11 February 2007

Mad Larry gets close to the truth

On Meddling

Most of our culture’s problems are the fault of marketing, or at the very least, they’re the fault of people who think they’re marketing but are actually just making everyone miserable. I’ve already argued that “’political correctness’” – a phrase which deserves a double set of inverted commas, for reasons I’ve gone into at length [28/12/06] – is mainly the invention of paranoid right-wingers rather than interfering liberal do-gooders, but it is true that somebody, somewhere, is doing an awful lot of meddling. Guns are edited out of old movies, violence is surgically excised from cartoons, scripts are rewritten so that female characters are always shown to be strong, flawless and self-willed (much to the annoyance of actresses, who know that characters with enormous personality defects are vastly more interesting) while black characters are shown to be capable of unlimited compassion / redemption (much to the annoyance of black actors, who like playing villains with eyepatches as much as anyone else does).

This isn’t the work of “’political correctness’”, and it certainly isn’t the work of anybody remotely left-wing. It’s the work of the executive class, of corporate committees, of armies of marketing consultants and commando squadrons of research analysts. Their meddling isn’t done for political reasons, or indeed for the sake of any agenda at all, apart from the obvious profit-related one. Put too much violence in a family programme, and a minority of parents will complain, damaging ratings and losing advertising revenue. Make a movie in which the bad guys are “ethnic”, and members of that ethnic group might not pay to see it. Actual political correctness exists in marketing rather than in ideology, and essentially means doing whatever’s necessary in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic: “demographically correct” might be a better term, although I’ve tried using it in conversation and it never catches on. If we lived in a world where 98% of the population belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, then it’d be a safe bet that exactly the same people who now make sure there’s a positive “ethnic” character in every Hollywood movie would make sure there's always a big black cannibal with a bone through his nose instead.

Our political system has exactly the same problem as our culture, and for exactly the same reasons. Most people still assume that in a general election, the major parties will campaign to get as many votes from the general public as possible, but this is no longer true. The major parties know full well that most demographic groups are guaranteed to vote for a specific party no matter what the candidates do, and that there’s no point campaigning for the support of anybody except those in the middle-ground, the small minority which might still swing either way. All three of Britain’s leading parties now use the same “targeting software” to identify these key groups, and to work out what those groups want. And the “targeting software” is telling them all exactly the same thing: focus on middle-class consumers with expendable income, people to whom the outcome of an election doesn’t particularly matter. This is why the most recent election manifestos of all three leading parties have been indistinguishable apart from the adjectives, and even Howard’s arse-waffle about asylum-seekers masked a policy barely any different to Blair’s. In effect, Britain is no longer a democratic society, and it wouldn’t be democratic even if we weren’t under American jurisdiction. Because what we’ve learned over the last ten years – if we didn’t already instinctively know it – is that marketing and democracy are incompatible. Whether it’s in Hollywood or Westminster, marketing means a blanding-out, a removal of any significant difference on the grounds that it might offend one type of consumer-voter or another. Choice, actual choice rather than the consumer kind, can’t exist without difference. And democracy, like culture itself, relies on choice.

Is this the real tragedy of what happened to us in the late 1970s? I’ve already argued that the last thirty years of Western history have largely been about the triumph of self-obsession [06/12/06], but perhaps the biggest single problem is that by favouring “personal lifestyle choices” instead of “society”, we’ve put far too much power into the hands of the marketing specialists. Let’s not forget, Ronald Reagan was the first world leader to be elected because his advisors focused on lifestyles rather than issues. The aforementioned targeting software works on the same principle, encouraging politicians to concentrate on “what do people in Harrogate do with their leisure time?” rather than “how do we formulate an ethical foreign policy?”. The upshot is that we’ve ended up with a society which isn’t just dangerously complacent and politically bankrupt, but also very, very dull. If you went back in time and told my eight-year-old self that he’d grow up in a world where people have pocket-sized computers and you can access almost any piece of information on Earth from a box in your bedroom, then I don’t think he would have believed it could be so mediocre.

You can read more of the demented and occasionally scarily insightful ramblings of the creator of Faction Paradox here. (Please ignore the ignorant, hateful nonsense about transsexual people, though.)