TERRY PRONE: What we can learn from history is that we learn nothing from history

WE SEEM to have lost our grip on truth and consequences.

It’s no longer acceptable to point to inevitable negative end results of certain actions.

Pre-recession, a few voices raised the spectre of the property bubble bursting and splattering bits of the economy all over the place. The mood at the time was eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll be even richer, so don’t be trying to frighten us.

Ireland was being told the truth by a small group of credible people who were quite properly trying to frighten us with the inevitable consequences of our actions, and we wanted none of it.

Proving, yet again, that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, we’re now, on a number of fronts, being presented with data, whether on the economy or on health and safety, which are being rejected by political or other vested interests, not on the grounds that the information is untrue, but on the grounds that articulating the truth can be construed as bullying and trying to frighten the public.

Fianna Fáil ensuring Gerry Adams a position in the Stability Treaty debates fails to register this trend. Yes, of course, Micheál will knock spots of Adams, when it comes to talking economics to middle class Ireland. Adams, however, won’t be talking to that demographic. His market is the disaffected. All Adams has to do to reach that audience is to hammer home Fianna Fáil’s instrumentality in our loss of sovereignty, and portray the current Government as bullies, trying to frighten the nation regarding the consequences of a no vote.

Adams won’t have to be logical. TV debates are never about logic. They’re about sound-bites and emotional temperature.

Anyone pushing logic would point out that the Irish people are remarkably resistant to bullying and that trying to frighten people is not an effective method of changing behaviour. Example: warnings went out for years about the dangers of driving without a seatbelt and people persisted in fighting to be seatbelt-free. Getting points on the driving licence was the game-changer.

Which, of course, leads to that other great accusation: sure aren’t we living in a nanny state? The nanny state term seems to have originated with a British Conservative MP in the 60s, and has been deployed ever since to condemn any government which seeks, in the interests of health and safety, to control the actions of its citizens, but more importantly, to control the activities of corporations. Without the nanny state (say its opponents) we would all be living free, untrammelled, unregulated lives.

A bit like the financial services industry, prior to the meltdown.

You can’t deny that, without interference by the State, our cities would resemble 19th century London, as described by a doctor of the time, who noted the tossing of garbage and refuse of all kinds into the streets by the unregulated citizenry.

“All the slops of this and, I might almost say, the majority of this district, are thrown upon the streets,” he observed. “These remain on the surface, and become thoroughly incorporated with the mud, forming a thick semi-pultaceous black fetid mass.”

That cannot happen any more, because of dreadfully constraining laws which prevent us emptying our chamber pots out the top window of our homes onto passers-by (a constant hazard in times past) and flinging our banana peels wherever we want.

The nanny state argument sits firmly on the false belief that, everything being equal, human beings will opt for the option offering greater benefit to the wider public; we all clean up our act over time so that the stink or parasites of one person do not afflict another. Just give people information and they’ll fly straight. It’s an appealing, but unsupported thesis.

Information alone doesn’t make people fly straight. As John Crown recently pointed out, having the information about the dire consequences of cigarette smoking didn’t stop him — an oncologist — smoking for many years.

Nor did people stop their free-handed disposal of chamber-pot contents because they learned about germs. Their behaviour change was influenced by law and by the introduction of the flush toilet.

Now and again, it’s not legal but marital action that achieves the change. According to one history of British family life, Samuel Pepys “hardly ever washed his body until February 1664 when his wife suddenly went to a bathhouse, discovered the pleasures of cleanliness and refused to allow him into her bed until he too had washed. After holding out for three days, he finally gave way to her whim and bathed in hot water.” Self-interest is your only man.

No such self-interest applied to the food manufacturers who, prior to the introduction of laws and inspections, padded out their minced meat with sawdust and rat droppings. In America, a 26-year-old novelist was responsible for kicking the meatpacking industry into radically higher standards. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle demonstrated the vile conditions in which the meat-packing labour force worked.

“I aimed at the public’s heart,” he said, many years later, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” What he meant was that the public outcry majored, not on the brutality of the factories, which was what really exercised Sinclair, but on the contamination of meat products the public was feeding to its children.

The meat-packers would undoubtedly have utilised the “nanny state” argument, if it had been invented at the time, to prevent the passing of control legislation which followed, just as every vested interest describes every restraint on its operations as “going too far”. Implicit in the “going too far” line is that it is possible to decide when optimal standards of health and safety have been reached. It isn’t. Yes, we’re living longer and better because of clean water, better medical treatment and the gradual reduction in cigarette smoking, but human progress brings with it new challenges.

AFFLUENCE brought about increased levels of obesity, alcoholism and cocaine use.

However, the recent destruction of Ireland’s affluence does not serve as a corrective to all of these. Obesity is now a disease of the poor, rather than the rich, not least because of what George Orwell said three quarters of a century ago: “The poor want food that is tasty, rather than nutritious.”

Tasty cheap food, high in fats, salts, sugars and empty carbohydrates, was never more plentiful, never more popularly promoted, than it is right now.

Yet if any government, here or elsewhere, takes legislative action to control the emerging threats to public health, safety and well-being, those old familiar twin pleas are immediately made.

In similar vein, when Michael Noonan tells the truth and indicates the consequences of a No vote might be an even nastier budget, Sinn Féin makes him out to be a bully. The reality is that, as a nation, we’re probably the most resistant in the world to anyone putting the frighteners on us, and to portray us as amenable to bullying, using truth as a weapon, does us an injustice. We may be bitter and twisted about current deprivation, but we still want to hear the truth. And make our own decisions on the consequences.


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