August 15th, 2006


Who the hell do you think I want to be?

As a general rule, British and American people idolize their own culture's richest, most famous and successful members, whereas the French idolize exotic foreign "others" -- the poorer, obscurer and further away the better. Or do I mean the lower middle classes of Britain, France and America worship bling and glitz, whereas the upper middle classes of those nations like documentaries about "unspoiled" ways of life? Yes, that's partly what I mean too.

There are clear cultural differences in attitudes to "the other". I see them daily in the editorial and textural differences between the cable TV stations I get. CNN and the BBC (while also somewhat different from each other -- the BBC has a slightly more "anthropological" approach) are basically financial, logistical, empirical, developmental and moral in their approach to the third world. French networks like TV5 and Arte, on the other hand, present long documentaries focused on "the art of living", on ways of being, on the aesthetic, the ethical and the textural. Whereas Anglo-media tends to portray traditional society as a deeply problematical zone of suffering, backwardness, poverty and oppression, Euro-media is more likely to ply the viewer with rich images of exoticism; to celebrate the otherness of the other rather than try to reduce it.

Anglo-Saxon coverage of the third world focuses on its difference as a kind of misery, whereas European coverage focuses on it as a kind of happiness. As a result, Anglo-Saxon policy (including Angrael's current multi-pronged war) is guided by a misapprehension: the idea that the "developing world" wants nothing more than to become like us. The more ambivalent European attitude is that we should make cultural "exchanges" with traditional societies, and, in some cases, become more like them. This attitude appalls the Angraeli right, who turn it into visions of a "Eurabia" where an "Islamofascist other" dominates white Europeans and converts them into "dhimmis"; tame, passive aphids.

I feel at home with the French attitude to Africa, Asia, the Middle East. And I feel increasingly alienated from -- and repulsed by -- the Anglo culture's focus on celebrity and aspiration. I locate the menace of fascism in bling-glitz culture, not in "Islamofascism". Comedian Bill Bailey has a funny line summing up the weirdly mixed British attitudes to bling-glitz: "We have this strange conflict, where we simultaneously say 'I want to be you' and 'Who do you think you are?', leaving us with a strange loop of 'Who do you think I want to be?'" It's a question the "developing world" is increasingly asking the West.

"Who do you think you are?" is what remains of the British interest in egalitarianism and fair play; let's cut down the mighty. "I want to be you" is a more recent meritocratic and Nietzschean American import of glitz-aspiration culture. The two impulses are at war in Britain (or do I mean in the lower middle classes?). In France, this deadly mix of envy and admiration is avoided. The attitude seems to be: "We are the French, and we are rich compared to these people in Mali. But they can teach us much about l'art de vivre. And above all, they are not the Americans, those vulgar imperialistic puritans."

The English Channel has always been much wider than its physical distance (less than thirty miles in places), but right now it feels positively oceanic, dividing, as it does, Angrael from the Eurozone.

Have a look at ShowStudio's Amaze Me microsite. Amaze Me is a competition organized by Sony Playstation Portable to motivate young people to be more creative. Mentors have been selected in various cities across Europe to issue challenges to young people, and judge the results. A short video clip sets a theme. You can watch these clips by city. Now, if I watch Berlin or Antwerp's mentors, I recognize people who think and feel very much as I do.

For instance, Droog Design's challenge to design ways that young people, who don't have much money, can optimize their very small living spaces seems deeply humane to me. The London mentors, on the other hand, prioritize bling and glitz. "Think of yourself as a brand," recommends hideous advertising man Graham Fink. "There are 60 million people in this country, what makes you so special? Why should I pick you over everyone else?" There it is, the image of a society of struggle, mutual hostility and competition in which everyone tries to profit at the expense of everyone else. Texturally too, Fink is creepy, with a stupid hairstyle and glinty, hostile eyes.

Or take Sarah Doukas. Her dyed blonde "I love money" hairstyle beats her to the point she spells out when she begins to speak: she's discovered "many of the world's most international models... in the most ordinary places". It's the exact opposite of the Droog Design approach. Creativity isn't about improving the lot of ordinary people, but about plucking a few lucky contenders out of the shitheap and giving them a chance to become celebrities.

An article in The Observer on Sunday repeated the bling-glitz trope. Rachel Dickens, an osteopath from Fulham, is one of an increasing number of Brits to go to live in France. "Her client list from the yachting set reads like the contents of Grazia magazine. She can't namedrop for reasons of confidentiality - 'I'd love to tell people, "Guess who I saw in their pants today!" but I can't. Let's just say that it's rock stars, pop gods, supermodels, royalty - some of the richest people in the world. As well as hairdressers and gardeners and office workers.'"

Rachel at least seems to be veering slightly away from the Anglo glitz-bling mindset. In France, she seems relatively open to the idea of changing her way of living and thinking: "If you arrive and expect everything to be run the way you're used to, then of course you're going to antagonise people. Who wants a foreigner telling them what to do? You have to relax, learn the culture, accept how things happen. "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's wrong." That's a phrase I repeat to myself a lot.'"

Different isn't wrong; it's a start. It's safe to say, though, that she probably isn't yet tuning in to Arte Radio's Creations cartes postales, textural and exoticist sound postcards from Istanbul ("between minaret and demonstration, in the fabric ateliers, the souk and the café"), Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. She's probably not quite in that European place -- whether it's a cultural or a class place -- where people who not only aren't Americans and aren't celebrities, but are actually poorer than you are, have something to teach you about how you could live your life. That place where the answer to the developing world's "Who the hell do you think I want to be?" is no longer answered by the Western "Me!"