Sunday, April 26, 2009

The cost of everything and the value of nothing

Blue Boy by Pants

This week I join the chorus of concerned citizens who believe that something vital is being lost from humanity. Unlike the battalions of pundits who can’t decide whether we’re at the beginning, middle or end of the greatest financial crisis in history or even whether this moveable feast will bring out the best or worst in all of us, I think I am at least able to put my finger on the malaise that is compromising my own well-being.

For me, the loss is all those wonderful grey shades of normalcy that used to sit between the opposite poles of a grand day and a shitty one. Those were the solid ground on which we all used to stake our sanity. A good day for me is one in which nothing out of the ordinary happens. These are the bread and butter of existence and the more of them we chalk up, the happier we are. But now it seems that verifiable human experience can only be measured in quotients of either brilliance or horribleness and all the lovely non-reportable things that happen to us ordinary folk which make us smile but don’t warrant a segment on the evening news or even a twitter post, don’t register.

To extend this thought to almost untenable elasticity, I don’t believe the levels of our collective morality can be accurately measured by our response to Susan Boyle. I realise this runs contrary to global public opinion but I actually think that the hysterical championing of this poor woman is the equally dangerous flipside to chucking half-devoured Big Macs at her in the street. Somewhere in this orgy of self-congratulation, critical process has been suspended. Susan Boyle has had false attributes and monstrous expectations assigned to her simply because of her appearance. This is grossly unfair as she quite categorically only asked for a chance at fulfilling the modest and reasonable dream of becoming a professional singer. And why for fuck’s sake are we so desperately seeking authenticity in Susan’s eyebrows?

Like Barack Obama before her Susan Boyle has gone from being an impossibility to a messiah just by opening her mouth. I know I’ve said this before but it’s worth reiterating in this context. The cheesy deification of Barack Obama is not only a shameless and obvious masking of prejudice but a form of racism. Wouldn’t it be grand if a black man saved the world? That would pretty much make up for slavery and the continuing oppression of black people now wouldn’t it? Self-evidently there are no shortcuts through this mountain of debt but somehow this man is expected to unearth one just by 'being'.

Obama's political opponents and disgruntled colleagues alike have found themselves gleefully clutching a win-win. They won’t challenge him too rigorously for fear of being accused of racism and no one will expect them to for the same reason, but if he falls on his face for lack of honest and timely critique, they can say ‘look, we gave him all this great support and he still flopped.’ When humanity joins forces to set some poor putz up to fail instead of applying itself to solving the real and complex problems of the world, then yeah, I do think something has been lost.

Back in the little world of me, I find the lack of nuance in all areas of fact and opinion afflicts daily business so badly I now conscientiously restrict contact with my fellow travellers to only such transactions as I deem unavoidable. At some point in a day spent in one room with fifteen others, I will inevitably have to communicate with someone. ‘Would you please pass the impasto medium,’ is occasionally necessary to successfully complete an assessable task. I stay well clear of open-ended questions such as ‘how was your weekend?’ which are likely to lead to real-time enactments of Jerry Springer episodes.

Many of you might find this difficult to believe but I can be a bit of a target for need-to-shares. If I had a quid for every time some stranger plonked him/herself right down on the bus seat next to me and uttered the words, ‘I was abused as a child you know,’ before even disturbing the velour, I too would have a Caribbean island all to myself. The windows on the top deck of a bus don’t open more than a few inches (presumably so that kids can’t throw their half-eaten Big Macs at Susan Boyle), so instant escape is impossible. Many’s the time I've had to alight prematurely and nip into the Slug and Lettuce for a reviving G&T before I regained the will to live.

This week in The Australian (25-26 April), resident psychobabbler Ruth Ostrow identifies an increased national tendency towards indiscreet public confession which she calls Recession Honesty (her caps),

All of a sudden, if you ask someone how they are, you get information on anything ranging from their financial affairs or their parents’ superannuation predicament, to what medication they are taking for economic-downturn stress and/or depression.

What could possibly cause people to think the quality of your life would be infinitely enhanced by their sharing of hopelessly undisciplined emotions with you? Sure as dependency follows Prozac, if you indulge someone’s excruciating outpourings even once, they’ll ferociously stalk you for the rest of your life. I’d like to be able to extend a sympathetic ear to fellow suffering every now and again without becoming a perpetual human diary, but such a gesture seems unthinkable. If it’s a case of all or nothing, I have no choice but to opt for nothing. Better to come across as a bit standoffish than find yourself obsessively following Dr Phil in order to contribute to a conversation. In the immortal words of Alain de Botton - let them read Proust or even Mills and Boon.

The nuance drought has also completely devastated educational standards as far as I can see. How difficult can it be to adopt an exacting and scholarly approach to advanced macramé? More often than not, I absent myself from class discourse as I find it entirely lacking in a critical framework. There are only so many tea cosies you can decide whether you like or dislike before you imagine you’re psychoanalysing yourself with less than pleasant results. The danger of expressing a view is that you will inevitably be called upon to qualify your subjective view by applying the question ‘why?’ to it. Aristotle, it ain’t. No matter what the object, I find after twenty minutes in this environment, my only answer to any question is endocrine emblazoned pavlova pyjamas.

The key to reversing the fortunes of the human condition is no easier to pinpoint. However, I do think it would be a whole lot more possible if the sub-concept of ‘degree’ was reintroduced into the broad concept of ‘value’. There’s a vast spectrum of legitimate states of being between rich and poor, sick and well, good and evil. Why is it now so difficult to hang a prolonged conversation on the state of being middling? In order to engage anyone’s attention these days you have to either have won the lottery or been beaten ragged by your mad biker boyfriend.

I’ve spent most of the last three days staying warm in bed, reading, writing, watching DVDs and looking at the ever-changing shape of the sea, mostly feeling fine and very occasionally feeling either exhilarated or a bit melancholy. Life doesn’t get any better than this in my view but how does it compete with the woman who ran over her poodle or the one whose ex-husband attacked her current boyfriend with an axe? (Yes both of these things happened to people in my class last week). When someone asks me what I did on the weekend, the easiest response is ‘nothing much’, and it serves all concerned very well.

Australia is indeed a place of great contrasts, and one in which the perils of a value system based on isolated absolutes with no connecting qualifiers couldn’t be more apparent.This is a country where a ten-year-old girl can be snapped naked by a famous photographer provided her parents give their consent but is not legally entitled to cross a street without holding on tightly to an adult’s hand. Bill Henson as a lollipop man – now there’s an interesting thought…