The Ally McBeal Zone


In praise of inaction

By Rajneesh Narula

(another in my occasional essay series)


Another new sociological phenomenon. Let me walk you, beloved reader, through the events leading to my epiphany. 


I had just finished dinner, on a most ordinary of Saturdays here in Oslo. A baked potato, a fried egg (which only joined the menu after I dropped it) and a whale steak. Yes, you read right. Whale. As on the Discovery Channel. Those blubbery black creatures that Disney made popular with Free Willy. Those sea-dwelling mammals which communicate across hundreds of kilometers through strange gurgling sounds. Those helpless loveable fish-like sentient beings which Greenpeace keeps trying to get the Japanese and Norwegians from massacring. Yes friends, for those of you who are slow on the uptake, Oslo is in fact the capital of whale-culling Norway, and ol’ Willy was on my dinner plate tonight, cooked medium-rare, with a touch of garlic. Once you get past the slight cod-liver oil after-taste it reminded me vaguely of reindeer (another specialty here in Viking-Land), with the texture (but not the taste) of calf’s liver.


Now you must understand that I am given to certain left-of-center views. But the save-the-whale foundation is not one of my top charities. And there are more powerful forces than political correct-ness, mostly associated with pleasures of the flesh.  When hunger strikes, I lose my perspective. I walked into the supermarket, and there was a steak. A Cheap Steak. This is Oslo. Cheap Steaks do not make regular appearances, and besides, I was hungry. I craved meat. Lots of it. Immediately. So I purchased my pound of flesh, and proceeded to assuage my needs.


But I was no longer hungry. As I sat on my couch, sans glass of wine, I began to consider the consequences of my actions. Had I erred?  Did this rank up there with voting for the fascists, sending large cheques to Jonas Savimbi, reading Barbara Cartland stories, and watching Benny Hill re-runs? Have I turned my back on my values? Am I going to hell? Is this the beginning of a steep moral down-hill slalom? I could hear the disappointed moans of my friends who pay their Greenpeace/Amnesty International/Save the Children membership fees diligently, as they reach for the Christmas lists and strike my name off.  ‘Rajneesh, how could you?’, as they wring their hands, tears flooding their eyes.  Yes, folks, in the eyes of these friends, I have descended into the caves of degeneracy, I wander the caverns of the lost. I am expelled from polite society, never to see the moral sun evermore. Slavery, drug-trafficking, and enjoying Bay Watch re-runs cannot be far behind.


For my teetotaler friends, be it known that wine does not help these matters. Alcohol is a known depressant. My suffering gets worse. I try to salvage my self-respect. Can I take solace in the fact that Willy did not die at my behest? After all, there is no crazed Ahab-like whaler who only went hunting because he knew Rajneesh would be buying whale tonight. Poor Willy was dead way before a chunk of his left side hit my frying pan. Poor Willy was dead meat, with or without me.


You see, as an economist, I have the tools to justify my every action, because there is a school of thought for every eventuality. I search my mind, and I come up with that most basic of economic principles: Supply and demand. Ceteris paribus, if there is no whale-eating public, there will be no whale-hunting. So if the demand for whales drops by enough steaks, Olav the whaler will probably hunt one less whale, and eventually, whales will be frolicking about without a care in the world.  Exactly why I still will not buy Israeli goods until a peace accord is signed. Same principle. Shit, I realize I have picked the wrong argument to make me feel better. I have shot myself in the foot, I have condemned myself. I am in contravention of my own values. I have sold out. Let the stoning begin. Bring out the stake, the kindling and the matches, for I have sinned.


But wait! What’s wrong with me trying whale? Am I not a carnivore, and is it not part of my genetic make-up to eat animals lower down in the food chain? I am not, after all, a serial whale-eater. One steak does not make me a major threat to the survival of the species.


It was then that it struck me. I jumped up off my sofa with a startling insight, one which shook me to my very core. A realization so astounding, so tumultuous, so traumatic, that I despaired for my very existence. And by extension, for mankind at large. For a truth had been revealed to me:


I had just entered the Ally McBeal Zone.


Ally McBeal, for those of you living on Mars, is this TV show about this anorexic woman in her thirties who happens to be a lawyer. She is also single, intelligent, and possibly the most neurotic person ever. Episodes generally involve her talking to herself, her friends and colleagues and her soon-to-be ex-boyfriends, about her neuroses which invariably are about aforementioned ex-boyfriends. Not content to reveal her thoughts to her hapless mortal friends, she has numerous imaginary buddies with whom she sings, dances and even fantasizes about. This is one seriously messed up woman. She is one sandwich short of a picnic, a fruit cake of the highest order. She lives out her existence with a tenuous grip on reality, completely unassisted by mind-altering drugs.


Ally is infuriating, because she makes the same mistakes over and over again. The same disastrous men with one way tickets to the funny farm with whom Ally jumps into bed before you can say ‘straitjacket’. But this is exactly why people watch her. Because they recognise themselves in her, and because it allows them to feel vaguely superior, and because frankly half the audience don’t remember the last 50 episodes when she did exactly the same thing. The theme of the show is that its acceptable to keep making the same mistakes again and again.


But Ally reflects a broader social phenomenon. That if we examine the pros and cons of our decisions for long enough, we can avoid responsibility for our actions. To put it another way, it is now also perfectly acceptable to procrastinate ad nauseam. Society has always relied on individuals having values, principles and objectives. Heroes in the past were people who would sacrifice everything rather than to sacrifice their principles. Religions, countries and causes sprang up, inspired by their example: Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Mandela, Che Guevara, Joan of Arc, John Wayne. But we have been relieved of this burden. Constant masochistic self-analysis gives us the right to question and flaunt them. Ally is simply symptomatic of this new age. She acts on her impulses with total disregard for these selfsame values, principles and objectives. But somehow, no one – TV audience, colleagues and fantasy dance partners – ever find her to be flaky, unprincipled, or bimbo-like in any way. She maintains a telly-tubby like innocence, blissfully untouched by the hand of experience. People admire her. She is the new archetypal hero. She’s a victim of society.  Its OK for her to be amoral, because life has dealt her an unfair hand. The lesson is this: So long as you obsess about your failings publicly and reflect on your amazing shallowness and your ‘issues’ for a while, there is no need to make sacrifices for your values. Pass the buck. Society has made you incapable of action. Blame it on the media, and if that doesn’t work, there’s always Hitler, the Vatican, Naomi Campbell and George Clooney.


In other words, amorality and inaction are fashionable, as long as you can justify it. Hallucination is OK too, as long as you are reasonably intelligent, have a decent job, and can generally kiss very well. This is what I call the Ally McBeal Zone. Is this a sign of the times? Certainly. After all, Bill Clinton took her lessons to heart, and look how well he did. I just hope some despot doesn’t figure this technique out, otherwise we’ll really be in trouble.


Not sure how my kissing skills will help me with my Whale Steak guilt, but I’m sure the next episode of Ally will clear this up.


Oslo, 010414