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The maths guy from Maynooth University was on the Radio a short while ago. He heads up a large team which does the Covid-19 predictive modelling for government. He had a small degree of relatively good news and he was very careful to lay out its limitations and conditions. Time and again the interviewer pushed him for certainty. Of course everyone would like certainty in these dreadful times but the memory of a long-established pattern intruded. It had a long time ago become the norm for broadcasters to ask for guarantees and “promises”. They simply do not accept an uncertain answer. A line of questioning which would explore the degree of risk would appear to be out of the question.

It may be that at least some broadcasters themselves do not have the ability to discuss risk. It may be that they see themselves serving that portion of the audience which doesn’t understand risk, rather than a better informed audience.

In either case the problem points to a failure in mass education at a very basic level. Risk and probability are the very stuff of political discourse. A detailed knowledge of the maths is not at all required but quite simply it should not be possible to leave school with an intractable desire for certainty and an inability to cope with a debate involving risk.

Right now discussions about policy for Covid-19 have illustrated a communication problem within democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many of my friends expressing frustration that people are not practising rigorous social distancing. Thinking them fools, irresponsible or malicious may be correct but let’s consider something very different.

That those congregating in public genuinely don’t know the danger or at least the real extent of it.

Long before this crisis, academics in all disciplines impinging on communication were talking about communication bubbles and information deprivation, and it featured frequently in mass media – the very media that no longer reach the people who may be causing the hazard.

It was years ago that I heard daily broadcast news described as something for old people. Among those aware of the shift to social media, the most common suggested remedy is to aim social media specifically at the young. There are two failings in this.

Firstly, it is not a problem confined to young people and secondly, putting material on social media is not sufficient to gain the attention of those behaving dangerously; they won’t necessarily see it.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “Surveys are rubbish. I’ve never been surveyed and it’s the same for my friends.” More seriously, there is considerable evidence to show that people with extreme views – racists etc. – consider themselves normal because their views are normal within their circles. Their circle is all they know.

Facebook’s fundamental position is liberal – private – as opposed to republican – participative. They encourage members to cut off those who annoy them or simply differ. Opinions are to be respected as an entitlement and certainly not as an invitation to argue. There are enormous political consequences but this is not the place to discuss them.

The point here is that large numbers of people have placed themselves beyond the reach of public discourse. It is entirely possible that those who are standing closely together, let their children mix etc. know little of what is going on.

Two groups among those concerned about breaches of social distancing need to think. Firstly, republican or participative citizens cannot fail to be aware that even in normal times many people have no desire to engage with society. Secondly, there are people who have placed themselves inside a participative bubble and that’s paradoxical. What it means is that discursive well-informed people in their own bubble are utterly cut off from and find incomprehensible those who appear to be out of touch with the seriousness of our crisis. They get angry and frustrated, and assume that people congregating are stupid or perverse.

What they need to consider is that in our time technology has facilitated a situation in which people living in different worlds or at least bubbles are sharing streets and parks.

 

There have been suggestions that influencers be targeted and asked to address their followers. This has attractions but the world of influencers is not unitary and operates by splitting numbers into devotees disconnected from a wider world.

Those people dangerously wandering about are a product of our technology. Until recently they were a problem for those concerned about democracy. Now they are a hazard to public health.

 

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https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/

I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying sorts who deals with anxiety by trying to understand. In Ireland we are due to see alarming increases in covid cases. I find somehow that the maths is comforting, knowing about the progression and how to spot improvement.

If it interests or comforts, it’s easy to do. It uses that old compound interest formula from school:

PV(1 + r)n = FV, where PV is present value, r is interest rate, n is the number of payments and FV is the final value at the end of those payments.

As of last night we had approx. 220 covid cases and that’s our PV for calculation here, the daily increase for the past few days has been a little less than 30% or 0.3, n is the number of days for which you want to calculate – let’s say 14 days.

This gives 220(1+0.3)14 = 8,668. Now, that’s alarming but less so than the Taoiseach’s calculation. By the way, the exponent (“power of”) calculator is here: https://www.free-online-calculator-use.com/exponent-calculator.html

Better is the realisation that this refers to cases, individual people. In 14 days some of these people will be recovered and recovering. The big number is less alarming when it is considered that there could not possibly be any expectation of an improvement in the rate of increase until the public health restrictions begin to have an effect, i.e. after about 14 days and that’s a reminder to concentrate not on the number of cases but on changes in the rate of increase. Always bear in mind too that most cases will be mild.

I don’t know if I’ve made your anxiety better or worse. I find it comforting to know what’s coming, why, and what to look out for to see any improvement.

Incidentally, I’m grateful to my old school friend, Paddy Griffin, who pointed to a basic error in calculation that I was making last night. He was always better at sums than me.

War is infernal; humans target fellow humans and try to kill them. Bad as it is, humanity has been compelled to define something more vile than war itself: the war crime, a category of crime against humanity. Two things need to be said. Firstly, no particular state can forgive a crime against humanity; the protection or amnesty of a state that might be afforded to perpetrators ends at its border. Secondly, there are many forms but targeting civilians is an unambiguous war crime.

During what is euphemistically called the Troubles in Ireland the Prov. IRA waged – as they see it – a war of liberation. Their selected targets were frequently civilian most notably through the use of public bombs. In other words their war was to a large extent conducted through the commission of war crimes. They were supported throughout by Sinn Féin.

After peace was agreed and the IRA disbanded* Sinn Féin embarked on a process of normalisation so as to gain wider acceptance as a political party. They had a choice: They could have put the war crimes behind them and relied on people to forgive and forget; or they could carry their support for war crimes into the future and make that support normal, a part of Irish life. They chose the latter and so they put it up to every Irish citizen to make the most fundamental of choices.

Sinn Féin enjoy the support of perhaps 20% of Irish voters and a much higher proportion of citizens will socialise with them and treat them as entirely normal. If the acceptance or celebration of war crime is to become a feature of life in Ireland, it will be a grave step. It will bring dishonour upon the nation and it should be approached carefully and with deliberation. That is to say, before we decide to normalise war crimes, war criminals and their supporters, there should be confrontation and frank public discussion. This is far too serious for any citizen to be be able to claim that they didn’t know.

SF use a number of devices to avoid the core issue.

1. Rubbish the very concept of a war crime

The argument here is that all war includes war crimes. That’s very likely true but it certainly doesn’t make war crimes any less evil or a normal tactic for combatants. It provides SF with a sick, self-serving rationale for pretending that the killings during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars and that it is time to normalise them. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which ordinary Irish people will never accept.

Ordinary people know full well that in the pit of horrors that is crimes against humanity and war crimes, something stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. To be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers.

SF will say that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements. The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.

The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF. It certainly does not imply that honouring war crimes become an accepted/normal part of Irish life.

2. Pretend that new leaders are different
Until relatively recently a common thread in Irish journalism was that SF needed to break with its past by changing to younger leaders. Now, this was a particularly sneaky argument because those who presented it knew well that the new leaders had joined the organisation before the killings stopped. SF’s present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. Former MEP Lynn Boylan is the partner of Eoin O’Broin, the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. When she was elected an MEP, pictures show her hoisted in celebration on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people are naive and do not discuss the nature of their chosen party.

3. Pretend that recent recruits are uninformed

SF has recruited many members, quite a few oedf them born years after the killings had stopped. It is argued that they know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others. Such young people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions.

4. Pretend that voters are stupid

A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain that is at risk of spreading across Irish society. A couple of evasions are offered to pretend that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind the celebration of crimes against humanity.

Firstly, it is argued that at this remove from the ceasefire voters know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. This, however, is precisely what SF oppose. They have decided not to let the history fade but to drag it forward and have the celebration of war crimes become normal in the future.

Secondly, it is argued that while voters are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. Sometimes a part of this argument is that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.

These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed and/or incapable of voting with thought. Among any group of voters there will be those who haven’t a clue and those who will try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance but most voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.

The line that current controversies, issue, policies matter more than the past is important and deserves a terse response. This is not a matter of minor transgressions, petty crimes or even murders being consigned to the past and deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded; war criminals as always must be pursued to the grave. When it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that commemorating/celebrating war crimes now and into our future could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.

Ordinary Irish citizens should accept an obligation

Face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland vote SF. Rather than pretend that they all represent something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, it would be sensible to confront two more likely and dismal explanations: the existence among us of i) a significant number who are not overly concerned about SF’s attempt to make the celebration of war crimes normal in Ireland or ii) a significant number who approve the Prov. IRA campaign and think it right that it be normalised for celebration.

There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable and that to celebrate it is perverse. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent or at every opportunity to tell such people that they ought to be ashamed of themselves and that they will never be accepted within the Irish nation.

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* Very few now believe that the IRA is gone. Their Army Council is thought to command SF.

In Ireland there are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar right wing parties.

 

1. The conservatives and their rider
The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. In recent times the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that there is nothing actually stupid in a selfish conservatism that defends one’s place in the structure of inequality, while saying that apart from this progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that this is precisely what can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.*

A useful and descriptive term for it is “left conservatism”. It’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment. The structure of inequality is secured.

 

2. Seekers of a plausible alternative
There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them.

What they hear constantly is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by electoral rivals; these rivals compete on the basis of claims to be better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising then that citizens who are amenable to argument vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of thinking people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and wholly incompatible audience.

* http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2019/06/11/the-illusion-of-centrist-ecology/?fbclid=IwAR1XlXe1QORP_DyExSKygowIRvwu7rV6oJPX1U77xYPtB8HphesWwDvavPg

If the UK Conservative Party and others like them are successful in destroying the real democratic and welfare gains of the past century, it is likely because opponents – both liberal and socialist – seem to lack the wit or the nerve to challenge. It’s as blunt as this: no one is pro-establishment.

The genius of what is happening lies in occupying the term “anti-establishment”. The stupidity lies with opponents who can’t see what is happening or are either so in thrall to their traditions or fear the contumely of their comrades that they fall back on safe familiarity.

When Dominic Cummings announced that he was recruiting outsiders, wreckers, to smash the traditions and expertise of the UK civil service, “pro-business” liberals lined up to offer mindless support. They had to; to do otherwise might seem like changing sides. After everything they had said about inefficiency and lack of enterprise, they couldn’t manage now to say anything remotely supportive of the established civil service. Many of them know that the Cummings wrecker, devoted exclusively to science and maths, is a parody of real science graduates, and yet they felt acquiescence to nonsense was the best course. Being seen as anti-establishment was more attractive than revealing the truth.

Because both Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon, Trump’s onetime advisor, have explicitly said that they are plundering socialist tradition, the tacit support of socialists is more sad and culpable. Instead of hurrying to the defence of parliament and the whole range of hard-won institutions on which future reforms depend, the majority of socialists want to do the opposite. They want to remain true to their revolutionary tradition and they want to avoid the criticism of fellow socialists. They want to do as they’ve done before: to mobilise the people against parliament, the judiciary, the civil service, i.e. the establishment. They therefore argue for getting among the people, agitating, setting up counter structures: being anti-establishment.

The progressive position now and certainly the socialist position should be to defend the establishment so as to resist the right wing project to roll back the state and destroy so many gains on which decent living depends.

I have argued that it would shame and humiliate Ireland to have it accepted that Irish war crimes and war criminals be celebrated. Perhaps they could be forgotten or be quietly swept under the carpet as most countries do but celebration would be a stain on the nation.* Unfortunately, this is not what’s happening. Instead there is a normalisation struggle going on right now and our status as a civilised people is at stake.

I have, moreover, argued that this is one of a tiny number of viewpoints that should be categorised as “morally repugnant” with a view to treating them and their supporters differently.**

Here’s the position in summary:

Coverage of Sinn Féin must always mention their desire to celebrate war crimes

This is not about the past.

It’s about a party’s plans right now and for the future of our country.

1. Morally repugnant viewpoints

While racism may be the only one widely acknowledged now, there is a short list of morally repugnant viewpoints worthy of special treatment.

Always prevent the supporter of a morally repugnant viewpoint appearing normal

Morally repugnant viewpoints are normalised by allowing those who hold them present themselves as normal. They usually succeed by talking about things other than the morally repugnant viewpoint they or their organisation holds. The person and the viewpoint must be firmly tied together in condemnation.

To prevent the normalisation of the repugnant viewpoint, the activist/supporter can never be allowed to present themselves as normal.

Should they make a public statement on any matter, the publisher, platform operator or presenter should point to their unstated repugnant viewpoint.***

2. Media coverage of the view that war crimes be celebrated

In all conflicts combatants select targets.

When combatants target civilians – by gun or public bomb – an unambiguous war crime is committed.

When years later activists/supporters seek to commemorate/celebrate war crimes/war criminals, they propagate a repugnant viewpoint.

To prevent the normalisation of this repugnant viewpoint, the activist/supporter can never be allowed to present themselves as normal.

When they make a public statement on any matter, a publisher, platform operator or presenter should point to their unstated support for the celebration of war crimes.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/03/19/the-dignity-of-the-nation-requires-that-irish-war-crimes-be-commemorated-as-such/

and

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/13/reality-must-intrude-on-myth-making/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/morally-repugnant-views-and-morally-repugnant-people-calls-to-silence-racism-etc-misunderstand-the-process-of-normalisation/

*** Surprisingly, this is an approach recently adopted by Facebook. Jim Corr has had an anti-vaxer label permanently attached to his posts.

Here’s a provocative suggestion for political activists/campaigners:

Let’s find out what pushes a person’s buttons and lie that voting our way will deliver for them.”

Yes, that’s outrageous in a democracy. However, it’s happened and there are now very late attempts to control information and social media but there’s far more to it.

Dominic Cummings who is credited with winning the Brexit referendum has been very open about how it was done. Simply stated, Cummings and company had access to personal data gathered without permission from citizens’ on-line activity. This enabled them to identify gullible people and their concerns. These people were then targeted and told that a vote for Brexit would address their concerns. Though a thinking person might find it hard to believe, the example of the polar bears is true: having identified concerns over polar bears, the lie was told that the bears’ future would be better in the event of Brexit.

When this campaigning methodology became the subject of public controversy, concern was directed in a very peculiar direction. There was of course concern over extreme lies but the main concern was over surreptitious gathering of information about people on-line and its availability to rich political campaigners. Little or no concern was raised over the basic campaigning tactic of telling people that their “issue” could or would be addressed by voting in a certain way.

Here’s a question: if the issue were nothing as large or as bizarre as the likes of polar bears and the personal data had been obtained legitimately, would it be acceptable to direct lies at people, telling them that their issue would be resolved by voting in a particular way? Well, regardless of the answer, it is commonplace during election campaigns to exploit local knowledge (data) about the concerns of gullible voters. A typical case might be a housing estate in which residents oppose a planning application. Aware of this, an enterprising candidate might exploit the data by aiming a message at gullible voters: a very local leaflet, telling voters that a vote for the candidate would take care of their issue. The point is that data are being used specifically to target gullible voters and they are being told a lie. The difference between this and Cummings/Cambridge Analytica is scale and the use of legally obtained data.

Directing large numbers of very local messages would be expensive. However, there is a less costly and familiar approach, and taking a look at election leaflets is revealing. It is routine to find them directed at a town or suburb. Data is collected about local “issues” and leaflets are prepared suggesting to gullible people that their vote can deliver a favourable outcome.

Let’s not be deluded that Dominic Cummings is a great campaign innovator or a uniquely bad enemy of democracy. He’s a cynic who based his methods on old, well-worn, tried and tested, anti-democratic campaigning. His opponents don’t condemn his methods; they are worried about unfair advantage (his data are not cheap) and surreptitious gathering of data.

The dreadful reality is that there’s a large number of gullible citizens waiting to be told that their vote offers the chance of deliverance from what ails or irks them. However, there are other quite different citizens who want to be treated with respect, who can deal with complexity, who want truth and reason. When there is talk of representation in parliament, the latter are seldom if ever considered. In practice it’s as if they don’t exist.

 

Before the brutal attack on Kevin Lunney, An Garda and the authorities generally were prepared to cede control of a portion of the state to an armed gang. Northern Ireland authorities did likewise. In two senses it is of course a legacy of the conflict in Ireland. Firstly, the group in this case were either members of the IRA or had business dealings with them. Secondly, taking control of an area and becoming the law enforcers to the exclusion of state forces is something that the IRA did successfully. However, it is neither confined to IRA history nor a matter of lethal force. The PSNI recently withdrew in order to let loyalists control a huge bonfire adjacent to people’s homes and a few years ago an election candidate was excluded from a Dublin housing estate by “forces” who considered it their area. The point is that unless a group goes too far, the state will cede territory to them. Indeed police will not even consider the usurpation of their power in a small area or to a small degree to be a challenge to the democratic state.

It is is not at all like routine police practice whereby, say, protesters are allowed to have temporary control rather than risk a confrontation.* This is more serious; it’s both longer term and involves territory – perhaps a tiny territory like a small housing estate or a more extensive territory like part of a city or county. It is moreover a partial abandonment of citizens of the state and their delivery to an occupation or rule by a self-appointed gang or even a para-military force.

Recently on radio Michael McDowell, the barrister and former government minister, wittily underlined the difference in treatment. He’d been driving in the Cavan/Fermanagh region and saw the threatening posters and signs permitted by lack of state action and contrasted it with what would happen if he erected similar in Ranelagh. The same could be said of course about the chances of diesel laundering in, say, Leixlip and yet it continued in border regions.

Two states have now jointly decided to take back control and liberate the citizens of Cavan/Monaghan. It doesn’t auger well for the future that it took an act of appalling barbarity to prompt action.

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* There is an overlap with protest. Here’s an old piece written during the water protests: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/citizens-need-to-talk-about-a-contentious-suggestion-which-is-reported-regularly-by-an-uncritical-media/

Boris Johnson’s opportunity to become prime minister of the UK came in the context of Brexit. That meant he had to pick a side and in doing so he relied on what he knew. For years he had been paid extraordinary fees for journalism consisting of daft lies about the EU. However, he wasn’t lying in a meaningful sense because his untruths were open and transparent; being found out was not a consideration. He knew that he had an audience demanding his yarns on one side and a naive opposition on the other. What was unknown were the numbers of citizens on each side.

Dominic Cummings – among others – had access to the required data. Following Steve Bannon – Trump’s one time advisor – with his emphasis on Lenin, Cummings shared with some on the left a desire to destroy the democratic state and the establishment.* Crucially, he knew too the nature of the most significant divide in society, and he had the figures and the technology required. Unlike traditional Leninists, he and many others know how to use bourgeois democracy to destroy itself.

Perhaps in quiet moments Boris Johnson wonders how he got himself in among this lot but he realises that their analysis is essentially correct. He knew that his choice was between being a demagogue or a democrat, between siding with those citizens who despise participative, argumentative politics as “establishment” and those citizens amenable to argument. He chose because he had to; there is no effete middle ground.

The opposition, however, is fractured because too many liberals and leftists cannot or will not face these changed circumstances. They prefer to think and act according to their traditions.

When Hilary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables”, there was adverse reaction from the left but the reaction was of two kinds. Firstly, there was distaste for the terminology but there was also a defence of the people to whom she was referring, the sort of people who – it was argued – would be supporters of the left were it not for lies told them. Similarly, in Britain a commentator, bemused by Johnson and Brexit supporters’ acceptance of lies, put it down to “the bovine credulity of the minority”.**

There is a very basic issue in political communication here. Consider that familiar old belief that citizens are alike and if treated with respect, told the truth and presented with arguments most will go with the best argument. There are two problems here – one for the Left, especially the Marxist left, and one for all thinking people.

On the left many socialists – even those who say they have abandoned revolution in the meaningful sense of the word – retain a dilemma: should citizens be won over by presenting them with compelling argument or should citizens be manipulated in their own best interests.

The former risks being dismissed as social democracy or even liberal democracy. The latter is a legacy of revolutionary socialism, and the idea is to grasp leadership of popular protest movements and try to give them expression in class terms. It quickly parts company with anything recognisably socialist for a very simple reason: an unwillingness to interrogate “class” means acceptance of opinion pollsters’ definitions. The unfortunate outcome is that “working class” loses its Marxist, transformative meaning. It comes to refer to a mere pressure group, a pressure group that is there to be led or represented in the competition for resources demanded of the “establishment”.

It is at this point that Dominic Cummings, Steve Bannon and their likes can see their best chance of winning. Society is divided between passive citizens who seek demagogues, and decry politics and debate, and participative citizens who rely on debate and the truth on which it depends. Because liberals and leftists are united in a refusal to confront passive citizenship, they go on talking among themselves about truth and discourse, and patronising passive citizens, never dreaming of confrontation – no matter how foul and right wing the beliefs expressed by “ordinary people”.

Democracy would be unthreatened if the number of passive citizens were small or if there was no effective means to mobilise them. The Brexit campaign – especially its on-line component demonstrated the opposite.

Democracy – representative democracy – is threatened because the means to destroy it by popular will now exist and its defenders “the establishment” cannot throw off their traditions to defend it. The idea of defending a progressive establishment against “ordinary people” is too much for them. The likes of Bannon, Cummings and Johnson must hope that it remains so.

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*https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/lenin-white-house-steve-bannon


**https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

There is a great deal of talk about a divided Britain. There is almost no talk about the nature of that division, a division which is present in other countries.

There are of course many divisions in British society but Boris Johnson, his adviser, Dominic Cummings, and others fully understand today’s primary division. This understanding produced a referendum result and explains subsequent Brexit tactics, especially the systematic lying which so bemuses thinking citizens. It bemuses to the extent that a commentator wondered about “the bovine credulity of the minority”.* It is both rude and inaccurate to describe these citizens as “bovine”. Though they are not deceived, they are certainly credulous in seeking untruths and charismatic leadership – they seek a demagogue. Their numbers are too great to be dismissed as a mere minority. Crucially, any aspiring demagogue now has the media to address them and to mobilise them into a potent political force.

It’s far from a secret. Firstly, Dominic Cummings is the unlikely bearer of a gift to democracy. He despises democracy and would destroy it, yet he tells how the Brexit referendum was won. He tells of a society with millions of disaffected citizens, uninterested in politics, argument, complexity or claims/counterclaims about truth, and the means to deliver the messages they want. Secondly, the whole thing was dramatised for television.** Thousands of people know about this.

Most democrats, however, spurn the gift and pretend that the TV drama never happened or was just a scary fiction. They prefer to believe in the existence of a society which if it ever existed, has vanished over the last several decades. It is the traditional belief in a Demos composed of equal citizens who participate through public discourse and if they have strange beliefs, it is because someone has successfully deceived them. The naive democrat thinks that merely countering the lies will bring deliverance.

The naive democrat simply refuses to countenance the existence of millions of citizens who prefer lies, who indeed demand lies, who want leadership and who utterly reject public discourse. This naivety is irresponsible and dangerous because it surrenders reality to the enemies of democracy.

Regrettably it is mainly leftists who refuse to confront today’s reality but it is understandable because they have a lot to lose. This isn’t the place to rehearse Marxist theory or history but some points have to be made. Suggesting that Leftists need to question their most fundamental thinking is asking a great deal but it must be asked of them because democracy and indeed left relevance is at stake. Essentially the left will be pained at the very notion that positions taken up by poor or working people are to be opposed, and at the harsh reality that so many of them reject the left’s patronising approach to liberation by telling them the truth. Most of all – and despite sharing their views – leftists will be embarrassed by taking sides with thinking liberals in defence of a democracy that relies on thought and public discourse and against a democracy that relies on huge numbers of those they consider their natural constituency. The very structure of political society has changed as has the technology to speak to it. For the left to opt out by pretending that it is still the 20th century is to abandon the struggle of our time.

Too few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, can bring themselves to acknowledge that Cummings is indeed right in just one terrifying respect: he’s addressing a new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a relevant counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen – dismissed by Cummings, Johnson et al. as “the establishment” – on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

A change is urgent because those passive citizens – encouraged and patronised – may be inching towards the majority capable of ending the established laws and structures on which non-revolutionary-left advance depends. That is what Johnson and Cummings want; listen to them.

_________________________

*

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/31/britain-has-become-a-land-of-permanent-crisis-suits-blustering-liars-of-brexit

** “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, Channel 4.

 

 

Today a British woman tried to stabilise the UK constitution: the Queen did as the Constitution requires of her and acceded to her Prime Minister’s request. She knows full well that the constitution is in peril and she certainly wasn’t of a mind to do more damage. She’s aware too that she has very probably undermined the monarchy.

Earlier this year another British woman tried to do something similar. Theresa May tried to steer a Brexit deal through parliament so that the UK could appear to act according to the referendum decision while maintaining the sovereignty of Parliament. *

Both women know the importance of a constitution – a country’s basic law – on which all citizens depend. They know that lawless tyranny is the alternative to a functioning constitution. They know too that under the existing constitution the Brexit referendum was incompatible with the sovereignty of parliament.

A fundamental choice in the design of a democratic constitution is whether to make the People or their Parliament sovereign. It cannot be both; a choice has to be made. The good news is that there really is no need to pit people against parliament as long as constitutional provision is made to prevent it. The bad news is that the UK made no such provision.

Take a look at Ireland whose system of government is modelled on that of the UK. In Ireland referendums are relatively common because the constitution says the People are sovereign and yet there is a stable Westminster-like parliament and government. The whole works tolerably well because all the parts are subject to the constitution and the constitution – while changed from time to time by referendum after fraught public controversy – enjoys popular support. Referendums do not challenge the constitution because they are part of the constitution.

No such constitutional clarity exists in the UK. Following the Brexit referendum this has led to a clash between popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty.

It’s a sorry state of affairs that will have to be addressed. Both Theresa May and the Queen have acted to try to maintain the constitution in the short term because its breakdown is unthinkable. Should the UK survive this intact, consideration might be given to a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets and the outcome could exclude democracy.

__________________________

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/deciding-brexit-theresa-sees-the-constitutional-threat/


Since I moved to Lucan in the 70s I’ve enjoyed walking the Grand Canal towpath between the 12th lock and Hazelhatch. I’ve trained a number of fondly remembered retrievers here. I’m friends with other users of the path, anglers, walkers, cyclists and those who sit and drink beers near the old quarries where the kids used to swim until it was prohibited.

I was there yesterday and had my day spoiled. Ok, it could have been contact with one exceptional dickhead but I fear not; it’s the direction things are going and the casual elimination of existing amenities.

I was strolling with three dogs. Even on a sunny Sunday, there would be very few people about; on other days I might not encounter anyone. On seeing other walkers, runners or a cyclist, it is my habit to call the dogs to heel and sit them until the people pass. This normally results in greetings exchanged and sometimes conversations. I did this three times yesterday and spoke on each occasion with passing cyclists. Some time later I heard and suddenly realised that a runner was close behind me. I whistled the dogs to sit and asked the runner if he was ok with the dogs. He replied that he was fine and passed them. Then he turned to face me and shouted that they should be on leads. I tried to speak to him but he ran on giving me the finger with both hands.

I was almost back at the 12th lock when I met one of the regular anglers. He realised I was upset; I told him what had happened. He reckoned that our lovely place was in its last days, soon to be buried under a “blueway” and subjected to all sorts of restrictions, that I should enjoy whatever time was left there training my dogs to cross water on command.

I fear that public service is coming to mean the imposition of destruction, construction and catering to the demands of authoritarian dickheads.

The EU seems increasingly glad to see the back of the UK. However, they have a moral responsibility to the millions of British EU citizens who want to remain so. They also have a duty to avoid facilitating the Johnson plot.

Johnson and his cronies are reliant on the date October 31st. They view it as an expiry date that is positioned perfectly to suit their purpose. Their plan is to get out of the EU by passing the deadline and then criticise the EU for instituting border controls. In this atmosphere they will then fight a general election portraying themselves as “the people” versus “the establishment.

Should the EU act as it can, the plotters could have a problem. You see, the UK didn’t set the date, doesn’t own the date and in EU terms has no control over the date. The date was decided by the EU in the face of British opposition. It came about when Theresa May applied for an extension to June. The EU granted an extension but decided to impose October 31st as the end date. It is, therefore, the EU’s date and the EU could change it without reference to the UK.

If the EU were to move their extension end date to, say, January 2019, that could not of course delay Brexit. The UK could still consider itself out on November 1st. In that scenario there is considerable change because while the EU would do absolutely nothing, a resolute Johnson regime would have to express Brexit day in some form of border controls.

In other words, EU action on their own date would force Johnson to take responsibility and deny him not merely a fig leaf but handy cooperation on a date that has turned out to suit him.

Dominic Cummings isn’t running Britain and those who trot that out are missing a very real threat. Dominic Cummings is an advisor to the UK Prime Minister. His advice is taken because it is based on a plausible, compelling argument that crucially is located in the really existing present and in that respect it doesn’t face a rival.

What little opposition it faces is of three equally irrelevant types. Firstly, some are based in the vanished industrial world of the mid 20th century. Secondly, there is the tragi-comical pseudo-opposition, sharing the same “people power” sloganeering that energises the Cummings argument. Thirdly, there are the ad hominem attempts to portray Cummings as mad.

The first and second – sad to say – are leftist and their proponents would be upset by any suggestion that they support Cummings but that’s not the suggestion. It’s different and it’s more than a suggestion; the reality is that they inadvertently strengthen the Cummings argument. Firstly, the left is too often strangely unaware that thinking people find it easy to spot an argument made nonsense by reliance on conditions long gone – in this case the conditions of mid 20th century industrial capitalism – and whatever problems thinking people might have with Cummings, it’s clear that at least he’s talking about the world as it is today.

Secondly, Cummings advice to the UK Prime Minister is to try for a general election in which the P.M. would campaign for the people against the politicians. Familiar? Of course it is. Sections of the left have been positing the people against variously the government, the state, the political class, the establishment for years with no regard to whether “the people” were calling for left or right movement. They were simply “the people” and anti-establishment; they were to be followed until they could be led. Cummings, however, knows the difference between left and right and where the people are headed. He can thank those on the left who refuse to think for helping to mobilise his people.

Thirdly, ad hominem attacks are easy but pointless. Reading Cummings blogs etc. will reveal a man who reveres strong leaders, authority, manliness and Bismarck.* That’s certainly eccentric, some might view it as crazy and he’s been described as a sociopath. That’s all irrelevant because it leaves his argument and analysis of society untouched. Should those who despise the man achieve his downfall, nothing more will change. The views, analysis, argument will remain unchallenged by anything both plausible and relevant to today – and “the people” will remain mobilised against the establishment.

Cummings is astute but it would be silly to assume that he is unique. There are certainly others as aware. He knows a lot but three things are uppermost in his mind and make anti-democratic voting possible.

i) The flaw at the heart of mass democracy

A very old fear among democrats is that as the franchise extended and extended, greater numbers of passive, easily swayed voters became available to demagogues. This cannot threaten democracy as long as their numbers are relatively small or they are beyond the communicative reach of the demagogue.

ii) The antagonised passive citizen

With universal franchise many passive citizens declined all participation while some others voted for a variety of reasons other than deliberation and judgement but few were hostile to the system itself – the establishment. That has changed. Cummings is one who has watched the polls for years. He knows populism and the nature of it. He understands the current meaning of “anti-establishment” and the numbers involved.

iii) The demagogue’s medium

It is no longer possible for democrats to ignore the passive, inactive, disaffected citizen because now they are many and because now they can be reached and mobilised. Cummings proved this with his Brexit referendum campaign. Relying on data mined from social media he then used social media to deliver approaching-bespoke messages to citizens who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to politics or who seldom voted or who were otherwise disaffected. He knew the kind of message that would get their attention and he knew how to reel them in.

Essentially Cummings knows that he is dealing with a world changed and that he is threatening democracy which he despises. He concentrates on the passive, disaffected citizen. Communication is not directed at those who are concerned with truth and argument; they are the establishment and irrelevant. There is no need to confuse matters by addressing them. They are no longer essential to winning a majority; they are not needed.

The problem is that few of those who would side with democracy and be inclined to save it, care to acknowledge that what Cummings describes is indeed the new reality. They therefore fail to engage with it, fail to develop a plausible counter argument and strategy, and particularly fail to address, organise and speak for the thoughtful citizen on whom theoretically and practically democracy rests.

There is a degree of urgency in all this because while opponents of the Cummings perspective ignore the thoughtful citizen on whom democracy relies, his passive citizens may be inching towards a majority.

* https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/dominic-cummings-boris-johnson-otto-von-bismarck-brexit-a9045941.html?fbclid=IwAR3fTSMLgx-gquc7QWyT4OGSf_NTcZ2wVNQD-kYOCXNbJRttInzX5qKYlmE

The RTE Investigates programme on the greyhound industry has prompted demands for a simple ban on greyhound racing. Clearly this course has a final and brutal appeal but it is not so appealing on examination.

The barbarity uncovered by RTE is already illegal. It occurs because the law is not implemented. Indeed animal cruelty in Ireland tends not to attract serious sanction. Moreover, the controllers/managers of greyhound racing do not enforce their own rules and codes.

A ban will not end greyhound racing or coursing; it will end legal and regulated racing and coursing, and will do away with whatever humane forms have been developed over years.

Some of those favouring a ban admire the greyhound as a breed and would favour their becoming a common family pet. In this regard the greyhound temperament and demeanour has a lot going for it. What shouldn’t be forgotten, however, is that the breed – like all breeds – is the product of generations of selective mating to create a racing dog. Assuming all racing and coursing had been ended by a ban, the greyhound would continue in its familiar, pedigree form for as long as admirers ensured that the breed’s show standards were maintained but there’s still a problem.

Showing alone without regard to a dog’s ability to do what it was bred to do is a very poor idea. In the case of greyhounds after a racing ban, the show could do no more than ensure the appearance of sound dogs. The temperament that attracts today’s admirers could soon disappear.*

The key problem identified by RTE from which most if not all of the abuse and criminality flows is the extraordinary level of breeding (over-production). It is this that reduces the value of dogs and facilitates – even encourages – their rejection and disposal. Bluntly, if there were few dogs available, an owner would have to be damn careful about rejection.

Then if disposal of an unwanted dog were made difficult, commitment to the original choice of dog would be greater. That all greyhounds are tattooed and registered to owners led to barbarians cutting the ears off unwanted dogs. However, that all greyhounds are tattooed and registered to owners should ensure that the owner is held accountable for the whereabouts and welfare of their dog. It might be said that such a system would be too expensive to operate even in a computerised age. The reply of course is to point to the millions paid annually by the state and make it clear that there has been a management decision to avoid holding registered owners responsible.

When considering the amounts of money – especially state money – involved and the gross practices allowed to carry on unchecked, ignored, unpunished by the executive and management of the controlling bodies, it is impossible to avoid thinking of another Irish scandal: the FAI. Again, an enquiry is required to root out the chancers and time servers who presided over this mess and its ensuing cruelty. Similarly, if it can be established that staff at the Dept. of Agriculture continued funding while knowing about this maladministration, then they should be regarded as unfit for public service.***

_______________________________

* Look to what happened with the gundog breeds: there developed show strains and working strains, and much has had to be done by interested breeders to ensure both appearance and ability are maintained. Does that matter? Well, for pet owners of gundogs it is vital as the friendly temperament is a component of the working temperament.

** Again, there is a parallel with gundogs. Among those involved in working Labradors there is an ease in moving-on young dogs which, it is thought, do not show sufficient potential. Now, there is no need to euthanise them because there is a healthy market for quality, trained dogs among shooting people who do not need a working competition standard but the point here is that ease of disposal and availability of pups facilitates rejections and fresh starts. If interested, see here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/24/5-3-1-labrador-the-doubt/

*** The business case is well argued here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2574696522562837&set=a.454197071279470&type=3&theater

The editorial staff at RTE Radio’s “Today with Seán O’Rourke” on Friday 14th June 2019 chose a panel to discuss events of the week. They selected Fergus O’Dowd T.D. (FG) Mark Carthy M.E.P. (SF) Niamh Lyons (Journalist)  Sarah Carey (Communications consultant). Assuming the selection was done with deliberation, one would wonder why these people were chosen.

From a political communications perspective the best possible reason would be that this panel of people would bring diverse perspectives so as to serve citizen listeners. As it turned out, nothing unique was said by any of the panel. They could, therefore, have been replaced by any number of people with similar views.

Any SF member of a panel, however, offers the singular and utterly repugnant point of view, that war crimes (shooting and bombing civilians) committed by the IRA should be commemorated/celebrated. This, however, was not among the topics discussed and from a citizen’s perspective there was therefore no compelling reason to have a SF speaker. In other words, the decision to choose a SF speaker was not determined by a desire to present a comprehensive discussion; he could have been replaced by any number of speakers without hindering the discussion.

His inclusion, however, served to present him as ordinary, commenting on routine public discourse. This is precisely how normalisation works.*

Short of a desire to favour SF, there are other possible reasons for his inclusion. It might be that the programme editors or RTE generally do not consider support for war-crime commemoration a repugnant viewpoint. In that case normalisation is not an issue; they consider it normal. It might, however, be that despite his views, they want to be fair to him and give him airtime. The latter possibility reflects a deep-seated problem with the regulation of public service broadcasting in that it prioritises the concerns of those seeking a platform (politicians, advocates, prominent journalists) above the needs of the participative citizen. Now, this suggests the need for a quite fundamental change and addressing it is work for another day.

The question that remains is, if the SF speaker was not necessary, why was he on the panel?

______

*https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/morally-repugnant-views-and-morally-repugnant-people-calls-to-silence-racism-etc-misunderstand-the-process-of-normalisation/

 

*

 

There are two groups with quite different reasons for returning to familiar parties.

1. The conservatives and their rider

The majority of Irish people seem to want a universal health service, greater equality etc. etc. but there’s a fundamentally important catch: they want these things to happen without any other change, i.e. without their lives being otherwise affected. Lately, as Ireland increased Green representation through local government and European elections, and seemed enthralled by school children raising awareness, the welfare of the planet was added to the list of things that can “change as long as there’s no change”. Well, the phenomenon is not confined to Ireland and coincidentally the illustrative issue on this is the environment.

Peter Wilby in a New Statesman article* told how in the run-up to the recent Australian general election much of the talk was about how the two main parties were starkly divided on environmental policies. Moreover, polling revealed that more than 60 per cent of Australians thought that global warming required immediate action even if significant costs were involved. The Australian Labour Party said that if elected, they would aim at a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. By contrast, shortly before the start of the election campaign, the Liberal coalition government approved a new coal mine and promised more, while warning that Labour’s plans would lead to increased energy prices. Yep, you’ve guessed it: against expectations the Liberal coalition was re-elected.

Too many Leftists take comfort in polls that show Irish support for all sorts of progressive reforms. Then when votes are counted, they express themselves surprised – even hurt and betrayed – by the outcome. They reckon – with an enormous degree of arrogance – that voters have behaved stupidly. The reality is that while it deserves to be opposed, there is nothing stupid in a conservatism that defends one’s place in the hierarchy or structure of inequality while also saying that as long as that is unchanged, progressive reform is fine. It’s not even a contradictory position. Indeed it is a position encouraged by leftists who sell the notion that it can be achieved by dispossessing the top 1% or big business while leaving the rest of the rich and privileged untouched.** It’s best termed, left conservatism and it’s rooted in a bizarre understanding of fairness: that the whole structure of inequality must remain unchanged until the ludicrously wealthy are reduced, while the ludicrously wealthy see that as … wait for it … unfair. Very little happens. Nice people express support for reforms and the protest marches can be a fun way to let off steam and pose as anti-establishment.

2. Seekers of a plausible alternative

There’s an under-researched group of voters – very likely a small group – who probably think differently. They are not wedded to short term self interest. Neither are they interested in disorderly or unqualified change, never mind revolution. Short of that, they are open to plausible argument about their republic changing its course. That they don’t hear such argument is because the left tends to ignore them. What they hear is a right-wing but plausible argument that is shared by rivals who claim to be the better managers of a stable, fair and unequal society. It’s hardly surprising that they vote for plausible managers over those implausibly and constantly “calling on” the government/ political class/establishment for concessions that are not arranged in any order of priority. If the left wants to win the votes of these people, a plausible argument will have to be presented. However, there’s a problem: opting to present a coherent, plausible argument for change means abandoning the “calling-on” which is for a different and incompatible audience.

* https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/05/first-thoughts-borisgraph-crisis-and-what-australian-labor-s-shock-defeat-tells

** http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2019/06/11/the-illusion-of-centrist-ecology/?fbclid=IwAR1XlXe1QORP_DyExSKygowIRvwu7rV6oJPX1U77xYPtB8HphesWwDvavPg

There are two points to be clarified. One relates to what StarTrek were doing; the other relates to RTE’s operation of the Section 31 Direction.

I saw futuristic Data point back to Irish Reunification in 2024  and laughed; I got the joke. Had the Irish people been allowed to see it, they would have too. I recall writing a piece for a broadcasting trade journal and including the joke in Irish, “Tiocfaidh ár lá, ach caithfimid fanacht.” Like Orwell choosing 1984, 2024 seemed futuristic at the time of writing.

The decision at RTE to reject the StarTrek episode was hard to understand. The episode had aired in the US without controversy. There was no talk in RTE of an impending problem. The tape arrived in RTE as routine: rushed through because it was a mere day or two after release in the States and the priority as usual was to get it out ahead of the BBC.

Banning it most certainly was not a requirement under the Section 31 direction. My impression was that some were motivated to extend the ban by genuine opposition to SF and the IRA and some thought it a sensible position for a person with ambition. Others sought to ridicule the ban by extending it in a downright silly way while referring to … wait for it, it’s the usual Irish cover for lack of integrity … a “culture” of censorship or even fear.

The reality was that the Section 31 ban prohibited nothing more than interviews. Programmes, news reports etc. could have been made without interviews, as they frequently are. A combination of zealotry and a desire to discredit the ban led to bizarre decisions like banning a really good joke line in an episode of StarTrek, losing too an opportunity to have a public discussion of terrorism in the abstract setting of a distant planet.

Incidentally, an episode of The Campbells, a drama for young people set in 19th century Canada, dealt with a cross border raid by Irish nationalists based in the States. It too was banned. It would have made for calm discussion if recommended to every school in the country.

StarTrek had a bit of a thing with Ireland: the episode, Up The Ladder, involved bringing the long lost half of a race back to their home planet to breed with people who had become sterile by way of being dull. Guess what: The transported gene material was a race of singing, dancing, red headed, laughing, great-fun-altogether people called … again, wait for it … the Bringloidi. (Gettit?)

 

* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-it-s-a-united-ireland-but-not-as-we-know-it-1.3900593

“Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant. Among likely candidates: beliefs that are sexist, racist or homophobic; the belief that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; the belief that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; the belief that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. If we find these morally wrong, we condemn not only the potential acts that spring from such beliefs, but the content of the belief itself, the act of believing it, and thus the believer.” – Daniel DeNicola, professor and chair of philosophy, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania,

https://aeon.co/ideas/you-dont-have-a-right-to-believe-whatever-you-want-to

Among those who consider themselves decent, civilised people there’s unlikely to be disagreement over Daniel DeNicola’s “likely candidates”, i.e. his truncated list of repugnant beliefs/viewpoints. Then he goes further and introduces a more contentious proposition. The condemnation is not just of the harm that might flow from these beliefs, but their content and the act of believing, and thus, he says, condemnation falls on the believer. In short, he is saying that there are views so despicable that those who hold them should be despised also.

Hence, there are two questions: i) Can we agree a short list of utterly repugnant viewpoints that merit unequivocal condemnation? And ii) Should those who hold these views be reviled/shunned/excluded from one’s company or at least treated with some degree of special caution when it comes to public debate.

Confronting elitism and the dilution of “repugnant”

Before turning to those questions, something needs to be addressed. Look at the question: “Can we list morally repugnant viewpoints, convictions?” The reality is that many citizens already have such a list but, “We”? Yes, “We” because the reality is that these citizens belong to a group which thinks itself – and frankly is generally acknowledged to be – composed of decent people. They might also be termed civilised or thinking people.

There is a couple of dismissive reactions to the notion of “decent people”. To begin with, it’s easy to disregard decency as a latter-day manifestation of a moral majority. Indeed, that’s basically the line of attack when populists seek to lead ignorance and vulgarity by creating a new anti-establishment opposed to thought, expertise and concern with values. There’s no way out of this. It’s the struggle between civilisation and barbarism.

Another way to resist the claims of decency is to try to dilute them by the inclusion of more everyday political controversies like, say, a particular tax. That’s a familiar and popular tactic among extremists; they try to label routine matters as equally extreme. It’s a “what-about” of the sort, “We’re not the only killers. Taxation drives people to suicide.” It’s to be expected and resisted. By contrast, decency’s list is short and basic, and supports the civilised behaviour on which democracy relies. That too could be derided as bourgeois but unless there are conditions that call for revolution, decency supports democracy.

Populating the list

At the time of writing Ireland is experiencing local and EU election campaigns, and decent people are appalled that racist, anti-gay, anti-vax comment and candidates are being tolerated, indeed given public media platforms. That would be fairly typical. Decent people tend to condemn racist, sexist, homophobic viewpoints as morally repugnant. Lately, on public health grounds they increasingly include anti-vax opinions. Moreover, few would want to exclude Daniel DeNicola’s examples, to reiterate, that proper upbringing of a child requires ‘breaking the will’ and severe corporal punishment; that the elderly should routinely be euthanised; that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a political solution, and so on. The point is that while repugnant viewpoints tend to be few, enduring and universal, the list can be discussed, extended or reduced, e.g. in Ireland in particular it can be argued that a belief in celebrating public bombers/bombing is a morally repugnant viewpoint.

Dealing with the list in an open society

Decent people tend to demand that repugnant viewpoints be censored, be denied a public hearing because such views are so bad as to override rights to freedom of expression. Censorship, however, is unnecessary, undemocratic and plays into the hands of those perpetuating repugnant viewpoints. Perhaps censorship is not the decent response!

The sensible and effective way lies through Daniel DeNicola’s second proposition, that those holding repugnant viewpoints be treated exceptionally. The way to address the spread of repugnant notions is to maintain a spotlight on those holding them. That is to say, the repugnant viewpoint must be heard – indeed, must be broadcast – according to routine liberal freedoms but in addition its sponsors and supporters must be marked out as very different, as morally repugnant.

This approach deals with the real fear that decent people have of giving a platform to vile viewpoints. They fear that these views will become commonplace and be accepted by greater numbers in society. They fear normalisation but here’s the thing: having vile views expressed and challenged publicly is not how normalisation works. The process is much more insidious.

The view and the person holding that view are both repugnant but while the person wants public attention, they seldom if ever want that attention to focus on the extraordinary viewpoint that sets the person apart, the viewpoint that above all else defines their character, marking them as a repugnant person. That viewpoint attracts far too much attention and they know full well that they’ll struggle to justify it. What they’ll seek to do is participate in all the routine discussions so that they can appear normal. Thus the repugnant viewpoint is normalised by saying as little about it as possible while allowing its holder to present as a normal, nice, friendly person with something to offer on all the issues and debates of a society. It is this quiet, creeping process of normalisation that decency must prevent.

An open, liberal society needs the expression of all viewpoints, no matter how hideous. They have to be out in the open to be rebutted. It is wrong to prevent expression. It is right to demand expression while letting their holder speak of nothing else. If there is a compelling reason that they be heard on routine matters, then let their utterances be bookended by emphases on their morally repugnant stance. Under no circumstance should the morally repugnant viewpoint be alienated from the morally repugnant person who holds it because the morally repugnant viewpoint is normalised by allowing the morally repugnant person to speak of normal matters.