Thursday, September 16, 2010

Decline by Details or How to Revolutionize a Culture by Baby Steps


"One of the great blows to stability has been the change in family life, from the first appearance of the teenager in the late 1930s, to Edmund Leach's disturbing Reith lectures of 1967, which blamed the traditional family for most of society's problems. There has been a transformation in the way in which people arrange and furnish their houses, the sort of food they eat and where and how they eat it. Cheap pre-cooked fast food, the freezer and the microwave, have practically ended the formal meal around the table, and allowed family members to remain in front of the television or at the computer keyboard without needing to interrupt their activities. The spread of central heating and double glazing has allowed even close-knit families to avoid each other's company in well-warmed houses, rather than huddling round a single hearth forced into unwanted companionship, and so compelled to adapt to each other's foibles and become more social, less selfish beings.

Clothes have also undergone a complete change, in styles and materials, even in purpose, for children as well as adults, while hairstyles for both sexes express the alteration in the balance of power between men and women, parents and children. Children no longer dress as children, but as miniature adults, with their own scaled down adult fashions, underlining the truth that they actually owe more loyalty to their peers than to their parents. The alteration has even changed the streetscape leading to the disappearance of hats and the decline of coats, the rise of the trainer and the near-disappearance of the leather shoe. Uniforms, too, serve a much less layered, deferential society, and a more violent and unsupervised one. Policemen have tossed aside their formal, restrained tunics and their helmets, and now waddle about, hung with weaponry and radios, in militaristic pullovers and flat caps. Thanks to the years of terrorism, servicemen and women long ago gave up appearing on the streets in uniform, and there are now so few of them anyway that a planned change in the rules is unlikely to have much effect…

Other physical changes have propelled and exaggerated these new ways of thinking. The atomization of society by new types of housing has broken up the old sense of belonging. The crazed over-use of private cars and the triumph of the supermarket over the personal service grocery have kept us from meeting our fellow-creatures as effectively as any strict regime prison, and often reduced us to the level of objects rolling along someone else's production line. Greater than all these things is television, which has replaced individual imagination with images provided and selected by others, but also, and perhaps more importantly, destroyed the old forms of social sanction, a fear of the neighbor's opinion of the even greater fear of upsetting the family. Television provided new judges of our behavior, who were wittier, cleverer and more open-minded than anyone we knew in person. It also transformed child-rearing and narrowed the horizons of childhood itself.

Once, programmes for children had some reference to the outside world, to the old traditions of story-telling. Now, programme-makers devise Teletubbies who are living televisions, with little screens in their stomachs, a simple reflection of the fact that children learn to live their lives through the screen.

Closely linked to this takeover of our brains by TV studios has been the rebuilding of our towns, cities and villages. Life in isolated boxes, next to neighbours with whom we have nothing in common except a postcode, has pushed people into the arms of the new electronic culture. With the deportation of people from crowded city centres to remote estates, the whole shape of our urban life has been altered. Streets are wider, roads straighter, a highly literate cityscape of ornate shopsigns and wordy advertisements has given way to a post-literate one of pictograms, posters and logos. Detail has vanished, replaced by sweeping (and windswept) prospects. Smelly but characteristic features of town life, such as breweries and cattlemarkets, have been uprooted, as have most small urban industries, so that few of us can see any connection between what we consume and its real origins in the field, farmyard or slaughterhouse. Specifically local or specifically British styles of architecture have given way to the international blandness of concrete and glass, fresh air to air conditioning, actually needless in our temperate climate but forced on us by the strange style of buildings which we have chosen. The universal conscription of women into paid work has emptied the suburbs, rich and poor, so that streets, parks, and gardens are depopulated during the day. Distances between home and work, home and school, and extended families have grown far greater.

Lonely and self-reliant, much of our social life concentrated in the workplace rather than the home, we have become a people dependent on television for stimulation of social contact in our leisured hours. Yet few seem to realize the power of a medium which stole into our lives while we were not paying attention. Early television was nothing like the modern force which has now displaced all other forms of culture and entertainment. Its effect on the imagination has been the motor of the new morality and the new conformism." Peter Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain, P. 5-9

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