As others see us

Which of our attitudes will horrify future generations?  What blind-spots will show up large and clear for all who follow us to point at in sneering horror?

I thought about this because of the discordant notes I found as I read the pre-war letters of the Mitfords and a couple of light-weight romances about English middle class life in the 1930s by Angela Thirkell.   The Mitford letters are in a class of their own and Unity’s breathless descriptions of Hitler are almost beyond comment.   But Thirkell shocked on a more banal level, with its casual, almost colloquial anti-semitism (the heroine’s publisher is good at business and has dark hair,  legacies of Jewish ancestry), its incidental acceptance of ritualised brutality (a  schoolboy who has a toy called “foxy” which is the tail of the fox that blooded him, mounted in to a silver handle), and the assumption that driving a car into a ditch is nothing more than carelessness (perfectly normal because you are drunk or showing off).   Oh and the entirely unironic statement that someone was  “adored by her servants”.  Yeah. Right.  

So which of our assumption and norms will chime as discordantly on our offspring’s ears?

  • Our casual consumerism.
    Our economic woes already makes this seem e
    xtravagant, it won’t be long before it is in poor taste and finally becomes unfashionable.  The question is whether the economy will recover enough before the oil runs out for the indulgences of the previous decade to occur again.
  • Sweatshops.
    I hope future generations judge as as harshly for buying clothes made in sweatshops, wearing them once and throwing them way, as we judge those who opposed Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish slavery. 
  • Recreational travel.
    The idea that responsible, intelligent people who can see the climate changing before their own eyes would indulge in recreational travel without compunction will, surely, be as abhorrent as … oh fill in your own exploitative and selfish horrors here.  And so much business travel is unnecessary that it’s no more than an indulgence.
  • Personal transport.
    Says me.
  • Plastic cutlery and plastic packaging.  
    Our hydrocarbon-starved progeny will  curse us for taking something as rare and unrenewable as oil and turning it into something indesctructable but used only once, and tossing it away into landfill.
  • Landfill.  
    The mines of the future.  Hey kids, curse our names, eat our shit.
  • Our dual standards around obesity, dieting, size zero and BMIs.
    Next time you are in a supermarket, count the magazines by the till that are running two cover splashes, one on the dangers of anorexia or dieting, and the other jibing at some poor famous neurotic’s gain in weight.
  • Our hypocricy about the sexualisation of childhood.
    Same as above.  Newspapers simultaniously run “string-em-up” rants about paedophilias and drooling comments like those about the then 15-year old Charlotte Church’s breasts.
  • Our simultanous delight in technology and indulgence in pseudo-science.
    My mind’s run out of things to say.  Just read any ad for cosmetics or the incomparable Dr Ben Goldacre.

Ach, that’s enough to be going on with.

Incidentally, it isn’t just about when people live it’s also about how they react to their times:  Thirkell is particularly insensitive to the darker side of the 1930s but her conteporary Margery Sharp had a much clearer understanding of the social and political nuances of the times she lived in.

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9 responses to “As others see us

  1. Yes, there were blind spots in the 1930s. But they were peanuts compared to the near-total collapse of moral sensibility today.

  2. Sorry to be the boring one, but hydrocarbons are a renewable resource, and by the time landfill sites become mines we’ll have the technology to extract more useful things than the energy rich methane (a hydrocarbon too…) that we already extract from them.

    What’s not renewable is specifically fossil fuel oil, but once again there’s an economic/environmental cost/benefit thing going on. We are emphatically NOT going to run out of oil any time in the next century or two. What we are going to start doing is looking for it where it is – in beautiful places where right now tree-huggers stop us drilling. But when it starts to be a choice between building an oilrig in a forest or freezing to death, smart money is on the oil rig.

    Before the oil runs out, we’ll have other sources of energy anyway, and energy is what we really need. If you’ve got energy, you can electrolyse water and generate hydrogen, which you can then oxidise in a fuel cell to make energy and water. In 100 years, all cars will be like this. My own business is near the cutting edge of this, and it wouldn’t be giving away any secrets I could get fired for to say that we’ll see a quantum leap in the viability of solar power generation within the next decade. Other sources of renewable energy will become important too.

    Blind spots now? Phew, how long have you got. I’ve got a million of ’em.

    First of all, we’ll look back and think how prophetic Joss Whedon was in his world-building for the TV show “Firefly”. In it, everyone is basically bilingual in English and Mandarin. The blind spot now is us pretending that China isn’t going to be the dominant superpower by the end of this century, or possibly even the middle. Obama is going to preside, I hope, over the first stage of America’s dignified decline.

    In 100 years, our Mandarin speaking descendants will wonder why on earth Jews were so significant in foreign policy for so long, and why their behaviour was tolerated by the rest of the world. There are about as many Jews in the world as there are people in Burkina Faso, and yet pretty much every one of us has some or other aspect of our lives dictated by the need to atone for the Holocaust. If Israel did not exist, would there have been a 9/11, 7/7 etc.?

    When there are no longer any living survivors of the Holocaust, the global sense of guilt and indulgence towards Jews will be massively reduced, and patience with Israel will shorten, possibly fatally.

    That, combined with the fact that the Chinese won’t give a monkey’s chuff who gassed who or why 150 years ago, and significantly will be richer than all the Jewish-owned or dominated businesses in the West, will mean the current prominence of Jewish concerns in every aspect of culture will be reduced. Also, there’s the distinct possibility that at some point in the next 100 years someone will reduce Jerusalem to an uninhabitable pool of radioactive slag, thus rather ending the row between the Jews and Muslims over who gets to live there. We can but hope the casualties will be minimal.

    I don’t like to think too hard about it, but I fear that in 100 years people like us may look back on this era as an intellectual golden age when atheism was tolerated. We seem to me to be on a slide back into the benighted ages of religion. I hope not.

  3. The currently dominant fundamentalism in China is atheistic Marxism – not Confucianism or Taoism, unfortunately.

  4. Future generations will either look back and think Watchmen was a heroic failure or the greatest comic book movie ever made of the greatest comic book ever made. I’m hoping the latter. Apropos of that:

    Trailer:

    Keene Act PSA:

    Doctor Manhattan, ten years on:

    Here’s hoping the movie is made of win…

  5. Brilliant. I wonder why these questions aren’t being pondered in the mainstream media…

  6. How on earth did you come across Angela Thirkell? Casual anti-Semitisim is a fact of life. I have just read ‘Vanity Fair’ for the first time. The depiction of the money-lenders with their imperfect grasp of English isn’t so different. And if you look at some present-day animation, you’ll find a plethora of villains cast cast in distinctly anti-Semitic shades. Angela Thirkell presents an idealised picture of English country life full of nostalgia (for her, all that was good was killed of by WW2) but her notions about servants/foreigners/class were only exaggerated forms of what other people were thinking and saying at the time….

    • I agree Omega Mum, and I might also add that I think that the horrors of being in service have been vastly exaggerated in recent years (for example in the film Gosford Park). There were certainly a lot worse fates than being a servant in an upper-class country house. And certainly Thirkell’s books are a lot more realistic than, say, Wodehouse.

  7. This is why I read your blog. That is exactly my list, succinctly and perfectly described.

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