Tuesday, January 04, 2005

It's About Priorities, People.

It is my intention to use this space as a tool to develop my writing skills. I imagine that if I work to my full potential, I might one day qualify as a kind of a gonzo hack. I am still a long way from reaching that goal. It seems that as of yet, I have succeeded only in creating a long-winded series of whining complaints.
So why stop now?
I have been meaning for the last little while to get around to addressing some statements made by Prince Charles relating to people knowing their place in society. He received a slew of negative press in return and was consistently quoted and paraphrased out of context. My problem is not with the Heir Apparent, but the various media that failed to properly exploit the opportunity for meaningful, constructive introspection.
What Charles said, or rather wrote, in a memo to an aide is this, "What's wrong with everyone nowadays? What is it that makes everyone seem to think that they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities? It's social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially re-engineered to contradict the lessons of history."
He goes on later to suggest that people tend to believe that they can become "pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability."
The media, by which I mean the big "M" Media that are the amalgam of sources making up the amorphous juggernaut that feeds the needs of our modern information age, dropped the ball by failing to explore their role in making themselves the instrument for this aspect of social engineering. Now, naturally, we are the Media and the Media are us, so we are all to blame for fomenting the unrealistic and unattainable ideals that have become so tightly woven into the fabric of our Modern Western Civilisation.
We have made news out of celebrities and celebrities of those who bring us the news. Our culture has largely discarded real experience and replaced it with the vicarious voyeurism of reality television. After the Second World War, it was necessary that we become a disposable plastic society. Mass consumerism drove the economies of the industrialised world from the fifties through the seventies and allowed us to grow healthy and prosperous. Now, entertainment and leisure are the commodities of the new economy and we ship their manufacture overseas. Marketing creates a perceived value in the mind of consumers where none actually exists and the result is the desire to purchase the intangible – lifestyle, peer approval, comfort, status. In short, brands.
We have allowed and encouraged the growth of such brands as Tommy Hilfiger, a company concerned solely with branding. The total square footage of garment manufacturing facilities owned by the Hilfiger label is zero. The entire company exists only to create in consumers like you and me a desire to own clothes, linens, housepaint and other lifestyle elements produced overseas and stamped with a Tommy Hilfiger logo. I don't mean to single out one corporation. This is just the way business is done nowadays.
What does this have to do with what Prince Charles wrote in his memo? Well, it has to do with the fallout of this mass branding culture. In the spirit of Image is Everything, branding ignores quantitative and reinforces qualitative values. It must, or else there is no justification for selling a four dollar t-shirt for thirty-five. To this end, many brands attached themselves to popular figures in music, acting and sports. In turn, many celebrities launched product lines of their own despite having no specific knowledge of, for example, the clothing or perfume industries. The actual commodity retains less actual value as the perceived worth of the brand climbs. We are buying less and less stuff and more and more lifestyle.
Now with the increasing importance of celebrities in our community, the trickle down is that we begin to feel less important because we are not celebrities. Fame gets cheaper as it becomes less enduring. We look up to people on game shows, read about the tiny details of a rapper's life and follow the wedding plans of a talk show host. Gradually, these people become more real than our real life; part of our virtual family. When we watch them so closely and follow news of their fortunes and failings, their spending habits, their personal problems and intimate secrets, the lifestyle of the famous seems so much closer. So much better than what we have to put up with every day. Our culture turns to celebrities with no more authority than you or me for their opinion on politics, the economy, religion and whatever else may come along. They have everything they want and then some. They sure are pretty. Better than going to work at the factory every day.
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. The fact of the matter, however, is that somebody has to go to the factory. And the coal mine. And the power plant. People need to pave roads, mill lumber and gut fish. That infrastructure is more important and lasting than the music industry, or the movie industry or the fashion industry. These are the trades that have the skills and abilities to move the human race into the future. Not fashion models. Not game show hosts.
I think it is quite telling that the top three searches through Google in 2004 were American Idol, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson in that order. Not George W. Bush or Osama Bin Laden or, "Hey, where the hell are those weapons of mass destruction anyway and how many more civilians are going to die in Iraq?" Nobody really wants have to think about the tough stuff anymore. That's like high school math. When am I ever going to use that again?
I heard an interesting response to a question about the nature of God the other day. The question was about the message God was trying to send by blasting the coast of the Indian Ocean with a massive tsunami. The answer was that maybe we should look instead at the message we can send through helping our neighbours to recover.
It would be nice to see a period of serious reflection in the wake of the tsunami. We can all benefit by taking time to assess our personal priorities and taking a responsible place in society.


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