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The Snapped Mast Says It All
The Guardian, February 26th, 2003

An accident at sea shows just how trite Ellen MacArthur's you-can-do-it philosophy really is

I can't be the only one whose heart leapt a little when they heard the news. Redoubtable yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, as well known for her petite stature as her considerable sailing skills, has failed in her attempt to beat the Jules Verne round-the-world record. This wasn't due to bad planning, poor skippering or any error by captain or crew. It was just one of those things; for no known reason, in moderate seas 100 miles south-east of the Kerguelen Islands, the mast of catamaran Kingfisher2 snapped in two places, and with it MacArthur's dream. I was glad, because this unfortunate incident also scuppers MacArthur's homespun can-do philosophy. Since coming second in the Vendee Globe solo non-stop round-the-world race aged 24, this British woman has come to represent triumph over adversity in all its forms. When asked by this paper "What is the most important lesson life has taught you?", she answered unequivocally, "That if you have a dream, big or small, you can achieve it if you really want it". Her website is entitled You Can Make It Happen. According to MacArthur, all you need is determination (and, perhaps, a little sponsorship; retailing giants Kingfisher fund MacArthur's endeavours to the tune of millions).

This mind over matter mantra is appealing: it appears to support those who haven't inherited opportunities, resources or good luck. You may not be born with advantages, but if you believe in yourself, set your sights high and go for it, you too can achieve.

This may sound like a philosophy for the dispossessed. In fact, it's the opposite. It dismisses every hurdle as a mere mental block, something that can be overcome by force of personality. You may have nothing and be no one, but you can be someone and have it all. It tells the poor and suffering that they are so due to their own lack of backbone. But as Kingfisher2's broken mast so clearly demonstrates, however much people try, circumstances may overcome them.

If this cod philosophy confined itself to the field of sport it wouldn't be that important; bravado is part of the sportsman's (and sportswoman's) trade. But when it is applied, as happens frequently, throughout all aspects of life, it is utterly inhumane, showing no sympathy at all for the very people it pretends to support. Take "you can conquer adversity" to its logical conclusion, and perhaps the starving war victims of Sudan are just not thinking enough positive thoughts. Surely they, too, could achieve their dream (a very small one indeed - to eat) if they really wanted. Or are some people more blessed with the ability to overcome adversity than others? Are these malnourished Sudanese more weak-willed than well-fed westerners? And what about all those western women who die of breast cancer? Are they simply being punished for not being as determined as those who survive the same disease? My brother-in-law had a two-year-old son and was determined to live. He wrote in code in his diary, "I will survive". It made no difference. His leukaemia killed him anyway, aged 28. The consultant haematologist at the hospital said: "They always say that they're fighters. But they always die."

Of course, the government is keen to promote the idea that an individual can change their lives all on their own. This removes any responsibility for them, or us as part of a wider society, to make those people's circumstances better. Your lack of achievement isn't because of poor housing, inadequate health provision and failing schools, but because you don't believe in yourself. That is why something called self-esteem is at the heart of the government's agenda; it's not your material circumstances that are responsible for your underachievement, but your poor self-image.

Fostering self-esteem will make everything OK. According to the Rough Sleepers Unit, it's self-esteem that the homeless need; according to the Department of Health for Wales, building self-esteem will prevent child prostitution; the prime minister says that social exclusion is as much the product of damaged self-esteem as material poverty. In one remarkable scheme, a programme was introduced into a Kent secondary school to promote self-esteem among pupils to "inspire them to design a compelling vision of their own future". They had all done badly academically. The only problem was that their school was identified as failing to give an acceptable standard of education and was put on special measures. But let's not concentrate on changing those children's educational opportunities by investing in a better funded and managed state school system, but on changing how they see themselves. Apart from anything else, it's so much cheaper.

It would be wonderful to believe that we could all just will our lives to be better; but it is harmful to believe that will is all we need. When someone is suffering, we should examine the circumstances they endure, not their mental state. We all have dreams. It's just sad - and sometimes tragic - that, through no fault of our own, we can't always live them.


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