Monday, July 9, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            In some parts of the world people ache from malnutrition or famine; live in chronic poverty; suffer high infant (and adult) mortality; have brief life expectancy; labour under oppressive governments; have no access to education or health care; and enjoy no real rights.

            In other parts of the world people never go hungry; have more than they really need; are free to vote out politicians who displease them; assume they will die in their seventies, eighties or nineties; enjoy such easy access to education that they do not really appreciate it; resort to health care over the most minor ailments; and have so many rights that they sue big time over any trivial infringement of them.

            If you are reading this, then the odds are that you (like me) belong to the latter group.

            So, as the world’s Rich, what are our responsibilities to the world’s Poor?

            Should we live in a permanent state of guilt that we, too, are not among the sufferers?

            Personally, I think not.

            Guilt on its own achieves nothing. The only real cure for guilt is doing something about the thing that makes us feel guilty. If world poverty worries us, then we should support appropriate aid schemes and encourage our governments to do likewise, always being prepared for some disappointment at the outcome of the aid schemes we support. There are no quick fixes for world poverty any more than there are quick fixes for world misgovernment. Publicity campaigns that ask us to solve world poverty in one generation are bound to fail. But that needn’t stop us from signing on for the long, slow, hard, many-generations project of sharing the world’s wealth more equitably.

            Should the existence of massive world poverty make us regard all problems in our own privileged society as unimportant?

            Again, the answer is no.

            How often have I read articles suggesting that, because people are dying in droves in other countries, we should disregard the poverty in our own country as being of a lesser order, and not worry about it so long as people are not actually starving on the streets.

            Again, I have heard the existence of massive world poverty used as a stick with which to beat people’s concern about art, culture, conservation and so on. Because people are dying in Ethiopia, we shouldn’t concern ourselves about whether books are well-written or ill-written, whether teenagers are drinking too much, whether there is good public broadcasting, what good aesthetic standards are and so on.

            The Big Problems of the world deserve our attention, but so do the problems nearer at hand. And we are better, more-thinking people if we give some attention to the fine details of our society rather than devaluing our society.

            At the very least, though, the Poor of the world should give us one thing – a sense of perspective.

            Every pleasure we enjoy is relative to somebody else’s impoverishment. When we enjoy an average meal, we should be aware that in much of the world it would be regarded as a fabulous banquet. When we drink a bottom-shelf wine, we would do well to remember what a wonderful drink it would be to people who can hardly access potable water.

            Which brings me to a gross lack of perspective I experienced recently.

            About a month ago, on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning National Radio show, I heard a vigneron talking about the debasement of wine production techniques by the existence of mass-produced wine. For mass-produced wine he used the term “grape-ohol”, having presumably absorbed the propaganda lesson that you can make things sound bad if you invent an unpleasant name for them. The vigneron argued that such wine was not really wine at all, as it was made in bulk, with added chemicals to hasten fermentation and without the loving care and traditional techniques that he uses in his own winery.

            Now I am not, and do not aspire to be, a wine connoisseur. In tasting and enjoying wine, I distinguish only between Undrinkable, Acceptable and Really Good. I sometimes suspect that people who claim to distinguish more degrees than this are deluding themselves, but this could be a prejudice on my part and I do not offer it as a blanket judgement.

            Again, I accept that there are real traditional methods of wine production about which I know very little and which are probably responsible for producing many fine wines. I am no expert.

            But I do know a lack of perspective when I hear it.

            When asked how much his own wine retailed for, the vigneron said about $500 per bottle. In other words he was running an enterprise for the very rich. Nobody but the very rich buy wine at $500 a bottle. As for the “grape-ohol” he condemned, it was the very thing that I can afford and sometimes put into the supermarket trolley. Indeed it is the very (Acceptable) thing I am imbibing now as I write this comment, and the very thing that most wine-drinkers in our privileged country would think of when they think of wine.

            To the Poor of the world, the cheap wine I am drinking is a fabulous drink. I thank them for the sense of perspective they give me.

            To the pretentious vigneron I say “Bah! Humbug!” and am sorely tempted to add “Get a life!”


  1. [Hugh Major has authorised me to post the following comment]

    Hi Nicholas
    Not sure if this was just a temporary difficulty, but when I attempted to comment on Nothing but the Best, the Publish button elicited a "Please choose a Profile", then froze. Anyway, here's my comment:
    I heard of a scam (probably not in NZ due to its distance from Bordeaux business) whereby someone bought several bottles of unlabeled wine - aka 'cleanskins' - then affixed a venerable old label, with a random year enhancing its venerableness, no doubt added a few coffee stains and a coat of dust, then put them into an auction.
    Perhaps this was an urban myth, but the scam was eventually revealed, probably because some sommelier's nostrils detected a cheeky quality within the alleged vintage.
    Interestingly, via the placebo effect, buyers could well have especially enjoyed this bogus rare wine because of the colour of the cash they parted with.
    $500? I agree. Get a life.

  2. Wait? What? How did we get from world poverty to wine? Are you suggesting that the 10% of the world's highest income earners shouldn't feel guilty about the poor because they can point to the excesses of the richest 0.1%?

    1. Nope, my dear identity-easily-guessable Anonymous, As my original comment makes clear, I am saying (a.) the 10% should act on their guilt rather than hugging it uselessly, and should help share the world's wealth more equitably; and (b.)the 0.1% should get a sense of perspective and get a grip.