THE POWER OF INVENTION
THESE are bewildering times and I, for one, blame the media. A curious confession admittedly for someone in my line of work but a recent trip to Singapore and its aftermath really had me wondering.
There I was happily ensconced in the Land of the Rattan Cane, hanging out with happening young people, being briefed on what makes Singapore tick by all those who seem to count, and really, really believing that I was gaining a full, frank and unbiased opinion on the place, when along came CNN and spoiled it all.
Day after day, as I dived into my hotel room for a brief break from the humidity, Larry King and company assured me from Atlanta that they knew best. If it was an insight into Michael Fay and his counterparts that I wanted, they had it. My own insights were flawed, pitiful even, compared with the views of the panel they had assembled to discuss capital punishment, Singaporean law and even the feeling on the street (Orchard Road that is - not Turner Boulevard). After a time, I began to dispute the need to even leave the hotel room, such was the depth of the insight to which I and millions of other viewers were being treated. Such was the overpowering nature of an opinion propounded through the wonders of cable.
Then, Richard Nixon died and I began to have my doubts. Of course it wasn't just CNN, but that particular station's coverage can't have strayed too far from the mass media norm in terms of the tributes to the late president. I think it came some time between his former press secretary's comments, those from Henry Kissinger and the hockey results read by the funny-voiced South African fellow, but a little corner of my brain started to rebel.
No, it said, I can't write off the 'darker' side of Nixon's career as a 'mistake' just like that. I can't be brainwashed into believing, as the British under Thatcher did, that gung ho back-slapping foreign policy can be allowed to drown out other historical facts. Facts like the shooting deaths in 1970 of four Kent State University students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard, the secret war in Cambodia, the 'enemies list' or the war Nixon waged on constitutional democracy. It is a fact that after Nixon was gone, President Gerald Ford announced 'our long national nightmare is over'.
It is also a fact that when asked to comment on Nixon's death by an obituary writer last week, a young American man born in the late 1960s said: 'He ended the Vietnam War.' An entire generation's socio-political perceptions are being built not in the history class but by the mass media, and that generation is in real danger of becoming yet another mass media invention.
Generation X is its name and it is already assuming scary proportions. The past week brought an outcry in the States when comic Andy Rooney came out and announced that he had never heard of Kurt Cobain, grunge or Nirvana; that Cobain's death at age 27 didn't sadden but instead angered him because of its wastefulness. That in itself is a valid point, but he then went on to say 'what's all this nonsense about how terrible life is. Wipe the tears from your eyes, dear. You're breaking my heart. What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a depression, World War II or Vietnam?' Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko continued the theme by suggesting that twenty-somethings feel emptiness because their lives have been devoid of meaningful pain ... the horrors of world war or the Great Depression.
Those outbursts predictably enough prompted replies by the growing band of self-styled Generation X columnists and commentators, and so on rages a debate which need never have happened.
Who said we're empty or unhappy. I just about fit the 'Generation X' age group but have never felt compelled to whine about feeling upset. Neither do the twenty-something people I know. No, the whole thing is an invention of columnists and a mass media which depends on demographically identifiable groups for its revenue. Are we to wander around with lapel badges labelling us Generation X-ers, Baby Boomers or whatever on the whim of a columnist desperate to prove that his voice is still relevant? Do we have to endure stereotyping just to make the real readers of these comments - parents, principals, bosses - feel more secure? It is tempting to blame the whole sorry storm on the inherent sadness in someone like Rooney realising how out of touch he is when every newspaper in the world carries front-page stories on the death of someone he has never heard of. But it's also worth remembering that he probably only made his comments out of anger at the way he felt the media was attempting to manipulate his feelings about an individual and a generation.
A NICE LITTLE EARNER Anyway, it was with these thoughts frothing through my mind that I returned to Hong Kong and sanity. It was with great joy that I discovered that 200 pro-Beijingers had jaunted off across the border to watch those brave, wonderful chaps in the People's Liberation Army going through their paces.
I, for one, felt enormously relieved when Xinhua (the New China News Agency) deputy director Zhang Junsheng beamed at the cameras (which hadn't been allowed in to watch the exercises) and said: 'They're grrrrrreat! Who in their right mind wouldn't love to have the PLA around? It made me want to rush out and kiss one when they swank in in 1997 like the troops liberating Paris.' As I said, the mass media was not allowed to report on the visit per se, and that's a pity because it would have been fun to see the smile wiped off Miss Dorothy 'Don't Call Me Dorothy' Liu Yiu-chu's face as she ended up being lectured on Communist Party history rather than watching muscular troops plunging bayonets into an effigy of Martin Lee.
Finally, the media did get one thing right last week. It ran a startling series of adverts placed by Marie France Bodyline International headlined: 'Get $100 for every pound or inch you lose'. This wonderful advert promoted a 'summer encouragement plan' whereby Marie France gives participants $100 for every pound or inch lost under its weight loss programme. 'With this kind of incentive, you'll likely (sic) get your figure the way you want it, faster than you ever thought possible. Just imagine, 10 pounds gone, you'll look so much better and have $1,000 cash! There's no limit - it's better than a discount!' What a master stroke! No exercise, no pills, no injections - just a straightforward appeal to the Hong Konger in all of us. We'd do anything for cash, even develop anorexia nervosa, and that's why I now weigh 6? kilos.