World gone wrong

There are all sorts of reasons why I haven\’t typed anything here for a few weeks. One reason is that I try to write with some basic level of insight or understanding, and things are falling apart in the global system at such a dizzying pace that is hard to see what is happening, let alone make any sense of it all.

There\’s something else too. Every time I start typing something about the shrill and intolerant outrage that seems to dominate debate at the moment, I realise I am sounding like a Daily Mail writer, protesting about \’political correctness gone mad\’. And this is not a good sound. If you sleep with a dog you get fleas, true, but sometimes that\’s the only place to sleep.

This week has been particularly rich in its craziness. Jonathon Ross making jokes about sex with old people (and the grand-daughters of old people) was merely a warm-up act to Gollygate. Now, Carol Thatcher does not seem like the sort of person I\’d like as a neighbour. I can only cringe as I imagine her crass and self-righteous air of martyrdom as she refused to \’kowtow to political correctness\’, by apologising for her singularly oafish and offensive remarks. But this can\’t make it right to ban her from the airwaves.

Jeremy Clarkson is another person that I wouldn\’t want to spend much time with (though Top Gear is a guilty pleasure), but it is hard to see how referring to Gordon Brown as a \’one-eyed Scottish idiot\’ is so offensive to all partially-sighted people, let alone an entire nation, unless they are embarassed to be associated with the Prime Minister.

This fractious and factitious culture of complaint (to borrow the title of Robert Hughes\’ prescient book) is reducing a once-great institution to a punch-drunk pulp, incapable of distinguishing morality from manufactured outrage, or helping the hungry from helping Hamas. To mangle another Yeats line, the BBC lacks all conviction; its viewers are full of passionate intensity.

We are all going to hell in a handcart (as I believe is the the traditional closing sentence of such rants).

Larks\’ Tongues

BBC2\’s Rome was back on the television last night, revelling with gory glee in the plottings and the stabbing. The orgies, the feasts of larks\’ tongues and the pearls dissolved in vinegar are just around the corner.

This is history in hindsight: we see the seeds of the Roman Empire\’s collapse being sown in the retreat from the austere and stoic values of the Republic. We can thank historians like Suetonius for this lurid and prurient tale of geopolitical decline following close on the heels of moral decadence. It has proved a compelling narrative for future generations too, from Shakespeare to Gibbon.

Is it a narrative for today? While problems press on us from all sides – environmental collapse, intractable wars, political and social alienation – many of us have never had it so good. We live lives of comfort and plenty, lives that are enriched by foreign travel, new foods, new media.

Is this dissonance a new normality or is our persistent celebration of consumption a sign of our decadence? Are we eating larks\’ tongues? Two things I noticed recently:

The ipod is a totemic piece of technology for our time, offering unparalleled ease of use coupled with elegance of design. I recently picked up a flyer, asking \’Is your ipod still sitting in its box?\’, and offering to fill ipods with music for their owners, to give training sessions, to personalise ipod mixes to make their owners look sophisticated.

At the Young Vic Theatre, performances of \’Vernon God Little\’, a satirical tale of the white working class in the southern USA can be preceded by a special menu in the venue\’s restaurant, where middle-class theatre-goers can eat ironic (but locally sourced and organic) variants on southern white trash food.

I\’m not trying to criticise these quirks of our culture (on the contrary, I can vouch for the Vernon God Little burger as juicy and well-cooked), but I sometimes wonder how our lives would look to a visitor from another planet, or even to a future historian sniffing out the decadent portents of decline.

Any more larks\’ tongues out there?