Tuesday 19 February 2008

Hunter, Hellraisers and Viral Democracy...

Today is the third anniversary of the suicide of Hunter S Thompson. Rest in peace, you mad old bastard, and thanks for the dream. A brief digest of the press this week is enough to prove that this world was never meant for a rule stomping genius like you. ....


It's not often I'm driven to a book review by sheer annoyance. Oliver James' Affluenza, however - currently number three in the bestseller lists and rising - is such a staggering load of abysmal, dangerous rubbish that it was review or risk self-poisoning by paper sludge in an attempt to vent senseless rage at the book by chewing and eating it. Affluenza is a muddle of trite social 'observations' strung together by no more than a series of carefully chosen anecdotes, under-researched or unsupported at best, casually racist, misogynist, classist and breathtakingly anodine at worst.

To give James his due, he starts off with a fairly sound piece of reasoning - human beings in the west have come to see themselves as 'personality commodities', and behave accordingly, resulting in massive increases in depression, anxiety and emotional ill-health. This is all keyed in to what James, in a stunning feat of tautology, terms 'Selfish Capitalism'. From there, however, it's all downhill: the first chapter is used to introduce the weary underlying metaphor of the entire 546 page tome, namely that one can become 'infected' by Selfish Capitalism and by personal commodification, henceforth referred to, in almost every churning paragraph of the
book, as the 'Affluenza Virus', or simply 'The Virus'.

This, to me, smacks of an author who liked 'The Matrix' trilogy a little too much (even 'Revolutions'). James' reasoning, however, fails to reach even the limited levels of subtlety commanded by the Wachowski brothers, not to mention that the fight scenes aren't half so cool. The sizzling hero, moreover, leaves much to be desired: James himself is an obtrusive prescence, cropping up everywhere, 'like an itinerant Marie Curie...triumphantly clutching vaccines which immunise us against the Virus, phials of tactics for making the best of the very bad job the world has become'. Oh yes, Oliver, thrust those tactic-phials deep into our sick and trembling 21st-century souls: only you can save us.

Within the first few pages, James comes out with such gems as:

'Whilst poverty fosters survival materialism, it does not result in illness'. (Been to Africa at all, Oliver?)

'women are more materialistic in their preferences when choosing a partner'. (Not explained, not supported, just plonked there as the given background to a series of paragraphs on how the grabbiness of the girls on Sex and the City can be put down to physiology).

Comparing a New York Banker to Chet, the amiable Nigerian taxi driver who had driven James to the meeting -'his apartment was big enough to fit a whole family of Chets'. Yes, because all African descendants like to live in huge, tribe like families, and can be reduced to the same cheery, poverty-stricken archetype. Of course.

I'm really not making this stuff up. All of James 'evidence' is anecdotal. Some unsourced statistics are peppered around the place, but in vague and generalised terms, such as when he declares that, at one Oxford college, one in three female students claims to have been seriously eating disordered at one point in her life, and one in ten is currently suffering. The college, Mr James, was University College, Oxford, and I know exactly how easy that statistic is to find, because I myself used it in a last-minute addendum to an article for my student paper about 6 months before your book went to press. Must try harder.

Now let's talk more about what James thinks about women:

'Do not deceive yourself about the reasons you are returning to work. Do you really need the money? Can you not live in a cheaper house or cut down on your outgoings? The authenticity, vivacity and playfulness of small children is hugely rewarding, a much greater boon than any number of promotions or pay rises...'

'Women who divorce or separate are often more depressed after doing so, even if they were with a truly vile man...before you divorce the father of your child, see a therapist and check what you are bringing to the feast.'

'If you have a daughter who is already showing signs of being a high-flyer, discourage academic prize-hunting and engage with her authentic interests'

[Susan is a talented, high-flying and wealthy advertising executive, interviewed about her self-starting skills]. 'When I made the obvious point, that a relationship in which she might find herself depending on a man must have been rather daunting....' - yes, because all successful women will come to depend on one man eventually, if they want to be truly fulfilled, won't they? Ta for clearing that one up.

What sets the teeth on edge about Oliver James' absurd generalisations on the state of feminism today isn't his casual dismissal, nor the way in which, in a book whose premise is to stop people seeing themselves as commodities, he persists in treating women as base-line baking-tins whose primary purpose is to squeeze out babies. No, it's simply the way he spouts all this humourless, gender-reductionist rubbish so patronisingly and self-importantly, as if he were the first person ever to have thought of this, and wouldn't we all be so much happier if we just listened to him?

Homosexual men and women do not exist in James' fantasy world, and nor do bisexuals, poly- or trans-sexuals, or, indeed, anyone who doesn't see marriage as the ultimate goal in life -his 'four types of marriage', which takes up much of Affluenza's 'women and relationships' section, is good for a giggle. Just don't let it stick between your teeth. When not being casually misogynist in a roundabout advocation of a return to fifties' gender-stratification, James' solutions are primitivist, reductivist, and based purely on observations of one set of people: the white, monied middle-classes. How this book is meant to be the 'sizzling reality check' claimed by its promotional material remains arcane.

What's even worse is that Affluenza is remarkably easy to read, which means that this banal piece of social propaganda will be gobbled up by commuters and stressed middle-class homemakers across the country. Apparently, James is already planning a sequel. Yes, that sound of rumbling, squelching and distant blasphemy is Hunter Thompson turning in his grave.


Elsewhere in the travesty that was once the British press, the Guardian, in a move that was either sheer PR genius, tit-itching stupidity or some sick hybrid of the two, saw fit to launch a blog by the clueless son of an in-house travel writer, detailing his plans for his gap-year trip to the colonies the young, dumb middle-class swilling fields of India and Thailand, for booze, birds and other horizon-expanding pursuits. 'Cliches', declares Max Gogarty, 'exist for a reason.' The comments make excellent reading, and, much to my gurning delight, the poor boy has already made it into the Wikipedia entry on nepotism. Great to see that press hypocrisy is alive and well upon this most auspicious of Wednesday afternoons, even though other Guardian employees have risibly tried to defend the kid by comparing his situation to the Cultural Revolution. I'd feel a little more sorry for darling Maxie if he had anything to say, or enough wit and self-effacing panache to say nothing with style. But this is bland, content-free garbage, and fair play to the CiF commentators who brought this shocking editorial decision to book. Max Gogarty has justifiably become an internet 'virus'.

Daddy has stepped in
now, of course, but too late to stop the wave of mostly reasoned vituperation from commentators within the Guardian network and beyond. Rafael Behr bewails, in response to poor Maxie's plight (according to his father, 'he has said that he doesn't like the media world now. He doesn't want to go into it any more.'):

'The web is no community. It is brilliant for some things. It does information, misinformation, entertainment and commerce. It does freedom. But one thing it doesn't do is democracy'

In fact, this is a perfect of example of hyper-democracy in its purest form: the power of the people in an age where the mainstream free press is anything but. Barely twenty-four hours after this 19 year old's self-satisfied Great Sneer diary is launched, hyperspace is ablaze with voices of denunciation, and the piece is pulled.

Forget 'affluenza', this is real modern Viral politics at work: the potential of the internet to spread information and and rouse response to hypocrisy, nepotism and patent class privilege. The press may not be free, but between us we've got the power to bring truth and reason to the offices and boardrooms of the rich and privileged. There's magic in that. Perhaps Saint Hunter would have been proud, after all.

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