Even Fred the Shred is only human
20 March 2009
How comforting it is to be on the side of the good guys. Life may be complicated but at least there is one issue about which every decent, sensible person can agree.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: the great financial crisis in which we find ourselves was caused by greed; money men allowed a lust for cash to skew their judgement; those who compounded their sins by pocketing bonuses and pensions, paid by the taxpayer, are beyond contempt. It is as if they have stolen our hard-earned wages from our pockets and then laughed in our faces as they flew off in their private jets.
Gosh, how we hate these people. Outrage at their behaviour has united left and right, employed and unemployed, voter and politician. Here our leaders have shaken their heads and have made disappointed, scolding noises. In America, they have gone further. The President has said he is very angry about bonuses given to managers of the AIG Group, which had been bailed out with public money. A Republican senator suggested that those who had received bonuses, “follow the Japanese example and… do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide”.
Suicide – now we’re talking! It is not tears we want in these times of public fury, but blood.
Yet, as we warm ourselves by the hot coals of our righteous, shared anger, it is perhaps just worth considering another outrageous possibility. Could it be that these people do not in fact belong to an alien moral universe? That the AIG bonus-grabbers are not living monsters? Even that the modern-day Satan Sir Fred Goodwin might in the end turn out to be human? The villains who have become the object of an intensity of social loathing not seen since Gary Glitter was last in the news are, in fact, not unlike you and me. The idea that people who happen to be on large salaries and work with money are all amoral and corrupt is simply illogical.
It may suit those of us in the bonus-free majority to believe that, in similar circumstances, we would behave differently but all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Most of those at AIG were quite happy to accept a reward in public money for a job done badly; only when things got a little rough did a few of them offer to pay some of it back.
Something strange has happened. Corporate values have replaced communal ones. The idea that over the past decade or so we have become a more caring, giving society is an illusion. We merely cry rather more. The emotion showed at certain moments of apparent unity – the death of a celebrity, the orgasm of public charity that is Red Nose Day – is an expression of sentimental narcissism. The outside world is a reflection of our own individual feelings of sorrow or generosity.
When it comes to a simple, unshowy thing like refusing to accept public money when it is undeserved, social unity is nowhere to be seen. The greater good can go hang.
In their braver moments, politicians recognise this unpalatable truth. We have come to care less for our society, not more. Both Gordon Brown and President Obama have made impassioned speeches in the past about personal responsibility.
Recently, though, it has become more convenient for those in public life to finger just one section of the community as the guilty men. Rage and hatred towards others, after all, is easier on the spirit than self-examination.
Neighbours’ red mist as Neville hedges his bets
There are few things which give the press more pleasure than the chance to sneer at the poor taste of a rich, vulgar, working-class footballer. When a Premiership player helps a beleaguered economy by having a mock-Tudor mansion built or renovating a clapped-out castle, the reaction is invariably to report mean-spiritedly on the scandalised reactions of his neighbours.
This week, the Manchester United captain Gary Neville is said to have caused dismay by planting a hedge, shaped into the letters “MUFC”, on his £7m estate near Bolton. One unnamed neighbour apparently whined: “Why can’t he grow normal privet hedges like everyone else?”
What a small-minded snob. After decades of farmers’ grubbing up hedgerows, Neville has done a fine thing and reversed the trend. When his team win this year’s Premier League title, he should consider marking the occasion by planting a mixed-species hedge spelling out the name of every player in the Old Trafford side. The neighbours may cluck their disapproval but the wildlife will love it.
The new religion of environmentalism
There is good news for employees who hold strong opinions about climate change and the environment. If your colleagues fail to respect your views (obliging a waitress to serve meat in a restaurant, for example), you will be able to seek redress in law.
The case of Tim Nicholson, an executive made redundant by the property firm Grainger, has established a curious precedent. Under law, environmentalism is no longer a matter of fact and science, but is essentially a religion. Mr Nicholson, whose fear for the future of humanity is passionately and pro-actively held, believed that, like many firms, his employers were talking green while acting greedy.
This position, according to a pre-hearing review, placed him within the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations. “In my opinion, his belief goes beyond mere opinion,” said the judge.
But why stop with employment? If environmentalism is now a religion, what more flagrant act of faith hatred could there be than expanding an airport?