Friday, 15 May 2009

We'll See

Here's an old Zen story: 'A boy is born to a village and the locals celebrate, the Zen master is asked his opinion and says only “we'll see”. Sixteen years later the boy is young and popular but in a tragic fall breaks his back and cannot walk again, the locals mourn; the Zen master is asked his opinion and says only “we'll see”. A month later war breaks out and all the other young men are forced to fight but not the young man with a broken back; the locals are relieved for him; the Zen master is asked his opinion and says only “we'll see”. The war comes to an end and the young man, having had his pick of the local girls, has married the most beautiful of women, the locals celebrate; the Zen master is asked his opinion and says only “we'll see”. The young man, frustrated with life, hits his new bride, she falls and is killed. The locals have the young man arrested and put to death, on the day of his execution the Zen master is asked his opinion: “we'll see”.'

Currently the media is enjoying a feeding frenzy: MPs are greedy and, best of all, freedom of information has laid their greed bare for all to see. The Telegraph's editor must have had the easiest week of his life, high sales generated by running the same story day after sordid day. And we, the people, are loving it; the recession, rising jobless and repossession figures, that modern sense of ennui which has infiltrated Britain; we have a lot of anger right now, and those MPs have offered themselves as our punching bags. The political classes have been trying everything to end the scandal. Brown's attempt, his smiley youtube clip, was briefly a success in giving the press a new topic ('Is Brown human?'), sadly he never followed it up. Cameron has naively tried to reassure the public that the money will be paid back ('All of it?' // 'Well some of it'), but of course that has only added to speculation. Meantime the rank and file have stuck with the line 'what I did was within the rules'. Vince Cable, that trusty voice of dull calm, pointed out that maybe this relentless focus on the issue might be distracting the legislature and government from doing their jobs; but no one seemed to have been listening (too distracted perhaps).

Meantime the media have been getting more and more rabid. Finally they have leverage, not just over individual MPs but over the whole system. The BBC, still smarting from their Dr David Kelly smack-down, are positively salivating; each morning the number of texts and emails they receive is going up. There were 'hundreds' yesterday, 'literally thousands' today, I am expecting that by week's end the whole studio will be buried in printouts of our righteous indignation. I hope for their sake no one starts asking questions of how they spend the licence fee ('...£1milllion on Paxman, £2million on printing texts and emails...').

Personally I am a little befuddled by all of this. It seems to me that the stories can be simplified to the statement 'MPs are greedy'. I would say that there do seem to be a few who have broken the rules (and given what the rules allowed that takes effort), those few, like anyone, should face prosecution for fraud and/or theft. However for the vast majority the sin is not criminal behaviour but 'being greedy'. Nonetheless, as many point out, MPs should be held to a 'higher standard' (or, put another way, we want to be able to criticise them while holding ourselves to a 'lower standard'). We are in a crisis generated by a national culture of greed, a belief that money is somehow separated from labour - 'I earn £50k p.a. and I own a house worth £500k..., but I'm not greedy, I'm not a professional like a banker or MP'. Are we really so very shocked that MPs are no different from us? Certainly Labour has done itself no favours by putting huge credence in the 'court of public opinion' over the last decade. Sir Fred Goodwin must be smiling as his sips his imported white tea from an exquisite bone china cup.

I wonder what the Zen master would say about all this? If this crisis leads to a change in the system, a reliance on freedom of information, and renewed trust in MPs, then great. If it causes government, at a time when we are in desperate need for direction and leadership, to grind to a halt then not so great. We, the public, need to work out what we want, is this just a manifestation of anger with no clear end in sight, or is this about reforming a system? Do we want to see MPs suffer and our government to collapse, or do we want to see it emerge stronger and healthier? Do we want to punish people for greed, or do we want to change a culture that allowed (even admired) such greed?

I suppose we'll see.