Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The march of the meritocracy

No excuses! You are fat and we are slim because of our superior will power. We are wealthy and wise because we work hard. We are at the top because we are the best. Pull your socks up you smoking, binge drinking, junk food eating underlings and you can be like us (well not quite, because we are still better than you). Ah, the velvet tones of the meritocratic elite exercising its self-satisfaction.

There was another excellent reminder of the perniciousness of this way of thought in this extract from Ben Goldacre's new book, Bad Science.
The World Health Organisation's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health reported this week, and it contained some chilling figures. Life expectancy in the poorest area of Glasgow - Calton - is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. That is a lot less life, and it isn't just because the people in Lenzie are careful to eat goji berries for extra antioxidants, and a handful of brazil nuts every day, thus ensuring they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.

People die at different rates because of a complex nexus of interlocking social and political issues including work life, employment status, social stability, family support, housing, smoking, drugs, and possibly diet, although the evidence on that, frankly, is pretty thin, and you certainly wouldn't start there.

... Food has become a distraction from the real causes of ill health, and also, in some respects, a manifesto of rightwing individualism. You are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. You hear it from people as they walk past the local council estate and point at a mother feeding her child crisps: "Well, when you look at what they feed them," they say, "it's got to be diet, hasn't it?" They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that's why you're healthy. You're going to see 80. You deserve it. Not like them.

It isn't just individualism, there is also the certainty of superiority underlying current day attitudes. It irritatingly pervades the current moral panic on obesity. More importantly, just as there are vested interests lurking in the huge diet industry (and in the marketing of food - I have just bought a packet of haricot beans that says prominently on the packet that they "may help decrease cholesterol"), so the cry of individual responsibility is highly convenient for a political elite that does not want to face the real importance of inequality and poverty to health, let alone tackle it. Instead they pronounce in unison, "let them eat carrots".

When Michael Young coined the term in his famous satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy, he described this attitude perfectly. The book was a warning against it. He could scarcely have imagined that his scorn would not bury the idea. Instead, his catchy name eventually, and ironically, ended up being central to the programme of the Labour Party. It is the triumph of the smug - and of a myopic political cowardice.


Will said...

"You are what you eat"

Yes -- this piece of pernicious crap should be forevermore consigned to the dustbin. See this old post where J Burchill lays into that shabby looking tramp git jamie oliver for that sort of bull.

"The simple fact is that you are not what you eat. You are where you’re born, you are how rich your parents are, you are where you went to school, what you are lucky enough to be handed on a plate. Only last week Ruth Kelly admitted that the gap of achievement between the richest and poorest children was bigger than ever. The idea that all that is stopping working-class children from achieving is that their dumb working-class parents are stuffing them with Turkey Twizzlers — rather than the whole rotten system of class, privilege and nepotism — is a sickening and dangerous lie."

On Goldacre's piece ... he misses out another important factor. Access to health care (preventive and treatment) --- see Tudor Hart on the Inverse care Law and Distributive Justice here.

"the availability of good medical care tends to vary inversely with the need for it in the population served."

Shuggy said...

careful to eat goji berries for extra antioxidants, and a handful of brazil nuts every day, thus ensuring they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.

Indeed. The whole business of getting the right nutrients is a stressful business. So stressful, this in turn might become a source of poor health.

See the Calton thing? It's endlessly repeated but it's a statistical aberration - or so someone who worked out that way told me. Something to do with there being a doss house there where people snuff it on a fairly regular basis. The Calton itself isn't that big an area - this would tend to reinforce the impression that it's picked on because of the dramatic statistic it throws up.

here's a list of the top ten most deprived areas in Glasgow.