There was a documentary about football hooligans on telly this week. In it, several men, aged from their late teens to mid-twenties discussed the "buzz" of their chosen pastime: "Aw, it's f***ing mint! There's nothing like it," enthused one chap with a bandana round his face. "You just want to be out there, fighting, getting nicked, getting bit off a dog, it's all part of the buzz."
The lure of the ruckus is not limited to casuals on football terraces, however. People (mostly men) at the highest levels of society are also given to squaring up and throwing down. Take a look at this week's headlines: George Osborne has "gone to war" with the BBC, the BBC is "hitting back" at The Sun, The Sun has got it in for Russell Brand and Piers Morgan will happily start on anyone. These sorts of scraps don't descend into physical violence, but that doesn't make them any more meaningful. A public feud usually serves only the egos involved – and the bigger the ego, the more effort must be put into defending it.
It's tempting to leave them to fight it out among themselves, but that might be where we've been going wrong all along. While everyone else was busy doing something more important, the feuders have been allowed to set the tone, and now the whole style of public discourse favours shouty private-school boys who once captained the debating team. The dearth of female panellists on shows such as Question Time and Have I Got News For You must have something to do with the format, but it's not only women who are put off. It's also anyone sane enough to want to reach the end of the week without having a stress-induced cardiac arrest. Has social media helped democratise debate? Not really, because it still rewards aggression over articulacy. If you want to accumulate a large number of Twitter followers in a short amount of time, there's no better way than to pick a fight. It doesn't even matter if you win.
As for those people who flourish in a fight, you do have to wonder whether they're truly passionate about the subject, or if, like those football hooligans, they're just in it for the buzz. Too much of what passes for debate is really only a performance, starring two "adversaries" who probably have a lot more in common than they would admit – Piers Morgan vs Jeremy Clarkson, say, or George Osborne vs Ed Balls.
There are fights that do need to be had but, in the meantime, many of the ones that claim our attention only lower the quality of the debate, alienate people with relevant contributions and prevent us from taking new ideas forward. But that's the trouble with a pissing match: other people are liable to get caught in the crossfire.
One day, I'm going to chuck in this poxy country, tell the boss man where to stick it and move to Sweden. Or to the Netherlands. Or any of those enlightened countries where they have a proper welfare state, rational drug laws and superior crime drama. That was always the plan, anyway.
It might be time to reconsider the plan now that the government in liberal utopia Sweden has been thrown into chaos by the popularity of a far-right party. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, "Zwarte Pieten" (Black Peters) still refuse to ditch their embarrassing racist tradition. This very weekend, Sinterklaas celebrations are taking place, involving white people donning black face make-up to play the folklore character who is depicted as the servant of St Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and a clumsy, foolish "blackamoor".
In a clip from a Dutch documentary currently circulating online, two Zwarte Piets walk around a London park attempting to hand out sweets. "Why are you blacked up? It just looks like racism," says one man. "It dehumanises people that are of a different ethnicity," points out another.
The confused disapproval of these Londoners does our country credit, but it isn't as cheering as it should be. Because now, when we want to imagine escaping to a better life, the mind will draw a big, fat blank.
Have you been listening to Serial? Are you sick of being asked that question? Around 21 million people worldwide have already downloaded episodes of the hit US podcast and, at 9pm this evening, when Radio 4 Extra begins broadcasting episodes daily, it will reach a new, less internet-savvy audience. Several broadsheets in this country have declared themselves "obsessed" and journalist Sarah Koenig has been credited with inventing a whole new broadcasting genre. Put it this way: if Buzzfeed hasn't yet incorporated loving Serial into a list of "17 Signs You're Part of A Cultured Metropolitan Elite", then it's not doing its job properly.
Serial, for the uninitiated, is a 12-part true crime report on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore. (Incidentally, the last time UK early adopters went this nuts about a new series it was another Baltimore-set tale, The Wire.) Serial is also a spin-off of This American Life, which, for the uninitiated – seriously, where have you been? – is the flagship show on US radio's hipper Radio 4 equivalent, NPR. Each week, in programmes of differing lengths, Koenig reports on a different aspect of the crime or trial, interviewing witnesses, including Hae's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who is currently serving a sentence for her murder. Koenig doesn't know if Syed did it, but she wants to find out. For some listeners this chance to play detective is a thrilling revelation.
Actually, there's nothing that revelatory about true crime. It's been enduringly popular since the 18th century, but despite producing works of artistic merit (Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace), it is still widely regarded as the trashiest of trash genres. What Serial has done is simple: repackage true crime to make it palatable for the demographic who would never dream of picking up an Ann Rule book at the library or tuning in to Channel 5's Kids Who Kill.
Falsifying the record
Somewhere along the way we came to believe that the real thing is always superior. At this time of year, it's best to admit the opposite. When it comes to eyelashes, banana flavouring, the tribute band Lez Zeppelin and, most pertinently, Christmas trees, the fake stuff is just better.Reuse content