Moralistic tyranny bedevils our society


Over the last two decades, rage and jealousy have emerged to blight our way of life, writes JOHN WATERS

INVITED TO appear on the last Questions and Answers, with a brief to review the 23 years of Irish life since the programme first aired, I went around last week looking for signs of the deeper human trends that emerged in that period. Most changes are obvious: immigration, the fact that murder reports on the news are more likely to be from Dublin than Belfast, mobile phones and so on.

But unless you happen to be married to a Lithuanian, which thus far I am not, immigration is something you encounter in the streets rather than the soul. If I lived in Belfast, it is likely that my soul would be in better shape than it used to be; but, since I live in Dublin, the reverse must be the case.

The mobile phone has seemed to make me less lonely, but also rendered me more pathetic in my visible need for human contact. Having railed against it once with a Luddite fury, I carry it in my fist like a charm and gaze at it in the hope that it will erupt into light.

But the change that has struck me most in the past week or so is only occasionally visible: the rage and jealousy that have emerged on the surface of our society, constantly seeking a target.

Early last Saturday morning, I was in the departures queue at Dublin airport en route to Sicily. The queue, as usual, snaked around the departures hall, seeming to begin in Drumcondra.

In an aeon or two we were in the middle of it. Then, in front of us, a man ducked under the barrier and made for the gates, sliding into the throng. As he did so, a steward shouted at him, but he waved his hand in dismissal and kept going.

The steward went to follow him and then had second thoughts. Instead, he went briefly away and returned with a man in a white shirt, probably his supervisor. They were talking earnestly and the steward gestured and pointed towards the queue in front of us.

Then the white-shirted man ducked into the queue, and soon emerged with his quarry, looking sheepish and wan. Lecturing as they went, the arresting officer – for that is what he was – marched the queue-jumper back to the start of the line, by now at the top of Gardiner Street.

A few days later, the same thing might have happened to me, except I was in Rome, where queue-jumping is a way of life. I was looking for the queue for the Aer Lingus check-in, just one of a number of queues all seemingly tangled up together in a small hall.

I walked about trying to figure things out, and suddenly, paying attention to the faces all around me, realized that I was surrounded by extremely white-skinned people all glaring angrily at me.

The immediate, instinctive sense I had was that I had died and gone to Purgatory, and faced 30 billion years justifying myself to dead Livelinecallers. I wasn’t far out. Quite quickly I realised that I had discovered the middle of the Aer Lingus queue. I slunk back to the end of the line as people tut-tutted and harrumphed around me.

A few minutes later, a second desk was opened and the queue split into two – quite arbitrarily, it seemed – and for some reason our line ended up slightly shorter than the other. A young woman came along and, after a brief assessment, joined our queue. Immediately she was set upon by a woman who was ahead of all of us and tremblingly informed her that the end of the line was “over there”. The young woman stared at her shoes and went obediently over.

Then she realised she was in a queue for the wrong flight, that she was not going to Dublin. I have never seen such relief on a human face.

We used not to be like this. We had lives. We did not guard every single bureaucratic regulation with a jealous fury. Once, we might have seen someone jumping a queue and smiled at his brass neck or just thought that perhaps he faced some urgent circumstance.

Once, Ireland was world famous for being a place where everything was not reduced to “ethics” and “equality” and rules.

At the heart of this fundamental change in us, I believe, is the way, over the past decade in particular, the State has begun to bear down on citizens in previously inconceivable ways and dip deeper into our pockets to pay for its incompetent attentions. Gradually, this is driving us mad.

One example: in 1984, when I arrived in Dublin, you could drive your car into the city and encounter nothing more sinister than a “lockhard” who would, in return for a consideration, offer you a parking space as though he had the deeds of it in his pocket, which really contained nothing but a bottle of Asti Spumante.

Nowadays you go in fear of clampers with neither hearts nor souls, automatons of the State moralism intent upon punishment.

This is just one of the subtle and barely comprehended tyrannies that replaced the old kinds – turning us into moralistic bloodhounds who sniff the air for the scent of sinners.

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