Like many other people, I have become inured to the daily propaganda bombardments from the righteous armies camped on my media lawn. They are a curious alliance of social, environmental and political zealots and health and safety freaks. Small groups of religious maniacs prowl around the periphery setting off small explosions of prejudice. What they all have in common is a desire to threaten me (and my fellow humans) with purgatorial suffering and disaster if we do not follow their prescriptions and obey their proscriptions in pursuit of a virtuous life.
This was poignantly brought home to me last week in my local Tesco superstore. Their ‘customer service’ counter is intended to do stuff like validate exchanges of faulty goods and condescendingly register lost store cards. It also sells cigarettes. So it is a venue for the sad and increasingly shabby people who persist in smoking. As a former cigarette user who only stopped because his wife and doctor insisted, I have real sympathy for those still committed to their indulgence. Even when they could no longer enjoy unsullied stylish packaging, the former gold surfaces or vibrant chevrons defaced by hideous black capitals reminding that ‘smoking kills’, they could at least see the object of desire on the shelf, its name visible and the access to pleasure easy in the manner of a tart’s phone-box card or a top-shelf magazine.
Apparently – and I say this in amazement, having missed the original government announcement – new laws forbid the public display of cigarettes and other tobacco products. The long shelves of packages had been replaced in Tesco by very naff white sliding panels. This formerly quite colourful resort had become a dreary counter at which shamed addicts whispered their choices to gloomy apparatchiks in a throwback to the sort of grocery store you found in Riga in 1962, or a porn shop in Huddersfield in 1976.
Such a development has long been foreshadowed, and we can expect worse to come. The forces of repression are seeking ways to make the purchase of alcohol more and more difficult and shameful. The concept of minimum pricing will most likely give place to some form of rationing (as once prevalent in Canada) where you have a licence and a card permitting you to acquire a certain number of alcohol units each week. In Norway, the state has a monopoly of off-licence alcohol sales but even the ludicrous price of booze has failed to deter. Well-connected drinkers can buy pharmaceutical alcohol, dilute it to taste and add packets of powdered flavouring – dry martini, gin and so forth – which are widely available through the post. But it isn’t the same. The frisson to be had from beating the system can wear itself out because the process is tiring and joyless, and the product tastes awful.
The punitive approach to self-indulgence is in complete opposition to Blair’s idea of liberalised licensing laws, much as chocolate makers used to let new workers eat as much as they liked. The New Labour theory was that after a period of abuse people would settle into a restrained and more continental pattern. This was endearing but naïve. It worked for chocolate, but not so far it seems in any of the Pissed Frog Still Walking pub chains where the reward/penalty ratio for over-indulgence is still weighted to the reward. The point being that so far, humans have found a way to beat repression but with smokers crushed, drinkers are now top of the elimination list as politicos give in to the health fascisti. Non-teetotallers should be very afraid. Everyone however remotely connected with the health business is now encouraged to ask clients and customers about their drinking behaviour. It will not be long before we all have to provide monthly blood samples and take compulsory breath tests each time we visit Boots for some aspirin.
Food has also long been the victim of exhortation and warning. No package is complete without its calorie tables or alerts to percentages of fat; all supported by systems of colour coding and other graphic devices to remind us of how dangerous is our desire to enjoy eating. There are even pressures to force restaurants to provide calorie information on their menus which would be a wonderful aid to the enjoyment of a fifty quid lunch. At the same time, we are offered a constant media diet of food programmes, recipe columns, restaurant reviews and cookery supplements.
Herein is the elision of religious fundamentalism and the New Puritanism. The horrors and penalties of indulgence may only be invoked through fevered imagining of the sensual pleasures available to sinners. The obsession with food as pornography is the vital source of the health campaigners’ energy. Hieronymous Bosch portrayed exactly this dichotomy in his immortal triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Hence the heavy armour of our new health moralists has identified sins such as obesity, penalties such as diabetes and bundled them up into an assault on the jolly things of life under the cover of curbing NHS costs and the threat of an early and miserable death in a rubbish nursing home probably sans memory and a lower limb. Governments are too incompetent and ill-informed to ward off the cunning health commandos. So they embark on scare campaigns to frighten citizens into the (increasingly privatised) arms of the health professionals.
Let no one be deceived, the health industry has discovered prevention as a cheap means of making it a portal for selling more treatments. Hence the constant invitations (the NHS poo campaign and the ‘do you pee too frequently?’ campaigns of healthcare groups typify these intrusions) to fantasise about small symptoms, to submit ones excreta to the scrutiny of grumpy laboratory technicians for whom a daily quota of positive shit results (or negative if you are the originator of the poo) is a good result. In Japan, they have lavatories that will do that for you on a daily basis. Wait for such technology to become part of our housing regulations.
Curiously, sex has dropped down the list of immediate targets. AIDS and STDs have lost their mojo to summon populist enthusiasm. Rates of teenage pregnancy seem to be in decline. Much of the focus is dictated by the politics of the ruling intellectual classes and their worries about which single issue groups – both political and professional – have the most leverage. Bandwagons come and go and it is interesting that the latest diversion for those still interested in the topic is asexuality. Yes, out there, some people just don’t care about sex and are being sought out for interview because there is a message to be developed for ends we can only speculate about.
Depressingly, among the straight sex and vanilla community in the social benefits war none of the leading protagonists and only a few commentators have the courage to question the wisdom of child allowances being given for an unlimited number of children. It is odd that the relationship between sex and children should still carry such cultural sensitivity with it in our advanced western society where fertility control is readily available to everyone except idiots. But then fertility still has magical meaning which is why IVF is still provided as an NHS treatment. Except that it is now likely to be denied to smokers in a further extension of the health lobby fiefdom.
So sex and its management in all its manifestations remain overtly or covertly at the heart of social control. And unless societies solve the over-breeding problem, the Lebensraum issue will bring our species to grief. Science, in the form of GM technologies and nuclear energy could undoubtedly save us. Yet the deluded Luddites of the environmental movement are making heroic efforts to prevent a rational solution. Although it is possible that crazed religious leaders and their adherents will destroy us first by blowing us up or spreading plague. But then, the leading religions of our time are driven by their sexual DNA – or rather the madness caused by sexual denial.
In our own dear land ‘faith’ has launched a counter-strike against what the proponents cleverly define as aggressive atheism; but which in fact is rational secularism which regards ‘faith’ as obstructive of knowledge. Archbishops and Muslim Tory alumnus Baroness Warsi make alliance to extol the significance of religious belief to our culture. It is indeed significant, but does that make it beneficial? Whatever else and on the evidence, religion has done little for the sex lives of its adherents. To revert to a previous point: large families, most often the result of cultural primitivism and social condition are still celebrated and only diffidently critiqued. Some women will celebrate their fecundity for reasons about which we can only speculate. Many more women are victims of specific belief systems and on the evidence of social reportage greet copulation with dread.
The religious thesis is that sex, like food, can only be enjoyed if purposefully functional. Simple and unselfconscious pleasure for its own sake is a sin. Such views may have currency as a reaction to the ubiquity of porn. They also represent a serious assault on the concept that mankind has to take charge of its own destiny in a wider context than those defined by the rules of either religions or career crusaders with a mission to reform and save us all.
The unholy alliances of which we need to be very afraid have their most dangerous roots in the type of social-political fundamentalism that has given rise to Tesco putting up its shutters on the cigarette shelves. Few would argue that unrestrained self-indulgence is a good thing. But quite evidently, for too many of our political and social leaders (encouraged by the media), there is a sense that everything is out of control. The sound of bolts shutting on stable doors is deafening and there is a desperate rush for the legislative solution. Where once there were merely encouraging guidelines there is now government backed opprobrium against or support of a variegated range of sinners and victims.
Panic in any society is dangerous. It is fertile ground for absolutist ideologies, simplistic political solutions and imperfectly validated quasi-scientific remedies. So-called moral judgements are made and social policies pursued that become totalitarian in flavour – ‘choice’ as a mantra for social democracy, if ever real, becomes a minor key option. The options become limited (as in Russian elections), or dichotomous (eat/don’t eat and live/die).
As we sink (guiltily) in a sea of booze, sex and food with the social discourse stoked up by a scared political elite and hungry pressure groups with a varied legitimacy of cause, we need to ask ourselves about what really is the problem. Is it about choice, that easy and deceptive validation of consumer infantilism? Or is it about freedom, and our ability to decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives?
Here’s a test question: who would you rather have as supreme dictator? George Monbiot or Rupert Murdoch? Think about it very carefully.