The Misery Industry
In the run-up to New labour's historic 1997 electoral victory, thespian extraordinaire Tony Blair launched his rallying soundbite "education, education, education". Any brief exposure to modern teaching techniques as they have continued to evolve since would reveal the necessity to revise that slogan to "edutainment, edutainment, edutainment" .
Outside the bustling edutainment sector with semi-privatised unis offering students free I-pods and advertising the prospects of vibrant night life and casual sexual encounters, the biggest boom sector under New Labour calls itself the entertainment industry. The figures are quite staggering, but hard to quantify. The components of the entertainment sector span multiple traditional categories such as alcoholic beverages, electronic media (movies and games), retail, catering, gambling, sports and leisure, covering anything from a ten-pin bowling alley to a nighclub, a TV broadcaster to an electronics retailer, a Laser Quest virtual shooting centre to theatres now frequented only by the more educated chattering classes. According to Prospects, the official guide to post-graduate employment ( Prospects: Sport and leisure ), 13.5% of the UK work force are employed in the leisure industry accounting for 10% of the economy, excluding the mass media, an additional 0.6%, and entertainment-oriented retail sales. Now just consider that much of the remaining population work in other branches of the non-essential service sector, whether in administration, finance or advertising.
British students have long had a reputation for drinking, but I seem to recall back in the 1980s not many could afford indulge in nights out on the town more than once a week unless they had another source of income. Social life would revolve around the student bar and many would spend most evenings in swatting over their course work. Fast forward to the 21st century and student life has morphed into a non-stop partying session. Every lunchtime by the entrance of an image-obsessed Leeds Metropolitan University students earn a little extra cash to promote local night clubs, often performing stunts reminiscent of yesteryear's protesters. Even among teaching staff Curtis White's Middle Mind, the deluge of junk information that overwhelms what little remains of our independent imagination, dominates discourse. Hollywood movies, game consoles, commercial Websites, moronic TV, multi-millionnaire celebrities, consumer goods and the occasional pub crawl, interpolated only by the news agenda set by large corporations. Not surprisingly the aforementioned edutainmental establishment offers a BA Hospitality Business with Club & Casino Management . It's probably only a matter of time before they add Brothel Management to their repertoire. Welcome to Air Strip One anno 2006, where spending countless hours immersed in realistic simulations of death and destruction is apparently considered normal, indeed so normal that anyone who dares to question the morality of this pervasive pursuit awaits social exclusion, except in the safe confines of like-minded non-gamers. So they want to censor violent content from Youtube, but have they considered pulling all first-person shooter games from stores frequented by millions of young chiidren, often strategically located at kid height? No, it seems the only depravity they want to censor is that disseminated by ordinary folk, while respected corporate and state institutions fill our minds daily with the most abject technicolour vileness.
Regulating the Poor and Deregulating the Rich
If one trend were to summarise the Blair agenda, it is this. Give big business carte blanche to hook millions on their mind-altering pursuits and carcinogenic products, while imposing ever-greater restrictions on the freedom of private citizens, for their own benefit naturally.
Tobacco shares are probably not a very good buy just now as smoking has just been banned in all public buildings in Scotland and this ban looks set to extend to England next year. Revenue in public houses may decline at least in the short term in some deprived areas, but all is not bleak on the entertainment front. Apparently GSK and Aventis stand to profit enormously from the growing rate of prescription for their anti-depressants, if you're an investor follow my advice, sell tobacco shares and buy pharmaceuticals. Other opportunities loom on the horizon with considerable growth in the gambling sector, which will in turn fuel sales of both alcoholic beverages, party drugs and antidepressants. Prospects look good for the burgeoning debt relief and cash conversion business.
It may seem odd to some that the same government responsible for restricting the freedom to smoke in the name of public health, has extended pub opening hours, deregulated gambling, let the NHS dispense ever growing numbers of SSRI's (Prozac-like antidepressants) and Ritalin and oversee an explosion in the use of ecstasy in discos, night clubs and raves.
Evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease is quite compelling, but clearly it is not the only factor determining good health and longevity. Indeed some of the countries with the highest smoking rates such as Japan, Spain, France and Greece also have some of the highest life expectancies. May this have something to do with diet and lifestyle? So if you smoke 20 a day and eat junk food, it's kicking the latter habit that will statistically contribute more to lengthening your lifespan.
The whole point is it's none of the government's business to dictate such lifestyle choices, as long as citizens are well informed, are not under social or commercial pressure to adopt high risk habits and are protected against predatory and deceptive business practices.
However, the prevailing trend is to deregulate big business letting it make new inroads into the addiction sector, leading in years to come to a growing incidence of psychological problems. The same government that highlights the dangers of smoking, despite still getting huge revenues from the sale of tobacco, cohorts with its corporate friends in downplaying the adverse effects of of gambling, SSRIs, carginogenic food additives (i.e. aspartame contained in most deceptively labelled sugarfree or "no added sugar" drinks) and violent video games, all multibillion pound industries and an integral part of many young people's lives.
Consider the aspartame controversy and bear with me before you see the parallels with the tobacco controversy of the mid 20th century and its wider implications for manufacturing and controlling pleasure. There are broadly speaking three perspectives on the dangers of this pervasive sweetener. The industry has long claimed its safety is backed by research and may only pose a risk for minority groups such as phenylketonuriacs (PKU sufferers). Many aware of the alleged dangers, but regular consumers of products containing the substance, simply view it as a potential risk that may only affect them at extraordinarily high levels of consumption. They see millions consuming aspartame-containing products with no immediate side effects and even minor one benefit, aspartame does not rot your teeth as much as sugar (but other ingredients in fizzy drinks still do). Third a small minority avoid all foods likely to contain the substance because copiuous research suggests that the substance is a carcinogen even at normal levels of consumption (e.g. 3-4 aspartame-sweetened drinks and a packet of aspartame-sweetened chewing gum a day). Now if the third group were just a bunch of ill-informed conspiracy-theorists and aspartame were truly safe, you'd expect the industry to proudly and unashamedly advertise the fact. Coke Zero would be rebranded Coke Extra, now with aspartame instead of tooth-rotting sugar, Tookthkind Ribena (which incidentally still contributes to tooth decay even without added sugar) would inform parents in large print Now with added aspartame for your child's benefit. Instead we are entertained with misleading labels such as sugarfree (i.e. always contains aspartame) and no added sugar (probably contains aspartame), while the corporate health media do a little aspartame promotion by simply warning of the dangers of excessive sugar consumption, usually without distinguishing different forms of sugar (glucose, sucrose, lactose and fructose) or the fact that our body needs some sugar, a fact testified by the presence of lactose in maternal milk and fructose-containing berries in the paleolithic diet of our forebears (though later we acquired a much a sweeter tooth). Now cast your mind back to the 1940s when copious evidence available then not only linked tobacco with lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, but proved its addictiveness. It took the tobacco industry 50 years to admit the health hazards of their lucrative products. Of course, in the meantime not all regular smokers dropped dead instantly and, ironically, mean life expectancy continued to rise. Many lived into their 70s, 80s or 90s despite their tobacco vice, while others who died early of lung cancer or heart failure had their illnesses attributed to other causes. Indeed smoking among the working classes only gained its quasi-universality in the aftermath of the 1914-18 Great War with millions returning from the trenches as nicotine addicts. Now what if, as some research would suggest, aspartame at normal rates of consumption is as carcinogenic as smoking 20 cigarettes a day? If that turns out to be the case, industry and government standards authorities would have misled the next generation by getting them hooked young with their sugarfree diet-conscious drinks, specifically targeted at kids. Since the introduction of aspartame into the food supply in the mid 1980s the incidence of diabetes and childhood obesity has skyrocketed and, ironically, per capita sugar consumption has declined. Yes the biggest rise in longevity occurred in the 1960s and 70s when over half the adult population smoked and almost everyone took sugar with their tea or coffee, but most had at least one square meal a day served at home on the dining room table rather than microwaved and consumed on the sofa before a 40" plasma screen. If aspartame has no other side effects, it makes otherwise boring food much sweeter and yummier, acting alongside MSG (monosodium glutamate) as a major appetite enhancer and encouraging a predilection for hyper-sweetened foods. If you're worried about sugared tea or coffee rotting your teeth, simply get used to taking these beverages unsweetened! If your waistline concerns you, why not just cut down on cakes and dairy products. But in a society that buys into the myth of a free lunch, we believe we can indulge without consequences and technology will always come to the rescue.
What's wrong with having fun?
Ask a stupid question and you'll get a stupid answer. We all aspire to enjoying life, but a better question would be: Why do we need such high doses of frivolous amusement to stay emotionally afloat?. If commercialised leisure centres, home cinemas and a never-ending drone of fast-beat dance music in stores and bars made us so happy, why are so many of prone to depression? Now imagine looking forward to a quiet walk in the park with a half hour break to read an enthralling novel only to find a bunch of twenty-somethings holding a daytime rave completely oblivious to your desire for tranquility? It soon becomes clear that the ecstatic joy of the few leads to the misery of the many, either because they cannot emulate the sexually appealing and self-confident charm of successful revellers or because they feel undermined or threatened by their mindless hedonism. How many of us have been to discos, nightclubs or on pub crawls, only to return with a huge hole in our bank balance and hangover, in the vane hope that the disinhibition and stupor that booze and loud music invoke will revolutionise our social life, help us meet a dream partner or at least lead to a desperate one night stand? If you thought everyone else out there was having a whale of a time in the brave new world of post-industrial pleasure, think again. Most are at home glued to the TV, bidding on ebay, immersed in a virtual word of fantasy battles or maybe amusing themselves with titbits from www.youtube.com. We are presented with a dazzling spectacle, whose primary purpose is to distract us from leading fruitful and rewarding lives, the only source of long term happiness for those of us unlucky enough not to win the lottery. Once distracted, our animalistic behaviour can be monitored and and our lives more pervasively controlled. For if adults can be mesmerised into behaving like spoilt children on steroids, some will inevitably overstep the mark and require 24/7 surveillance, enabling the corporate and state establishment to clamp down on its real enemies, sober critical thinkers.