that they disavow the political in a way that is itself directly political. This disavowal is thus revealed as a deeply-embedded intellectual dishonesty that, whilst in no way unique to O’Hagan, is rather neatly encapsulated by the article in question. Indeed, the article’s dull sense of smug superiority, presented as groundbreaking, innovative thought, is remarkable only in the depth of its disinterested spite—a quality which, itself, is crushingly typical of current British journalism. I’m going to offer a critical close reading of O’Hagan’s piece, examining the ways in which it works to performatively disavow the political whilst simultaneously upholding a given political order and engaging in a particularly egregious kind of subtextual violence. This is a story about rhetoric, about responsibility, about power, and about the meaning of the political.

1: O’Hagan as problem.

O’Hagan makes much of his neutrality, his strict adherence to Facts and Evidence. Throughout the piece, he builds a case around the differing interpretations of the event. The media and both national political parties, he says, acted “as if the tower was pre-eminently a locus of truth about Britain today”—a strange claim for a 65,000 word article that, less than a year from Grenfell, takes the horror and anguish of the event and weaponises it in the interests of its own particular ‘truth’. The opening section, a much-needed and quite beautiful—though at least semi-fictionalised—chronicle of those who lived and died in the tower, becomes little more than a soapbox from which O’Hagan can launch his own agenda, all the while claiming that he has none; and worse, that people with agendas are bad, are disrespectful, are sinister. In this way, he presents himself as sole possessor or arbiter of The Truth, a great and wise seer who can demystify what he calls the “mass distraction” of the political, presenting to us an objective version of events.

The difficulty with this is, of course, that in public discourse, there is nothing outside the political.1 The very term ‘political’ comes to us from Classical Athens, carrying a sense of ‘being of the πόλις’ (pólis), a word that referred to both the shared space of the city, and the shared collective identity of the body of citizens. The political, then, occurs when humans act with, towards, and upon one another. This means, to me, that everything we do is politically inflected—but we don’t even need to go this far to see that, in contributing to public discourse (and publishing in the LRB is about as ‘public discourse’ as one can get), O’Hagan is committing a political act. And, like so many political acts in the contemporary moment, it attempts to conceal itself beneath a cloud of rhetorical ‘neutrality’. A comforting, patrician voice, offering certainty: you can trust me, I promise. I’m the only one you should trust. I will always tell you the truth. No agenda. No subjectivity. The voice, as we shall see, of the British establishment. Even the title of his piece—The Tower—reduces the event to a symbol: a level of abstraction that calls to mind a parable, a tarot card, a novel. In asking what the burning of ‘the tower’ ‘means’—in presenting it to us as image, as event, as allegory—O’Hagan renders invisible the fact that Grenfell Tower, concrete in every sense, actually burnt.

Of course, we all bring our subjectivities with us, present author included. All knowledge is situated and, to a greater or lesser extent, all reportage is demonstrably inflected by the reporter’s perspective and opinion. So what does O’Hagan’s perhaps wilful elision of this most basic fact—that of his own standpoint, his own humanity—tell us about the rest of his piece? Spoiler: nothing good.

The version of events O’Hagan offers us, from his exalted position of neutrality, involves casting the disempowered, traumatised survivors of an horrific incident as unreliable narrators, whilst offering sympathetic watercolour profiles of those in possession of political and social power. In his account, it’s the grandees of the Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea council (hereafter RBKCC) who are the real victims of the whole affair. The tenant action groups who have for years raised multiple concerns about the basic safety of their housing (which includes, but is not limited to, Grenfell Tower) are presented as paranoid, combative, unreasonable. O’Hagan describes their requests for assistance as a “bombardment”—a word suggesting an act of war—of the council; he even caricatures them, in an earsplitting dogwhistle, as “seeing racism everywhere”. The article is littered with assertions that fall just short of direct accusation: see, for example, his insinuation that survivors wilfully defrauded RBKCC after the fire by asking to be housed separately. (I’m not aware of the individual circumstances, but it is not difficult to imagine that people formerly housed in overcrowded situations might wish for a bit more space.) Rather than acknowledge the ways in which trauma can impact on memory, O’Hagan goes to great lengths to present the survivors of the fire as liars. Any inconsistency in their accounts is noted with what reads uncomfortably like lip-smacking glee.2 He blames the traumatised survivors of a literal inferno for failing to fully recognise the council’s efforts; when confusion arises amongst survivors regarding whether or not social workers are seen as council workers, he attributes it not to the alienating, bewildering opacity of local government, nor to the disorientating effects of recent trauma, but to a sort of malicious ignorance on the part of survivors. If those survivors show any signs of valuing their own healing and humanity—of, say, not wishing to spend endless nights unsleeping on the floor of a crowded community centre—O’Hagan alchemises this into entitlement. The implicit challenge is: How dare these people ask for more?

There are moments when the mask slips, when his failure to truly engage with the humanity of the victims and survivors shines through. He often appeals to a ‘we’ that is all too clearly a cypher for his own responses to the event. “All over Britain, the sight of the burning tower gave people a horrible sense of dread followed by a sense of relief,” he writes, as though it is a matter of public record, a fact as indisputable as the number of 999 calls, or the square-meterage of the building. This slippage reveals the power of O’Hagan’s rhetoric. In an article that purports to be a dispassionate, objective account of events, a speculative statement that is predicated entirely on the (clearly ridiculous) notion that Andrew O’Hagan has unlimited access to the interior worlds of “people all over Britain” passes by almost unnoticed. In another passage, he writes: “we are exhilarated by… constant dread and then its fulfilment… what a feeling of aliveness to wake up and check your phone and know it wasn’t you.” This irresponsible—abusive, even—use of the collective pronoun enables O’Hagan to claim an authority that he simply does not, cannot, possess. He conjures up a ‘we’ to bolster his claim to objectivity: I’ve seen all sides, he seems to argue, and here is the truth. And collaterally, he constructs an ‘in-group’; readers are either part of the community, of the ‘we’ he invokes—the enlightened community of disinterested men of culture, whose insights transcend the petty political—or we are not. This is what everybody else thinks, whispers the rhetorical subtext; surely you agree? Reading the piece, I almost fell for it; I doubted myself, I questioned myself, I looked back over last year’s writings to try and re-attune to the person I was back then. And I’m as certain as I can be that Grenfell did not make me feel “alive” or “exhilarated”. It made me feel sad, and angry, and powerless. It made me mourn for days. The summer grew dark. I felt the fear and the sadness in my bones. “No man is an island,” as the poem goes—except, perhaps, for Andrew O’Hagan.

Indeed, O’Hagan seems to find personalised statements of emotion distasteful. Witness the following sneering paragraph, which describes RBKCC’s rather belated attempt to deal with a human tragedy in a humanising way:

There was recognition that communications had been a disaster, and a private PR firm, Newgate, was quickly taken on. Its first job was to draft a personal blog by Paget-Brown. ‘I feel deep sorrow,’ it read, ‘for all those affected, and will do everything I can do to help them repair and rebuild their lives.’ In 2017 and 2018, this is the reason we hire private PR firms, to tell us to start public pronouncements with the words ‘I feel’.

One can almost taste the disgust. Feelings seem to be part of the problem: the absolute antithesis of fact. For O’Hagan, the technocratic response of RBKCC is almost above critique. The council, he reminds us, simply “behaved like Tories”—which is presented as an exonerating statement. The argument here is as old as British feudalism itself: that our social superiors are also our protectors, and they must simply be permitted to Keep Calm and Carry On; to do the job with the requisite stiff upper lip and John Bull spirit. The council leaders, he pleads, are nice, mild-mannered men who genuinely care about the ‘Poor and Needy’, in an abstract Victorian sort of way. In a particularly excruciating passage, he even tries to suggest that “posh-seeming3 RBKCC housing officer Rock Feilding-Mellen—whose mother is a countess, and whose family claims descent from Charles II and from the European imperial House of Habsburg—forms “part of a republic of argument” with North Kensington Black and Rasta culture makers. Feilding-Mellen is characterised as “a scion of refusenik bohemia” because his wealthy parents were into alternative healing—and this posh-hippy background, it is suggested, is analogous to lives spent resisting (and flourishing in spite of) the colonial racism endemic in British society. This claim blurs the lines between refusal—a rejection of something offered or given to one—and resistance—a rejection of that which is imposed upon one. But, at the same time as depicting a sort of cultural lateralism, wherein material conditions matter far less than cultural presentation,4 O’Hagan sets the councilmen up as patres familias, bumbling but well-meaning fathers who gracefully if unwillingly accept the ‘burden’ of authority and do their very best for the little people. One might gloss his argument thus: These nice men might be deliberate members of a political party that systematically reduces citizens to customers or worse, but it’s not their fault! They mean well! And listen, they had a rough time too! It’s difficult when your mistakes have grave and tragic consequences. This, ironically, is an appeal to emotion of precisely the sort he disparages when defending RBKCC’s response to survivors. The question becomes, then, who is permitted to feel? Whose feelings count? To borrow from Judith Butler, which bodies—indeed, which hearts—matter?5 Who do we choose to hear? In tacit response to these questions, O’Hagan grieves the jobs of Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen at least as deeply as he grieves the lives of those who perished—and those who survived, traumatised, to live and relive that night for as long as they live.

Particular affective strategies, as Sara Ahmed’s landmark Cultural Politics of Emotion6 shows us, are only accessible to certain types of people. And so, while there is apparently infinite room in the pages of the LRB for tender tableaux depicting the suffering of Feilding-Mellen et al, the Grenfell survivors—far from wealthy, often migrant—are characterised as ungrateful and sulky simply for asking to be treated as human beings with human needs. Simply for asking to be heard. When survivors state their housing preferences, rather than examine why what they lost was not good enough, O’Hagan chooses to imply that they are deceitful, that they are somehow playing the system; he even says that the (unnamed) survivors he spoke to felt “lucky to live in a nice part of London” and “objected to being characterised as poor people”—as though resenting such a paternalistic and shame-activating descriptor means that you have no problem with certain social structures. No ‘poor person’ wants to be reduced to their economic situation. It does not automatically follow that we are therefore ‘good peasants’ who never feel angry or short-changed or frustrated. O’Hagan’s whole view of those survivors who have spoken up in dissent seems predicated on the nationalist notion that Ahmed describes as “the failure of migrants to ‘return’ the love of the nation through gratitude”. The power dynamics are thus neatly flipped: RBKCC is recast in a position of vulnerability, like one who shyly offers a gift only to have it slapped away by a violent hand. Where the activist survivors ask too much, the Tory councilmen deserve more. I want to suggest that, in wilfully eliding his own humanity (his standpoint, his politics, his position) from the outset, O’Hagan is quite deliberately laying the ground for an elision of the humanity of others.

To what end is O’Hagan doing all of this? What cause, what message, is worth the imposition of all this subtextual violence? It’s really hard to say. Most of his arguments seem to be intended as counterpoints to arguments that nobody is making. The article castigates a straw opponent who, as far as I can tell, resides entirely in O’Hagan’s imagination. He wilfully refuses to recognise that the critiques offered after Grenfell, though sometimes inflected with (in my opinion, justified) class antagonism, were almost unanimously systemic critiques. The majority of discourses that I have been privy to or involved in have focused on the fact that Grenfell was in no way an outlier; that, as O’Hagan himself points out, “the same cladding is on hundreds of buildings” all over Britain, installed by local councils of all political configurations. When he says, disingenuously , that “the leaders of those [other] councils, Labour as well as Tory, are presumably not being accused of detesting the poor for being in power when their managers installed it,” he ignores the fact that the majority of blame has been laid at the feet of the system itself—a system that values profit above all else; the machine of capital that despises all who do not conform or comply. And when he writes, with the smug air of one performing an unsurpassable gotcha, “…the cause of those deaths wasn’t a few conveniently posh people, but our whole culture and everybody in it, the culture that benefited some but not others, and supported cuts and deregulation everywhere,” he does so as though ten minutes of cursory research would not have presented him with a plethora of leftist activists, thinkers, and writers arguing precisely that.

We on the left know—as materialists, as humans, as seasoned critics and subjects of capital—that Grenfell was one symptom, among many, of a grotesque condition. And we also know that, no matter how much O’Hagan might contort himself to try and make it so, acknowledging a symptom does not indicate a failure to distinguish between symptom and underlying cause. But the thing is that when one chooses to perform politics as a career, one has chosen to have put oneself forward as a representative of a culture. As a representative, you have responsibility. You also have considerably more power to create change than those whose lives you govern. If and when Britain becomes a decentralised, laterally- and collectively-governed direct participatory democracy, we can talk about collective responsibility in a meaningful sense. But O’Hagan’s attempt to outsource any potential culpability onto something as vaguely-defined as “the culture”, without acknowledging the very real dynamics of power that shape and control that culture, deflates, for all its puffed-up rhetoric, at the slightest touch.

2: O’Hagan as symptom.

Grenfell Tower, as Divya Ghelani points out, was “a failure of listening”; a violent demonstration of the ways in which a society can, repeatedly, choose not to hear. The types of power dynamic presented and defended by O’Hagan are precisely what led to these failures: where certain types of people are understood as politically and/or ontologically ‘neutral’, it places them in a position of hospitality. This, in turn, positions the marginalised—the non-neutral—as ‘guests’: their presence, their welcome entirely contingent on the graciousness of their hosts. And so, when these ‘guests’ try to speak, their needs are read as demands, their expressions are read as attacks, and their self-advocacy is read as the ungrateful refusal of the ‘gift’ of hospitality—the rudeness of a guest who asks too much, too directly; who fails to be sufficiently grateful. Interestingly, though this sort of position has long been openly endorsed by publications like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, O’Hagan’s article is littered with sneering references to the Mail—even while he works to reinforce and shore up the narratives promoted by that paper. In casting both himself and the RBKCC councillors he seeks to exonerate (who are actual politicians) as somehow being above politics, O’Hagan forces all dissent into a “politicised” position, from where it can be safely contained and written off as the partisan ramblings of brainwashed fools. If ‘reasonable’ responses are produced by a sort of Stoic-paternalistic disinterest, how else can he account for the expertise of the Grenfell Action Group, which was developed and acquired out of a very specific and particular interest in their own safety and survival? O’Hagan’s implicit suggestion—and I think here we can read him as a mouthpiece of RBKCC—is that if only the tenants had been ‘sensible’ and ‘civil’ about putting forward their demands, they would have been listened to.

This fixation on being ‘sensible’ and ‘civil’ is by no means unique to O’Hagan or the RBKCC grandees. As Joe Kennedy has described, a preoccupation with these qualities is a hallmark of a post-Blair media and establishment culture. In a passage that could almost be directly about O’Hagan, Kennedy terms this cultural trend ‘the Sensible’. The Sensible, he writes, presents

politics… not as an ideology, not as a battle of ideas, not as an expression of material contradictions, but as a morally invested proceduralism in which qualified technocrats work for a hazily-defined ‘good’.8

As Kennedy notes, adherents of the Sensible “tend to see themselves as on the political left, possibly because it’s a position that emerges from Blairism and is therefore associated with the Labour Party.”9 Thus we have absurd situations such as the Twitter response to the 2011 riots, wherein a number of (wrongly) self-defined media ‘lefties’ repeatedly and publicly called for the army to be deployed against disaffected youths.10 It’s important to note, here, that the 2011 riots also stemmed from a failure of listening: Kennedy refers to a Guardian study in which several rioters themselves connected their actions that summer to “the impossibility of expressing discontent”11 with an era of class-focused and racialised economic ‘austerity’12 that was just beginning to bite. And, just as those journalists and commentators have deployed their claimed ‘leftiness’ as a defence against criticism of their right-wing, militaristic comments, so too does O’Hagan, by repeated reference to his upbringing on a (pre-Thatcher) housing scheme in Glasgow, offer an appeal to authority, to authenticity, in his own pre-emptive defence. Further, just as those who spout quasi-fascist talking points (“send in the army!”) debase and distort perceptions of what it actually means to be left-wing, so O’Hagan, in claiming working-class authenticity as a justification for his treatment of Grenfell survivors, renders (or attempts to render) material analyses meaningless. Kennedy, insightfully, describes this sort of positioning as

an economy of truth in which rightness is not immanent in a claim but is instead supported with reference to personal origins. Rather than an ad hominem attack, it’s an ad hominem defence.13

So what O’Hagan does, in summoning the spectres of his childhood (a Daily Mail reader’s fantasy of hard-working salt o’t’earth types who “refused to see themselves as victims”), is offer an anticipatory self-defence that appeals to precisely the sort of material analysis he is attempting to discredit. While this may not be strictly deliberate, I would argue that neither is it accidental—it is another instance of revelatory mask-slipping in which O’Hagan, in love with his own rhetoric, betrays his unacknowledged intentions. Reading the article, one does not get any sense of working class solidarity, or even that O’Hagan particularly grasps the realities of being a tenant of social housing in 2018. His proclamation of his own social positionality instead serves two purposes: firstly, it shores up his argument—which he already believes is, to paraphrase Kennedy, immanently right—by supplying him with working class ‘credentials’ of the sort that would only pass muster in a media culture entirely alienated from the people for whom it claims to speak; and secondly, it enables him to subtly position himself as the master of the narrative, somebody with the right to speak for survivors and victims. Crucially, neither of these manipulations would be possible without a media culture in which these types of assertions pass unremarked on a daily basis—a culture which routinely and reflexively misinterprets social critique as personal critique, and acts accordingly.14 In creating an obfuscatory master narrative that deflects from the complex, materially- and historically-conditioned realities of Grenfell, O’Hagan does nothing innovative. He merely reproduces the culture that produced him, that produced Rock Feilding-Mellen, that produced a tower block full of people who died because nobody would listen. Ultimately, O’Hagan is himself a symptom of a wider problem.

This is not, however, to absolve him, or his publishers, from responsibility. For just as Grenfell was a failure of listening, it was also a failure of responsibility. When a writer takes the very recent deaths of very real people, embroiders them for his own purposes, and uses them as leverage to ask, pompously, What Does This Say About The Nation, a wider media context which favours grand narratives over critical nuance must also bear responsibility. I often parse the word responsibility as response ability: the ability to respond well to a given situation. To respond well, I must listen. To respond well, I must be prepared to hear. And to respond well, I must use rhetoric with care. It is important to note, then, that the LRB bears just as much responsibility as O’Hagan for his article. As we have seen, publications, as producers of public discourse, are not neutral venues—specific choices were made, decisions taken, before O’Hagan’s piece ever saw the light of day. When he asserts, for example, in a vile phrase of his own coining, that local activists are “throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore’s wedding,” this is an indictment not only of the man, but of the editorial team that allowed a sentence like that to make it into their publication.

O’Hagan is, by profession, a teller of half-truths, yes—but some things are too raw, and too important, to be treated as abstract exercises in the blurring of boundaries. When real stories are going unheard, what good does an experiment in partial fictionalisation do? As a writer, O’Hagan must be keenly aware of the power of rhetoric. That he chose to use his power in this way is disappointing. That the London Review of Books chose to publish it is even more so. But we must read O’Hagan’s piece as not a unique violation, but a mere symptom—an egregious one, yes, but one among many—of a broader trend in journalism, in which politics is seen as something abstract, as a game, an extension of Oxbridge debate club—as just “messing about in boats”. In which some rarefied notion of ‘civility’ is prized above all else; in which anger is seen as proof of ingratitude or irrationality, which can be safely ignored. On the surface, it seems ironic that O’Hagan’s intended critique is, in fact, a symptom of that which it seeks to criticise. But, really, it’s a perfect demonstration of the ways in which none of us, however much we might wish it, are exempt or absolved from the difficult but necessary work of the political.

  1. My thinking here both develops and diverges from my reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). 

  2. For one example among many, see the prurient delight O’Hagan takes in including small details, such as ‘…Mr Kebede had packed a suitcase; it was standing in the hall, as if he was prepared to leave after raising the alarm.’ Interestingly, this particular sentence, though present in the originally-published piece, has since been removed by the LRB’s editors. Many other examples of this implicit mistrust remain in the piece: the paragraph in section V that ends with the ponderous, meaningless observation that “[s]ome truths are just too long to fit in a headline” is just one. 

  3. My emphasis 

  4. This line of thought is indebted to Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats (2018)—though I do not take as strong a position on the material/cultural distinction as Kennedy seems to. 

  5. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London: Routledge, 2011) 

  6. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) 

  7. ibid. p.137 

  8. Kennedy, Authentocrats, p. 203 

  9. ibid. 

  10. ibid. p. 203-7 

  11. ibid. P. 207 

  12. I use scare-quotes here because, if we look at the material excesses which have endured and intensified in the upper echelons of society, I’m not convinced that austerity is a sufficient term. It is, however, a widely-accepted signifier of post-2010 Coalition and Conservative policies and politics. A whole other piece could be written on the problematics of the term; for now, I register my discontent with punctuation. 

  13. Kennedy, Authentocrats, p. 44 

  14. For example, in scenes reminiscent of Monty Python’s crushingly overfamiliar Yorkshiremen sketch, when the commentator Owen Jones posted a tweet about the predominance of independently-schooled and/or Oxbridge educated people working in journalism, he was inundated with increasingly desperate responses from swathes of almost hilariously middle-class journalists suddenly eager to vouch for their own proletarian credentials—journalists who, for the most part, had spent much of the past year actively mobilising against the threat of renewed class consciousness that came in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendancy.