Call it the unexpected dividend of the financial melt-down – the getting of real wisdom. Amid all the outpourings of gloom, predictions of disaster and downward spiraling of this that and the other, there has been a clear upward spiraling of deeper reflections which see the silver lining in all this – in one way or another.
Even in the gloomier pieces churned out by the commentariat you can see the beginnings of a wisdom akin to – but on a much higher level than – that famous catchphrase which has come down to us from another US presidential election campaign. “It’s the economy, stupid”. This was a sign hung in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters to keep everybody “on message” in 1992. But in the end we seem to be coming to realise that it’s not just the economy, stupid. It’s a question of good old-fashioned virtue, stupid.
Novelist Margaret Atwood, writing an op-ed piece in the The New York Times on October 22 wisely warns us that we would be deluding ourselves if we were to think that recovery from the mess will be heralded by a simple return to form by the Dow Jones. Our wounds are deeper, she thinks. “To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.”
India Knight, columnist with the London Times declares herself “happy to observe that the decades of vulgar excess are finally over. There is a strong collective sense of us all coming back down to earth. It’s like a huge national reality check and, unwelcome as it may be, there is a possibility that it will result in us straightening out our priorities”
Sarah Lyall, reporting from London for The New York Times a day before Atwood’s article appeared, quoted the sage observations of 65-year-old Audrey Hurren whom she met on a platform in the Underground. It had all been too much in her view. “I think it wouldn’t do any harm at all for some of the younger generation to be less greedy.” Her grandchildren seemed to have everything they wanted and were still dissatisfied. “They get a mobile phone and if they don’t like it they throw it away and get a new one”.
But in that “having” there has been a problem. The trouble is that it wasn’t, in many, many cases, a “real” having. That was a “having” covered by – not necessarily in the cases of the Hurren grandchildren – a £1.52 trillion mountain of debt. And this was the broken moral balance which Atwood examines: the meaning of debt had gone out the window.
The simple economics of everyday life lost touch with the real world – even something which children know instinctively when they see something unfair happening and they shout out “That’s not fair”, was lost , she holds. Once you start looking at life without that sense of fairness, debtor-creditor relationships go much worse than pear-shaped.
“The version of the Lord’s Prayer I memorized as a child” recalls Atwood, “included the line, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ In Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke, the word for ‘debt’ and the word for ‘sin’ are the same. And although many people assume that ‘debts’ in these contexts refer to spiritual debts or trespasses, debts are also considered sins. If you don’t pay back what’s owed, you cause harm to others.
“The fairness essential to debt and redemption is reflected in the afterlives of many religions, in which crimes unpunished in this world get their comeuppance in the next. For instance, hell, in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ is the place where absolutely everything is remembered by those in torment, whereas in heaven you forget your personal self and who still owes you five bucks and instead turn to the contemplation of selfless Being.”
Atwood is loath to make predictions that we are heading towards paradise on earth. However, she at least hopes that “if fair regulations are established and credibility is restored, people will stop walking around in a daze, roll up their sleeves and start picking up the pieces. Things unconnected with money will be valued more — friends, family, a walk in the woods. ‘I’ will be spoken less, ‘we’ will return, as people recognize that there is such a thing as the common good.”
Elaine Byrne in The Irish Times on October 15 also connected the financial debacle with the moral, quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt who told his public in 1937 “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics…We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life”. He spoke scathingly of the “blindly selfish men” who had plunged the people into misery in the preceding decade. She ended her piece quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great parable of the era, “The Great Gatsby”, portraying that same selfishness and disregard for real human values which have been at the heart of our current woes. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
Reading all these reflections on a catastrophe gives hope that perhaps this time our political, intellectual and spiritual leaders will come up with a more penetrating solution that they did before and begin to look at the roots of our malaise. Rachel Sylvester’s observation in a London Times article on October 21 should give politicians some pause for thought:
“Mammon has been exposed as a false god whose worshippers seem to have been sacrificed on the altar of the credit crunch. There is a yearning for answers that go beyond interest rates, targets and the public sector borrowing requirement. The bishops have started bashing the bankers. Yet politicians, of all parties, have never been more fearful of faith.”
She does not seem particularly optimistic. She sees the retreat of Ruth Kelly from government and politics as a symptom of the problem which she describes as “a God-shaped hole in Westminster.” She implicitly recognises that the belief so readily discarded or despised by so many among Britain’s political class is a foundation without which a true recovery will be shallow and superficial.
“It would be wrong to suggest that Britain is any longer a Christian country in terms of the population – only 7 per cent of people regularly attend an Anglican church. Yet neither is Britain a secular State like France. Its history, culture and constitutional settlement are based on the link between Church and State. Earlier this year, Nicholas Sarkozy criticised the French republic’s obsession with secularism and called for a ‘blossoming’ of religions. ‘A man who believes is a man who hopes,’ he said. It is ironic that politicians in this country have abandoned belief – at the very moment that the people need hope.”
But the mass of politicians follow and do not lead. Only the few lead. Perhaps with a coming of a new-found wisdom – which undoubtedly is to be seen in all these tentative explorations for the deeper truths which our present pain may point to – then we can hope for the emergence of that critical few who will realise that financial regulation, state guarantees and better banking are not the ultimate solution to these problems. Let’s see a few signs hanging in the offices of our leaders reminding them that virtues – and where they come from – will go a long way to make the world a better place for us all.
Michael Kirke, formerly of The Irish Press, is now a freelance writer. His views can be responded to at firstname.lastname@example.org . Other writing can be found at www.mercatornet.com and on at www.positionpapers.ie