Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sex, Booze And Guns


Children who drink alcoholic milk called Kefir are much less likely to get food allergies, says the Society of Chemical Industry. The fermented cow-juice inhibits the allergen specific antibody Immunoglobulin E (IgE). Reading this oddly reminded me of the conversation I had with The Mighty P.P. about decency.

I was recalling how in the first dot com boom, in 1998, a venture-capitalised US start up, using the domain www.www.com (it's no longer there) approached me to run their musical European operations. They had (don't they always) BIG plans to be the next big "content" channel. They offered me $50k p.a., a really nice place to live in California, shares in the company, and I was tempted. I was single, I was just coming out of my first sabbatical, and I was up for a change. This could have been it, so I researched the company and looked at what was on offer.

Pretty soon I realised a couple of things about this company which raised significant doubts about its long-term prospects. First, it was a put-together, top-down, formulaic affair, constructed by people with little or no knowledge of culture. This was evident by the fact that my would-be boss - in charge of the US - was possessed of one single claim to fame, viz, that he had sold Real Media to the US military. I searched in vain for some indication that he had editorial, journalistic or entertainment business credentials but found none.

Second, as I skimmed through the few deals they had in place, it was obvious that they were aiming this cultural offering right at the very narrowest, most conservative audience within mainstream America, and that this was not going to convince anyone outside of these communities, and especially not in Europe, used to art house radicalism and regular revolutions of the wheel which defy censorship. I remember having the nipple conversation with the lovely woman who was trying to recruit me.

Me: "The problem is censorship. For a European, a nipple or a bare bottom is quite normal and natural. In the States, it's indecency. How much leeway will I be allowed here?"

Her: "How do you mean? Are we talking pornography here?"

Me: "Um, no. Just the nipple. Not hard-core pornography. You know, like in paintings?

Her: "No I don't think we have those kinds of paintings here."

Me: "Ummm... you do. Maybe you haven't seen them? Paintings by Titian, for example, or any from the renaissance... you know, often they have religious or classical themes."

Her: "And these paintings show sex?"

Me: "No, just naked bodies."

Her: "I'm not sure about that."

Me: "It's just that we don't have any problem with these kinds of images. They have been part of our culture for hundreds of years and we can understand the difference between them and pornography."

Her: "I'm not sure that's a view we can take."

I decided not to take the job.

The Mighty P.P. is a British parent. He's fairly tolerant but he won't take shit, as we say in these parts. When it comes to drawing the line, he will do, but he rarely needs to - his kids seem pretty balanced. So, he was in the States, staying with some friends, and they were discussing alcohol. He said that he allowed his 13 year old to drink half a pint of cider (fermented apples) at a summer music festival. His American hosts were appalled by this - "Don't you know you can be locked up for administering alcohol or drugs to a minor?" - and so he ran through the arguments that supervised exposure is better than a ban, which fuels unguided experimentation, but they were having none of it.

As he told his tale, I recall being allowed the same indulgence as a child and smiled at the memory. I recalled my Italian friends calmly giving very watered-down wine to their five year old, just to make sure it was no big deal and that being left out didn't encourage over-curiosity. It had worked for them, they explained. Wine was food, was it not? A part of life which must be understood to be properly enjoyed.

So, The Mighty P.P. continued, he was staying with this perfectly nice, normal US family, and while they were chatting about these cultural differences, he heard sudden repeated shots and became alarmed. "Don't worry, that's just Tommy," he was reassured. "Tommy! Come here and show your AK47." Turned out that one of their two kids had a replica AK47 BB gun, and the other, a model Uzi. The kids, he was told, were encouraged to use these, and every so often, taken to a large canyon nearby, and given the real thing, with real bullets, just to make sure they could use guns properly. As the shots resounded and richocheted, a police car would sometimes turn up to check them out. Seeing a happy, gun-slinging, all-American family in action, the cop would simply say, "Be safe now!" and drive off.

Here lies an acute blindness on the part of the Great American Public, and some bizarre and twisted values. Sex, or more particularly, the public celebration of sexuality, is wrong and bad, and along with alcohol, drugs, gambling, part of the gushing font of liberal evil - but violence is absolutely wonderful. It's an embedded, condoned, feted part of the American psyche, this love of guns, and it goes to the very top - NRA being incredibly well-organised lobbyists - and down to the deepest roots of US family life.

I recall the murder rate on the Canadian side of the border being a hell of a lot lower than the American, with the same amount of guns available to both. I don't recall any children being shot to death in a schoolhouse by a nipple.

So complete is the conservative victory over the American mind, you'd think the 60s revolution, make love, not war, never happened.

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