Before Covid, before Brexit, before Ukraine, before Trump and all the other disasters that have hit the world, it seems we were all sleep-walking towards a cliff edge. Almost without realising it, the traditional mores and structures of society were being slowly eroded. It is, perhaps, only now, as we come to terms with the events of these past few years, that we can see how much the world, especially in Europe and North America, has changed.
Globalisation had been seen as a positive development, a bringing together of world economies, integrating national and international systems for maximum efficiency and profitability. Of course, the question of who benefitted from all those profits was one which only the more activist among us really noticed. There were hints, rumours, troubling statistics. 80% or 90% of the wealth held by just the infamous 1%, as the rich got richer and the poor become desperate.
The pandemic illustrated the imbalance of things: the “West” with a surfeit of vaccines while the entire continent of Africa were starved of relief. Job losses in almost every sector of national economies as countries spent money they didn’t have on keeping people fed and housed. The future became threatening, as we wondered how we could recover. But, as it seems, the rich, which includes Canada, will survive. But thousands, possibly more, jobs were lost as corporations closed factories and mines and sent the jobs offshore, so they could save more millions of dollars. Meanwhile, entire towns and communities were destroyed, ravaged by unemployment, loss of dignity and thrown on the social scrapheap.
Now, we reap the whirlwind, as Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas leaves countries shackled and contributing millions to Putin’s war machine. When did we decide that profits were more important than people, that corporations were more sacred than communities?
But something else was lost over the years: a sense of honour, perhaps? In early times, meaning only a few decades ago, there were standards of behaviour that were accepted as the norm. In politics, certain kinds of things were grounds for resignation and dishonour: lying, stealing, personal attacks on your opponents. That is all gone now. There is no shame. Worse, after Trump and his acolytes, Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in the U.K., none of these things are cause for regret and apology.
Politicians used to argue and fight over ideology, over policies and procedures. Now, it seems, they make everything personal. In the 1960s, it was said that the personal was political. Now, the political is personal. Parties don’t just criticise their opponent’s electoral platforms, they attack their opponent’s character. Opposing parties could disagree on the floor of the House, but then would join each other for a drink at the bar. This is a dreadful deterioration in our body politic, and it is reflected in our society generally.
Is there any need to talk about the atmosphere which all too often contaminates social media discourse? We have learned new words, like “troll”, not to mention the corporate versions: “cyberattack” and “hacking”, ransom ware. We have become used to, if not resigned, to the despicable language that is used by people online against other people they don’t even know. We seem to believe that we have a right to engage in character assassination, insults and foul language, against anyone we think disagrees with us. When did this happen? How did we let it become acceptable?
Many years ago, Senator Joseph McCarthy in the U.S. carried on a campaign of innuendo and insinuation against anyone, if he thought it would advance his career. After ruining the lives of too many people, mainly honourable and decent people, one man finally had enough. “Have you no shame?”, he demanded of McCarthy, and the house of cards McCarthy had built fell apart.
Is that a question we should be asking ourselves these days? Have we no shame? Are we content to allow politicians, corporations, governments, and the media to continue to debase our society with this kind of approach to life? I have used this quote before, in other circumstances, but it is relevant now more than ever. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Where are the good men and women? We have just lost one: Jim Bertram and I could disagree enthusiastically with each other. But he was an honourable man, with genuine principle and integrity. We can’t afford to lose many more like him. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.