The rise of the internet has given artists such as myself a unique opportunity. No longer are we at the mercy of the media gatekeepers - the commissioning editors, the channel controllers and the executive producers with their ratings obsessions, faddish tastes and strange foibles. Nowadays we can cut them out and go straight to the public via portals, blogs and websites such as MySpace and YouTube.
My response to this opportunity has unfortunately not been wholehearted. If you go to alexeisayle.com, a sign comes up saying "Under Construction". I don't know who by; presumably the same outfit who are doing my kitchen extension, since it seems to be taking an age to get built. Something called "The Alexei Sayle Website" is run by some woman I don't know who doesn't seem to know much about me either. And my Wikipedia entry, judging by the glowing references to him (much more glowing than to me), is written by some guy who was my manager for the first three years of my career back in the early Eighties and who hates me.
Now, you might think this is going to turn into one of those "I'm happy to be old-fashioned and I wrote this article with a quill pen and ink made out of crushed tortoises" kind of columns, but in truth I'm ashamed of my inability to get with the modern world. I don't go along with any of that "Grumpy Old Men/Women" nostalgia and its assumption that modern life is awful. First, it's lazy comedy, but also, it's clearly not true - for most of us in the West, modern life is fantastic.
To me, that kind of longing for a golden age, and its inherent presumption that the ill-defined and hazy past contained some ideal epoch that has been sullied by the impact of social progress, foreign influences and restrictive laws on unrestrained behaviour, is clearly reactionary. Indeed, this longing for a prelapsarian utopia is essentially fascistic. The religious fanatics of al-Qa'ida wish to return to an entirely fictional ideal of a "pure" Islam that existed before being contaminated by progressive European ideas such as sexual equality and religious freedom, and before Hitler changed the title of his book Mein Kampf from "Is Everything Around Here Controlled by a Cabal of Blood Sucking Jews or is it Just Me?"
In order to counter this reactionary nostalgia, I've compiled a list of things that are great now and were rubbish in the past. Also, as what I'm propounding is essentially a celebration of the 18th-century Enlightenment idea that human reason can be used to combat ignorance, nostalgia and superstition in order to build a better world, I'll attempt to guess what the philosophers of that age would have made of these contemporary marvels.
First off, I have to mention what is undoubtedly the greatest phenomenon of the modern era: All You Can Eat Buffets. Those of you who've forgotten the pre-All You Can Eat Buffet epoch won't know how, in restaurants up until the Eighties, there was such a penny-pinching attitude that you were charged extra for how many knives, forks and spoons you used, so diners would try to eat the whole meal with one tiny teaspoon. With their inherent qualities of egalitarianism and value for money, Jean Jacques Rousseau would have approved of All You Can Eat Buffets and would probably have been a regular at Spice Mania when he was in Leeds and that Indian veggie place in Islington's Chapel Market that's an amazing £2.95 for all the curried sprouts you can neck.
His great rival, the aristocratic Voltaire, would have been more sniffy about buffets. He would have indulged only if it was called a "Carvery" and was on the top floor of a posh hotel with a view of a park.
DAB digital radio, iTunes, MP3 players - people grumble about the multiplicity of channels and formats, but when I was young the only way to hear the latest Beatles song on the air was to tune into a TV puppet-show called Pinky and Perky, about two wooden pigs. They had four crow puppets who were supposed to be the Beatles and who sang their songs badly - I mean, c'mon! Nobody could argue that having to listen to badly made crows singing your favourite pop songs is a rational world.
Health and safety laws, speed cameras, drink-drive laws, civil liberties legislation, smoking bans, political correctness gone mad - again, although we may rail at and mock the restrictions placed on us, remember that a small curtailment of our pleasures is worth it if it makes the lives of the majority happier. When I was a kid, I recall you were only considered unfit to drive if you were "one over the eight", which meant you'd drunk more than eight barrels of brandy. In 1901, there were only three automobiles in Britain, but they caused 72 road deaths.
The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, influenced by Scottish Enlightenment figures such as Locke and Hume, was the first advocate of animal rights. He also wrote the essay "Offences Against One's Self: Paederasty," which argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting same-sex attraction. He designed a humane prison called the Panopticon in which every inmate was under surveillance at all times. He would certainly have approved of all this legislation. Though, human nature being what it is, Bentham would probably have been caught by the police driving his Porsche Cayenne at 160mph while doing unspeakable things to a rabbit. He would then have employed that solicitor who gets all the footballers off.
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