TERRY PRONE: Why some people can’t pass up a good resentment opportunity

Fair dues to the Polish ambassador for coming out fighting over Magda, with his facts and figures in a row.

Ripped off his CD plates like they were constricting Elastoplasts, he did, and let fly. More power to him.

One wonders if we couldn’t involve him on a wider front. You see, Magda was just the latest symptom of a licensed envy that didn’t happen in any other economic downturn, made manifest on a daily basis in our newspapers and picked up for reheating and recycling by our radio programmes. Virtually every day kicks up a new offering. Someone, somewhere, who is getting more money than — we are invited to decide — they should be, given the situation into which the rest of us have been dropped.

Envy, up to now a vice, has become a form of therapy, fully licensed and accredited. Licensed envy means that anybody in the public service, who takes home expenses of any kind, is likely to find their face in the paper as a focus for public obloquy. If a government department is rumoured to have bought a coat hanger, someone will, under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI), investigate recent coat hanger purchases in order to find out if a particularly luxurious hanger costing €300 or €400 was bought when Lidl had perfectly good versions for a fiver and when there were leftover hooks in the Office of Public Works that would have done fine. When, dammit to hell, the rest of impoverished Ireland are hanging their coat on the back of their chair, if they’re lucky enough to have a chair, and assuming they have a coat at all.

The newspaper gets its headline. It may also get its picture: A shot of the minister in that particular department, drawn from the files, looking typical. Leo, head thrown back, laughing. James, glowering like a bespectacled walrus. Big Phil Hogan with his “I know loads, but I’m not tellin’ ya nuthin” mouth clamp on him. Joan Burton in mid-sentence (Joan is always mid-sentence). The reader gets the message: these heartless overpaid, insulated exploiters don’t care that you’re practically squeezing the hose of the petrol pump to get the last drops out of it. They just snap their fingers and say ‘minion’ to a principal officer: “Get me a solid mahogany coat hanger with gold plated fittings and look smart about it.”

Many of the stories are the outcome of use of the FoI Act. Never mind that each story probably cost the tax payer more in civil service research time than did the original purchase. Never mind that if every expense were paid back and every item purchased were retrieved through some new levy, it would not constitute a drop in our debt ocean. Let’s not spoil a good resentment opportunity with intimations of irrationality. Resentment ops have nearly replaced photo ops as a staple of modern media, and no doubt some readers fall on this never ending sequence with glad cries of self justified vengeance: Look at us, one step away from the St Vincent de Paul or Mabs, and those guys are living like lords. Off with their heads.

Of course some ministers, over time, become somewhat insulated within their departments. Of course, some returning public servants have pensions of a scale that evokes another time, another place. Of course the feet of the spendthrift must be held to the fire. But toe by toe? Every day? Every week? Doesn’t the scent of toasted tootsie pall, just a little?

To suggest we have had a surfeit of licensed envy is to invite attack for not wanting evil doers exposed or politicians to be held accountable. If these stories resulted in massive savings for us all, that would be just mighty, whereas all they ever leave us with is that coppery taste in the mouth left by indulgence in envy.

This wasn’t a feature of previous recessions, or even of the great depression. Economic hardship inevitably generates suffering, but it can also foster compassion and community. At the beginning of the current downturn, an American writer named Ted Gup found himself accidentally transported back to the worst days of the Great Depression when his mother handed over a small, most-smelling battered suitcase containing family papers she didn’t want to burn, but wanted rid of, nonetheless.

The fact that his investigation of the papers coincided with US President Barack Obama telling the Americans that “we are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” gave the man crouched over the undersized suitcase a sense of peering into the past but also glimpsing the future.

“They reminded me of the difference between discomfort and misery, between the complaints of consumers forced to rein in their spending and the keening of parents whose children went hungry night after night,” he writes.

One large envelope held 150 responses to an ad placed in a newspaper by a man who said he’d been through his own bad times and wanted to give $10 (at that time the equivalent of about €200) to 75 people in his hometown who wrote to him in absolute confidence. The man signed the ad with a false name, made up of the first names of his children. “B Virdot”, as he called himself, turns out to have been Gup’s grandfather, and he ended up giving $5 to each of a larger number of people who wrote to him, or rather, to his pseudonym. Gup held in his hands the letters from people who had received that money. He assumed his grandfather threw away the ones to which he couldn’t afford to donate, because to keep them would have been dispiriting.

Some of them were from the small city of Canton, Ohio, but some came from the surrounding rural areas. One or two had been sent by men who had headed big businesses and been possessed of several homes, now rendered destitute by the collapse of the economy. Many were barely literate, coming from senders who had known nothing but poverty but who were now starving. They were written on letterheads saved from businesses that had died, on postcards or on envelopes. Each told a story of setback and heartbreak, poverty and — because it was around Christmas time — diminished dreams. Gup’s grandfather, masquerading as B Virdot, sent $5 to people he knew well (but who, to their dying day, would never know the money had come from him) and to strangers. Then, he sealed up the letters and never spoke of what he had done.

His grandson, remembering a bustling jocose practical jokey of a grandfather, could hardly believe what he had chanced upon, and, five years later, set out to find the descendants of the recipients of his generosity and write a gentle masterpiece called A Secret Gift. It’s about a man who knew he could make only a minuscule dent in the ambient misery of his time, but who managed a gesture of warm private compassion that was remembered generations later. Generosity that generated hope. Not licensed envy.


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