Daryl Ilbury

Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

The post-Madiba circus in full swing

In Eish!, Politics, Scoundrels on June 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm
Nelson Mandela image: Wikipedia

Nelson Mandela image: Wikipedia

As I write this, the latest media reports list the condition of Nelson Mandela as ‘critical’. Let’s be brutally honest: the former South African president is dying, and the world seems to be reacting with a mix of disbelief and denial. They cannot believe that at almost 5 years short of 100 years old, after 27 years of incarceration, and thereafter 23 years of being smothered by people wanting to press up against him and tap into his wisdom, his body has the temerity to want to pass on.

Twitter is all abuzz with chatter using hashtags such as #prayformadiba, #Mandela and #Madiba, wishing he’d get better, many praying that he will.

Why pray? Will it do anything? Let me remind you, when Pope John Paul II was ailing, virtually the entire Catholic diaspora held vigil and prayed for him…and he still died. Perhaps they were praying for his soul? Interesting seeing that the Catholic church believed he was second only to god, and possibly the nicest, most kind-hearted man on the planet; so you’d think if anyone would have VIP access to heaven, it would be him. If there was doubt whether the pope would go to heaven, it doesn’t bode all that well for the average sinner, does it?

Let’s stop beating around the bush and face reality: Nelson Mandela is going to die – we all die – and he will pass on shortly. What we should concern ourselves with is what is going to happen next…because when the post-Madiba circus kicks into gear, some things are going to take a turn for the decidedly distasteful.

Firstly, as a veteran media man, let me assure you that every major mainstream media organisation – radio/TV/print/online – is putting the final touches to their ‘Mandela Tribute’ package that has been humming quietly in a state of readiness for the last couple of years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those closest to Mandela have been contacted for a fresh soundbite. These organisations have also just made sure that everyone on the team has been reminded of the protocol/course of action when Mandela dies.

Trust me on this: his death announcement has already been prepared. This may sound unbelievable, almost distasteful, but it will be such a major media event, the words would have to have been chosen very carefully. It will also be an occasion to hold the world’s attention, so expect some senior figures within the ANC to use it as an opportunity. They will want to milk it.

When his death is announced, all the main media organisations will race to have their package appear before the media consumer first. Whether or not that’s distasteful depends on how you judge the commercial imperative of the media.

Aaaahhh…always follow the money. Expect, over the day or two that follows, a rush of very public print, online, radio and TV messages of condolences from companies and organisations, exalting Mandela and the work that he did, most likely claiming some measure of connection with him. They will make sure their logo is attached to the message. Obviously. As for the message…as you read this, there are advertising copywriters busily penning the lines of honest condolence…in the most effective way possible for their clients. Obviously.

Newspapers, especially, are anticipating his death with a certain degree of relish. Not only will it sell papers, but it will sell advertising, and no organisation will want to be the one that buys a small space near the classifieds. Oh no. They’ll want to go big. Expect the government departments, especially, to pull out all the stops in their publicised messages of grief and condolence…with the ever-present pictures of the respective department leaders displayed even more prominently. This will be one of the rare moments when public emotion can work in their favour.

Over the months that follow, expect a rush by provincial and municipal authorities to request the renaming of streets, parks, buildings and other public places and amenities, to honour Mandela. These have already been identified, the authorities have just been biding their time.

And this leads me to what will be the biggest opportunity for distasteful behaviour, because the true value of Nelson Mandela is not his presence when he’s alive, but his legacy once he’s dead. Once the funeral and commemorations have passed, expect a particularly nasty fight for the right to his legacy, to use his name and image (and the serious money it will generate), and to invoke and take ownership of everything he stood for.

The post-Madiba circus won’t be all distasteful, but I can imagine a lot of it will make him turn in his grave.

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Beautiful = good, and ugly = bad, apparently.

In Eish!, Fools, Scoundrels on June 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm

camilla vs diHere is an interesting exercise: ask a group of friends to list the words that come to mind when they think of the former wife of Prince Charles of England – the late Diana, Princess of Wales. I’d imagine ‘Diana’ words would include ‘princess’, ‘fairytale’, ‘beautiful’, ‘caring’, ‘mother’, ‘tragic’, and ‘humanitarian’.

Then ask them to do the same for the current wife of Prince Charles – Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. I can imagine Camilla words would be ‘Rottweiler’, ‘ugly’, ‘fox-hunting’, ‘frumpy’, ‘cheat’, etc.

I doubt very much if this impression would have evolved through their actual meeting and interacting with the two women in question. Therefore it would have to have come from that mass interface between people and society – the media.

And who’s ultimately to blame? We are – the consumers. We have supplied the demand. We’ve helped create the environment for a beautiful/good versus ugly/bad polarity by telling our children stories of beautiful princesses and wicked witches. Princes are handsome; they tend to slay the occasional dragon or two and then live happily ever after in a majestic castle with the beautiful princess as their queen-to-be. They are supposed to do that because it is their destiny and because they are both incredulously good-looking. Anyone who interferes with the plot – such as the wicked witch – is evil. And ugly.

As a sidebar, the reality behind fairytales is, of course, somewhat unflattering. The complete absence of internal plumbing in castles in the days of the knights meant that bathing was probably a two-weekly or even a monthly affair – so princesses would have always smelled more than a little ripe – and female hygiene products were completely non-existent. Dental care amounted to little more than prodding a twig between the teeth, so rampant decay would have taken more than a little sheen off any pearly-whites. But then who are we to rob our children of a little fantasy by rubbing their faces in the harsh realities of life?

Of course we eventually grow out of fairytales. Or do we? Don’t the good guys always win in the movies and invariably ride off into the sunset with the beautiful maiden? It seems Sleeping Beauty is alive and well, just living in L.A! That’s right – we’re still getting sucked into the fairytale plot. We are continually inclined to root for the good guys because they are generally handsome heroes, and the maidens aren’t half-bad either. To affiliate with the bad guys is to affiliate with ugliness. We aspire to be good because good is half of good-looking. Professor Howard Stein, editor of the Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology once summed up this polarity nicely when he commented ‘there is no “us” without there being a corresponding “them” to oppose’. (If you have time to kill, you can compare those actors in the Digital Dream Door list of 100 greatest heroes, with those in the 100 greatest villains. You won’t find many names on both).

This is so wonderfully evident in the burgeoning ‘morphing’ entertainment industry that was kickstarted by the likes of Extreme Makeover, The Swan, Queer Eye for a Straight Guy and Idols, that show how ugly can be morphed into beautiful; how a woman with pumpkin hips can become a princess and a plumber become a pretty-boy pop star (did you honestly think the guy in wheelchair had a chance?) – and look how happy they are! By showing viewers what they look like after the morphing they separate them from what they looked like before – a bit like us. How’s that for irony?

There’s no denying Diana was beautiful. Editors of women’s magazines were well aware that simply putting Diana on the cover would assure them record sales; and in her death the cover-image of Diana is the one cemented in our minds. Prince Charles’ second wife will always be measured against that. She finished second; she’ll always be second-best. She also interfered with the fairytale plot, which makes her the wicked witch against the people’s princess. Poor Camilla.

The reality of the tale of course is that Diana was flawed. We all are; and no amount of nip and tuck and panel beating of cellulite is going to change that. We should realise that just as Camilla may be a little off the media-dictated beauty chart, so are we all. And whereas neither she, nor we, will ever win a shallow beauty contest, perhaps she and Charles should enjoy what years they have left together, free of the interference by the tabolid media and its shallow, wretched consumers. It’s the closest the Prince and his princess will have to living happily ever after.

“Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house”

In Eish!, Science, Scoundrels on June 3, 2013 at 2:11 pm
Betty, Mildred and Gloria were mildly impressed

What the grandmothers of today’s ‘Beliebers’ were doing in the 60s

In January 2012, stories made the news in the US about 15 teenage girls in a school in upstate New York who were all displaying symptoms similar to Taurette’s Syndrome – a condition marked by involuntary spasms, tics, seizures and vocal outbursts. It’s a rare condition in one person, so in a group you’d think it highly unlikely. Think again.

See if you can spot the link: In 2002 10 teenage girls in a small rural high school in North Carolina started fainting and having seizures. The school buildings were inspected but nothing was found to explain what happened. In the beginning of 2007, 600 teenage girls in a Catholic boarding school in Mexico started collapsing, displaying signs of fever, and claiming feelings of nausea. Tests could find no physical cause.

But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more: Later that same year, at least eight teenage girls in a high school in Virginia in the US started displaying twitching symptoms. Again, no physical cause was found. In 2008 in Tanzania, about 20 teenage schoolgirls started fainting in class, while others who witnessed the event, ran around the school screaming and crying; and in 2010 two all-girls high schools in Brunei reported incidents of students fainting and acting deliriously.

So what’s the link? Yes, you spotted it: ‘teenage girls’. It’s something that has baffled, and fascinated, psychiatrists. Yes, that’s right – psychiatrists; because without any physical cause – such as food poisoning, a gas leak, or some other form of contamination – all these symptoms are psychological in nature. So psychologists have a term for it. It’s called ‘conversion disorder’, and it’s characterised by displays of physical disorders such as blindness, numbness, paralysis and disruptions to speech patterns; but without any associated physical or neurological cause.

The term ‘conversion’ applies because it is believed the physical symptoms are a conversion of deep psychological problems such as intense stress. It’s important to note that sufferers of conversion disorder are not making up the symptoms – they really do exist.

Conversion disorder is quite rare, but not as rare as its occurrence on a mass scale – something called mass psychogenic hysteria. However, rare though they may be, there is something that is common amongst all of these events: they generally occur only amongst teenage girls.

No-one seems to have a definitive explanation for it. The Mayo Clinic, a US-based not-for-profit research group that specialises in difficult cases and advanced medical investigation, concludes that teenage girls are indeed more prone to conversion disorder, but has no answer as to why it can happen to large groups of teenage girls, and all at the same time.

I have a suggestion: Teenage boys are like border collies – they are easily distracted by a bouncing ball, and as such can convert any teenage issues into something physical. It’s called sport. Teenage girls, on the other hand, are less inclined to play sport. Without the liberty of such physical distractions they tend to focus on themselves and each other, and so any teenage angst that they have simply takes hold in their minds, simmering and festering until it’s released in a burst of emotional – and associated physical – disparity.

Furthermore girls mature emotionally much quicker than boys – it’s one of the reasons why boys don’t understand girls, and girls complain that boys just don’t ‘get’ them. So, in the absence of the successful communication of their emotions with boys, they are more likely to develop an emotional “collective” amongst themselves.

Well, that’s my informed opinion.

There is, unfortunately, a nasty little twist to all of this: although the cause behind conversion disorder or mass psychogenic hysteria may not be known to psychiatrists, it’s power is celebrated by those sinister manipulators of human behaviour: marketing executives. And you need no better example than Justin Bieber, that poor young Canadian boy who showed a not-altogether-rare talent for singing, but was then seized upon by music and marketing executives, commoditised, and thrust before a wall of wailing, highly volatile, hysterical, teenage girls, that scream through his concerts without hearing a word of his singing.

Of course such outbursts of teenage girl hysteria towards popular music performers are nothing new. It’s why the Beatles stopped performing live – they literally couldn’t hear themselves sing, and they thought it ridiculous to perform if the audience weren’t even listening.

But to get a clearer image of the intensity of the mass psychogenic hysteria displayed by teenage girls, perhaps the final word should go to Keith Richards, who, in his book ‘Life’ tells of such a screaming concert in the early days of the Rolling Stones. At the end of the concert, the janitor who had been cleaning up afterwards, approached him and said, “Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house”.