‘New hedonism’: flipside to fear

Is the post-11 September 'new hedonism' a slap in the face to the culture of fear?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Have you eaten any ‘terrorist-defying’ hamburgers, or indulged in some casual ‘apocalypse sex’? According to commentators, statisticians and health experts, since the terrorist attacks of 11 September there has been a rise in junk food consumption, pub crawling, late-night clubbing, casual sex and reckless-behaviour-in-general – suggesting that people aren’t as fearful as we might think in our ‘changed forever’ world.

Lee Bockhorn, associate editor of US magazine The Weekly Standard, reckons the rise in recklessness shows that ‘everyday Americans are coping with calamity through hedonism’. ‘People are drinking, smoking, eating and loving more since 11 September’, writes Bockhorn. ‘Good for them.’ The new hedonism might involve copious amounts of booze, big bad tobacco and pizzas, but Bockhorn wonders whether it could be a ‘healthy restorative for souls otherwise busy steeling themselves to meet the new demands of this hour in our history’ (1).

So is the new hedonism a slap in the face to post-11 September fears, a sign that we’re getting over worries about anthrax and the like by indulging in a different kind of white powder? Clearly, people are not in the same state of raw, on-the-edge panic today as they might have been on 12 September and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. The positive, spirited desire to get on with our lives means we aren’t cowering in caves and hiding away from a big bad world.

But that doesn’t mean the culture of fear has subsided and given way to a positive new hedonism. In fact, the ‘rising recklessness’ looks more like the flipside to fear – yet another expression of the anxious climate that has gone global since 11 September.

The evidence for a new hedonism is compelling. The New York Times claims that there has been a rise in bar-hopping in NYC itself over the past three months, with more people going to more bars, staying later and drinking harder drinks.

‘Since 1 October, sales have been hardcore’, says a spokesman for New York’s Regency Hotel. ‘Cocktails, manhattans, bottles of wine, vodka on the rocks and martinis – no flavoured martinis, just the real stuff.’ (2) According to some New York bars, hard liquor sales in November 2001 were 25 percent higher than in November 2000 – leading to increasing levels of what one bar owner dubbed ‘determined drunkenness’. And it’s not just the USA – The Times in London ran a series of interviews with City of London financial workers who have been visiting pubs more often and for longer since 11 September.

Then there’s smoking. A survey by the American Cancer Society and GlaxoSmithKline found that a third of American smokers have ‘bought more cigarettes than usual since 11 September’, and that five percent of former smokers have gone back to the evil weed since the terrorist attacks (3).

People are eating more junk food than before. The New York Times‘ respected food critic William Grimes admitted to dreaming about the all-American hotdog in the days after 11 September, arguing that the hotdog’s ’emotional claims could not be denied’ (4) – while restaurants and food outlets report a hike in sales of comfort, junk and fatty foods.

‘Can’t stay away from the cheese casseroles or salty chips?’ asked the Washington Post. ‘It’s not just you… [At] more than 30,000 supermarkets across the country, sales of comfort foods have jumped in recent weeks.’ (5) Apparently, post-11 September sales of Oreos (America’s favourite cookie) are up 18 percent, frozen pizzas are up eight percent, macaroni and cheese seven percent, and pastries, donuts and salty snacks four percent (6).

But the most-talked-about bit of the new hedonism is what Time magazine calls ‘apocalypse sex’ – the rise in screwing around since 11 September. One New York man told Time that he had a ‘disaster tryst’ with a woman he met on the subway, explaining that ‘pretty much all we talked about was the World Trade Centre and how glad we were to be alive’. ‘There are people in New York City’, said Time, ‘who have used the past few weeks as an opportunity to put the passion back in compassion’ (7). Or, as one interviewee told US online publication Salon, ‘terror sex’ in the wake of 11 September is one way people have found to say ‘I’m alive, I’m functioning, I’m real’ (8).

A rise in reckless sex in our safe sex-obsessed world? There may be anecdotal evidence that young singletons in New York are enjoying comforting ‘disaster trysts’, but this hardly represents a profound change in our mores and morality. Judging from the amount of column space dedicated to the ‘terror sex’ phenomenon, it looks more like a case of people wanting to believe it, rather than it being a real post-11 September trend. Comparisons have even been made to the rise in sexual encounters during the Second World War – but the belief that a few ‘apocalypse flings’ in and around New York can be compared to the breakdown of moral restraint in the Western world with the onset of world war really is reckless.

And last but not least: rising lipstick sales. US make-up companies claim sales are up 10 to 12 percent since 11 September – ‘and women aren’t just buying more lipstick; they’re turning away from bland earth tones, opting for richer shades, reds, wines and plums’ (9). (But some economists point out that the lipstick boom might be related to the US recession, as a similar rise was spotted during the last recession. Nice to know people are keeping an eye on the political, economic and social forces driving sales in lipstick.)

So what is behind the ‘rising recklessness’? As some have pointed out, claims of a new and all-consuming hedonism are exaggerated. Post-11 September, not all Americans (or Europeans) have turned into junk food-gorging, sex-chasing alcoholics with a 40-a-day habit and fire engine red lipstick. ‘It’s dangerous to read too much into anecdotes’, said The Weekly Standard – before adding that ‘some of the trends may have a positive aspect: when even opening the mail becomes a hazardous experience, maybe an extra glass of wine does some good’ (10).

The new hedonism does tell us something about the Western mindset in the wake of 11 September – but it’s hard to see how it could be described as positive.

One of the biggest impacts of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington was to exacerbate an already existing sense of fear and insecurity in the West. Over the past 10 years, Western societies have become preoccupied with the risks of modern life – from mad cow disease and the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK to school shootings and street crime in the USA.

Not surprisingly, given the scale of destruction and the shocking death toll, the 11 September attacks quickly became a focus for Western societies’ insecurities. As spiked editor Mick Hume pointed out in the week after the attacks: ‘The terrorist attacks have already united America and the Western world in one telling sense. They have globalised the culture of fear… The impact of the terrorist attacks on public consciousness has been even greater because it is connecting with an already entrenched culture of fear.’ (11)

In the weeks and months after the attacks, there were fears about flying, with a decline in overseas holidays and a number of flights delayed, cancelled or flown to safety by US army planes at the merest hint of a dodgy passenger. There was the Great Anthrax Panic, not just in America but across the world, with sightings of talcum powder or icing sugar causing public buildings to be closed down and mass evacuations (12). And there was the fear of further terrorist attacks, with the USA and European states rushing through draconian anti-terrorism legislation under the pretext of keeping us all safe at night (13).

Such fearfulness was not a reaction to the specific events of 11 September, but to a wider sense that everything is out of control and falling apart – which is also how the ‘new hedonists’ seem to see the world.

‘If we learn anything from what happened, it should be that you must live for the moment because tomorrow you could be toast’, said one young Londoner to The Times, explaining why he was doing more pub-crawling than normal in the wake of 11 September. ‘You’ve got to live it up’, said a young New Yorker from behind a glass of beer in a New York bar, ‘because who knows what could happen and when it might happen. Nobody knows’.

These two drinkers provide a snapshot of what’s behind the new hedonism – not a middle finger to the fear that has gripped the world since 11 September, but a sense that anybody anywhere could be a victim of an unforeseen, unpredictable event carried out by anybody at any time, so what the hell, let’s get pissed. This is the same sense of vulnerability that has led some people in the USA to microwave their mail for fear that it might contain anthrax and aeroplane staff to be suspicious of anybody carrying anything from penknives and knitting needles to perfume and tennis rackets.

Likewise, as far as it exists, the ‘apocalypse sex’ (or ‘Armageddon sex’, as one UN worker called it (14)) that some claim is turning New York into a real-life Sex and the City story is born more out of fear and confusion than last-minute lust. According to one New York resident who had an ‘apocalypse one-night stand’ after 11 September: ‘People died and I have guilt about it. But I’d rather feel guilty and miserable with somebody else than all alone.’ (15) On Salon, New York writer Cole Kazdin says the good thing about ‘terror sex’ is that ‘being physically close feels like the best defence against death’ (16). Guilt, misery, death – hardly the recipe for a positive sexual encounter.

Dr Peter Salovey, professor of psychology at Yale University, summed it up when he said that the new hedonists have a feeling that ‘life is precious and civilisation is precarious’ (17). For the post-11 September hedonists, the societies we live in are unpredictable, unknowable and frightening, so what better than to get drunk, have sex with other lonely people and eat yourself sick? After all, tomorrow you might be killed by a crazed plane-crashing towel-head.

And predictably, there have been warnings that the new hedonism itself might be a touch too hedonistic, posing a potential risk to people’s health and wellbeing. Some have warned of the dangers of having reckless ‘terror sex’ without using a condom – apparently not noticing the irony. While Joseph Califano of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse says: ‘The Americans who are using drugs and alcohol to cope, or have relapsed from society after the national tragedy, are the forgotten victims of 11 September.’ (18)

Apparently, all the post-11 September hedonism has meant that 13 US states and four major cities – New York, Washington DC, Phoenix and Houston – have seen ‘an increased demand for alcohol and drug treatment since 11 September’. ‘It is imperative that the federal government provide increased funding for drug and alcohol treatment to serve these individuals who have become victims of the 11 September tragedy’, says Califano (19).

What do you know – no sooner are the new hedonists hailed by some as standing up to the USA’s post-11 September blues than they themselves are branded the latest victims of 11 September. It seems that, even if they had wanted to, there’s no escaping the fear and insecurity gripping the USA and other Western societies.

Eating junk food, getting hammered on hard drinks and indulging in ‘terror sex’ with strangers is far more fun than microwaving mail and refusing to go to the top of tall buildings – but all of these responses to 11 September seem to be driven by the same sense of vulnerability. The new hedonism is not so much a defiant turn away from fear and loathing towards fun and loving than an expression of fear about the future – where the most we can hope for is booze, fatty food and bright red lipstick in the here and now.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi

Wishful thinking, by Josie Appleton

Growing up scared, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) The meaning of mashed potatoes, Weekly Standard, 10 December 2001

(2) New York Times, 5 December 2001

(3) The meaning of mashed potatoes, Weekly Standard, 10 December 2001

(4) ‘On menus everywhere, a big slice of patriotism’, New York Times, 24 October 2001

(5) ‘There’s a war on – have an Oreo’, Washington Post, 20 November 2001

(6) ‘There’s a war on – have an Oreo’, Washington Post, 20 November 2001

(7) Dating after Doomsday, Time, 23 September 2001

(8) Sex in a time of terror, Salon, 21 September 2001

(9) The meaning of mashed potatoes, Weekly Standard, 10 December 2001

(10) The meaning of mashed potatoes, Weekly Standard, 10 December 2001

(11) Benjamin Franklin or Nostradamus – decide now before it’s too late, Mick Hume, The Times (London), 17 September 2001

(12) See Anthraxiety by Michael Fitzpatrick

(13) See Anti-terrorism bill: MPs aren’t revolting by Jennie Bristow

(14) Dating after Doomsday, Time, 23 September 2001

(15) Dating after Doomsday, Time, 23 September 2001

(16) Sex in a time of terror, Salon, 21 September 2001

(17) Sex in a time of terror, Salon, 21 September 2001

(18) See National Clearing House for Drug and Alcohol Information

(19) See National Clearing House for Drug and Alcohol Information

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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