Monday, May 4, 2009

David Burchell, Public Health Authorities, Do Gooders, Perversity and the joy of viscerally adversarial responses

(Above: but, but, but, she looks so healthy, and so sexy. Damn you public health authorities and all you cancer councils and your diabolical caring campaigns, damn you all to hell).

Perversity is an essential component in the commentariat. How they hate do gooders and tree huggers and compassionate types who want to save the world, and interfering bureaucrats and humbugging politicians and sanctimonious peaceniks, and did I mention all kinds of do gooders?

How much better to celebrate perverse types intent on pursuing their own follies. (That's why you'll never prise the fags from Tim Blair's cold, dead hands).

Except of course if there seems to be some kind of problem with a magic pill, and a lot of mug punters get swindled and then the commentariat are out howling at the wind, demanding justice with a capital J. Even if there's no way the hopeless government and its hopeless bureaucrats can deliver the J and incidentally save us from our greed, with all their silly warnings about taking care and personal responsibility.

But we're not talking here about Paul Sheehan, and his quest to punish purveyors of magic water and magic pills, and the abject failure of government and bureaucrats to deliver, we're talking about the splendid piece by David Burchell in today's Australian entitled Sharing, scaring feeling.

Now you might find some logical contradictions in Burchell's piece - first he spends some considerable time quoting Thomas Hobbes, establishing that fear is a basic human motivator. He even suggests fear and civilization are twins.

Then he spends the rest of his column berating government for inducing fear in people about such ordinary, harmless activities as drinking to excess, driving really fast and really badly, and smoking. By using advertisements that seek to exploit fear, when they could beguiling us with the promise of wild sex.

Motoring safety ads insist that if we drive carelessly, sooner or later we are bound to incinerate our families in a flaming wreck, and will be doomed, like one of Dante's tormented souls, to relive the memory of our carelessness in perpetuity. Anti-smoking ads present taxonomies of rasping cough with all the loving attention of a field anthropologist collecting African tribal chants. One shows a chair-bound lung cancer sufferer who is condemned to watch - as if in mute demonstration of his waning manhood - as his wife mows the lawn, arduously, with an old-fashioned push mower. Such are the delicate entertainments that the protection of our health requires.

Well yes, and so very unfair of the bureaucrats to refuse to run Burchell's own ingenious campaign that suggests if you drive carelessly, but with a little care, like as not you can avoid a crash, especially if you've had enough to drink to allow you a fearless approach to speeding. 

Cut to a scene in Mad Men

Paul Kinsey: so we show this boring man drinking soft drink and going at the speed limit and avoiding crashes, and then he gets home ...
Don Draper: fuck, I'm bored already. Hit me with a scotch and another fag.
Paul Kinsey: ... and then when he gets home, he gets carpet burn from all the wild sex he gets.
Don Draper: ... so we're warning about carpet burn during sex?
Paul Kinsey: ... no, it's just a way of saying that if you're boring as batshit, but you stay alive, you can have wild sex.
Don Draper: Why would anyone want wild sex when they can get pissed as a parrot and go for a drive?
Paul Kinsey: Good point Don, we'll do a re-think.
Don Draper: Do that. 
Paul Kinsey: How about we show him getting pissed, crashing and killing himself?
Don Draper: I like it. He's some kind of rebel right? James Dean type?
Paul Kinsey: Yeah, speed kills, but it's great fun. And you get vestal virgins in the afterlife.
Don Draper: Great, life's short, have another drink, hit me with a vestal from the typing pool and light me up.

Don's surely right. It makes sense to suggest to people that good health can be theirs in perpetuity if they smoke only a little in a rational way - as cigarettes are never addictive, and even if they are where's the harm in a little smoker's cough (or if you insist, lung cancer - it's such a fun and humane way to die).

Yes, no need to warn citizens of likely outcomes. Let them make their own mistakes in their own time, and if they die in the process, that's their choice. Always with the choice already.

No wonder it's all too much for Burchell, who elevates perversity into the kind of sanctity usually reserved for motherhood.

It's almost impossible to watch ads of this ilk - cruel and manipulative, but in the service of the highest public health ideals - without developing a viscerally adversarial response to them. One ad commissioned by the NSW Cancer Council seeks to persuade us "there's no such thing as a safe tan". Even as a young fellow gambols with a football in the afternoon light, the sun's dastardly rays are insinuating themselves into the fibres of his flesh, creating cancerous deformities that will consign him to an early grave. Whenever I see this ad I am reminded of the professional pallor characteristic of eminent surgeons, and of those white straw hats they like to park on the back window-ledges of their cars. "Be more like me," the ads seem to say. And so again the intended effect of the message is turned upside-down.

Well yes David, indeedy, you go frolic in the sun as much as you like - oil yourself up and get yourself all leathery, like an outer layer of pig skin given a good roasting in the oven at 180 degrees for three hours. Collect as many skin cancers as you like, and make sure you never wear a hat so they can congregate on your face and neck. So much better than a pallid Emo Goth look, and so much healthier, and I'm told chicks just love to munch on leather lips.

Just one little thing - we'd like you to sign this waiver to make sure you don't ever intend to use public health facilities as you perversely try to rectify the results of your perversity by seeking a cure for your skin cancer. It's either the private sector, or off to an early grave for you.

But here's the real catch. Burchell thinks it's about inducing fearfulness, when in reality it should be about inducing sensible behavior. But sensibleness and the commentariat are mutually exclusive labels.

They like to celebrate perverse, anti-social behavior because it distinguishes them from the fearful sheep who follow the orders of central command socialism. Oh these fine Charles Bukowski rebels, is there nothing they won't do to sustain their image as anarchistic firebrands?

Maybe they can take a dose of the placebo pills we're peddling this week - a week's life-saving course will only set you back a measly, humble thousand, while a franchise partnership is just an alarmingly small million smackeroos - and in the process of selling placebo tablets, you can save the world from public health mumbo jumbo do gooding.

Dearie me, poor public authorities, caught between Paul Sheehan and David Burchell. Talk about a rock and a hard place, or is that a hard place and a rock?

I have no reason to doubt that human-made carbon emissions are having a worrying effect on the planet's health. Yet whenever I hear Al Gore sermonising on our imminent doom, I can feel my hackles rising. In a speech last year Gore told us we were doomed to extinction unless we switched entirely to renewable energy sources within a decade. Yet, as researchers on the Arctic's thinning ice sheet have observed, "because excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, it will take at least a few decades for concentrations to peak and then to decline even if concerted efforts to reduce emissions are begun immediately". By this logic, Al's message is the counsel of despair. Any reasonable citizen, taking him seriously, would do better to eat, drink and be merry because to listen any further to the Gore gospel would reduce you, again, to a huddled fearfulness.

But there is at least this to be said for Gore's foolishness; when these ideas come out of his mouth, he no doubt sincerely believes them to be true. In the case of our public health authorities, I'm not quite so sure.

Well there you go, but lord knows what the commentariat might think. Believing in Al Gore in preference to believing in public health authorities? Which devil is worse?

It has to be those vile public health authorities for sure. How on earth would they know that the sun causes skin cancer? Why on earth do they believe smoking kills? How dare they suggest careless driving and drinking and speeding actually leads to collisions on the road, and the incidental deaths of people. And show us our innards infested by cancer, or our guts spread over the road! Sure it might happen daily, but to show it, when we could be watching Shrek!

What clowns they are with their pious lecturing and their smarmy tongue clucking. The new puritans with their ads and their attempts to sway us from perversity.

Well I'm with Mr. Burchell. Let a zillion cancers bloom, let a million crashes happen, let us all develop viscerally adversarial responses to all these hopeless do gooders. Eat, drink and be merry ... right up until your liver and your kidney gives up the ghost. As for slip, slop, slap, only if it involves sex, thank you very much.

Err, just one thing. Remember that waiver we wanted Mr. Burchell to sign saying he wouldn't trouble the hospitals when things go wrong?

You know like driving while pissed as a parrot and deciding that ramming a power pole was a good way home, and thinking somehow you're entitled to visit emergency. Or wanting some time on a kidney machine, or worst of all, thinking your gradual decline through lung cancer is something we should care about?

Just sign the waiver, and I promise you we can stop all this fear-mongering and the bureaucratic health industry in an instant. You won't hear any more from the do gooders.

And at least there's something to be said for Burchell's foolishness; when these ideas come out of his mouth, he no doubt sincerely believes them to be true, in a perverse kind of a way. Whether he makes any more sense than the public health authorities, I'm not quite sure.

But I think it's likely he's never cleaned up after a crash, or had to deal up close with cancers induced by stupidity on a daily basis.

Oh will nothing save us from these pompous prats and their constant hectoring.

(Below: as if listening to headphones could lead to this. I love to spend my time on the road listening to the mobile phone, catching up on email and using the iPhone to check out the intertubes, and so far I haven't crashed once, though I do seem to remember some guy veering around rather strangely, as if trying to avoid me. Silly loon.)

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