Sunday, 24 January 2016
Angie Bowie's Tears When it was announced this week that the rock legend David Bowie had sadly died, one of the few people not to hear immediately was his former wife Angie. She was taking part in Celebrity Big Brother and was informed by the show’s producers who decided to film her reaction. Unbeknownst to her, this moment of sadness and grief was shown to the public without her consent in a bid to offer bored watchers a moment of titillation. Following the 9/11 attacks, the writer and activist Arundhati Roy described grief as the most intimate and private of experiences and the exploitation of the grief of others was one of the most brutal and violating things a state could do. At the time she was referring to the manipulation of the grief a nation felt after the destruction of the twin towers in order to make a case for the Iraq war, but the sentiment is also applicable to the treatment of Angie Bowie. To take the most private and intimate of moments and to transform it into entertainment takes a particular mentality, one that is shaped by prevailing ideas within our society. Apologists for the reality TV format might state that a contestant on a reality TV show deserves everything they get, but this is to suggest that there are no higher moral imperatives in our society than those of the transaction and the contract. ‘She was quick enough to take their money’ is the immediate counter argument that springs to mind, but that commits us all to the idea that once someone has been paid for something or once someone becomes famous it is morally acceptable to mete out any form of degradation or punishment. It becomes ok to suggest that in our society based on transactions and acquisition of the material, that they have been bought wholesale and have no further proprietorial rights over their appearance or treatment in the public eye. We also come to the conclusion that all things can be purchased, even someone’s private moment of grief and society can sneer at the folly of the individual for signing on the dotted line in the first place. When we come to believe that all things are saleable, can be turned into commodities and the only thing that limits new business opportunities is the scope of human imagination, we also become so fully enslaved by the ideology of free market capitalism that all other human considerations become blotted out by its shadow and we drift into a world that is by turns absurd and cruel. As with all ideologies that become monolithic such as communism or nationalism, a belief system that puts the pursuit of material gain above all things, that enshrines it as the supreme and sole truth will eventually devour itself but cause untold damage in the mean time. In the field of addiction treatment that we at the Living Room Cardiff work in, the chaos wrought by our prevailing myths and narratives is clear to see. Addicts dependent on drinking, drugs, sex and gambling have fallen prey to their addictions often because they are the only way of coping with the demands placed on them by a society obsessed with competition and a very narrow definition of the idea of success. Schools, parents, politicians and broadcasters help to shape a worldview for children that defines success and worth in monetary and competitive terms. When this unfulfilling and spiritually un-nurturing version of life is imposed on children they frequently seek forms of escape from it, including the annihilation of addiction and the flight from being authentic (authenticity being a trait that is frequently punished). This narrowly defined world view produces the types of people that can sell and market moments of grief because they represent ‘good business’ and it also produces people who become dependent on drugs and other damaging behaviours because they crave a world where they can be authentic and instead are presented one where superficiality, two dimensional living and an absurd approach to material possessions prevails.
BRITAIN AND DRINKING In 2015 there was a seemingly endless series of mass shootings in the USA, each more horrifying than the rest. Onlookers in Britain shook their heads in disbelief as each atrocity was reported. Before the smell of cordite had left the air, the US gun lobby defended the easy availability of assault weapons and high paid lobbyists earned their keep placing the blame elsewhere. In Britain, we felt with some sense of justification, we are safe to walk down the streets without being at risk of gun violence. However, much of the British public exists in a fantasy world of its own, created for it by lobbyists, corporate media outlets and corrupted newspaper columnists who will trot out any fraud if the money is right. At the heart of that fantasy is the nation’s love affair with alcohol, a romance that has striking similarities with America’s love affair with guns. Behind both the American firearms industry and Britain’s drinks industry are powerful vested interests that lobby their respective elected officials, ensuring that the interests of business are served over the interests of the public. A recent study carried out by Professor Nick Sheron of Southampton University, co-founder of the Alcohol Health Alliance has revealed that nearly two thirds of the profits of the UK alcohol industry come from drinks sales to problem and dependent drinkers. The story that the drinks lobby likes to trot out at such times is that drinking is about choice, responsibility and enabling adults to decide for themselves what is good for them. The majority of alcohol, however, is sold to people who have no choice, for whom addiction and dependency are daily realities. The Guardian newspaper calculated that this figure amounted to £23.7 billion pounds annually, but that costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year treating everything from liver disease to the consequences of alcohol-fueled violence. As the drinks industry does not contribute a penny towards the massive social harm it does and pays nothing to the NHS, this £3.5 billion could easily be seen as a public subsidy. Each year there are a million hospital admissions from alcohol, an increase of 100 percent in a decade and the number of alcohol related violent offences in 2015 was estimated by the Office of National Statistics as 704,000. In Britain, just as in America, those who can shout the loudest scramble to head off any criticism of their corporate friends. For example when the Chief Medical Officer recently announced that there was no safe level of drinking and the health benefits of red wine were largely a myth, Nigel Farage demanded some kind of mass public protest against the ‘nanny state’. His brand of beer and cigs populism is irresponsible - at best, it encourages drinkers to ignore the scientific research that shows the real risks of even moderate drinking. He frames the discussion as one of individual liberty and a struggle against faceless bureaucracy. However, this posturing is largely immaterial compared to the beliefs and fantasies of an entire nation. Even though the research carried out by Professor Sheron and the announcements made by the Chief Medical Officer are based on solid peer reviewed research, the stories we as a nation choose to tell about alcohol are far more compelling. In our national love affair with alcohol, drinking and being drunk have gradually been elevated to some kind of right, a freedom that no one can take away. Its harm is ignored, denied or rationalised away and those that succumb to addiction are marginalised. It is the alcoholics, however, that offer the rest of the nation an uncomfortable glimpse of the truth and ensure that no matter what we must continue with a national charade. In America, President Obama has decided finally to use executive action to push through gun control legislation, but in Britain our political class, in full possession of the facts, have decided that it’s business as usual.