Christina Patterson: When the going gets tough, the tough wise up

Not much space for chic little sofas when you’re worried you might lose your home

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Phwoar! Get a load of those! A load of those, er, mammary glands, or perhaps of those fab boots from Hobbs, or perhaps of those chic little sofas. Or perhaps not. Perhaps, instead, you might like to get a load of those FTSE 100 bottom lines, or an update on South Ossetia, or on Castro's musings on the nomenclature of Obama's right-hand man. Perhaps you might like to ditch your lads' mag, or your lifestyle mag, or your women's mag, for something a little more chewy.

Or perhaps you already have. If the Audit Bureau of Circulation is to be believed, you might have done already. Lads' mags are down, apparently, and so are "aspirational home" mags and so are women's mags. Business, news and current affairs are up. Well, three cheers for that. Could it be, could it really, finally be, that we might actually wrench our gaze from our kitten heels and our kitchen cabinets and our celebrity-cellulite horror shows – from our navels, in fact – to look elsewhere? Could this be the beginning of the end of our culture of solipsism and voyeurism and its catch-all cultural marker, dumbing down? (Dumb: stupid. Down: decline and fall. Pithy, alliterative, slick, flip. The smart-ass phrase that said it all.)

If this is a trend, then it's one born of that other alliterative phenomenon of our times, the credit crunch. Already, the phrase sounds anachronistic. "Credit crunch" was light and crispy, a little spot of bother, a nice excuse for warming winter recipes on a budget, two-pizzas-for-the-price-of-one. In the blink of an eye – in the alphabetical leap from C to D, from credit to depression – that changed. There's nothing light and crispy about depression, nothing light and crispy about mass unemployment. Not much space for chic little sofas when you're worried you might lose your home.

We thought we were sorted. We thought, sitting on our (chic or unchic) sofas, scoffing our microwave meals in front of Jamie or Nigella as we watched the price of our bricks and mortar soar to 10 times our salary, that we were made. We thought, in the snatches of news from Iraq or Zimbabwe we caught between the home makeover and the body makeover and the skinny freakshow and the fat freakshow, that history was what happened to somebody else. God was in his heaven (or our heaven, which was the thing that mattered) and all was right with the world. Ours was not to reason why. Ours was to stuff down another chocolate muffin and giggle about a bunch of strangers in a jungle. A jungle where the strangers had to brave a few creepy-crawlies, for our entertainment and our votes, but the dangers weren't real.

Two things happened. First, a man with film-star looks, and a brain the size of Einstein's (or what passes in a politician for Einstein's), a man who could think and talk and persuade as no politician has done for quite a while, a man who just happened to be black in a country built by slaves, turned history upside down. This man, of extraordinary passion and preternatural calm, of great education, and no desire to hide that education, of cool wit, but fundamental seriousness, suddenly made politics, and democracy, and world affairs not just interesting, but sexy.

And then the global economy imploded. It had started before, but the hangover that had, in Bush's phrase (drawing on one of his few areas of expertise) been brewing for some time, finally hit. And now, in a horrible reversal of the New Labour anthem, Things Can Only Get Worse. It's so bad, it's almost funny. But it's not funny. It's just what happens when history goes wrong.

So what do we do? We revert to our known models. We invent a cathartic little reality show called Humiliate the Bankers. Like all reality shows, it's carefully controlled. The participants are groomed, coached and handsomely rewarded. They huff and puff and we boo and hiss. They blind us with their jargon and we say enough of your jargon, we don't want your jargon, we don't want to understand. We just want to blame.

Well, maybe we do want to understand. Or maybe we're beginning to want to understand. Maybe we're beginning to be reminded that the governments which seek scapegoats for their own failures are elected by us and that if they won't regulate, it's a reflection of our greed and because we're all in a cycle of wanting something for nothing. And that, delightful though it was to live in a world where bundles of debt were turned into cash, and bricks and mortar into pensions, and no doubt cucumbers (in Swift's phrase) into sunshine, it bore about as much relation to reality as bankers in metaphorical stocks or celebs in a jungle. And maybe we're learning that equations can be reversed. You had something? Hey, here's nothing!

Well, maybe, to paraphrase that irritating Clinton campaign slogan, it was the economy that made us stupid. And maybe it's time for us all to exercise what Woody Allen once called his "second favourite organ". More widely known, of course, as the brain.

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