Twenty years ago when Europe and America were gripped by the AIDS panic – and before we realised that its impact in the West would seem minor in comparison to the devastation it would wreak in Africa - public anxiety was reflected in popular culture. In particular there was a fashion for movies that told morality tales about the consequences for ‘respectable’ people of behaving immorally. One example was Martin Scorsese’s under-rated ‘After Hours’ in which a hapless white collar worker gets trapped on the wrong side of New York (those who like this film associated it forever with the phrase ‘surrender Dorothy’ but you’ll need to google to find out why). But more famous was Oscar nominated Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close’s demented pursuit of Michael Douglas even created a new noun - ‘bunny boiler’ – to describe someone (usually female) who takes a vengeful view of being spurned.
I was reminded of all this by the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. It’s difficult to know what to think of the row. On the one hand, Ross and Brand were only continuing the kind of hyper puerile entertainment upon which they have built so much of their careers. This may have been an extreme example but it was hardly out of keeping with their general style. On the other hand, there is no question that had anyone else left obscene messages on a pensioner’s answer phone in working hours they would have been sacked on the spot.
The story has now become a media frenzy with even Gordon Brown taking time out of managing the crisis of global capitalism to add to the criticism. The fact that the papers are now condemning two celebrities they were until last week assiduously courting and publicising is merely par for the course. Maybe the story has such legs because we are desperate for something to take our mind off the economy. But I wonder whether there may be another link. I suspect that as mre and more people suffer the impact of the global downturn we will see a growing intolerance towards the failings and peccadilloes of the rich, famous and privilege - thus the link to the change in mood during the AIDS panic.
As I have said in previous postings, it would be a good thing if the economic downturn causes us all to pause for thought. As millions of people suffer, some who are the authors of their own fate, others who are innocent victims, there will be a debate about the relationship between merit and reward. Generally, we didn’t care that much about the riches of the City and celebrity culture when we were all doing well. We won’t feel the same over the near future. But whilst such reflection is a good thing, we must resist the mass media’s hypocritical invitation to indulge in blame mongering and self righteousness. Yes, the bankers were greedy and irresponsible but we didn’t mind as long as we could keep spending, our houses kept rising in value and we could pile on the debt with apparent impunity. Similarly, Ross and Brand didn’t become famous just because some faceless BBC executive decided they should. We watched Big Brother, we enjoyed Ross tripping up his guests with sly innuendo. It appears that we have not abolished boom and bust economics.
We should resist the temptation of boom and bust morality!
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?