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There is a troubling misunderstanding at the core of the current health controversy. The screening tests do not give a diagnosis of cancer or an “all clear”; they deal in probability and risk.

A couple of days ago the then Head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, explicitly said so before a Dáil committee. His interlocutor failed to explore it and went off on a rant, treating what had been said with dismissive contempt, as an excuse or possibly a lie. T.O’B. accused him of trying to spread a public panic.

T.O’B. resigned yesterday when the contents of a memo he received in 2016 were revealed. The memo is complex but has that same core: the tests do not deliver diagnoses. Moreover, it pointed out that if patients went to the media and journalists chose to run headlines and stories to the effect that “screening did not diagnose my cancer”, there would be public panic.

Now the worst kind of politician and journalist would be prepared knowingly to propagate and exploit a panic. The more likely problem is, however, far more serious in the long term. Presumption of innocence towards elected representatives and journalists suggests that they too are subject to the panic because they fail to understand or grasp the significance of what T.O’B. said at the Committee. They don’t get the test-marker/diagnosis distinction. Indeed they don’t get risk, probability and live in a binary world of certainty; in this instance that’s simply cancerous or all-clear and anything else is a failure of government to mind us.

This level of misunderstanding among citizens is a dreadful comment on Irish education but it is utterly unacceptable in a member of parliament or a journalist. It not only makes public discourse next to impossible but almost certainly makes health screening initiatives for the future at best something for the wary and at worst unlikely to be implemented.

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A while ago I reluctantly gave up communicating with a Facebook friend. He’s a socialist and has interesting things to say but he has a dismal view of human nature which prompts him to think that whatever a person says, it’s not an honest expression of their view. He is one of a number among my FB friends who resort to this form of ad hominem attack. No, on second thoughts, they don’t resort to it; that suggests a chosen tactic. Rather, they really do believe that everyone is dishonest in argument, that everyone makes their points not because they’ve thought about them but because they serve some hidden purpose or some organisation with which a speaker is associated.

Over the years I’ve grown weary of this nonsense. I’ve concluded that there’s really no point in talking to people who dismiss me as dishonest, accuse me of saying things not because I’ve thought about them but because I am a member of the Labour Party, or had worked for RTE, or had lectured in UCD, or I’m a man, or am nearing seventy etc. etc.

However, it’s not simply a matter of walking away from a small number of grouchy cynics. Their view is widespread. It is considered normal and is not challenged.

When Simon Coveney, Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland) recently changed his position from one of outright opposition to abortion to a position favouring a change in the Irish constitution to allow the Dáil (parliament) to legislate on abortion, he presented his reasons, his line of thinking. He was plausible. The response from those opposing change was not to address what he said but to discredit him as insincere, dishonestly making points to cover up a volte-face so as to serve the Government.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? No, they wouldn’t – not if they were decent people who had no evidence to support that view. More seriously, they were allowed to say it without challenge. The reaction of radio journalism was placid, as if something entirely uncontroversial had happened. A person had just been called a liar on national radio and … well, and nothing, just accordance with a dominant way of thinking.

It might be said that calling out ad hominem argument is best avoided during a contentious amendment campaign, that balance is best achieved by letting everyone say as they wish while according equal time to both sides. This would be both a perverse misunderstanding of balance and a suggestion that journalists at other times challenge shoddy debate. They don’t; they tend to report it faithfully.

Here’s the problem: It’s no wonder that cynics think they are normal when mass media permit – even, encourage – people to make up stories about a parson’s motivations. Media – journalists – should be more concerned about their stewardship of public discourse. They should give the cynics a choice: talk about the topic or get off the programme. That might demonstrate that many people have higher standards. It might also encourage citizens in ordinary conversation to say something explicit to their cynical friends: “You reveal a lot about your own motivations when you make assumptions like that.” Thinking citizens might be even more blunt: “Just because you think like that, don’t assume that the rest of us do. You’re not normal.”*

Getting back to journalists, they have to decide on their audience: are they serving gossiping cynics or citizens who want to hear from those who talk about the point?

 

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* Increasingly I’m of the view that the defence of public discourse is down to the citizen: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/day-to-day-conversation-and-the-struggle-for-decency/

Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.


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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602869/manufacturing-jobs-arent-coming-back/

***

On alienation and later: https://aeon.co/essays/in-the-1950s-everybody-cool-was-a-little-alienated-what-changed

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

https://quote.ucsd.edu/childhood/files/2013/05/postman-amusing.pdf

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

Barack Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjGUUGw0pQ8

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-conservative-embrace-a-home-for-former-revolutionaries/

***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

Recently on Facebook Mark Hennessy, News Editor at the Irish Times, became cross with me. I had criticised a journalist I admire for failing over decades of interviews to ask Jerry Adams about the decision of the IRA to target civilians. Mark felt that it was unreasonable to expect journalists to go on about the troubles in every article concerning SF. It’s not the first time this has been said to me and it’s time I addressed it.

Among all of the policies, views, topics etc. that SF addresses today one is utterly unique. They want to commemorate and celebrate the campaign of the Prov. IRA. Some of their members may prefer that this looking back stopped but they are aware that a part of their support base requires it, that forgetting it might split their movement or might even prompt a group to violence. Some others may see the campaign as honourable and worthy of celebration.

There is a simple reason why a desire to celebrate the IRA is loathsome. Like all combatants, the IRA thought about it and selected their targets. At some stage they decided that civilians were to be their targets. Over decades they persisted with this as public bombing – among other civilian killing – followed public bombing until it characterised their campaign. SF point out that civilians regrettably die in all conflicts. This is true. It is equally true that the intentional targeting of civilians is regarded as an unambiguous war crime. SF today want to celebrate this campaign.

There are of course Irish citizens who think that civilian targeting was acceptable in the Irish context or that it is a staple of asymmetric warfare and they are fine with its celebration. There are other Irish citizens who will view the celebration of a campaign of war crimes as relatively unimportant and will support SF because of other policies or issues. In order for SF support to grow, however, a large number of Irish citizens will have to come to accept that such celebration is normal or harmlessly eccentric.

We are talking about normalisation and this is where all citizens – but journalists especially – have to think long and hard. To begin with, we have to decide if we want the celebration of war crimes to be accepted as a normal or indeed as a merely eccentric feature of Irish life. If we do not, then we have to resist its being normalised.

There are two ways in which something is made normal. It happens firstly when it receives little or no adverse comment. In Ireland most citizens have been drawn into using a sanitised lexicon in which targeting civilians is hidden; we talk of war, troubles, unrest etc. – anything to avoid calling a spade a spade. Secondly, it happens by way of acceptance: a person or organisation is tolerated to the extent that they can take part in all of the nation’s conversations as if all of their viewpoints were within the bounds of acceptability. When the speaker is presented as normal, it is implied that their parcel of views is normal. Bluntly, normalisation proceeds every time a SF speaker offers a view, or they are reported or discussed and no one refers to their celebration of war crimes.

A journalist will respond by saying that news and current affairs cannot be disrupted and possibly made boring by constantly harping back to an old issue. Generally speaking this is a sound point. However, the subject here is extraordinary and could of course be treated as an editorial exception, having nothing whatsoever to do with day to day journalism. It is, moreover, for SF not an extraneous but a defining issue and it is not old, it is current.

There is a small number of extreme views which a civilised society cannot normalise and which therefore fall neither within the confines of media practice nor the routines of polite company.* No journalist or any citizen should let pass an opportunity to strike against exceptional barbarity. Obversely anyone holding an exceptionally barbaric view should expect it to be raised in most if not all situations.

Normalisation is an ordinary and familiar part of everyday life but it has a dark side and its outcome always involves struggle. It has delivered many of the features of progressive, tolerant society. It is the process through which previously excluded minorities together with perspectives, beliefs and practices, once thought to be vile, become unremarkable and accepted. None of this happens without resistance and opposition, and the media provide the arena in which each tussle is played to a stable conclusion.

Normalisation, however, is not necessarily progressive. It has a dark side because by that same process – again, with media playing a central role – a decent society can be so poisoned that large numbers of citizens accept or turn a blind eye to depraved actions and expressions.

The outcomes – progressive or poisonous – are decided by struggle. The danger of course is that a struggle might be smothered because media/journalism as an institution fails to create and stage a public controversy for the citizens they serve. That danger is increased when those seeking normalisation are adept at using the values, codes, practices, conventions and obligations of journalism to prevent a public controversy.

This is now where we are with SF and Irish journalism. SF wants to expand support while holding the view that their celebration of the IRA’s campaign of war crimes is normal, routine, something that is to be accepted and most certainly not to be a matter of continuing public controversy, brought up every time they appear in news or utter a comment.

It’s impossible to know how many but some journalists at least may take the view that such celebration is neither normal, routine nor accepted but that the journalist’s role is to report the news and comment on current affairs as defined by elite “news-makers”. When it comes to extraordinary depravity, that level of passivity falls far short of professional performance in support of the republic and its citizens.

Let it be said clearly that for as long as SF persist in celebrating war crimes a journalist covering them in any way who decides to avoid raising this horror, is facilitating its normalisation.

Many citizens remain steadfast ** and for them it is unthinkable firstly that Ireland could ever accept the commemoration and celebration of war crimes becoming ordinary – becoming part of what we are – and secondly that those who would do such a thing could be allowed among us without being told repeatedly that they should be ashamed of themselves, and that they are a disgrace to the nation.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/day-to-day-conversation-and-the-struggle-for-decency/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/the-division-between-supporters-of-sf-and-other-irish-people-is-and-ought-to-be-fundamental/

 

Politics, deliberation, and public action dissolve under the relentless pressure for leveraging one’s self into a position of greater human capital and competitive advantage. The state remodels itself as a firm, the university as a factory, and the self as an object with a price tag.” *

The Left in Ireland is comprised of local examples of world movements and doctrines. It loves issues and campaigns. Tackling broad theory – never mind creating a plausible alternative – is not regarded as essential. That’s a fundamental error.

You see, there’s always been your man at the bar, the drunk who has the answers, the bar-stool approach to politics. You know how it goes: everyone is selfish, politicians are all crooks and/or stupid, public servants and experts are all incompetent, thoughtful citizens are sheeple and we need a revolution to put ordinary people in charge – people power!

However, something has changed because this kind of stupidity is no longer deplored. It is tolerated beyond the drunk at the bar. It has been brought out into the open, patronised and promoted. Moreover, it is the preferred weapon of the rich and powerful who see in it the possibility of undoing a century of state welfare systems and controls on markets. Unfortunately, they are aided by too many gullible leftists who bizarrely seem to think that angry stupidity could possibly be a working class trait.**

An impoverished and downright nasty understanding of what it means to be human and consequently of human rationality is now dominant and it is rarely – if ever – questioned. Because docile acceptance has political consequences, journalism bears a heavy responsibility. Journalism generally reflects dominant viewpoints, failing to question thoroughly the driving assumptions and theory behind them. Moreover, conventional news is fed by “anti-establishment” activists providing a flow of protest and outrage over discrete issues.

The term neo-liberalism can be both useful and superficial; it is scattered around – particularly by leftists – and it works fairly well to trigger emotions over an “issue”. However, any attempt to discuss it or – heaven forbid – compare it to plain liberalism prompts groans, wilful ignorance and the patronising claim that ordinary people won’t understand or are not interested. This is precisely how the left becomes conservative – campaigning, protesting, pressurising on issues while refusing to demand – no, cause – public discourse on what makes them issues.

The reason that Liberal thought survived left criticism for so long was that it delivered security, health, education, welfare and decent jobs; it reached an accommodation with capitalism and that accommodation became the establishment.*** Liberals – now often referred to as Classic Liberals – emphasised human dignity, mutual respect and fair procedures. They tended to insist that in making a decision, possible harm should be considered and avoided. They weren’t prioritising pay-offs; they were considering wider outcomes, consequences. This is what neo-liberalism seeks to destroy. It’s not just posing as anti-establishment; it really is.

Neo-liberalism then is utterly different. It looks at life as a competition, a constant struggle for scarce resources and dominance. It is built not only on a dismal view of human nature and rationality but but also on non-cooperative Game Theory. It is worth emphasising that Game Theory was developed not for ordinary citizen relationships but for working out nuclear strategies during the Cold War. The idea is that everyone is an adversary and decision-making is based on narrow, self-interested, “rational” choice.**** This approach was imported first into business and finance, and then into wider aspects of life and society. It favours competitive market solutions to all questions, undermines solidarity, fellow-feeling, goodwill, the state, welfare provisions, expertise, human decency and values – especially the values of classic liberalism – all in a drive towards radical privatisation, reducing citizens to contractors and/or customers who conduct relationships on the basis of quid pro quo. (Remember that gobshite on the bar stool.)

In Ireland today it is certainly true that many – more likely, most – citizens believe that self determination is expressed merely in consumer choice. They have been bludgeoned into this belief by a refusal of journalism and activists to contradict the dominant view. Choice has come to mean consumer choice and the citizen has been reduced to a customer of service providers. Public service – once a well understood, honourable and decent way of life – is now a matter of reacting to customers. Government departments, county councils, state bodies and industries, having abandoned citizenship, now operate to customer charters and the like, and prefer to deal with clients.

In many instances the left has gone along with all this. Their cooperation has perhaps three causes. Firstly, they may for populist reasons be unwilling to challenge orthodoxy when expressed by “ordinary workers”. Secondly, they may not see the significance of the contrast between customer and citizen. Thirdly, they may see customer relations as an improvement on some of the high-handed carry on that brought public service into disrepute. Incidentally, for whatever reasons Dublin South County Council when dominated by a strong group of Labour councillors, declined even to discuss a move from customer to citizen relationships.

When a theory becomes dominant – even orthodox – there are outcomes across the globe and Ireland is a case in point. Irish acceptance of bar-stool guff dressed up as Neo-liberalism leads necessarily to privatisation, market-based solutions to all problems and the reduction of the citizen to a mere customer living in an endless chaos of markets.

The anti-intellectual eye-rolling at the mere mention of “neo-liberal” functions not only to stifle counter theory but to prevent critique and thus cement the doctrine. Unable or unwilling to challenge at a theoretical level, the left is reduced to skirmishing over, say, particular privatisations, guaranteeing that it will win occasionally, lose frequently and not even slow the march. Perhaps the best hope the Irish left has is that critique and counter theory at an international level will win out and leftward change will seep into Ireland. That would be passive, shamefully passive.

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* https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/uses-and-abuses-neoliberalism-debate

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** Technology has had a crucial effect on work, employment and capitalism. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

**** If this is of interest, see: S.M. Amadae, Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neo-liberal Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Anyone who thinks that acceptance of neo-liberal, bar-stool beliefs was accidental or that it can be combated by way of activism, should consider reading, Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: the deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America (Scribe UK, 2017)

A joke doing the rounds way back in the 1970s went like this*: The CEO of a car manufacturing plant was showing off his new assembly robots to a trade union official, “You’ll never organise them!”, he boasted. “And, you’ll never sell them a car!”, replied the trade unionist. Funny and true. So, we’ve been aware of the direction of production, work and capitalism for a long time. However, until very recently it was difficult to get people to pay attention. Even now it is probable that a majority would prefer to argue and make policy as if it were still the hey day of industrial capitalism and industrial workers. It may be that the significance of I.T. is lost on them but it could be that they are unwilling to change familiar, comfortable ways of thinking.


A long-standing trio is crumbling because the productivity of today’s technology i) undermines the working of industrial capitalism, ii) undermines state welfare systems designed to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and iii) requires socialists to rethink their basics.

The best way into the heart of the question is via Marx. (Yannis Varoufakis has been on about it recently.) It goes like this: it is labour that creates ‘value’. Work is the core; it transforms raw material into useful products.

In steps capitalism. Profit emerges in selling products but obviously selling relies on buyers. Bluntly, the supply of products makes no sense without demand. Demand depends on money moving about – circulating – but that in turn depends on people having incomes. Traditionally this has meant jobs paying wages and salaries.

It’s hardly surprising then that the history of industrialisation is punctuated by workers resisting new productive technology. The purpose of new industrial technology is to reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce the goods. In short, its purpose is to do away with jobs.

Of course there was a time when it wasn’t as simple as that because growth and new technology created other jobs, lots of them, with titles that would have meant nothing a few years earlier. Moreover, the new jobs tended to be dry, clean, quite well paid and prestigous. By the 1960s and 70s “ordinary workers” were not defying death by going to work but were relatively comfortable, educated, healthy, ambitious and many were buying houses. Certainly there were still dreadful jobs and piecework remained a curse but there was hope.

The hope rested on the unfounded belief that things could only get better, that because a generation was better off than the preceding one, it was now to be expected for succeeding generations, that education and a job meant comfort and a fulfilling life, and that the state would provide in the event of a life-changing catastrophe or a period of unemployment. Okay there were still fatcats, privilege and exploitation but overall the majority found the “trickle down” argument plausible.**

Things are different now. Forty years of neo-liberal economics coupled with IT development have produced a society in which ordinary workers cannot buy houses, cannot assume that they’ll be better off than their parents, cannot assume that a good background and education will lead to a satisfying career. There are baristas and carers with PhDs. There are people living hand to mouth on piecework which we choose to call the gig economy. There are people employed but living in poverty, dependent on welfare just to keep going. This isn’t part of an economic cycle. Those good jobs which made the mass of people prosperous are no longer required; they’re gone.

The naive response would be to cite capitalism for screwing down incomes. Sure, there are rich chancers making money by exploiting vulnerable people but there is more to this and a naive left response is much worse than useless.

The reality is that productive technology has reduced the cost of doing the bulk of those good jobs to zero; no labour is required to do the jobs that so many people thought were their future. Some of course do exist but work has been moving upmarket and downmarket, evacuating the middle. The need now is for high level expertise and for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The process is in its infancy but these days the likes of doctors, accountants and drivers of all sorts find they are reading more and more about artificial intelligence – the latest manifestation of productive technology – and they are worried.

Here’s the thing: At some stage in this process capitalism becomes pointless. As technology – artificial intelligence – reduces to zero the labour required for most production, the owners of the means of production increasingly come face to face with the new reality. It dawns on them that they cannot realise value as profit. This is the end stage foretold in the 1970s joke and unless capitalism – or rather industrial capitalism – can find a way to accommodate the new order, it faces an existential threat.

Some years ago it was argued that the industrial jobs still existed but globalisation had allowed them to be moved to low wage economies. That did happen and it remains the case that where wages are sufficiently depressed, labour is cheaper than machines but machines today are utterly effective and efficient, and there’s a greater proportion of software as opposed to hardware production.

The welfare state whose mission for decades was to support capitalism by dealing with unemployment – paying workers temporarily unemployed, providing training, retraining and education to serve industry, providing all sorts of aid to investment – has to confront a fundamentally different problem: a shortage not of educated, skilled workers but a shortage of work befitting them. States and governments, having created an educated workforce and having made job creation a measure of success, are resisting change. Indeed for the most part they are doing as they’ve done for decades because the change required is as yet inconceivable.

While the modern liberal state finds it hard to adapt, many socialists – so theoretically and emotionally bound up with labour, the working class and jobs – may find it next to impossible. However, adapt they must because otherwise there will be no plausible counter to today’s and tomorrow’s forms of exploitation and structure of inequality.

In Ireland unemployment is at about 6% and the trend is downward. Allowing for those who don’t want a job, those who are between jobs etc., it will be said at about 3% that full employment has been reached. Even among socialists it is often still believed that a job is the best route out of poverty. Now, it may be the best available route but clearly it is not anything like a guaranteed route. This is because – yes, again – those mid 20th century rewarding jobs are gone and the 6 – 3% unemployment figure is achieved largely through the expansion in poorly paid, insecure, unattractive jobs.

Socialists and Trade Unionists will try to secure better pay, conditions and security for these workers but they cannot change the nature of the work itself. The work is what is left after the present generation of automation.

Already it is frequently argued that there is no point in educating masses of people for non existent jobs, that higher education should be concentrated on a smaller elite and that money saved would be better spent on training. Now, this is precisely what should be done if the purpose of the state and particularly education is to create workers for the jobs available. However, when meaningful work for the masses cannot be created, then leftists must demand that the purpose of the state change. Such a demand depends on an enormous change in the thinking of socialists because no matter who owns and controls the means of production, one thing is clear: machines, automation, I.T., artificial intelligence cannot be uninvented.

To be at all plausible socialist argument and policy must address not 19th or 20th century capitalism but today’s iteration.

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* https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/The-History-of-Robotics-in-the-Automotive-Industry/24

** https://www.thebalance.com/trickle-down-economics-theory-effect-does-it-work-3305572

There’s a reason I want to tell you about my experience teaching at a drug rehabilitation clinic but first the story:

Some years ago the then head of UCD’s Adult Education Dept. asked me if I’d be interested in presenting a lecture series to recovering drug addicts. Now generally I do politics with an emphasis on political philosophy and specifically I do political communication. I asked what he had in mind. He said the request was for a politics course and that was as much information as he had. I jumped at the chance of a new experience while doing – I hoped – some good. 

My first day was alarming. I was welcomed into an environment that I found very stressful. It wasn’t that I was scared. Far from it, the people there were nice to me. It was the chaos; I could find nothing familiar and dependable. It was the world of addiction. However, up a few flights of stairs and I was introduced to the students. Here there was no chaos but a group of people, recovered from whatever had been their problem and focused on making their futures.A short time into the course it became obvious that their primary interest was theory. Sure, they wanted to know basics about how elections worked, how the Taoiseach was elected and what was the function of the president but that was too easy for them. They were far more interested in hearing about equality, justice, democracy etc. I was fascinated and motivated by them; they were sharp.

The course progressed well and as I got to know them, we exchanged personal stories but there was one question I wanted to ask and my opportunity eventually arrived. I asked why was I there, talking to them about politics, what had prompted such a course in this clinic. The answer was fundamental and affecting. They had looked at the list of likely courses facing them – the “practical” courses – and said, no thanks. They wanted what they called “real subjects”. They had argued their case but believed their success came down to a succinct claim to normality. It had been put bluntly by one woman to a centre manager, “I said to her, ‘Look, we’re junkies, not fucking eejits’ and she said OK, that she’d organise proper courses.”

They did get real subjects and proper courses. They were well able for them, enjoyed them and did well.

Here’s where I reveal the purpose of telling this story now but I’ll return to the students and something that will always bother me.

When I’m told that “ordinary voters” or “ordinary working people” don’t want “intellectual argument” and want only “practical answers”, I wish the patronising, elite chancers who assume such nonsense, would be challenged by the likes of that student saying, “Look, we’re citizens, not fucking eejits.”

Of course there are citizens – millions of them – who don’t want political debate, intellectual material, ideologies, values etc. Some really don’t understand, some pretend not to and may even try to flaunt ignorance as a virtue, some are culpably uninformed, and most simply don’t want to be bothered.

On the other side are republicans (real ones – unlike US Republicans or Irish nationalists) who want to participate in the affairs of their republic, who demand to be addressed with respect and who want to think, talk and come to decisions. In this they don’t need leadership.

So, there is a divide in society between, let’s call them, passive and active citizens but that division does not break along class lines. Let no one say that ordinary people or ordinary working people – never mind the working class – are on one side and cannot cope with real politics. *

Ending the clinic story, I taught two groups, as far as I can recall, at the clinic in successive years and then it all stopped. I assume there was a change in management or in the programme itself. Here’s what bothers me. Those students were clever and wanted to continue with “real subjects” but there was nothing for them when they parted with the clinic. I pointed them towards university Access courses, in particular UCD Access on which I teach but I never saw them again. I’m left with the thought that a door was opened, giving them a glimpse of higher education, and then was slammed shut again. Sometimes that seems more cruel than forcing them to do “ordinary” training courses.

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* Here’s some more on this divide: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

Because it is in the constituency of a government minister the probable re-opening of Stepaside Garda station faces an outpouring of contrived disapproval. It is argued that reopening at Stepaside would be a disgraceful political stroke and no way to establish priorities in state provision. Gimme a break! In my local area (Lucan, Co. Dublin) another minister has been instrumental – or so she claims – in “delivering” a different “cargo”, a swimming pool. She has been praised for her efforts and her rivals are envious. A local on-line magazine sees delivery of cargo for the “local community” as the sole criterion when evaluating elected politicians. Moreover, politicians are regarded as an undifferentiated group, political values or ideology simply don’t feature. Leaflets from potential candidates and elected representatives almost without exception talk about getting stuff and supporting campaigns to get stuff; an over-used slogan is, “Delivering for the people of Lucan”. All of these deliverers are fighting an “establishment” which it is feared is delivering elsewhere.*

In short, Minister Shane Ross, is doing precisely what the overwhelming majority of the citizens see as his job. He is operating the Irish political system of cargo/pressure. If Stepaside Garda Station reopens, his rivals will be hopping mad, his reputation for delivery will be secured and his chances of re-election considerably enhanced. Now, Stepaside is a relatively prosperous area and very likely has a relatively educated electorate. We’re not therefore talking about poor people who will “sell” their vote for some personal or local advantage. They are just like the people in Lucan and other places who either think there is no other way of prioritising or who have thought about politics and see the Irish system as prefereable.

There is, however, some sense of shame. Otherwise the audience for ritual condemnation of “stroke politics” would be tiny but there is no substantial, real opposition. Ireland has a functioning, conservative system, supported by the overwhelming majority and one which no political party opposes.

It gets worse.

Ireland has regulated political lobbying and lobbyists. The idea was to take this shady activity and make it transparent. The lobbyists and their companies are of course pleased; they’ve been institutionalised (No, they’ve been quasi-constitutionalised.) made respectable and given professional status. They can say honestly that they are essential to the political system. In truth the reason a dodgy, undemocratic process of influence was not banned is that it’s integral to the accepted political system.

It gets worse still.

Many of those who would wield influence beyond that of a citizen consider themselves advocates and reject the idea that they are lobbyists. They argue that because their employers are not big business but charities, non-government agencies etc. and because their demands are praiseworthy, they are altogether different. Their demands are indeed different but in terms of wielding influence greater than that of a citizen, they are the same. Moreover, they are salaried professionals using their skill to operate within the system.

Then there’s the staff at independent stautory bodies. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) is charged among other things with advocating in favour of competition; it even has a Director of Advocacy.**

Do you think it couldn’t get worse?

At this point it becomes very, very serious because the cargo/pressure system has absorbed activists and they are not only happy about it, they also continue to believe they are anti-establishment. There might have been a time when a citizen motivated by political values or by an alternative view of what constitutes the good society, would join roughly like-minded people in a political party. The idea being to effect change by the parliamentary route. Today such a citizen would be decried as “establishment” and would likely face opposition to assuming the label, “activist”.

Political parties per se are now often rejected. That rejection reduces the liklihood that the orthodox will be challenged by a coherent view of a different good society. We now experience a tyranny of issues and if your issue is not recognised or if you want to talk about matters larger than issues, there is little chance that you’ll gain a place within public discourse.

The label political activist today is generally accepted without question. People become political activists. Some are full time. Others mention it in their portmanteau of occupations which helps express an identity. It is assumed that they favour social justice and that they are anti-establishment.

The political activist of today selects issues, becomes part of a campaigning group or joins a political party which is resolutely not an establishment party, a party of government. The objective is to force the establishment to concede on an issue which generally speaking and after a familiar struggle it does but always without damaging the system. Following a concession or “victory over the establishment”, activists refocus and attention turns to another issue. It is a stable, conservative system and processing or resolving isolated issues constitutes orderly management.

I’ve argued in an earlier blog that the Irish system prefigured or was at least well prepared for the arrival of

what some commentators see as a new form of democracy, a democracy changed so as to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.*** The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Apart from occasional outbursts of mock outrage over stroke politics this all works very well and has widespread support. Conservatives see little change. Members of the government can campaign for cargo to be delivered to their constuency and their re-election may depend on it. The influence of the rich and powerful is now codified, transparent and quasi-constitutional. Charity can lobby for a bit more. Media can accommodate and aid the campaigning of the causes they favour. All can make demands without being asked at whose expense they should be satisfied. With almost everyone keen to be seen as anti-establishment, real dissent is rare and unlikely to be effective. On the left revolution has been abandoned and the working class reduced to a campaigning pressure group.

I wrote some time ago, “In Ireland all of the political parties represented in parliament support the political system in which priorities are set, decisions are made, infrastructure is positioned by way of campaigns which put pressure on the government/political class. They may differ on campaign issues and interest groups favoured but there is no opposition to the basic system.”I’ve argued the need for at least one opposition party, prefereably a leftist party and I’ve suggested that Labour has the credentials and the motivation to risk taking this course.ᶲᶲ  The risk is very real because the number of republican/participative citizens who oppose the established cargo/pressure system is unknown.

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* A Cargo Cult is a group which believes that if proper ceremonies are performed shipments of riches will be sent from heaven.


** https://www.ccpc.ie/consumers/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/Org-chart-Oct-2017.pdf

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/ireland-is-a-leader-in-mairs-anti-political-sentiment/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

Ordinary citizens appear increasingly to be democracy’s and indeed decent, civilised behaviour’s last line of defence. In their day-to-day interactions it now falls to citizens to struggle against those who promote and support barbarism. That is to say, if it was ever sensible to remain silent – to opt for a quiet life – while someone in the company – perhaps a friend or family member – spouts nonsense or savagery, it’s no longer a safe option; democracy and decency are now under too much pressure.

During a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the rise of racist attacks in the aftermath of the Brexit poll, a social scientist made a telling point: it’s not that the racists have majority support; it is that they think they have.*

Those who hold and express vile views seldom if ever face an adverse reaction in social and family circles. Too few people or perhaps no one at all expressly disagrees with them, tells them that they should be ashamed of themselves or refuses to socialise with them. Moreover, they are allowed to take part in routine conversation and banter without reference to the knowledge that their most basic views are an affront to civilisation. To borrow a term from communication and media studies, racist thugs are being normalised. **

The same failing has resulted in the current friction over what men can and cannot say to and about women. There are those who hold that despicable behaviour is part of routine banter. The thing is, they are telling the truth and it is the truth because no one in their circle says otherwise. Colleagues, associates, friends and family – knowing their views and character – are willing to socialise with them, are willing to normalise them.

+++++++

A key moment for me came some years ago on a bus queue of all places. I tend to talk to strangers. I engaged when the person beside me started on about what was wrong with Irish society. Soon it became apparent that immigrants were the cause of Ireland’s problems. It got worse: each race, it was contended, brought particular failings and these were enthusiastically listed. Certainly I was shocked to be talking to an extremist but more shocking was that someone so extreme would be open with a complete stranger. When I gathered myself and began to argue, it was her turn to be shocked. Clearly she was unaccustomed to questioning and contradiction. She fell silent shortly before the bus arrived.

Thinking about the incident afterwards, I was made despondent by the idea that those views had become utterly routine, that in this woman’s circles her views were accepted as ordinary. My belief now while still chilling, is a little better. Yes, her views are held by many – far too many – but she is mistaken in thinking that she enjoys near universal approval. She is lulled into assuming approval by the absence of confrontation, contradiction and criticism and by being made welcome into the company of decent people.

+++++++

Tolerance is now so pervasively misunderstood that public discourse is endangered. “I’m entitled to my opinion” has come to mean, “I’m entitled to say what I like without having to answer for it.” An added variant is, “I’m entitled to talk about drains and football without mention of my more basic, noxious views.” Too many thinking people now consider trenchant argument to be impolite. They flop into an effete silence while racists, misogynists, liars, conspiracy theorists, even supporters of war crimes, and others with similarly vile views move and operate as if they were normal citizens of a decent and democratic society.

There might have been a time when journalists were expected to act but nowadays they are almost completely in thrall to news values and have for the most part left the field of struggle over fundamental values. They prefer to report comments on current issues without reference to a speaker’s basic and sometimes vile views; bluntly, they are activists in the process of normalisation.

That leaves the last line of defence: the thinking, participative citizen, aware of three things: i) that democracy is recent and fragile ii) that it depends on effective public discourse; and iii) that beyond issues, current affairs, even the differences between conservatives, liberals and socialists, there is a small number of shared positions that mark out democracy, civilised behaviour and human decency. That is now threatened and quiet politeness is complicity.

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* About 22mins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yetFgoAkrGE

** qui tacet consentire videtur

It’s difficult to imagine that anyone gets through life without occasionally having their integrity tested.* There are rare situations where showing integrity might bring appalling consequences – even death – and in such a situation fear unto dishonesty is understandable and forgivable. In most other situations the risk is small. Indeed the most common motivation for failing to act or speak with integrity is an ambition for career advancement. Now, let’s be quite clear here. If someone feels compelled to dishonesty for fear of being sacked, then that may be forgivable but only if the matter is relatively minor. However, a person who abandons their integrity for the hope of career advancement reveals a paradox: They progress by being precisely the kind of person who is unsuited to a position of trust or of any importance.

It is true too that in our times a calculating, professional, strategic way of thinking tends to be lauded and this provides a ready cover for acting without reference to good or bad.

There are, however, ordinary people who behave properly when their integrity is tested. They are rarely dealing with matters very serious but they speak up and/or act according to what is right – either morally or for the good of the organisation that employs them. In the short term they accept that they will anger the boss and their career may stall. In the long-term they may never recover that impetus for promotion but on the other hand they may come to be seen as having integrity, precisely what is required in a more senior position.

Lack of integrity was a root cause of economic collapse in Ireland. As the Irish property bubble/scam was deliberately developed, there were those in banking, management generally, media, politics, the professions, education, public service, consultancies etc. who knew that it could end only in tears. Few of them passed the test: They lacked the integrity to speak up time and again. They preferred to take their chances by pretending that they believed in nonsense.** Particular blame falls on banking staff who sat silently through meetings, listening to what they knew to be complete bollocks. They were in place for the subsequent scams in “stealing” tracker mortgages and they’re still there. No one could seriously think that their characters will change and that in future they will behave with integrity.

It is unfortunately true that chancers lacking in integrity often make career progress. However, when they are found out, it is imperative that they be identified as “the wrong stuff” and asked to go.

At the very least there must be a demand that recruitment and promotion seek to identify candidates with integrity. If a person cannot speak up in the face of a shouting or overbearing fool, he/she is either too timid or too lacking in integrity to be appointed. How about, “All Candidates must be prepared to discuss instances when their integrity was tested.” An interview board prepared to explore thoroughly that area of a c.v. for, say, a Garda or banking appointment would weed out the chancers and in time eliminate the excuse/whitewash of culture.

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* http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/integrity/

** Integrity is at the core of another, older post on this blog: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/time-for-a-clear-out-who-misled-and-who-remained-silent-as-a-completely-irish-made-fiasco-developed/

 

The debate on repealing the eighth amendment studiously avoids the argument on which the entire pro-life position rests.

Here’s the Pro-Life proposition: There is a person present from conception with a person’s right to life for however long that life might be and regardless of the circumstances of conception, i.e. there are no exceptions.

The Repeal side falls into the trap and ends up discussing exceptions, e.g. rape and fatal foetal abnormality, rather than the proposition. There is a suspicion, however, that they fall willingly along with the media, on whom public discourse depends, because neither feels confident about engaging the core Pro-life argument.

The pro-life argument, that a person is present from conception, is meta-physical but shouldn’t be dismissed or avoided for that. It is easily dealt with because it is a poor argument. Now, at least some of those who make the argument are used to being treated with an inordinate amount of respect because firstly, they tend to be high-ranking churchmen and secondly, it is assumed that arguing metaphysics requires great expertise and is hard work. This is a carefully cultivated impression. It is also uniquely accepted, while every other branch of philosophy is expected when necessary to engage with citizens who have no particular expertise.

Once we address and consider the argument that a person is present from conception, and assuming we find it implausible (There won’t be universal agreement that it is.) we can begin to examine abortion from a moral perspective. 

Here are two facts: 

i) Almost no one wants to permit abortion right up to birth.


ii) No one strives officiously to find and protect the lives of all fertilised human eggs (zygotes). 

The moral decision lies between i and ii. As a political issue it involves regulating abortion. It is a hard decision because it necessarily means a time limit. It is a debate that can and should go on and on as we struggle to do right, to fix a time limit that, all things considered, is moral. The pro-life amendment prevents that debate taking place; that is what it was meant to do. It prevents citizens having to consider what should be done about unwanted pregnancies. That is why it must be repealed. 

Addressing the pro-life (ensoulment) argument moves the exceptions (pregnancy by rape and viability) way down the public agenda. It removes much of the heat from public discourse, and there are many – not all of them working in the media – who thrive on heat. Incidentally, it also disposes of the silly, history argument: that a ban on abortion was fine years ago but times have changed. Nonsense, it was always cruel and evasive. It was carried because few had the confidence and courage to take on church metaphysicians.

If Repeal activists and media are unwilling or if they feel themselves incompetent to debate metaphysics, let them insist on something similar by confronting Pro-Life advocates with Patrick S. Tomlinson’s popular proposition: Faced with a choice of saving the life of one person or 1,000 zygotes, no sane, decent and honest person would opt for the zygotes.*

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* https://www.rawstory.com/2017/10/sci-fi-writer-baffles-abortion-foes-with-simple-question-would-you-save-1000-embryos-or-one-child-in-fire/?comments=disqus

 

 

No one at all agrees with George Hook’s view that a victim of rape could be to some extent responsible for the crime. Well, that’s how it seems but it’s not true. Many people agree with him but right now they are silent. They are silent in the face of the powerful outrage expressed by the establishment and by thousands of ordinary decent people who have decided that there’s no room for equivocation on rape.* This would seem to be the first general lesson arising from the incident: if decency and the establishment – especially journalism – combine in outrage, then the expression of a barbaric viewpoint will be met with concerted hostility. In other words, anyone holding such a view will know that its expression will invite opprobrium.

There are two types of opposition and they can be represented by two Irish Times journalists. Firstly, there is the Fintan O’Toole view that George Hook and his associates should be boycotted. ** Secondly, there’s the Kitty Holland view that he ought to be heard and challenged.*** Both accept that his viewpoint represents a wider misogynist perspective, with FO’T adding that Newstalk Radio, George Hook’s employer, is editorially committed to serving/entertaining the audience for this kind of material. Indeed, it is argued by former Newstalk presenter, Sarah Carey, that, “When you make controversy your business model, this is inevitable.”† Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth because the number of vile statements/slurs capable of generating a reaction like this is tiny.

The second general lesson then would seem to be that there are some viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to warrant exceptional action. That prompts three questions: how does a viewpoint gain this status; how many such viewpoints are there; and, is the list comprehensive?

The road to establishment opposition to rape myths is unfortunately long and tear stained. Marital rape was not illegal in Ireland until 1990. Clearly opposition developed slowly and at some point the numbers represented a breach such that what George Hook said *** appeared beyond that breach. It’s worth mentioning that this is a recent breach; GH has taken the same position many times and recently. Numbers determine in so far as to form a critical mass which delivers the power to say, “No right thinking person would say that.”

At this point the liberal has stepped on to thin ice in being asked to side with the bien pensant. I don’t intend to explore this in any depth. Suffice it to say that there is an old tension here between preventing speech that will cause harm and requiring speech that will challenge the orthodox view. 

In discussing the George Hook incident, I asked a handful of people to identify other views which would attract the same degree of opprobrium. The banishment of Kevin Myers for the expression of a view that was a curious mixture of misogyny and anti Semitism sprang to mind for almost all.†† Racism (including hostility to Travellers) or opposition to homosexuality came to mind too but there was a consensus that while these might prompt a degree of condemnation, it would be nothing like demands for dismissal or the boycott of a radio station. It was thought that there was just one other thing that would compare: child abuse generally and paedophilia particularly.

A list of viewpoints which a typical leftist or progressive would be quick to condemn did not feature. The ton of bricks which fell on George Hook would not fall on nasty comments about women (other than concerning rape) the poor, welfare recipients, politicians, public servants, immigrants etc.

It would seem that there are just these three areas which are condemned as, “No right thinking person would say that.”

Anyone familiar with my views would be surprised if I did not mention what for me was the most glaring omission but it is also a link to and informs the third general lesson.

It is necessary to plumb the depths of depravity to find worse than supporting a rape myth, anti-Semitism or child abuse but supporting and celebrating war crimes is certainly a contender. Now, the IRA for years conducted a campaign of selecting civilians as targets. Each incident was an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity. Sinn Féin supports/celebrates these crimes while attracting a share of up to 20% of the Irish vote. Bizarrely, Fintan O’Toole listed Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, among those whom he called upon to boycott Newstalk.**

Unlike speakers for Sinn Féin, George Hook (and indeed Kevin Myers) apologised and expressed the error of what was said but there was no way back. The third general lesson then would seem to be that there are viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to be unforgivable.

So, what have we got? Well, in Ireland decent people and the establishment – especially journalism – can combine to direct a powerful hostility towards anyone expressing a barbaric viewpoint. There is then no redemption; apology, withdrawal, recantation count for nothing. However, very few barbaric viewpoints are considered so reprehensible as to warrant this treatment. There may be as few as three: support for i) rape myths, ii) anti-Semitism and iii) child abuse.

The sudden, public and entirely unexpected onslaught on George Hook and on Newstalk has given rise to suggestions that something has changed: on the one hand, that vile, dangerous nonsense will not be tolerated or on the other, that free speech is threatened. The reality is that too little has changed. The pusher of rape myths now joins a tiny number of officially recognised despicable speakers. Is it possible that the decent citizens and journalists who finally had enough of rape myth-making will pause, look about and ask, “Is there similar or worse that we’ve been ignoring for too long and that warrant the same treatment?” At the very least it might be argued that it is time for guidelines which include a reminder to journalists that there are indeed viewpoints that are so foul, dangerous or depraved that they cannot be ignored or normalised. That would permit the participative citizen to object, cause journalism to engage and the issue could be dragged out into the open, and considered as potentially despicable – the kind of thing that no decent person could say.

____________________________________

* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/no-room-for-equivocation-on-rape-1.3217200

** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-why-i-will-not-appear-on-newstalk-again-1.3216957

*** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/george-hook-should-be-challenged-not-silenced-1.3219952

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/george-hook-colourfully-bombastic-persona-with-distaste-for-political-correctness-1.3222742

†† https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/kevin-myers-i-have-no-career-left-my-reputation-is-in-tatters-1.3174510

I learned early that there is a great deal of pretence when it comes to choosing one’s appearance. Claims of comfort, fashion or even the word of God are often used to deflect questions or discussion. You see, I went to a Christian Brothers school, an appalling dump, managed and staffed by – let’s say – malefactors, and one of the ways I resisted and annoyed them was to grow my hair slightly long and wear mildly eccentric clothes. I knew what I was doing and never resorted to the defence of fashion or the common, “Jesus had long hair!” I remember a Brother standing over me fuming and spitting, “I know what you’re doing. You’re showing disrespect to me and all I stand for.” Knowing the risks of pushing provocation too far, I stayed silent, thinking, “How right you are, ye thundering bollocks.”

Now, that was a forceful – even antagonistic – statement expressed through appearance. But it’s not always the case. Dress is much more often a passive statement of a willingness to conform (to fit in, to dress appropriately) and/or an affiliation statement as in, “Hey look, I’m a manager cos I dress like you” or “Look, I never wear a tie; I’m just like the anti-establishment guys in Syriza”. Between the forceful and the passive are many mild but thoughtful statements. For example, I like to dress informally – routinely jeans and a casual top or tee shirt. However, as an adult when asked to lecture at University College Dublin, I presented myself quite formally. I did so for a minor and a major reason. Firstly, I thought it might improve my credibility. Much more importantly, I did so to express myself honoured to be working there and to express my respect for the students.

Those who attend the Dáil or Seanad wearing message-emblazoned T-shirts or studiously avoiding anything remotely formal, do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.Their decision is like mine when dressing for my lowlife teachers and unlike mine when dressing for my respected students. Moreover, their expressive appearance says something which is not merely consistent with their political stance but goes to its core.

A requirement of their political stance is the reduction of the supremacy of parliament. Parliament, they contend, is simply one site for struggle and progress/concessions will be won there as well as on the streets and in workplaces. I’ve argued elsewhere that this approach is essentially conservative and easily accommodated within the Irish cargo/pressure political system.*

Parliament, moreover, is where the “establishment parties”, the “political class”, the “government” etc. reside. Everything about parliament signals establishment: it is constitutional, procedural, inhabited by the well off and the educated, and – yes – the well dressed/groomed who obey its rules and are respectful, and who seem to thrive in that environment.

Anti-establishment has been recently redefined as against all that sort of thing and anyone wishing to be so identified could not possibly dress and behave respectfully in parliament. The dress statement must be antagonistic to the institution of parliament and the establishment of which it is part. Elections are not fought to get into parliament to participate in government. They are fought to get into parliament in order to show disrespect for the establishment, especially the constitutional position of parliament, to show that an activist is consistent, whether in parliament or demonstrating outside the gate. The idea is that there’s nothing very special and certainly not supreme about parliament. It’s just an opportunity to confront the establishment.

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* It’s what I’ve termed “left conservatism”: the integration of left campaigning to the point where it functions to stabilise the system. https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/ireland-is-a-leader-in-mairs-anti-political-sentiment/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

https://wordpress.com/posts/colummccaffery.wordpress.com

How many times can, “It wasn’t brought to the board.” be accepted before these chancers are relieved of any responsible role in society? They are managing to create a self-serving stereotype whereby a member of a board is a childlike innocent with no education or experience who sits at the boardroom table waiting for … well, things to be brought forward for attention.*

Any half competent, decent – even curious – person appointed or elected to a board would ask questions and if they weren’t answered would become suspicious. If treated like a complete fool, they would become very bolshie indeed.

In order to accept that the passive innocents who sit on boards waiting for information are at least honest, it has to be accepted that they’ve never before sat on a committee of any kind. Is it possible that they’ve never been on the executive of a football club, a residents association, a trade union branch, a professional association, a branch of a political party, a company, a student organisation, a charity? That’s hardly likely and prompts the question of who would appoint to a board a person so lacking in ordinary experiences.

There is another possibility: that they have experience of boards and committees but that they brought nothing to them beyond a bovine presence.

There is of course a place for a board member who participates but who despite their efforts fails or is tricked. When ultimately they are made aware of the truth, they will be furious. They will defend their integrity. They will talk about their experience and how it compares with previous experiences; they most certainly will not state stupidly that something wasn’t brought to the board.

Time and again in scandals, investigations and failed organisations board members have been allowed offer passive stupidity as an excuse. In a society rich in experienced, educated, thoughtful people of integrity, careful selection must be required to find such dunderheads.

Incidentally, it’s not as if the problem hasn’t been considered. In debate and research on worker directors a basic theme was ensuring the appointment of not merely average people but those who were up for and able for a possible information struggle with hostile executives and at least some fellow directors.

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*  An example: https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/hickey-s-dominance-gives-olympic-ticket-report-a-familiar-ring-1.3186728

Imagine if convicted war criminals escaped from prison and years later someone wanted to make a movie about the escape. Potential investors in the project would of course have to consider how the violence of the escape might be portrayed; as with any escape movie, they might not want to be associated with romanticising what happened. However, they would also have to consider the more fundamental question of whether or not the movie made plain that the protagonists were war criminals, combatants who had chosen to target civilians. Now, if the investors included public bodies like the Irish Film Board, RTE and Cork County Council, you’d imagine that they had considered this very carefully indeed.

Ireland has become a place of petty rules, restrictions, and signs telling us about them. It is perhaps most apparent in public parks. I’m not talking about small parks, where crowding might necessitate a few rules, but large parks, parklands, whose entrances tend to be dominated by signage giving a list of prohibitions. It might be easier to say what is permitted: walking and playing games within their designated areas. Ok, running is still permitted but there have been complaints about speeding!

Close to my home there is a huge park. Actually there are two parks, controlled by different county councils, and separated by the river Liffey. I used to go there often to run and to train my retrievers. However, while a dodgy knee has consigned me to the gym (for now!), park rangers have made it clear that retriever training is prohibited.

I argued of course. I made three points which I thought were persuasive. Firstly, I pointed out that my dog was under control on or off the lead. Secondly, I pointed out that sending a dog across a major river on, say, a 75m lead was both dangerous and daft. Thirdly, I drew attention to the fact that there were no other park users to be seen. Well, the answer was the threadbare one favoured by authoritarians all my life, yep: “A rule is a rule” and if exceptions were made, everyone would be sending dogs across the river, and law and order would break down. There is no point talking to someone of this type. They’ll eventually abrogate responsibility by claiming with a sad face that they are only doing their job. You’d have to admire their zeal and diligence in coming out to make sure that a solitary citizen was not using rain and cold as a cover for rule breaking.

Then there’s the man with the huskies and malamutes. He is ultimately training a dog sled team and, yes, that is now a sport on wheels independent of snow. I admired his idiosyncrasy, his commitment, and his beautiful, friendly dogs. He trained them in harness as they pulled him along on a bicycle. (I understand that smaller groups of sled dogs hauling a bicycle is also an organised sport.) They graced the park and gave pleasure to anyone fortunate enough to see them.

I hadn’t seen him in a long time, since my banishment from the park, but I met him by chance last week. We exchanged, “Haven’t seen you in ages.” I explained that retriever training was banned in the park and that I’d gone elsewhere. At least he was safe as sled dogs were necessarily trained in harness and could never be described as off the leash. But, but noooooooo … he too was banned. The huskies and malamutes couldn’t disguise the bike. According to the authorities he was cycling and that too is forbidden. Yes it is, look it up on the sign at the entrance. It’s just after all dogs must be on leads and just before the ban on horses or is it skateboards? Anyway it’s there.

Here’s some more: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/thinking-about-the-promenade-at-monte-estoril-and-irish-lack-of-freedom/

Years ago when my friend, Eamon Tuffy, was the Labour Party candidate in Dublin West, something odd occurred at an election committee meeting and quite often it comes back to me. The constituency included Inchicore, the working class area in which I was reared; so my activism was personal as well as political. You see, Eamon has a Masters degree and some at the meeting felt that this should be kept secret, that it should not appear on posters and leaflets for fear it would alienate working class voters. When it sank in that they weren’t joking, I thought briefly that they were out of their minds. It took time to realise that their understanding of “working class” was different to mine. It is that difference that hinders socialist argument today.

Let’s talk briefly about my Dad, indeed about my extended working class family and all the similar families in the area. Those people all left school early and they all knew that to be a deprivation. They were all nevertheless educated, sophisticated, ambitious, thoroughly decent people, who held typical working class values. The idea that the likes of my Dad would be alienated by a candidate’s university education was not just preposterous but a gross, patronising slur on the working class.

Now, during the 70s and 80s it became clear that industry work and jobs had become so complicated that identifying the working class was no longer easy. Marxists could see that they had a problem and they had to address the composition of working class. Technology had dictated a virtual revolution in skills, professions and management. While manual work had decreased spectacularly, trade union membership had reached into areas – the professions, management, the very well paid – not previously regarded as workers. If the working class was to remain the engine of progress, its membership had to be recalculated or they would be too few to have much effect. It became customary to apply a range of material criteria like house ownership or education and recalculate. Depending on the criteria used, the outcome was depressing or encouraging in terms of the numerical strength of the working class.*

More or less contemporaneously the polling industry was growing, becoming more sophisticated and concerned with class. Media, marketeers and psephologists were anxious to know the views and habits of citizens categorised by income, education and employment. Eventually the pollsters labelled their categories uncontentiously as ABC1 etc. but in day to day conversation and in media their categories were discussed as indicative of class.

Class for Marxists and non-Marxists alike was now utterly materialist. If it had political implications, they were “objective” – divorced from messy considerations of values. I’ve written elsewhere on why Marx viewed the working class as progressive ** and I won’t go into it here. I should add too that I’ve not gone somewhere vaguely “spiritual”; values are materially determined. There is therefore no compelling reason to exclude them when identifying class, progressive groupings or progressive politics.

Some socialists today try to identify with, mollify and patronise citizens and groups whose expressed views are clearly right wing and sometimes shameful because they see such people and groups as working class.*** It is a mistake commonly made by socialists who do not originate in the working class. It is, moreover, an easy and attractive mistake. It is the way of popular media. 

The confusion is easy to explain. The greater number of citizens now self-identify as middle class partly out of simple snobbery but also to distinguish themselves not from the poor or from workers but from those they see as crude, abusive and overly aggressive. Unfortunately, in common usage and in conventional media this latter group has come by default to be mislabelled, working class. A badge of honour has been twisted and expropriated. The upper-class socialist finds aggression seductive. It is redolent of revolution with a willingness to take to the streets in opposition to the establishment. The price paid, however, is support for right wing positions that now characterise anti-establishment, alienation of those who hold traditional working class values and the abandonment of plausible socialist argument. 

In itself it is not a great problem for socialism generally that a few small parties – often dismissed as sects – sometimes led by upper class converts, create a bizarre right-wing parody of socialism. It becomes a problem when they are presented as perhaps misguided, foolish and incoherent but nevertheless representative of true socialism or leftism and their leaders as principled. Socialism then is portrayed as a thing of street politics, chanted abuse and implausible argument. It appears both alien and silly to citizens who are most open to coherent political argument – and that includes the sort of thoughtful, sophisticated, decent people who reared and made me: the working class.

 

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* The old maximizing approach of counting all who are paid a wage remains popular today: “In these days of identity politics and what you might call ‘the selfie-fication’ of political thought, Marxism remains refreshingly bracing in its view of the world. Distilled to its essence, whatever you think you are, if you aren’t an owner of the means of production or part of the mercantile bourgeoisie, you’re probably a proletarian. Wayne Rooney is a wage slave – albeit a very nicely off one – whereas George Osborne isn’t. Wayne can grow as rich as Croesus but he will never step across the threshold of the boardroom or the Bullingdon Club. Granted, this level of analysis won’t get you a first in PPE but it still strikes me as pretty sound.” – Stuart Maconie, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/07/i-m-marxist-we-are-misunderstood-both-left-and-right

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

*** It is what has become of the once progressive term, anti-establishment, which now refers to a liberal, right wing, individualism, implacably opposed to state controls, taxation, trade unions, the educated, politics etc.

It is generally commendable that people who take part in public discussion be open about where they are coming from. This is so that citizens can evaluate whether or not they have a particular interest in the outcome. The general requirement is that they be upfront and explicit about possible determinants of their views. We consider it normal, for example, to ask a member of a TV studio audience who offers an opinion, if they are a member of a political party. There is however one, glaring, secretive exception.

When pay or pay policy is discussed, most of those talking in the media enjoy salaries that are multiples of the average, never mind the minimum, wage. Unlike party membership, salary is kept secret or not considered a possible determinant of argument, a vested interest.** There has always been an excessively mannered reluctance to divulge or discuss a person’s income. Bluntly, there is a pretentious effort to ensure that personal income be considered strictly private. Now, the history of political communication, democratization and progress itself can be traced through issues being dragged out of the private realm into the light of politics. It is time that public debate took another intrusive step.***

Consider how newspapers frequently place a person’s age in brackets or how TV identifies, describes and classifies a contributor with an informative caption under their picture. Now, consider a debate about pay – say, a proposal to increase the legal minimum wage – in which contributors’ incomes appeared in brackets and in captions. If Josephine Bloggs, Economist with A, Professor of B, Economics Editor at C, Director of D or CEO of E, appeared to argue pay policy with her salary clearly shown, a more open, honest debate could take place.

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* I first made this suggestion in a blog in 2009. That was written at the height of a recession when pay cuts were a matter of constant discussion. I was prompted to modify and republish it by the sight of a well-off spokesperson for an employers’ advocacy group opposing a tiny increase in the legal minimum wage.

** Making interest clear is not normally an obligation placed on media workers.

*** My late friend, Peter Mooney, often said with a nod to Marx,‘The parameters of any debate in society are the parameters of the ruling class’.

Try this: Put some ice into a glass. Now fill the glass to the brim and watch what happens. The ice floats with some of it showing above the water level. As the ice melts, the water will overflow. Right? No, absolutely wrong! Melting ice will not raise the water level because, “Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid.” — Archimedes of Syracuse.*

Yep, Archimedes. It’s as basic as that. Of course anyone who puts ice in their drink knows about this and anyone who has done Junior Cert. Science knows why.

Now, listen to this podcast of Newstalk Radio’s science programme, Futureproof, broadcast on Sat, 15 July 2017: http://www.newstalk.com/podcasts/Futureproof/Futureproof_with_Jonathan_McCrea/199154/Animals_adapt_to_Urban_environments_and_Reverse_Ageing

Not too far from the beginning there’s a discussion of the effects of global warming on the Arctic. Attention moves to an ice shelf the size of a county which has broken free in the Antarctic. Listen as a university scientist says that the melting of this huge iceberg will cause sea levels to rise. Notice that neither her colleague nor the presenter reacts, never mind corrects.**

The problem is not expert knowledge. The problem is a lack of basic knowledge which if widespread, makes citizen participation in debates about climate change impossible.

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* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes%27_principle

** There is debate around the extent to which the more dense seawater will indeed rise when the floating freshwater melts. It will rise by a relatively small amount but even this is complicated by the intrusion of energy and temperature considerations. See here: https://www.skepticalscience.com/Sea-level-rise-due-to-floating-ice.html