Wednesday 11 March 2009

Conspicuous combustion

Friends from "home"* keep asking me about the unemployment rate here, and whether people seem as scared as they do in the U.S. I usually say no, because our experience is such that we tend to hang out with creative types who've always had to scramble, who've never owned a stock that didn't come in a cube. We just get on with things and, luckily, find conspicuous consumption pretty boring anyway. Also, there is a safety net in Britain, in the form of certain amenities such as national health care; and we are not assaulted daily by Faux News, MSNBC, and on and on—as previously mentioned, we listen to the radio, and we read. The anti-hysteria filter works better that way.

If you catch a second of someone like Jim Cramer screaming at you from your TV, your nerves are bound to fray; even tuning in to Jon Stewart online for U.S. news (hey, I vowed in January 2001 to get my TV "news" only from him, and I have largely stuck with that strategy), it's hard not to feel the fear. Which is what they want—they meaning the military/industrial complex that wants you to listen to the advertisers and buy buy buy till you forget that your tax dollars are funding its wars. Short-sighted strategy, that one. There is nothing left to buy, as America consumes more than it produces; the well is dry. An artist would call it a major block.

Not to downplay my compatriots' real economic problems though. If I were still in New York, I'd be flipping out too—from the comfort of a cardboard box. As Michael Moore pointed out in Sicko, nobody in Britain goes homeless as a secondary condition of getting cancer. Why people aren't rioting in the streets for nationalized health ... oh, yeah, they're too paralyzed with fear. Meanwhile the freakshow on the right is already blaming Barack Obama for the recession and ex-home-owners for the credit crunch. It would all be really funny, but it's freaking scary.

Of course, Britons are are scared too. I mostly try to ignore it—stick my head in the sand, maybe, but I can't do anything about the threatening global recession. As a freelance writer who's been in the country less than two years, I can't even get a credit card, so it can't be my fault....

Is there as much of a culture of fear in Britain? That seems more the question. Not in my experience. But fear does manifest, in weird ways: for instance, the macabre Jade Goody deathwatch. Perhaps the impending fear of financial (worldly) loss is linked to a primordial fear of death. Just for fun I Googled "fear of death" and Wiki's entry on "Existential crisis" popped up. Veddy interestingk. Jade's tabloid death vigil gives me the chills, and it makes me wonder about the people who pay to read those papers, as well as the publishers. (For the uninitiated, print journalism here plays a very different role than it does in the States—it's weird enough to make even a writer celebrate the death of print.) But perhaps I shouldn't judge. At least someone's making some money. The Goody fascination is a diversionary tactic; a Princess Diana for 2009. The sadness of it makes my head want to implode; whereas if I were in America now, I think, my head would explode from all the screaming. So, I switch off. Time to take stock and make soup.

* I use quotes because home is a really theoretical concept to me now as an expat/immigrant. As my (East) German friend once said when I asked him if he ever missed it, "Home—that's an interesting idea."