News of Whitney Houston’s death is sad – moreso, perhaps, because it wasn’t a shock. The singer had reportedly abused drugs for several years as her career went into freefall following her role in The Bodyguard movie, for which she famously covered Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
But the corporate mainstream media, as is often the case, offers a perverse perspective on such things.
I’ve spoken before about the manufactured human life exchange rate that the press purvey. Certainly, a single celebrity’s passing has greater impact than the 16,000 children who die each day from hunger. Like the consumption of meat in its grossly wasted way is taken for granted, so is this; what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. In their failure to cover these preventable deaths with equal or greater impact, the media is complicit in them.
While thousands of people in disadvantaged communities also die of drug abuse, Whitney Houston was someone who gained opportunities to wealth and, through that, potential rehabilitation. But celebrities, maybe now more than ever, are given media attention based on who someone is, rather than what someone did. If life is the sum of our actions, then recent deaths of high-profile figures like Harold Pinter, Howard Zinn, or even actor Pete Postlethwaite – all of whom devoted time to social justice – should be seen as terrible losses to society.
Following 1980s Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that “there’s no such thing as society,” sure enough, British culture became focused on the individual, measured by short-term gains: The Weakest Link, X-Factor, Pop Idol and especially Big Brother were driven by the quest of the individual to succeed at all costs over their peers or housemates, ratting them out, voting them out, and surviving as the fittest; an advertisement for the Social Darwinism ideology.
Of course, Thatcher’s policies absolutely devastated communities and destroyed lives. She called on all citizens to shake off those responsibilities that citizenship carries with it, and only worry about yourself, or, at best, your grandparents – not other grandparents – being warm; your children – not other children – attending a decent school; your world – not the wider world – being bright.
Even though such a model is unsustainable and is only short-term, it doesn’t matter. As harsh as it was, the ethos of “no society” was more honest than current Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big society” which, incredibly, still means the same thing: “You’re on your own.” In other words, if you’re poor, work for free, but if you have money, start your own social enterprise that the poor can’t, and have those poor work for you for free; anything – anything at all – as long as the state doesn’t reflect collective responsibility funded by taxing the obscenely rich. It’s as individualistic as it ever was.
As a result of this regression to Victorian-style Social Darwinism, council houses were sold, and unionised industries were shut-down – for no other reason than daring to be unionised. Take, for example, the former coal mining town of Worksop, in north Nottinghamshire, once home to communities of neighbours who worked together and depended on each other while providing fuel for their houses literally built by the colliery, today home to over a thousand drug addicts, with estimates of at least 80% of crime being drug-related, heroin a particular problem for the people who lost hope when they lost their main industry overnight thanks to Thatcher. On top of the domestic violence that erupted in these areas as people cracked and broke down, many people drugged themselves to early graves. But their deaths aren’t sexy enough to make the news.
Meanwhile, Thatcher herself is subjected to the royal treatment she prepared us for: judging an individual on an individual basis – the recent film The Iron Lady looking at who she was, rather than what she did. There’s no attention paid to the thousands of people she condemned so that some of her friends could make a few lousy million, no highlighting of her warm relationship with ruthless Chilean dictator General Pinochet, who had people kidnapped, tortured, or murdered for daring to disagree with his perspective. No, she’s just a lovely old woman with dementia framed by camera, direction, and script. And so, we are told not to care about the other old people with problems, just this one; don’t care about what she inflicted on society, just care what was inflicted on her. It’s perfect: Thatcher’s portrayal a result of her own ideology.
And what of the ideology? Is it really the same now as it was then, stripping away citizenship, comradeship and camaraderie?
No, it’s worse.
David Cameron agreed with New Labour’s levels of government spending until, in 2008, his aides saw the economic crisis as the perfect excuse to sell off the state, reduce taxes for the rich, and slap a price tag on everything – if you could afford services, great; if you couldn’t, tough shit.
And so, the cuts cut deep, again in the communities he and his ilk so detest – what’s left of them. The couple dozen or so millionaires in the government cabinet smirk, saying “we’re all in this together,” and no doubt duck and dive away in their sharp suits and fancy cars for a good belly-laugh as those at the bottom yet again lose opportunities, financial safety nets, youth centres, and libraries. But not in Cameron’s constituency of Witney: no, the Tories saved that library. That one’s special.
Today’s an ideal day to remember those words first heard in 1986, at the peak of Reaganomics and Thatcherite individualism:
The greatest love of all is happening to me. I found the greatest love of all inside of me. The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself – it is the greatest love of all.
– Whitney Houston