The low hum of the mythical golden age which infects the media, the national conversation and the very zeitgeist itself has snarled up into a roar. A new book in America claims to have identified an ‘epidemic of narcissism’. In a similar epidemic of word association, once narcissism is out there, it immediately leads to Twitter and blogging. Miss Whistle has a lovely post up about a dinner party where an opinionated gentleman had a nice rant about all the self-regarding idiots who Tweet. In last week’s Spectator, Bryan Forbes, a good director and a kind man, had a mad as hell piece about how we are living in a society of vapid celebrities and lying politicians, while the education system spews out ‘armies of illiterates’. The headline yelled of our ‘morally impoverished culture’.
The overt message of all this is, as usual, that we are all doomed. We are a bunch of craven solipsists, palsied by our obsession with Britney Spears, atomised in our little virtual worlds where we must document what we had for breakfast, for the world to know. The implied message is that because it is all shit now, it must have been wonderful then. I keep scratching my head in a frowny effort to work out when this marvellous time of moral rectitude, selflessness and unimpeachable public life was. I am not going to test your glorious patience by running through the list of child labour, anti-semitism, glassy-eyed housewives hopped up on tranquillisers, plutocrats screwing down wages, and lack of welfare that littered much of the 20th century. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most lauded world leaders had peccadilloes that would not survive a moment’s scrutiny by today’s tabloids – Gladstone with his ladies of the street, Kennedy with all ladies, street or not, Churchill with his brandy. I am not going to send you blind with statistics, although I could point out that in this moral wasteland that is modern Britain, over five million people work as unpaid carers, their ruthless selfishness driving them to look after the halt and the lame.
Instead, I am going to direct you to Twitter, the lair of the contemporary narcissist, where all the me-me-mes come out to play. Over the last two weeks, this is what has been going on in my little corner of the Twitterverse –
A viral campaign has been raging to try and influence the Iranian government to free Roxana Saberi, the journalist incarcerated in Evin Prison. (I’ve written about this before, and I shall write about it again.)
Sarah Brown is using Twitter to raise awareness about the thousands of women dying needlessly in childbirth.
People have made actual jokes.
A fellow in America is mounting a furious one-man action to get Joe Scarborough sacked from his show on MSNBC, because he keeps shouting at people about how waterboarding is not really torture, and what are we supposed to do to suspected terrorists – give them birthday cake?
Recipes have been swapped, interesting articles highlighted, and general helpful household tips exchanged. (One of the best things about Twitter is that it is like a filter for the morass that is the interweb: you find interesting people to follow, and they then direct you to interesting things they have found out there in cyberspace, saving you amazing amounts of time and trouble, and letting you become informed about subjects you had no knowledge of.)
One man in France has continued his genius idea of writing a novel every day in three lines. The vignettes are surreal, intellectual, funny and surprising.
This morning, for no particular reason, a quotathon has broken out – Scott Fitzgerald vs Oscar Wilde vs Winston Churchill. I suspect it may continue for some time.
I’m not getting pious about Twitter. It has its patches of dullness and pointlessness just as life does. There are people who tweet of bagels and muffins; there are people who trade in banality; there are people who indulge in an orgy of shameless self-promotion. But it is not the sewer and sink of all our ills, and to say so is just cheap and lazy, and, ironically, blastingly dull.
And as for the young people, this fabled army of ASBO illiterates, capable only of texting and annoying old ladies on the bus and saying ‘like’ a lot – if you believe, like me, that they are getting a bad press, just go and have a look at The Speaker on the BBC iplayer. I’m not much for reality shows, but this one makes me cry. It has its flaws – breathless, slightly manipulative voiceover, excessive sense of its own drama – but it is a true tonic for the troops. The simple premise is to find young people who want to win a public speaking competition, put them through a series of tests, see who has the right stuff. What is astonishing and tear-making is not their undeniable talents, but their characters. They mostly come from working class backgrounds, comprehensive schools, council estates. They are bright, witty, passionate, determined and kind. In the snapshots we see of their home life, they are surrounded by love from friends and family. I refuse to believe that in some scurrilous piece of social engineering, the BBC has managed to find the only children in Britain who inspire hope and admiration. I think, whisper it, that they might be representative of something that is not going to the dogs at all. I think they tell us, without ever saying the words, that we might not be doomed after all.