Thu, Jul 10, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The public is living in a fairy tale

Fundamentalism and dumbing-down in the West are signs of self-indulgence and a lack of hard choices

By Justin Cartwright  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

I was driving through up-state New York recently. In Buffalo, the huge people out on the street were sipping from giant plastic cups, while shambling about in loose tracksuits and tops decorated with the upbeat emblem of the Buffalo Bills. I stopped at a diner for breakfast, where everyone was eating generous combinations of kiddies' food: pancakes with syrup, eggs over easy or sunny side up, juice, milk, milkshakes. As the waitresses made encouraging noises it suddenly occurred to me that they were treating us exactly as if we were huge babies. And every time I watched television, the presenters -- coiffed, buffed and shining -- were speaking as if to infants, cheerfully, full of encouragement, sometimes switching to a grave demeanour for the important stuff like the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction.

But this is not an anti-American rant, even if US President George W. Bush did find it necessary to explain what the phrase "dead or alive" meant, and even if he has promised to smoke the evil ones out of their caves. Bushisms are only one example of a phenomenon I have begun to notice everywhere: the infantilizing of the public, with the public's eager connivance. And no public is conniving more eagerly than the British public, particularly if we can accept that our own speciality, "reality" TV, means anything at all.

The puzzle, as a new book by Nick Clarke, The Shadow of a Nation: The Changing Face of Britain, asks, is why the popular mood has changed so radically from one of cautious self-restraint to a religious zeal for gratification. The demonstrable result of this change is the extraordinary number of obese people who lumber around the streets and presumably even more who stay at home because they can't lumber at all. Last week in Yorkshire, in the north of England, I was, until the eye adjusted, astounded by the size of men, women and children. But over-eating is in a sense only the obvious and visible sign of a fall from grace, a sort of perversion of the sacraments. In all sorts of ways we act as if there are no consequences.

How has this come about? In 1937, Walt Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. With hindsight, this may have been a very significant moment. Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Holocaust, the darkest imaginable horror, said the message of fairy tales is that struggles against severe difficulties in life are unavoidable.

Although fairy tales simplify the moral problems and provide improbable solutions in the form of tasks and magical tools, these tales once contained dark and unpalatable truths, mortality being the best example. But with Snow White, Disney produced the happy fairy tale: the unpleasantness of life was expunged: the wicked stepmother was not required to dance in red-hot iron shoes. Instead, hard work, a good attitude and cheerful demeanour were shown to triumph over the irrational.

In subsequent animations, the magic became a sort of lifestyle accessory. Nobody had chunks of their head used as an ingredient of soup, or their fingers cut off; in fact they were not required to confront death at all. And it is a consistent feature of the new infantilism that there are no consequences. The Iraq war, from "Shock and Awe" to "Saving Private Jessica Lynch", demonstrated that the unpleasantness of battle can be expunged and can be largely painless for those with the technology -- in other words, exactly like a video game. But of course there have been consequences, and we are likely to feel the force of them in the near future.

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