One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Old, and getting younger all the time

Watch TV or read a magazine in the US, and before long you'll notice how many, many advertisements there are for medicines and treatments for ailments that are usually associated with ageing.

Incontinence, grey hair, heartburn, muscle pain relief, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, cholesterol, heart disease and all of these in just one edition of "Reader's Digest." There are a few more as well, but for more esoteric ailments such as "Restless Leg Syndrome."

Pick up a copy of any magazine in Europe or Asia, and it's a fair bet that the most you'll come across is an advertisement for tampons or cold relief.

Why the difference? Where does America's obsession with wellness and health come from, and why hasn't the rest of the world got it?

For a start, America's completely obsessed with youth. Looking young, feeling young, acting young. Watch those advertisements for medicines and you'll see everyone enjoying carefree, active, often frivolous moments in celebration of their health and vitality. The American mania about looking years younger is a disease that's spreading around the world. Why is it, for example, that 75% of the advertisements we see on British television for beauty products are poorly-dubbed American ads?

So why is America so youth-obsessed? Well, the United States is a young country, for a start. At 230 years of age, America's barely out of its teens, a swaggering, well-built kid that plays on its high school football team, has an occasional problem with acne (Vietnam, Iraq, etc) and that regularly wins the election for class president because nobody else thinks they can win.

So, to live and prosper in this young country, Americans feel they have to be young too. Success in the US has always been measured in fairly simple terms - tangible signs - and the country has always rewarded the kind of effort that a younger person can give. So the guy that works two jobs to support his dream, and the girl that works her way through medical school, will both end up with their tangible signs of success, but at what cost later on?

The ailments that most commonly feature in medicine advertisements seem to be those that reflect a stressful, busy life and a relative lack of care taken of the body. So while youth is the most valued tool for success, it's the one thing that you're guaranteed to lose fastest while in pursuit of that success. And that's why it's the one thing that's prized above all others.

Quick sidetrack: I see that Cadillac, the car maker once favoured by the elderly for their large, unfeasibly heavy and well-suspended barges, is now also having to freshen up its image. And to do this, they're designing sporty cars that yuppies might allow themselves to be seen in, and advertising them on television by using Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll". I smell an attack of youth.

Here's another theory. America believes anything can be fixed. Whether it's a city flattened by a natural disaster or a Middle Eastern nation that refuses to see the error of its political ways, or a salesman's sense of guilt at having sold an expensive car to a couple that can't afford it. The disaster will need money and effort and time, the Middle Eastern state will need invading, while the salesman will need religion or self-help to overcome his self-loathing. America can supply all of those.

So the body is just another thing that needs to be fixed, like a car. Pull up to the garage, pop the hood and let a mechanic peer inside. He'll prescribe an oil change, maybe change the brake pads, and recommend that you go easy on the brakes in future. And you'll thank him, pay him and screech off, having listened but not heard.

I think the main lesson here is that the Old World, which is basically the rest of the world, has long ago come to terms with age and its symptoms. If we look back to Victorian times and note the immense interest in medicine and in quack remedies, we can see a sort of parallel with the America of today: the belief that oOnce we've mastered our environment, then we can master ourselves. The Victorians eventually got over their obsession with health. We'll have to wait and see whether America does.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

"Fog in Channel; Continent cut off"

This headline both amused and irritated me. It seems that a whopping 33% of French people don't speak English. Shock! Outrage! Pompous letters to the Times!

Equally, a survey by Eurobarometer last year showed that in general only half of all Europeans can speak any foreign language, and that the British and Hungarians were the worst offenders.

So what's wrong with the French? Nothing at all. What irritates me is the vague sense of superiority that the British still manage to hold onto, because their language is the most widely-spoken European language (we won't bring the Chinese into this).

In fact, it's worse than that: there's a certain arrogance that hangs over from the days of Empire, that tells us that we don't have to speak a foreign language because they all speak ours. And stories like this one merely serve to reinforce that belief.

I'm sure you've all seen this little vignette play itself out on the streets of continental Europe. A British tourist politely asks for directions from local, whose shrug and mystified expression betrays the fact that he doesn't understand. So the British tourists repeats his question, speaking more slowly and loudly, the idea being that this poor foreign type surely will understand if the words are enunciatd more carefully. Same result.

I think the headline misses the point completely. It's not that too many French people don't speak English, it's that no enough English speak any foreign language at all. Why do you think there are more Dutch people living and working here than there are British folk working in Holland? Why is it that wised-up Belgians can move effortlessly from France to Germany to Holland and be at home in each country?

Purely and simply, because they've worked out what it takes to get ahead. The mountain doesn't come to Mohammed, so Mohammed must go to the mountain. The French probably have a much better record when it comes to speaking German, or Spanish. The Dutch are positively cosmopolitan. In fact, the only country that may be worse than Britain when it comes to speaking a foreign language may be the United States. Can anyone else spot a connection here?

The one thing the British and French do share, however, is a misguided sense of their own importance in the world that stems from the days of Empire. The French talked about "rayonnement", the spreading of their culture to the dark corners of the earth like the rays of the sun. The British established the British Institute to do much the same thing.

Yet today, the complaint is that "the dominance of English is a source of resentment for certain representatives from different EU countries. It is discriminatory and undermines the principle of equal opportunities for all." So we know who won that particular battle.

The result is that evolution and history have made the British lazy when it comes to languages, and until we find the way to change this, we're going to end up second-best when we are playing away. A German comes to London, and honours his hosts by speaking their language. When a Briton goes to Hamburg, can he do the same?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

You're sacked for being human

I don't suppose there are many sentient people around here who don't know that Charles Kennedy's position as leader of the Liberal Democrats has come under threat, due, apparently, to his admission that he's been struggling with an alcohol problem for some time. Or at least, that seems to be the main pretext for the unpleasantness. I'm fairly sure there's a lot of underhanded manoeuvering going on, but that's not what I'm interested in here.

To me, this whole episode calls into question the issue of standards in public life. Let's start with the assumption that nobody is perfect; we're all damaged goods in one way or another. Posh is too thin, Becks is too dim, Blair is too wishy-washy and the Queen is just a tad stuffy. And Charles Kennedy drinks too much.

But since when did these sort of issues prevent anyone from doing a job? We've had drinkers in politics since time immemorial - Churchill wasn't teetotal at the best of times. Other leaders have been philanderers, drug addicts, psychopaths and megalomaniacs. I've met captains of industry who smelt like a mint explosion in a distillery - nobody was under any illusion that they drank yet equally, nobody seemed to think they were incapable of doing a bang-up job.

So what is it about the here and now that says it's a good idea to hound people from whatever office they hold because they're human? When we hold people up as leaders or role-models, what we're really saying is "we admire you for your ability to do something particularly well," and we're disappointed that that person turns out not to do other things equally as well. Charles Kennedy has managed to bring the Liberal Democrats out of their third-party backwater and has helped turn them into a reasonably viable political force. And many people admire him for that. His drinking is incidental, and yet that is what is going to bring him down.

Do we blame the media for creating stories where there are none? I mean, where's the real interest in "Man Drinks Too Much Shocker". Why do we hold a particular human being to higher standards than we do ourselves? And particularly in politics, where our representatives come from amongst ourselves? People who get involved in public life do so not because they think they're better than the rest of us, but because they have a desire to make a contribution. They don't sign up to some higher code of conduct than the average person in the street.

I'm not naive enough to believe that Kennedy's in trouble precisely because he has a drink problem. But what really saddens me is that his enemies within the party believe they can shunt him aside by bringing his private illness into the public arena and taint him as being somehow unfit to hold his position. Can you say "morally bankrupt"?