Most mainstream British culture can be broadly categorised as being either fuzzily heart-warming or emptily brash. Being cosy and safe, or unchallenging and easy-on-the-eye-and-ear seems to be the driving ethos behind a growing majority of our cultural output.
It’s not that any of the above is bad in isolation. Escapism isn’t just nice, it’s necessary. The pace of modern life is manic enough to drive anyone insane without distraction from unflinching reality. But modern British culture is almost all escapism. Which isn’t nearly as harmless as it sounds. Things aren’t looking good for civilisation. We’ve done more damage to the planet in 50 years that anything alive has done in the last billion, and looming environmental catastrophe hasn’t stopped our unthinking trundle towards collapse. Technology gallops ahead in ways that could help alleviate such chronic deprivation, but could equally prove perilous. With the next century likely to see leaps made in nano- and biotechnology, the potential for horrific fallout increases if fanatics are able to access these innovations. Nuclear terrorism already poses a huge threat, with poorly-secured Soviet warheads and recent concern about Pakistani nuclear security heightening fears that these devices could fall into terrorist hands.
One of Britain’s most venerable scientists suggests there’s a 50/50 chance that humanity will not survive the current century. Such an apocalyptic prediction would’ve been derided as laughably pessimistic even ten years ago, but is now deemed plausible enough to be taken half-seriously.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people go uneducated, have their human rights trampled over, or have no access to clean drinking water. Three billion survive on less than two dollars a day, fifteen million die yearly of starvation, and millions more died in recent conflicts in Rwanda and the Congo that have gone almost completely unnoticed by the ‘developed’ world.
Our culture just doesn’t reflect the gravity of the global situation. Skim through the most-watched British TV programmes of the last decade and you’ll find soaps, the X Factor, and lots of celebrities, with a sprinkling of vacantly twee Doc Martins and Lark Rise To Candlefords to warm the heart-cockles of a Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly, British pop music has never found space for twelve minute dirges about Rwandan genocide, but neither has it ever been so relentlessly banal – at least the blank hedonism of the ‘80s stimulated a half-decent reaction. Given the state of the world around us, Britain’s cultural frothiness is offensive. The image conveyed is one of a society fascinated, above all, by itself.
Hayek, Rand, Cheryl Cole
It would be fairly ridiculous to suggest Emmerdale and Cheryl Cole are solely responsible for our cultural narcissism. They simply reflect the state of British society – one in which individualism has been the dominant political and economic trend for thirty years. In the 1970s, economists like Hayek who saw the state as an oppressive force that smothered individual freedom and economic initiative became incredibly influential. Pinochet, Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher were the most prominent world leaders who took this neoliberal project and pursued it through political channels. Amidst the more tangible, obvious changes this brought about – lowered taxes, the privatisation of previously state-run utilities, financial deregulation – the underlying cultural shift was profound. Hayek, Friedman and Rand seeped into our culture. Easy credit stoked consumers into a hedonistic frenzy, borrowing to fund increased consumption becoming commonplace. Manufacturers cottoned on quickly, purposely designing products with shorter and shorter lifetimes whilst constantly unveiling newer and snazzier trinkets to ensure consumers kept consuming.
The economy became increasingly geared around satisfying the non-essential material wants of the general public. To the young and impressionable at the time, life seemed increasingly geared around them, centred on You. Mrs T’s infamous (and over-quoted) declaration that there was no such thing as society, just individuals and their families, was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by the 1990s. Government was convincing people this was true. New Labour was all about getting the most for You And Your Family, giving Choice to You And Your Family, with any notion of responsibility to anyone else swept under the carpet.
Over the last fifty years, technology has advanced in such a way to allow communication between people from opposite poles of the planet. In 2011, the average person must be ten times more worldly and well-travelled than a representative individual from the 1950s. And yet people’s worlds have shrunk. We’re more selfish and insular than ever. We believe that the day-to-day trivialities of our lives are genuinely important. There are now entire generations who never saw the age before culture was dominated by ads and fads and in which You weren’t necessarily the centre of the universe.
Turn on your TV in 2011 and you can experience Me-centrism in glorious Technicolor. Shows like the X Factor display it brilliantly – to succeed in the realm of Simon Cowell is to elicit mindless adulation for about five minutes and make money with which to buy material things. You can succeed if you sing well. And what is actually meant by singing well is warbling histrionically like a bargain-basement Beyonce, rigidly adhering to a lifelessly safe strain of plastic soul. In this world, getting lucky in the generic lottery and being gorgeous is effectively an entry qualification (unless you’re the one who gets to buck the trend and be horrifically condescended by people who can scarcely believe you have talent while not being conventionally attractive). Essentially, it’s all about You achieving Your Dream of being fabulously wealthy and celebrated and loved.
If you understandably wanted to pierce the veil of frippery between you and the real world, you might try The News, or ‘serious culture’. But The News just shuffles glibly through world events, often prioritising relatively minor domestic issues, emotionlessly flitting between global horror stories at top speed before jerkily seguing into a silly story about a cat that can play the bassoon.
Issues are only dwelt on as long as they’re flashy and interesting. Just recently, the Japanese earthquake and subsequent fallout, the assassination of Bin Laden, and Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree were everywhere for a few days before vanishing completely. Obviously, news stories run their course, some faster than others. But the surreal way in which harrowing disasters are impassively served up then suddenly disappear just makes them seem distant and unreal, and easier to ignore. The fact that tens of thousands of people are facing slow death by starvation in East Africa has slipped down the back of the news agenda altogether. The only event that’s recently achieved half the level of coverage global suffering deserves was that cutesiest and most reassuring of spectacles, the Royal Wedding.
In 1985, the distractingly-named US academic Neil Postman published a book called Amusing Ourselves To Death, a curmudgeonly broadside against what he saw as the stupefying effects of television on American society.
Postman’s work was complex, often incisive, and occasionally slipped into embittered ‘kids-these-days’ territory. His most striking contention was glumly political: that America’s obsession with TV could lead to tyranny. He drew on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, set in an outwardly utopian, but, in reality, totalitarian future, in which the populace is kept happily docile through a combination of no-strings sex, and a routinely-ingested hallucinogen called soma. Providing balmy escapism to millions, TV was the real-world soma in Postman’s eyes.
He also thought Sesame Street posed a grave threat to Western education, so he shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But the Huxleyan image of a blinkered society wilfully retreating into a schmaltzy cocoon is worryingly appropriate for modern Britain. The sixth richest country in the world has turned inwards. Realistically, there’s very little even an enlightened and galvanised Britain could do about glowering global problems on its own. But until its population, and the population of countries like it, start to move away from cossetted insularity nothing much is going to change, and we’ll continue whinging about house prices and watching TV while millions suffer. As it stands, our culture is shamefully vacant.