We pretend to ourselves that money isn’t everything, when at every hand’s turn, we are reminded that it is – and we have become estranged from ourselves
Napoleon famously described Britain as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. A French political scientist friend who is teaching here at third level while completing a PhD has reached the same conclusion about the Irish.
He describes every political discussion in this country as a business discussion, saying there is no debate at the level of ideas, it’s all about costs and outcomes.
“I cannot get my students to engage in a real political argument,” he tells me, “because they have no ideology, they haven’t been taught to think at the level of ideas, they don’t have an ideological standpoint.”
It’s a case of ‘whatever you’re having yourself as long as it doesn’t break the bank’.
Little wonder most of our political parties are gathered in a huddle around the centre, since nearly all aspects of our political reality are viewed through the screen of a calculator.
In fairness, the discussion on the siting of the National Maternity Hospital was somewhat laced with ideology.
But while there were those who argued their case from the position of ideas and ideology, financial pragmatism won the day for the Government as Sinn Féin weaponised the issue to give the Coalition a bloody nose.
Everything is subjected to crude, short-term cost-benefit analysis before it is ascribed value. We analyse the cost before we even begin to explore the idea.
In this country, none of the pressing issues of our time is approached from the perspective of ideas.
The housing situation is a case in point; the response is chaotic because we have no national understanding, no national idea in relation to housing. The only thing approaching an idea is the sacrosanct right to private property.
This narrow legalistic approach leaves us in the perverse predicament where hardly a house is to be had on the long-term rental market, yet the country is awash with Airbnbs. There is no thinking being done, just calculating.
The same is true when it comes to the establishment of a universal basic income: we don’t explore the notion, the idea or the thinking that underpins it.
We don’t explore what type of society it would take to make it a reality, what kind of society it would create. We go straight to the cost and get stuck in the calculator.
It’s even worse in relation to climate change: the level of debate never elevates itself to the exploration of what a sustainable world might look like. There is no energy put into the development of a philosophy of conservation that might inform a code of living to keep us in harmony with the planet.
No, we want to know who is going to pay and how much are they going to give to stop us setting fire to our own backsides.
It appears the debate on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland is going nowhere before it is crunched through an abacus.
The thinking around what kind of an entity might emerge post-partition, what models of inclusion might need to be looked at to accommodate the range of perspectives that go to make up people who inhabit the island… all this is being left to summer schools.
The only real discussion is around whether southerners can afford to pay for unity and northerners will be happy to pay for GP appointments.
And now, it looks as if we are going to confine ourselves to an even narrower transactional notion of what it means to be a country and a society.
A teacher in a sizeable secondary school told me last week that there are NO students in the school taking history for the Leaving Cert cycle starting this September.
If that is indicative of the rest of the country, we will soon have a generation in positions of power and influence with no idea where they came from. How will they have any idea of where they are going?
It is instructive that one of the most successful TV series on these islands for some time has been the sharp, incisive, wicked and wildly funny Derry Girls.
There was a huge social media reaction to the last episode, which dealt with the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.
Many people, especially in Britain, have been on social media since, saying it was the first time they felt they understood what the Troubles were about and what the Agreement means.
How much better it would be for all the peoples on these islands if we had an understanding of the history we share.
For some reason, history has fallen off the list of subjects required on the path to progress. It has gone the way of Latin, Greek and philosophy to be replaced by ‘useful subjects that will get you a job’.
Meanwhile, we pretend to ourselves that money isn’t everything, when at every hand’s turn, we are reminded that it is.
We have become estranged from ourselves, from who we are, where we came from, why we are and where we want to go.