Terence Blacker: A shallow sign of our sanctimonious times

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The Independent Online

A perfect symbol for the times in which we live has just been discovered. A T-shirt which allows those whose idea of a good time is to mime playing an imaginary guitar to someone else's music has been invented in Australia. This easy-to-use virtual instrument "allows real-time music-making, even by players without significant musical or computer skills", says its inventor. Without significant musical skills? The thing is a shirt. What it provides is merely illusion and fantasy in return for no skill or effort or talent at all.

But when it comes to the offer of image over content, the wearable instrument shirt, as it is known, has a rival, which is already the season's big seller in shops like B&Q. Retailing at around £1,500, roof turbines are the air guitars of environmentalism. They are hideous, noisy, can cause structural damage which will require energy-expensive repairs and are pretty much useless in practical terms, producing just enough electricity to power a hair-dryer.

The domestic turbine is "very sexy because it's an exciting bit of kit", a spokesman for Friends of the Earth has said. "It's making a very visible statement to the effect that 'I'm doing my bit'". There are countless better ways of saving energy, but unfortunately lagging the tank or turning the heating down are unlikely to catch on, because their contribution to energy conservation in invisible. As with the air guitar, image is everything.

Once we lived in an age of conspicuous consumption; now it is conspicuous conscience. Behaving well as a citizen is no longer enough. Your civic virtue, your concern for health, for children, for the poor, for mankind, for the planet must be out there for all to see.

The great age of sanctimoniousness dawned years ago, with Live Aid, but it is now everywhere. The latest e-mail scam to reach my in-box not only brought me the good news that that I had won $2m but added, "We hope with part of your winning, you will contribute to alleviating the sufferings of children in Africa's poorest region." The greedier we become, the more we hawk virtue as the latest must-have personal accessory.

"I'm doing my bit": there is something sinister and aggressive about those words. The follow-up, "Are you?", is there, unspoken. An unmistakeable whiff of extremism and intolerance adheres to this moral fundamentalism. Once people believe they are doing their bit, the compulsion to persuade others to do their bit becomes irresistible.

The cause is so just, the situation so urgent, that traditional concerns, notably respect for the right of others to make their own decisions, soon appear unimportant. In the case of, say, the more violent campaigners against vivisection, basic decency and legality quickly go by the board, but at a domestic level the same thought process is evident. Whether they are stickering the wrong kind of car or attacking those who have continued to smoke cigarettes, the new sanctimoniousness allows the competitively virtuous to indulge in extremes of mindless vituperation that would be unthinkable in other areas of behaviour.

As with the "real-time music-making" of the air guitar shirt, it is the illusion not the reality that matters. Soon pointless and exhibitionistic turbines will be appearing on rooftops, and the conscience-bullies will find another reason to nag and persecute those who, daringly, prefer to do their bit in a way that is not visible or even fashionable.

Stick to reading the news, Fiona

The lives of how many starving kiddies will be saved by Fiona Bruce's bottom this Friday?

The question is worth asking because another Children in Need appeal is upon us, and the bashful newsreader has generously agreed to squeeze into skin-tight leather and wiggle about in front of the cameras, pretending to be a Bond girl to an 007 played by Dermot Murgavie, previously thought to be computer-generated. Fiona's colleagues will be singing a Bond song but, as one newspaper has put it, "most viewers will be transfixed by her bottom".

Newsreaders must now rank as the vainest of public figures, with least to be vain about. Those paid to bring news of real life and death every night should not be camping about, singing "Live and Let Die". Living out their private fantasies may be fun but it demeans their job.

* News about the fascinating strangeness of human nature tends, for reasons that no one quite understands, to come from Japan. Not so long ago, we heard about Paris Syndrome, a grim psychological malaise which struck down about a dozen Japanese visitors to France every year. The shock of discovering how rude the French are causes a nervous breakdown. Most sufferers recover, but some will have Gallic-related "episodes" for the rest their lives.

Now another terrible syndrome has come to light: 60 per cent of Japanese wives whose husbands are approaching retirement are quite likely to become listless, depressed and ill. "When I thought about my husband being at home, I developed rashes on my body," one wife has said. "Sometimes just being in the same room as him made me physically sick."

Like bird flu, Retired Husband Syndrome is thought to be spreading across the world. Has there been an outbreak near you?

terblacker@aol.com

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