Monday, 9 June 2008

Is This the Mantra for UK Society of the 2000s?

I have to apologise for another posting stimulated by reading 'The Guardian'. I suppose this is why people buy newspapers in order to be informed and have their thoughts stimulated, but I suppose in this day and age when we are obliged to be seen to be unique and ever inventive I feel it is a cheat and that I should be constantly generating ideas of my own. I suppose it is also the fact that I notice now that no-one I know reads newspapers and certainly never discusses them so if I pipe up about something I have read it falls dead. The woman who lives in my house has no interest in current affairs and gets angry when it is implied that she is as prone to political and especially economic developments as the rest of us; she sees economic issues as simply between her and the other person whether they are a representative of a utility company or one of her customers, and nothing broader than that. To some degree this is a protection against us being brought down by all that is wrong in the world. My mother talked about this as being seen as something to do to prevent depression coming on, i.e. not worry about things that you cannot change such as starvation in Africa or bad political regimes. I find that a hard tenet to accept. I acknowledge it can reduce personal depression but surely it abdicates all control to those people who tell us not to worry ourselves about these things so that they can get on with being tyrants. I suppose my mother removes herself one step as she contributes to charities generously, especially people like Oxfam, so I suppose she does a little part to enable others who want to be involved to do so. Interestingly Oxfam now produce these brochures in which you purchase an item for a village say a well or a goat. They seem to have come to the conclusion, like those charities that provided child sponsorship that people have a difficulty comprehending fully starvation in a whole region but they can get their heads round providing food for a small village or one family or schooling for a child, it is on a human scale.

Sorry, I am rambling off. Back to the apology about newspaper-inspired blogging. The other thing for me is being of a liberal disposition, it is rare that I actually encounter people who are anywhere near in me political terms so they are very dismissive of any of my views. I remember in the early 1990s talking to man who said that everyone accepted that what Margaret Thatcher had done was necessary and good for the country and was incredulous that I did not accept that. Of course nowadays even the Labour Party seems to accept that they cannot reverse many of her policies, but that does not mean that Thatcherism has to be accepted as being or having been 'good' for the country. In fact many of the factors of social deprivation, social division and crime that the Conservatives bemoan are a direct result of Thatcherite policy. When I was in London I met a few people from the other extreme: in the constant belief that the British political system should be brought down by revolution. Maybe I am saying I am something like a Fabian of the early 20th century, seeking change but in a way which does not cause utter chaos. I know history too well to ignore the fact that revolutions badly handled lead to tyranny and a move right away from what the revolutionaries sought to achieve and usually play into the hands of the right-wing nationalists and conservatives rather than anything more democratic. So I am rather used to being a lonely voice, which is clearly why I have turned to blogging, which in the majority of cases is about lonely voices shouting electronically and to a large audience of people not paying much attention than if you did it in your local pub.

Anyway, what I was going to write about this morning was an essay by Andrew O'Hagan printed in Saturday's 'The Guardian'. It comes from his new book 'The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America'. I must say that reading this essay I am not encouraged to buy the book. He has lots of good ideas but he needs to really work at editing them. I was bewildered by his jumping from his own reminiscences to references to his family to the state of the USA today to British society and back again. Maybe I am just not intelligent enough to follow it but my view was that essays should be very crisp and quickly comprehensible. Finally, I reach my point which is that this essay contains a series of statements which as a kind of mantra and agree with O'Hagan that they cut to the endemic problems of UK society. To quote, the UK has:
'Culture as social balm.
Spite as entertainment.
Shouting as argument.
Dysfunction as normality.
Desires as rights.
Shopping as democracy.
Fame is the local hunger in so much of this...'

I would argue that dysfunction has always been normality and it fact forcing people to be 'normal' was what caused a lot of difficulty and personal distress in the past. What I in fact think is that dysfunction has not become argument, but like spite, is now entertainment. So many 'documentaries' are the television equivalent of freak shows of the touring fairs of the past. We have a parade of people who have disabilities or psychological issues and we are encouraged to comment. This is no different to paying to go to St. Mary of Bethlehem hospital on a Sunday in the 19th century to gaze at the insane people locked in cages. Steadily from 'fly-on-the-wall' documentaries, in the search for ever more enthralling images we have got back to the freak show culture. That is the 'culture' which acts as social balm. Culture has long seen to have socially adhesive qualities, but now it has come down to a level that every amateur is an entertainer and what they provide is Schadenfreude. Watching parades of people on the numerous talent shows who lack talent is like holding a treat up for a dog who is never going to reach it, but he keeps thinking if he tries he may do so, just this once. Back in the 1970s there was a series called 'New Faces' which was little different to talent shows today, but no-one on there was literally 'hopeless', i.e. with no chance of getting somewhere. Some were better than others, but you did not find those who should have had no hope of a career in entertainment. Modern British television has made it so that everyone has the chance to become a celebrity through the wide diversity of 'reality' shows, and this 'local hunger' drives people with false hope and so provides the fodder for the millions to revel in the humiliation of these people.

I think O'Hagan somewhat neglects this freak/humiliation show aspect, but he is right that 'spite is entertainment' in that so many quiz and game shows now include and element in which you have to trick or betray fellow contestants. It probably started with 'Fifteen to One' but that is pretty anondyne compared to the next big leap 'The Weakest Link' and follow ons like 'Golden Balls' and 'Shafted' (the names themselves smack of the glittering things put on offer, the need to betray and even a eugenic sense of who is the 'right' and 'wrong' people to be playing). It is forgotten that it is you versus the programme makers it becomes you versus everyone else. Even the 6-year old in my house opens boxes of eggs to see if one is broken as if it was part of the game show 'Deal or No Deal' in which contestants open various boxes to see if they have won large or small sums of money. If such dog-eat-dog culture is penetrating to primary school children then what does that offer for our future? This is a useful tool for those in power as it means we blame each other and see our rivals as people on the same level of us rather seeking to challenge those who rule us. It is gladiatorial fights for all, when in fact it is the Emperor that decides who dies.

Shouting as argument fits in very nicely with this. Much of what O'Hagan's views stem from are not really the television programmes I have mentioned so far but the ones such as Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, Trisha, Jeremy Kyle, etc., that have grown over the past 15 years in which people, usually, poor working class people, come on and air their grievances in front of an audience. It is another form of gladiatorial fights, and often descends into violence. It is supposedly tempered by the fact that the programme producers offering counselling, but of course they could do that without parading people's problems in front of a baying crowd. These people shout. They believe they are in the right. Self-righteousness can be empowering but it also blinds people and can lead to aggression where none is needed. As I have mentioned before we are tutored in being angry by 'reality' programmes showing people receiving poor customer care at airports, etc. By becoming angry the staff can dismiss you without addressing the real issues. None of these programmes ask why the customers are being treated so poorly in the first place, because of course that would end the programme makers' access to this material. In a society in which we have so few rights, anger is the last refuge and potentially the only way of achieving things, but it an instant, violent anger not the kind which sustains campaigns, it is the type of anger that those in power want us to have, not the kind of patient anger that causes them trouble.

Anger also stems from the sense of desires being rights. You hear about schools and universities being sued because in the students' eyes the teachers have not delivered the education they feel they have a right to. As someone said to me recently, people see universities like a fast-food restaurant whereas in fact they should see them more like a gym, just joining does not guarantee a fit body, you have to go regularly and work at it. However, we all want to pay our fee and be guaranteed success. We feel we have the right to drive huge cars (though I am glad to see rising fuel costs has slashed the number of 4x4s being bought), be able to speed without fear of penalty, be able to shop 24 hours per day, park right outside the school, even not have Germans on our beach (one group of British holidaymakers have tried to sue the holiday company over too many Germans at their resort and German authorities are now advising Germans to stay away from British holidaymakers, what a state we are in!), be able to keep eating without becoming ill and so on and so on. Any concept of society as being a balance of duties and entitlement has gone. No-one has a sense of duty, they only do things for reward, yet they expect to be entitled to everything. Of course, with the focus entirely on consumption, as long as that is satiated, they do not expect anything more.

Shopping is democracy. I think that is a real phrase that sums up so much of what is wrong with UK society, though I talked to a woman from Dubai the other day who complained British shops should stay open until 10pm as they do in Dubai (which has even less democracy than the UK so clearly needs more shopping!). Interestingly French, Belgian and German shops have much shorter opening hours than British shops and the French have their elections on a Sunday, when the shops are shut. As long as we can consume, British people feel free. They pay a high price in debt and bankruptcy, but they are clearly happy to make such sacrifices for their treasured 'democratic' right. Of course shopping is not democracy, even the right to shop is not democracy, it is division and exclusion. It depends on money which we have in varying amounts. Each vote in a democracy should count equally, but in consumption it is the differences which in fact we are concerned about. We actually want people we see as not of our type excluded from the shops we frequent. Now with home grocery deliveries we do not even mix with the rest of the public, in fact we shout out our exclusivity by the expense of the supermarket we have delivering to our house. Of course, as long as we can feel we can access shopping then we do not start complaining for other things. This is the opiate of the 21st century UK person, it dulls them to the pain of a decaying society and their mounting debts. Whenever the phrase 'retail therapy' came into use then we should have recognised our society was in need of real therapy.

O'Hagan has produced an epigram of the ills of UK society. As he correctly identifies it stems in part from looking too much to the USA which in itself has actually forgotten many of the facets that made it a worthwhile country in the past and replaced them with anger to disguise division and give a false sense of worth. The UK receives a distilled version of this, made worse by the fact that Britain has always been far more hierarchical and bar for a few years there has never been an opportunity for anyone 'to get on' here. We live in a neo-feudal state so all of these issues of consumption and anger and violence are as damaging today as they would have been in the 13th century, when at least you had religious precepts, developing civic pride and an aspiration to some kind of 'chivalry' however false it might have been in reality, to temper the impact of such individualistic behaviour and the damage it wreaks on people. Those tempering aspects are gone and we now face the full force of the individual becoming all powerful.

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