Magazine article The Spectator

Wannabe Yanks

Magazine article The Spectator

Wannabe Yanks

Article excerpt

In the modern world, the availability, indeed ubiquity, of entertainment is the most potent cause of boredom. It causes boredom because the world cannot ever be as fast-moving or dramatic as audiovisual entertainment, and for most of the time interest has to be extracted from the world rather than merely absorbed from it passively. Hence the more people with vacant minds seek distraction by entertainment, the more bored they grow; and bored people create chaos in their lives because intense misery is preferable to ennui. I have long thought that much social pathology is an attempt to evade boredom by the propagation of violent crises; and, since television causes boredom, it thereby causes social pathology.

I doubt whether anyone lives more in the virtual world of entertainment than British children and adolescents. They are among the world's most avid passive consumers of virtual excitement. They thereby prepare themselves for a life of constant discontent, permanent disillusion and bitterness, finely honing their personalities for a life of employment - if any at all - in the service industries without service that are so characteristic of modern Britain.

Last week, a friend related a story that demonstrates how completely entertainment does, or at least can come to, dominate a child's sense and knowledge of reality. His next-door neighbours left their 11-year-old daughter alone in the house for a few minutes and she, growing frightened, suddenly feared that a fire had broken out. She decided to call the fire-brigade, and dialled the emergency number. The number she dialled was 911 - the American emergency number.

She did not know that the emergency number of her own country was 999: she knew only the number of the country in which she truly lived, at least mentally, namely TV-land, which bears a closer resemblance to America than to anywhere else, but is not of course the real, living America, only the screen version of it. If there had been a real fire, she would have been done to a crisp, thanks to her habit of watching TV.

The day my friend related this story, I had earlier walked from my hospital to the prison. A young man of the gold-front-toothed community passed me in the street, and said with that triumphant insolence that makes one nostalgic for the days when insolence was merely dumb, 'Are you one of the wardens?' I did not reply, but went on my way, whereupon he called after me, 'What's the matter? Are you afraid to tell me?'

I was, of course, struck by his use of the word 'wardens'. British prison officers have never been wardens, though they were once warders. They are wardens in America, not in Britain. The young man who used the word lived in Virtual America, and he was the kind of young man for whom domesticity meant sitting in front of the television with a microwaved meal, scanning the screen for guidance as to how to behave, talk and feel. Among his problems was self-esteem: vastly too much of it, the disease of the age, an epidemic in fact that makes the Black Death look like a local outbreak.

Once in the prison, I asked a patient about his schooling.

'I wasn't no good at high school,' he said.

It is true that there is a high school locally - but it is an exclusive establishment, where the local bourgeoisie sends its daughters. He wouldn't have gone there, except perhaps for burgling purposes. In the telephone directory, there are listed many kinds of school: junior, infant, secondary, grammar, community, comprehensive, senior, and so forth, but no high schools. …

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