Friday, June 18, 2004

Status Anxiety, The American Dream and the Decent Society

I see No Right Turn has already posted an item on this subject but I was also inspired to write about the Status Anxiety program on TV One last night. The program explored the link between the transition from monarchy to democracy (or "meritocracy") with a growth in unhappiness arising from increased expectations. People living under a monarchy had no or little hope (and therefore no or little expectation) of advancement. People living under a democracy know that anything is possible and that it's their own fault if they don't achieve it. That seems more than a little facile - the logical extension of this belief is that slaves are the happiest of all men. In fact, people living under a monarchy do have aspirations (however modest) and succeeded or failed in meeting them according to their luck or ability. English (or Scots) men who succeeded far beyond reasonable expectations for their social standing include Oliver Cromwell, William Shakespeare, Francis Drake and Robert Burns. Others tried but failed tragically (Wat Tyler, the Tolpuddle Martyrs). In focussing on the USA as the sole example of "Democracy" the program used a grossly non-representative sample.

Is the USA really less class-ridden than the UK? Even in the early 20th century the British aristocracy had little difficulty determining which American heiresses were suitably bred to rejuvenate their flagging family fortunes (Van der Bilt Yes, Simpson No). And what are the odds on the USA electing a humble grocer's son (much
less a grocer's daughter) president.

Are the (unnamed) European democracies more compassionate than the USA only because they remain aristocratic? England and France gave their monarchs the ultimate facelift 127 years before and 17 years after the American Declaration of Independence respectively. The constitutional monarchies in the Netherlands and Scandinavia have values very close to those of the New Zealand "Decent Society" which Jim Bolgier never quite got us back to and to describe them as "class-ridden" or "aristocratic" is bizzare.

Is democracy the only thing leading to increased expctations? What about the role of mass consumerism? Does the bombardment of our airwaves with an endless stream of images promoting unattainable aspirations (the "content breaks" as well as the commercials) have no role in this contagion of discontent? Does the difference between the BBC and Fox account for any of the differences between Britain and America? Are the non-Anglophone Europeans at least partially protected from trans-Atlantic cultural colonisation? Can the New Zealand experience of moving from a BBC model to the most crassly commercial shed any light on these questions?

The main social difference between America and the liberal European democracies is in the nature of their dreams. The American dream is about "success" (ie succeeding at becoming rich, famous ansd powerful). The liberal dream is to be happy and a liberal is not happy with prosperity stolen from the poor, ripped from a ravaged landscape or purchased with a mortgage against our grandchildren's future. New Zealand used to be firmly in the liberal camp and I suspect most of us still are (as individuals) but we have a recent history that suggests a flight towards the conservative economic agenda currently dominant in America (but opposed by many Americans).

Perhaps the hallmark of our dreams is the choice of heroes we choose to look up to. Any country has its share of passing banalities among its heroes but if we look at those that remain after the usual parade of sports stars, rock stars, film stars, beautiful people and TV personalities have passed we may get some idea of a nations psyche. American lists will include Bill Gates (not because he was the father of the PC revolution but because he made more money than any one else) and Donald Trump (because that's how I'll live when I'm rich). The BRT and others frequently bemoan our failure to honour our captains of industry and mutter darkly about Tall Poppy Syndrome but I have never heard a New Zealander try to knock down our genuine achievers (Ernest Rutherford, Kiri Te Kanawa, Edmund Hillary, Peter Jackson) and those such as Hillary, Peter Blake or Fred Hollows who have added service to humanity onto their achievements are universally admired. We do not begrudge the rich their wealth if they have come by it honestly and they may enjoy its fruits with our blessing but we reserve honour for genuine achievement. For the record Greyshade's three most admired people of the twentieth century are Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.


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