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Tag Archives: democracy

RTE reported a warning from the UK’s PM, Theresa May. She put it that every MP raising the issue of another Brexit referendum “needs to consider very carefully the impact that it would have”. She said: “I believe it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy. I believe it would lead many people to question the role of this House and the role of members in this House.”

She’s too late. The damage to the UK constitution has already been done by the first referendum and by its aftermath. Before the Brexit referendum parliament was sovereign. After it, even to say that parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor.

Since then there’s been struggle and the UK parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a referendum) not for advice but for a decision.

Theresa May recognises constitutional change when she sees it and she realises the dangers for a country without a written constitution but she has presided over parliament’s decline. After the referendum parliament should have asserted its authority. Instead noisy, populist street fighters were allowed to assault with impunity the UK’s old constitution.

Paradoxically, the damage having been done, the safest course might be another referendum but it would have to be such that the alternatives are tested and it would have to deliver a decisive result. It’s a risky course but it might steady the boat for long enough to allow parliament to assume its primacy once more.

The UK might also consider a written constitution which would provide for referenda and circumscribe what they might decide. The danger is that if drift continues, constitutional change may be decided in the streets.

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It is interesting and revealing that journalists are complaining about how poor the debate was during the Presidential election campaign. With some exceptions, they speak as if journalism had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The televised debates illustrate the fissure between journalism and those citizens who rely on media to deliver meaningful public debate. The questions put to the candidates on TV were deliberate, the result of thoughtful, editorial selection. If the debate was trivial, failing to deliver for participative citizens, that was determined by the questions. It could have been otherwise but that would have involved different editorial judgement and decisions.

The questions chosen reflected the campaign, referring to the news stories that had dominated. This is in keeping with the most prominent view of what journalism is about. It is a part of being dispassionate, neutral: “We don’t make the news; we simply report it.”

Let’s consider the “question” or the questionable proposition that occupied most time: That the President is variously a millionaire, a money-grabbing man who chooses to stay in fabulous hotels and travel by government jet, that he is a landlord whose property had been upgraded at state expense, that thousands were spent by the state on having his dogs groomed, that he is utterly out of touch with reality and can’t see how his extravagance appears, that he is not to be believed in attempting to address these charges etc. etc.

Clearly this was not worth the time devoted to it. At best it was hyperbolised gossip and at worst a smear, spreading accusations of corruption against a person who in a fifty year career in public service had not heretofore attracted a hint of scandal. More importantly, yes, it was incredible but it was news. It was “true” because someone really had made the allegations. Seeing a very popular President struggle to fend off allegations might make for “good” television and if it damaged his reputation and “opened up the race”, that would be a show-biz bonus. Indeed, someone with a perverse grasp of the concept could see it as a bonus for democracy.

It might be argued from principle that everything including the accusations had to be allowed rather than censored. However, the final RTE TV debate did not operate to that principle; in an effete show of outrage, the presenter/moderator came down heavily on the explicit use of the word “liar”. In effect the situation was that anything goes as long as it’s done politely. As Joan Freeman might have phrased her frequently repeated lie, “With all due respect, a hUachtarán, you – like the three dragons – are a millionaire.” She could do this because like the others she was confident that the presenter would side with news over truth.

The dominance of news is an old problem for mass political communication and this is not the place to explore it. Suffice it to say, that not everyone wants to engage thoughtfully with politics and serving those who do will very likely reduce audience numbers.

However, it would be a waste to let this occasion of unusually widespread dissatisfaction slip by without discussion of what is actually required of political journalism and broadcast politics in particular. At the very least the editors who decided on the questions owe the citizens an explanation as to whom they thought they were serving and what service was being offered.

On June 5th there was a mysterious gun attack on Bray Boxing Club. The journalist covering it for RTE included in his report the views of local TD, John Brady. This inclusion prompts two questions.

Firstly, what is the purpose of broadcasting the views of a member of parliament in news reports of this kind? They seldom add significant information and they never offer a unique perspective. On some occasions similar comments are sought from a local priest. If local comment is a feature of journalism, any number of bystanders or neighbours is available. It would seem that the choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the news report or recognising local interest or effect and a great deal to do with pointing out who is recognised as important – even a leader – in a community.

When a priest is selected, atheists and non-catholics might find it anything from extremely odd, through partisan, and all the way to downright antagonistic. When a TD (MP in other countries) is selected, it might be argued that democracy is advanced, that a person elected by citizens and frequently referred to as a public representative, should be recognised as their spokesperson. It might also be argued that encouraging representation of this kind is intensely anti-democratic, that citizens in a republic do not vote to elect community leaders and certainly not to appoint those who will provide soothing – almost ceremonial – utterances for news reports of murder.

The second question is the selection of the particular politician for inclusion. Perhaps selection is not the best term. Perhaps some public representatives with an eye to publicity and re-election chase around in the knowledge that journalists consider a politician’s comment to be a standard component of their news product. This of course would constitute manipulation of journalism.

Whatever the reason, a Sinn Féin TD appeared in the RTE report of a savage gun crime. Five TDs are elected for Wicklow and eight councillors for the Bray area. Two are members of Sinn Féin. Now, there there may be editorial policy that selecting SF speakers somehow serves the peace process, that having them talk on all manner of occasions stitches them into constitutionalism. That just might be worth addressing but the immediate reaction on this occasion must be: This was a gun attack. There’s a citizen dead and two wounded. Bringing in a SF rep to comment is downright perverse. It mocks the nation.

The notion that media can serve the republic, its constitution and peace by having SF speak on all manner of issues is utterly wrong. It does precisely the opposite. It serves to normalise them and their values. It says that these are ordinary public representatives with views that are within the limits of democracy. That’s not the case. In our republic the normalisation – constitutionalisation, if you like – of ceremonies and celebrations of war crimes (bombing etc. of civilians) and those who hold those odious views has to be resisted.* Journalism generally evades responsibility by talking in terms of mere reportage, coverage, impartiality and news.** Perhaps the only resistance now will come from ordinary citizens – maybe just a handful – who are prepared to say to a member of SF, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”. ***

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* This was manifest when SF’s relatively late opposition to the 8th Amendment (The constitutional ban on legislation to permit abortion) was hidden, while RTE presented their president as a leader of the move to repeal:

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/the-media-preference-for-mary-lou-mcdonald-during-the-referendum-campaign-showed-partiality-in-coverage-of-a-different-and-fraught-public-controversy/ 

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/journalism-and-the-struggle-to-decide-what-is-normal-the-case-of-sfs-desire-to-celebrate-the-prov-ira/

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

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.

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.

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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.

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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

At the heart of all the fretting over populism there is a dispute about the essential meaning of citizenship. Populism is often defended by reference to its root, populus, and presented as ordinary people taking control. The reality is that the last thing on earth that a supporter of populism wants is control over their own or the affairs of the republic; they are passive citizens. When thinking people complain of the lies and simplicities which fuel populist campaigns, they fail to appreciate that this content is not directed at them. They are irrelevant onlookers to a play for the support of fellow citizens who have a fundamentally different outlook. Crucially it is journalists who ensure that content reaches its intended target.

You see, one view of citizenship pays little or no heed to meaningful participation – to deliberation – and cedes thinking to an elite. Because adherents complain about elites (variously labelled the establishment, the government or the political class) a fake anti-authoritarian image can appear; in truth it is more like petulant but dependent children complaining about their parents. It is a view that reduces citizenship to a desire to be well managed or led by a patriarchy which the dependent, passive citizen hopes will be benign.* There is competition then for the support of these citizens.

Competition for the votes of such citizens is characterised by political communication which plays down, ignores or lies about risk. The most recent example is Brexit. Passive citizens were told that they could leave the EU without fear of adverse consequences. They could have been asked to assess the risks and decide on balance what would be best but that would not have served them. It would have made them unhappy and prompted cries for “leadership”.

The first Syriza election win in Greece was another example. Frightened citizens were told that everything would be fine, that they could be delivered unproblematically from austerity. It turns out that a whole swathe of the coalition that was Syriza was fully aware of the risks, were talking among themselves about the Drachma and an isolated fresh start but they stayed quiet rather than perturb the simplicity.

In Ireland we are burdened with the same authoritarian nonsense. When our entirely predictable property crash finally arrived, citizens who would prefer to be untroubled by risk assessment were offered a wide choice of potential parents. All said that there was an easy way out of austerity, that a country in desperate need of loans to pay welfare and state salaries could refuse to accept the conditions imposed by its one remaining lender and that there would be no adverse consequence.

It is difficult to imagine a political controversy which does not involve the consideration of consequences, of advantages for some and disadvantages for others. However, the idea that a controversy over matters as large as the above could be presented by anyone as having small or few consequences is not merely absurd. It is an authoritarian gambit.

The citizen who doesn’t want to be troubled with participation, argument, evaluation, judgement is a willing target for the authoritarian who will reassure, will relieve them of meaningful citizenship by offering leadership. This is the authoritarian who tells them not to worry, that nothing bad will happen, who talks in terms of being in touch with the people, who will likely even try to identify as anti-establishment. Crucially, complex argument and possible consequences will be dismissed as “scaremongering”, while expertise will be spurned as “establishment”.

Familiar? Of course it’s familiar; it’s the parody of political discourse that has become not merely acceptable but normal. If you are not a citizen in need of a leader but one who wants to participate in the affairs of the republic, wants to have all the information and arguments in order to discuss what matters before coming to your decision, you may wonder how the repeated lies and simplicities could gather supporters. You may even have a haughty disdain for your fellow citizens, questioning their intelligence. The reality is that many citizens seek soothing codology because they prefer a quiet life. Moreover, the populist leader knows this and has no intention of wasting time in addressing the republican citizen. Indeed, there is no need to do so because the number of passive citizens is sufficient for success at the polls and may constitute a majority, even a large majority

There’s nothing new about concern over citizen passivity. It has a track record from before J.S. Mill’s fear of the herd, through the Frankfurt Marxists, on even into music with Roger Waters *, inspired by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and on it goes. In short, it’s a staple in theorising about democracy and the nature of citizenship. **

Finally, where do journalists come into this? Well, they have a problem and a decision to make: they cannot at the same time serve the republican citizen while holding the passive citizen’s attention or serve the passive citizen without dismissing the needs of the republican citizen. Generally they stay out of trouble by covering everything in a fair, objective, impartial way and that’s one reason why public discourse and republican participation are threatened.

 

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* A note to leftists who might be tempted to lead populism: The citizen who wants to be patronised is working class only in the way that the term is used by pollsters.

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

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

Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein posted the following on Facebook and in a few hours, i.e. by midday on April 1st 2015, it had been shared over a thousand times.

“There was some mention earlier on that the Taoiseach and the Fine Gael/Labour government want to rewrite the Proclamation as we head towards 2016.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic belongs to the people of Ireland. No government, not least the current government, has any right to alter or rewrite it.” – https://www.facebook.com/MaryLouMcDonaldTD/photos/a.498206116331.275763.58340031331/10152707553836332/?type=1&theater

Clearly it is ridiculous to suggest that a document produced a century ago could be rewritten. Three things, however, need to be said. Firstly, it is important that no document be elevated to the status of sacred text to be placed beyond examination and criticism. In the case of the 1916 proclamation its opening lines for example about Ireland summoning her children to her flag are incompatible with citizenship of a republic. Summoning children is more deeply daft and offensive than the UK monarchic tradition of referring to citizens as subjects.

Secondly, MLMcD is taking the familiar authoritarian line of speaking for the people. To say that the wording of a text belongs to the people of Ireland is meaningless other than in reference to the constitution where that ownership involves not stiffened preservation but vesting the power to change the text in a referendum. While the claim that the 1916 proclamation belongs to the people is meaningless, the devious intention behind the claim is not. This is an incident in a longer power play. It is a device that has been used many times. The trick is to put matters beyond discussion, to create blinding loyalty, respect and willing obedience. A person or group is to be insinuated as the true representative of the people and/or interpreter of special texts in opposition to an elected government, parliament or indeed the entire constitutional state. It is profoundly undemocratic relying on a perverse understanding of “the people”.

Thirdly, if the Taoiseach or anyone else wants to open a discussion on some sort of Proclamation for a New Republic, then let a debate begin. However, it must be emphasised that the discussion is essentially about choosing between contested political values. To be effective it will be a fraught discussion because Ireland is unused to contests over values, setting priorities and limits, and marking behaviour and beliefs as unacceptable – with the intention of change from time to time.

When those men went into a Paris workplace and gunned down the staff, they committed a crime against humanity. Yes, in that they reduced human beings to mere messages, they were terrorists but it was also a crime against humanity – an act so vile that no talk of war, blasphemy, recent or ancient wrongs can be allowed into consideration.

Too much of the subsequent discussion focussed on freedom of expression, its defence and its limits in a democracy. Part of the discussion revealed some sympathy if not for the gunmen themselves, then for their perspective. This part was anxious to talk about the level of abuse a well-off elite might be permitted to direct at a minority or to what extent religion might be permitted to put topics beyond public discourse or ridicule. With all this in full spate there was little explicit mention of the chasm between expression and blood soaked flooring but at an intuitive level that seems to have been grasped and made clear in the willingness of people who would never utter an offensive word, to express themselves, “Je suis Charlie!”

In other words, faced with a crime against humanity, decent people were prepared to side with vulgarity, insult and profanity. It may not be discussed very often but the majority of people know that there are transgressions so heinous as to offend humanity, so heinous as to exclude nationality, race, religion, conflict and even war from consideration.

Robert Fisk wrote that he knew from the outset that Algeria would figure in this atrocity.* However, he called it for what it was, a crime against humanity, a crime beyond justification but linked to the Franco Algerian War of the 50s and 60s and the Algerian civil war of the 80s. While he emphasises the struggle with imperialism, he reminds the reader that those years were marked by crimes against humanity including the French bombardment of villages. Many of the perpetrators and their associates are likely still living and not on anyone’s wanted list.

There’s been a considerable amount of “whataboutery” too from those either supportive of the murderers in France or anxious to characterise media and people in the developed west as selective in their condemnation. While this is a familiar tactic of those anxious to spread the blame, make light of the offence by pointing to something worse or undermine the hunt for perpetrators and their accomplices, it does highlight something that needs to be addressed.

Many crimes against humanity are not covered by world media. That does not mean, however, that humanity has no interest in pursuing the guilty. What it does is point to the need for an international institution to which a citizen of any country can bring for investigation a crime against humanity.

Far too often the victims of crimes against humanity are forced back into festering resentment in local identity or religion. This will be their only course unless humanity can intervene to make it clear that the crime was against every living, breathing person and that the perpetrators, their commanders and supporters will be hunted for the rest of their lives. They may be protected within their country or by a peace agreement but humanity – as represented by the wider world – wants them in the dock and when possible will have them arrested.

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* http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-brothers-campaign-of-terror-can-be-traced-back-to-algeria-in-1954-9969184.html?origin=internalSearch

I couldn’t say that I know Kenneth Egan, the Olympic boxing silver medallist, but I’ve spoken to him a couple of times and I’ve heard him on radio and TV. He’s a decent man who would like to give something back to boxing and to his hometown. When I heard that he intended to be a Fine Gael candidate in the 2014 local government elections, I knew that the smart asses would attempt to flitter him. They did.

He was characterised at worst as a fool and at best as naïve, knowing nothing about politics. Well, he’s certainly not a fool. He readily admits that he knows little about politics and that he’s with Fine Gael because they were first to ask him.

Kenneth Egan was open and honest about his intentions. He wanted to do community work. He reckoned that being on the Council would facilitate this. He was elected.

A cursory reading of the 2014 local election material – leaflets and posters – reveals that he was not at all unusual. Local election material was of two familiar – almost ritualistic – types. Firstly, there were lies that national controversies like property and water taxes could be resolved at local level, and futile Labour/FG efforts to counteract the lies. A variation on the lie was that the County Council was irrelevant and that the election was a method of sending a message to national government. Secondly, there was canvassing to secure employment/recognition as a community worker. Completely absent from the election material was any suggestion that the council would be an assembly which would debate politically, a chamber in which local issues would be addressed from the standpoints of competing ideologies and political values.

A consideration of the role of lies and indirect messaging in election campaigns and how mass media encourage or at least facilitate them will have to wait for another day. Here the intention will be to consider the election of community workers to local government.

At first glance politics and community work are quite distinct and it is tempting to view the routine approach to local elections as a misunderstanding or even as a kind of corrupt populism but it might be better to treat it more seriously. There are two possibilities: 1. that candidates believe local government to be non-political; and 2. that the community-work approach reflects a political perspective to rival, say, both liberalism and socialism. Let’s look at the two possibilities in turn.

1. Belief that local government is non-political has its equivalent on the national scale where clientelism thrives. Here candidates compete to provide some sort of service while trying to avoid anything divisive, like a political argument or an overall political perspective. There is a view that a national interest exists which supersedes all divisions including the entire structure of economic inequality. Many people dispute this view and it is particularly rejected by the left. However, its equivalent in local government goes largely unchallenged. Leftists seem to be as committed to the notion of “the community” or “local people” as anyone else.

After the recent 2014 local elections Labour councillors formed a second coalition with Sinn Fein and others to govern South Dublin County. A party member objected on Facebook to involvement with SF. The last part of a Labour councillor’s reply is revealing, “In local government, the people are the focus. My community is what matters to me.”

It is true that power has been shifted to the county manager. It is also true that it is difficult to identify particular council votes that split along ideological lines. The problem is this: If the council is not a battleground of political values, then it has little function. That is to say, if it manages by reliance on a shared view, then it is no more than a supervisory management board and it could or should be replaced by a smaller board or even by an individual. The small board or individual could be charged with being the community’s representative to counterbalance the career managers. Whether or not election is necessary to choosing the counterbalance will be put to one side for consideration another day but the point is that if the council is not riven by political values, there is no reason to continue with its present quasi-parliamentary form when something a great deal smaller would suffice.

2. There is a danger that commentators and political scientists will fail to take the community-work approach seriously, that they will refuse to consider it as a political perspective – a complex, functional, conservative whole, very suited to maintaining privilege in today’s conditions.

A Fine Gael TD (MP) of my acquaintance – a very decent, hard-working person – argues that ideologies are divisive and unnecessary. He sees his election to the Dáil (parliament) as voter recognition for the years of hard work he put in as a county councillor. In other words, voters promoted him to a higher grade. He takes his role as public representative seriously but it is a role which many would dispute or indeed decry. He attends meetings, holds advice clinics etc. He is, to use the familiar term, “active on the ground”. His activity has a purpose: it is how he establishes what his constituents want. Once he’s established that they want something, his role is to do what he can to help them get it. He will write letters/e-mails, attend and speak at public meetings, lead deputations to government ministers or to senior managers in state services or companies. He uses his status and influence to apply pressure for the delivery of some local demand. He might operate similarly on behalf of a family or an individual provided it did not contradict what the community generally wanted. This is his political perspective; this is politics for him. He is aware of course that many criticise him on the basis that all of his activity is about nothing more than ingratiating himself with voters in order to be re-elected. He agrees that his activity “on the ground” is necessary to re-election but he also enjoys doing it, sees it as his function as an elected representative and supports the whole as a sensible, working political system. He is not in the least odd; he’s mainstream.

This is an old, conservative perspective perhaps best understood as the Fianna Fáil tradition of constituency service. They insinuated themselves into each and every locality and organisation and developed a reputation for “getting things done” or “delivering” and indeed bizarrely for being anti-establishment. Leftists behave no differently but they tend to have a different rationale for precisely the same activity. Leftists tend to be in thrall to “working people”, “ordinary people” or increasingly seldom, “the working class”. Like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, leftists sincerely want to advance popular demands but they also want to lead “working people” who are viewed as essentially progressive.

I know quite a few Labour county councillors. They are thoughtful and acutely aware of inequality and the class-divided nature of Irish society. They live to change that society by way of gradual reform, i.e. the parliamentary route. They realise that there is little or no conflict over political values at council level and that they must do community work. Some have ambitions to be elected to the Dáil and see the county council as a stepping stone. Again like my Fine Gael acquaintance above, they work “on the ground” hoping that voters will promote them. They are aware too that promotion to the Dáil will not mean elevation to a realm of political conflict with a constant clash of political values because re-election will to a great extent depend on that same work “on the ground”. There is no easy escape because not only is that the established way of things but the vast majority of electors shares the political view expressed by my Fine Gael acquaintance. Some voters, candidates and elected representatives may adopt a bogus anti-establishment swagger by talking in terms of the “political class” being pressured by “working people” but it amounts to the same stable conservatism: politics reduced to getting facilities or services for one group of citizens/constituents at the expense of others. Community work – together with protest, agitation and pressure – has become part of the management of dissent, a way of avoiding differences over political values.*

It is very different at party meetings. At times a meeting can inhabit another world, a world in which class, oppression, equality, legitimacy, power and their likes have real currency. Here’s the thing: A prospective council candidate seeking support at a Labour convention or – I presume – any other left party’s convention simply could not say that socialism was irrelevant and that they were putting themselves forward as an excellent community worker. The tradition (It may be a myth at this stage.) has to be maintained that community work, leading protests, etc. are directed towards socialism or at least a more equal society. The thought that they might be directed towards maintaining the system would be unbearable for most socialists.**

There is little point in suggesting or debating reforms at this stage. That is to say, there’s not much point in talking about elected county managers or elected supervisory boards because the overwhelming majority – including most of those who would see themselves as anti-establishment – support the system. There is a more basic argument to be addressed first. The republican approach which would include both liberalism and socialism views democracy as a matter of citizen participation in debates about the direction of the republic. It’s a tiny minority viewpoint. Given the forces opposed, it could be termed deeply unfashionable or even eccentric but it is old, basic, democratic and worthy of support.

Yes, council elections are for the most part about appointing/ recognising community workers. Voting for community workers or local-delivery agitators – even when they belong to ideological parties – is at best mildly democratic but in any republican sense might better be seen as counter-democratic.

It would seem time to recognise that a county or a city council is not a little parliament and making an explicit difference between the two might help to revitalise citizenship and push parliament back towards its neglected deliberative role.

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* This is not the place to consider the possibility of a post-political age.

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/

There’s a lot of talk these days about media diversity. (On Monday last I was at a useful conference on the subject hosted by Nessa Childers, MEP.)  A problem is that “media diversity”, like so many terms, is increasingly becoming drained of meaning. Indeed, on media training courses it can mean as little as knowing the full range of available media.

There are, however, two dominant meanings:  i) Diversity of ownership and ii) diversity of voices.  Their dominance means that a central issue for political communication is generally ignored. You see, there could be – generally there are – masses of material coming from all sorts of different people and they could all be saying the same thing or broadly similar things. Net optimists and activists can get very cross at the mention of a long dead philosopher but we really are back to J.S. Mill and the oppressive danger of the herd and its consensus. Even the apparent dissent is now a matter of consensus!

The problem for the citizen who wishes to take part in public discourse remains unchanged since the 19th century: how to have easy access to the complete debate. There is a democratic gulf between “access” and “easy access”.  To argue that the rich pickings of today’s diverse media offer all that any citizen could possibly need misunderstands both democracy and the real busy lives of engaged citizens. No, hours of on-line searching or trawling obscure channels and journals is not mass participation. Citizens need a thorough agenda and thorough debates brought to their attention, and when they are get a poor service, they need a mechanism to complain and put things right.

The website, Political Reform, has published figures based on the new poll: Fianna Fail 12, Fine Gael 67, Labour 48, Green Party 0, Sinn Fein 24, Independents/Others 15. (It is reckoned that the 15 include 10 who would be “left leaning”.)

 http://politicalreform.ie/2010/12/02/december-3-red-cirish-sun-poll-fianna-fail-facing-annihilation/comment-page-1/#comment-2561

Perhaps I’m the only one concerned that an overweening majority would threaten our democracy. On the basis of these figures, Lab/FG would have 115 seats. That’s not a safe majority. It’s downright dangerous and must not happen. The same could be said of FF/FG/SF having 103 seats.

Two combinations remain:

Lab/SF and 10 independents would have 82 seats.

FF/FG with 5 independents would have 84 seats.

The Left coalition depends on the belief that SF are socialist. However, it is implausible that a party which broke from Official SF partly to avoid contamination by socialist ideas and then supported the IRA murder of more Irish people than any other combatant group in N.I. has “found” socialism. It is true that the “socialist split” happened decades ago in very different circumstances but many of SF’s present leaders were around then or soon after. SF are “positioning” themselves to the left of Labour. It is a measure of desperation that many socialists are falling for it. SF are unchallenged at the ballot box for the “traditional” extreme right, nationalist vote. Their hope is that clientilism in poor areas and populist guff disguised by the terminology of socialism will deliver sizeable numbers of the poor and some naive socialists. A “left” coalition which included SF would destroy the credibility of Irish socialism. It would be crazy for Labour to be a part of that.

That leaves a Right coalition with a small majority, facing an energetic and ambitious Labour opposition, challenged on its left by a handful of “fantasy” socialists, with SF pursuing who knows what?