I was reading an article recently about two of my favourite TV programmes: Downton Abbey and House of Cards. The writer of the article was a fan as well but she was fiercely critical of the world they presented. Downton Abbey showed a world of the privileged and invited us to sympathise with the problems of adjustment to the modern world which the Abbey’s family were having to make. The servants who tended on them tended, for the most part, with devotion. House of Cards, in contrast, showed a United States where the power between the rich and the government was impenetrable, and anyone who tried to pierce its armour ended up dead. In short, both shows presented inequality in society as being either desirable or fascinating or both.
In a way, I understand the Downton Abbey servants and their attitude. A maiden aunt of mine spend her days tending on a succession of minor Anglo-Irish old ladies. She felt privileged to be allowed to be part of their world, even though her pay and living conditions were pretty sparse. When she got too old to work, she moved out but remained faithful. Every year she would receive a Christmas card from her former employer containing £10. If she’d won the lottery she couldn’t have been happier or more grateful.
Here in our little corner of Ireland we’ve got no shortage of inequality. Housing, education, health, employment, participation in public life, prejudice – in 2007 the Equality Commission listed six areas where inequality flourished. To take one of these: poverty relates directly to health. Or put bluntly, if you’re poor you’re much more likely to be sick and/or die than if you’re well-off. And though the Equality Commission doesn’t dwell on it, there’s the interesting question of health and age. If you’re on the waiting list for a transplant, say, are you as likely to get a transplant at 70 as at 30? We all know the answer is that the 30-year-old has a much higher chance, and we would point to the fact that s/he is likely to have many more years of good health as a result than the 70-year-old. But try it this way: the 70-year-old has probably worked for a lifetime, paid taxes, been a contributing member of society for fifty years; the 20-year-old hasn’t. Couldn’t a case be made for saying that the former has earned their transplant? And if you say that the old are less likely to be active contributors to society in the future, you know the road you’re heading down, don’t you? That’s right. The road that says let’s hide things like posters and murals, let’s drape recession in Walt Disney-type store-fronts, let’s address poverty by removing the beggars from the streets, and let’s address the combination of ill-health and old age by, in the nicest way, hurrying those afflicted towards a permanent removal.
Once you start accepting inequalities in society, you can walk yourself into a nightmare in record time.