You call it entitlement, do you? Touch 16

Saturday, 26. September 2009

Picture a small tribe of primitive humans living at the mercy of the weather and in constant fear of starvation. Their main goal is survival and their most prized possession is fire, which allows them to eat, to stay tolerably warm and to survive the terrors of the night. Compared with us they seem to have almost no idea what causes anything and their moment to moment experience is all filled up with vulnerability. Whenever they do manage the slightest triumph over their environment they probably feel like gods. Among them loyalty must be a matter of life and death and existence always hangs in the balance. Even the slightest advance in any of the sparse technologies they posses would have miraculous consequences and their basic expressions of art must be profoundly felt in a deeply spiritual way, carrying the same hope as invention: that it will better control an uncertain world.

Now jump to any suburb of any large city in any settled country with enough economic activity to provide employment, leisure, diversion, internet, fashion, news, supermarkets, highways, transport, electricity, sewerage, coffee shops and holidays… The terrors of existence have atrophied down to vague unease, nagging angst, minor annoyances, irritating belittlements, occasional minor crises, a slight fear of disaster kept at bay by having more fun. Diluted beyond recognition, they can almost be ignored, unless they have actually become more potent for being less explicit, more challenging for being less obvious, much like The Princess feels the pea under her soft cushion of mattress and cannot sleep. Do you think that a nervous system that evolved over millions of years to keep the organism permanently en guard could somehow switch itself off in a few thousand, even with the aid of alcohol, pop music, diet coke, mobile telephones, twenty-four hour news, Sunday Review sections, The Ballet Rimbaud and plenty of “issues” to keep the mind occupied…

Well, yes, it does rather seem that way, sitting at a fashionable eatery in a leafy suburb, watching parents indulgently allowing small children to select and then discard plates of exotic food costing more than a family of Africans have to get through each week. It does look like we’re all cushioned from life when you take into account the millions of people who seem to spend all day celebrating themselves on networking websites. It must feel that way eating caviar in the VIP lounge on your way to vacation in The Maldives. And it better be that way for the Masters of the Universe in Wall Street and The City of London who earn more in bonus every single year than a hardworking teacher will grub in a whole lifetime. We do seem, some of us at least, to have escaped up the pyramid of needs to the point where perfecting ourselves through investment, good taste, creative leisure, fine food and amateur psychology contain the only challenges left (unless we choose to become environmentalists in order to have a cause).

Of all the things that are known, no one can know but a tiny fraction, so not knowing is actually a cornerstone of our way of life, just as it was for our ancient ancestors. But whereas their ignorance was close to fatal, ours has been miraculously transformed into a divine power, as we switch on our super-efficient machines, taking all their gifts for granted. Yes, there will be line caught tuna, fresh from some far ocean, and all the ingredients essential to turn it into an instant masterpiece and if you don’t feel like being creative because you made a lot of money today then yes, there will be instant Thai food for the microwave, whenever you happen to be hungry. And you will eat it in warmth, behind safe doors, with savings in the bank and friends out there somewhere, watching an interesting film before taking a power shower and relaxing in a gorgeous bed with pink plastic things that vibrate for the woman who no longer feels like it and acceptable porn for her mate.

We have it all and we were entitled, weren’t we? We have so much of it that we now want what anyone has or ever hand. We want all the gifts that wise men gave their courageous lives for, all the ecstasy that obsessive artists wrecked their lives for, all the celebrity we can possibly eat up, always demanding more. Write a blog: let the world read how clever you are. It’s so easy, so instant, so wonderful, creative. You are a somebody, a child of the universe, a great genius who understands things. People should be listening to what you have to say and every time they didn’t take any notice in real life can be wiped away online. You are entitled. You can have it all. Whatever you dream of can be yours. You visions guides your marvellous destiny…

Where will it end?

It could end in several places. We already suspect that it may end in an overpopulated world, denuded of key living species, empty of carbon fuels, polluted by our processes, flooded by melting ice and torn by violent weather, possibly radioactive, forced back into primitive violence, menaced by threatening epidemics, secretly ruled by evolved rats, divided into a small class of super-rich and a huge class that is struggling, once again, even to stay alive. The veneer of civilisation is extremely thin when you recall that a driver froze to death one night at a gas station because his credit card was rejected in the most advanced country on earth. It’s that easy to fall between the cracks and with half the population on the edge of insane, many do… Lose a couple of key pillars such as your job, your home, your family, your health and then make one wrong move and suddenly it can be you, with no direction home, no chance to take, nothing left, no prayers answered.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, as I have said before, the average human being is primarily engaged in one secret, unrecognised and never discussed activity: the search for certainty at any price. As I have already described, this is impossible to achieve beyond any shadow of a risk but yet people will fake it to themselves and their friends, mutually supporting each other’s illusions, wallowing in a playground of unreal optimism about what they have and will become in life, who they are and what they deserve in terms of respect and stuff: entitlement.

There is a subtle word, clever enough that it is now being used even in the USA to distinguish the excesses of our culture as some people slowly begin to rethink what they have and how sound it really is. At last. Yet it is also being wielded with a self-righteous spin, as if it were the final frontier to the promised land of absolute correctness, the place where you are slightly aware of the need to share the earth with other humans and animals and icecaps and stuff, the place where your lavish lifestyle can be justified because with friends you talk about “entitlement”. We have been here before and it won’t work.

Nothing so simple will remove from the soul of a single US citizen what their entire school system and culture pumps in from the cradle so completely that they do not even know it is there: the aggression, the absolute assumption of rightness, the effortless sense of entitlement, the overwhelming need to give positive advice, the ruthless lust to success, the limitless greed for comfort and entertainment, the longing for meaning so profound that each of them spends most of their time mythologizing their own lives in an orgy of self-centredness that would simply have been regarded as insane during earlier phases of humanity. In the USA, this disease has been at epidemic proportions for some years, affecting all levels of society and barely even noticed. It has spread through their cultural viruses to most other countries and cultures, displacing their own conventions of modesty and right behaviour, Disneyfying the entire world, even the places where people are far too poor to ever live the dream, so much so that only Islamic maniacs can still fight back with their ancient obedience to deity.

The images have been seductive and the language too and I doubt that anyone will be giving up their iPods or iPhones any time soon in order to be less entitled.

previous parts of Touch are here

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