Howard Jacobson: Our unhappy, drunken children are the result of not placing any value on culture

Why can't we say their lives would be better if they were curious about something other than celebrity?
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The Independent Online

Hallelujah! The Unicef report on the physical and emotional well-being of children, wherein we discover that well-being is a commodity of which our children have never heard, confirms what we have all been saying for decades: that lax parenting doesn't work; that strict parenting doesn't work; that schools don't expect enough of our children; that schools expect too much of our children; that our society is too ambition-driven; that our children lack ambition; that our children are rampaging hoodlums; that our children live in trembling and fear; that a two-parent family is an outdated concept; that children from one-parent families are disadvantaged; that we live in an infantilised society; that our society finds no room for children; that the child comes into the world trailing clouds of glory; that a child is a fiend hid in a cloud. It's good to be proved right.

No child-rearing theory has more reason to feel triumphant than any other faced with Unicef's findings. Unhappy, unhealthy, unloved, unfriended, unambitious, poor, pissed and pregnant - that's what it is to be a kid in Britain. Each of us knew a bit of this; now we have the whole design. As far as the economics of it are concerned there's no argument. Some of us are guzzling ourselves into early graves, some of us are already lying in them. So much for the benefits of wealth permeating society. So much for socialism cosying up to big business.

But money's not the whole story. This is cultural as much as economic disinheritance, a lack of anything to believe in as well as a lack of the wherewithal to believe in it with. Amid the clamour of explanation, guess-work and universal reproach, one little voice rang clear last week. Interviewed in this newspaper, Ciaran McIntyre, a 17-year-old from Dumbarton - where well-being is no more abundant than it is anywhere else in Britain - said the following: "Most people don't want to live like this but they can't see a way out. There needs to be more help to give more people the confidence to get out there and prove to themselves they can make a better life."

Toss in a touch more sentiment and cockneyfy the speech and that could be one of Dickens's orphaned crossing-sweepers speaking. Which means that at some levels of society nothing much has changed in the past 150 years. There was a denied and disinherited class of children then, and there is a denied and disinherited class of children now. So what do we do? How do we help them, and what do we help them to? What is a better life?

You'd have thought we might have answered the last of those a long time ago. Can any society thrive that doesn't have a conception of a better life? Isn't that what defines a culture - the particular version of a better life it aspires to?

Put it like that and you can see why we're bottom of the list. In the matter of culture we have grown lily-livered. Unlike other cultures in the rich world, we don't want to be seen keeping company with ours. Multi-culture we can handle; multi-culture dodges the question of culture altogether and concentrates on being welcoming to people of other colours and faiths. This is entirely admirable, but if all it means is that black and white children live lives they don't want to live together, it has done little to create an idea of a better life. Marvellous we get on, but marvellous we get on to do what? Join gangs? Have unwanted babies? Shoot up?

Yesterday that would have been dismissed as condescension. Who are we to take a tone about gangs and drugs and babies? Leave the young to their pleasures. Today we are confronted with the stark evidence of where not taking a tone leads.

A culture takes a tone. A culture sets a tone. A culture - with its eye on a better life - exists to offer precisely that help which the boy from Dumbarton tells us, to our face, that we have failed to provide. But ideology has taught us to shy from culture as from a tyranny. A culture, nihilistic relativism tells us, is a mechanism for passing off arbitrary values and beliefs as absolute goods, so we are better with no values or beliefs at all. Works in the university where you don't need to believe in anything, works at Channel 4 where you don't need to value anything, so why shouldn't it work in Dumbarton? Well, now we know it doesn't.

Myself, I don't care what we call the means by which we seek to describe a better life. I only know we might as well be living in a state of barbarism if we baulk at describing it. As for those who tell us that we must not impose our "best" and "betters", a) because it is paternalistic to do so, and b) because there is no "best" or "better" anyway, all value being relative - they are the reason we have the most drunken and least happy children in the industrialised world.

It is a strange beast, evaluative modesty. We have no truck with it when it comes to politics. It were better we had not gone to war in Iraq, we affirm, and expect no rebuttal on the grounds that better is a culturally laden value-judgement. So why can't we say that the lives of our children would be better were they encouraged to raise their eyes above the junk shelf in the newsagents, better if someone gave them an alternative role model to Posh Spice, better if they didn't blot out the music of humanity with their iPods, better if they read a decent book, better if they were curious about something other than celebrity, better if their parents talked to them more and watched telly with them less, better if we weren't half in love with being sexy little drugged-up teenagers ourselves.

Snobbery? Well, I find that charge culpable in itself. Not to wish a better intellectual and imaginative life for children is the real offence, not drawing the only sane conclusion from the Unicef report, which is that watching Robbie Williams makes them as unhappy as he makes himself. I accept people who go to opera get depressed. And reading Dostoyevsky will not necessarily make you feel more loved. Life is not unmitigated bliss for anybody. But we've tried giving free rein to whoever wants to make an easy buck from trivialising and denigrating children. Now it's time to remember culture's job and speak to them of better things.

As it is time, too, to tax the super rich.