When British troops returned home in 1945 they voted in the first Labour government, from which they wanted very practical steps to provide homes and schools and hospitals, and above all jobs.
And so the political world in which a baby-boomer like me grew up was one which was focused on providing homes, schools, hospitals, and jobs. That’s what politicians talked about back then.
It was a politics in which I had next to no interest. And I had next to no interest because my middle-class family already had all these things. We didn’t have that problem.
What concerned me instead were things like the threat of nuclear war, the population explosion, environmental pollution, and (to a lesser extent) discrimination against minorities of one sort or other. And if I wasn’t too bothered about minorities, it was because I didn’t myself belong to any minority.
So while my parents worried about here-and-now, bread-and-butter concerns, I instead worried about being nuked, starved, or poisoned in maybe 20 or 30 years time. And if I wasn’t worrying about that, I instead worried about other people’s problems – the problems of coloured people, of women, of homosexuals, and so on.
Essentially, I didn’t have much to worry about.
But that didn’t stop me worrying. If I wasn’t worried about what to eat tomorrow (and I wasn’t), I could instead worry about what to eat in 30 years time when the entire planet had been turned into a post-nuclear dust bowl, populated by zombie mutants. Or when the oil had run out. Or the copper. Or the zirconium.
Since then, discrimination against minorities has much diminished. And nobody seems to worry about nuclear war or population explosion any more. So my 1970s concerns have become rather passé. Instead people now worry about secondhand smoke, and global warming which might see a 2 degree rise in the Earth’s temperature in 100 years time.
There’s a trend here. And it’s one of the focus of people’s concern shifting to ever more remote and improbable and insignificant threats. Not worried about putting food on your table? Well, we can offer you future population explosions, resource depletions, and nuclear wars. Not worried about those either? No problem, we’ve got secondhand smoke and climate change and polar bear extinctions. Not worried about those either? Well, we can offer you…
Every time one problem gets solved, another smaller and less pressing problem is identified. And so attention gets focused on a succession of steadily more trivial and insignificant concerns.
Since America has enjoyed peace and prosperity for longer than Europe, this means that Americans are the world leaders in identifying ever more trivial and unimportant problems. And so it was in the USA that the civil rights movement took off, and gay rights, and women’s lib, and the environmental movement and all the rest of it. And in America, it’s the golden state of California which usually leads the way in generating the next raft of hyper-trivial concerns, like secondhand smoke or global warming.
And in the process, the focus of concern quite often becomes inverted. In the war years in Britain, there was a real danger of people starving, and so rationing was introduced. Back then the worry was about people getting too little to eat. But 60 or 70 years on, the worry is about people getting too much to eat.
As the focus of concern falls upon the ever-more-mind-bendingly trivial, it might be imagined that the strength of the concern felt would be correspondingly small. But in fact the opposite happens. The more trivial and unimportant the concern, the more it needs to be exaggerated. So we have a smoking ‘epidemic’ and an obesity ‘epidemic’. Everything is hyped, and the more trivial it is, the more its importance needs to be hyped.
If it goes on like this, we can expect to see even more trivial matters becoming the focus of exaggerated concern. There will be hair-style bans, mini-skirt bans, high-heel bans, tattoo bans, ‘Good manners’ and etiquette will become all-important in a way that they haven’t been for a century, when it was the height of bad manners to put your hands in your pockets, or leave the top button of your jacket undone. And it’ll all start in California.
But it’s actually more likely that the increasing focus of attention on ever more trivial concerns will result in far more serious threats being ignored. For example, while the WHO now has its focus fixed upon the smoking ‘epidemic’ and the obesity ‘epidemic’, it has been ignoring a very real ebola epidemic which has spun completely out of control.
Because the flip side of small-mindedly focusing attention on trivial matters is that important concerns are not addressed. And this means that when things go wrong, they’ll most likely go badly wrong. And if lots of important matters are being simultaneously ignored, it also means that everything is likely to go very badly wrong at pretty much the same time.
At which point the clock will be reset, and everyone will go back to worrying about here-and-now, bread-and-butter concerns like homes, schools, hospitals, and jobs, just like in my war-time parents’ generation. And they’ll stop worrying about secondhand smoke, global warming, and polar bear extinction – because there’ll be lots of far more important things to worry about than those.