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Tag Archives: public discourse

One way of preventing discussion of the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising and of the actions of the IRA is to spread confusion about the meaning of “terrorist”. The authors of the confusion are mass murderers and their supporters, and they are successful because journalists and media managers facilitate them.

While in popular discussion “terrorist” has been almost drained of meaning, becoming a synonym for “bad”, in academic discussion its meaning has been stabilised and is now largely accepted. This was not always the case.

During the 20th century academics were looking at a distinct phenomenon that they wanted to study and talk about. It was clear that non-state groups were kidnapping, shooting and bombing civilians. These groups were commonly referred to as terrorists. Academics set out to study them but there was a problem which could only be addressed by working on definition.

Definition was necessary because the term was already loaded with negative connotations and study of any action or group attracted, “Who are you calling a terrorist? Why don’t you study atrocities committed by states?” The tactic was to prevent examination of what was clearly a separate and relatively new form of political violence. The choice facing academia was to find a new word for something which ordinary citizens referred to as terrorism or to define the term so that the violent phenomenon could be studied without the constant disruption of the “whatabouters”. A new label would have been daft, so definition it was.

Definition was of course fraught and contentious; university libraries tend to have a groaning shelf or two to attest to that. There was a battle because the last thing that non-state killers wanted was to be isolated from horrors committed by states. They could offer no moral justification for their actions so they relied on pointing to those who had done similar or worse. Some states – particularly the USA – aided them in this by referring to states they didn’t like as “terrorist states”.

Like the academics, citizens seeking clear public discourse have an interest in defining terrorism and insisting that self-serving games not be played with terminology. Let it be clear that terrorism for those neither involved in nor supporting barbarity signifies violence perpetrated by non-state actors on civilians for the purpose of sending a message to a wider audience (rhetorical violence). In other words, state armies are not involved either as perpetrators or victims and the dead or injured are reduced to mere messages, fodder for media.

In Ireland there is a tussle for ownership of the 2016 centenary of the Easter Rising. It is not a matter of whether the state’s founding myth is bloody; that’s a different issue. The tussle is about whether the actions of the Provisional IRA – supported by Sinn Féin – are like the actions of the 1916 insurrectionists. It is vitally important for SF that the actions of the IRA receive the respectability that has been granted to the insurrectionists because in Ireland that would elevate the IRA to heroes.

If a sensible public debate is to take place, it needs to be emphasised that the actions in 1916 fall a long way outside the definition of terrorism, while the actions of the IRA accurately match the terms of the definition. What the 1916 insurrectionists have in common with the IRA is that both are non-state actors. Apart from that they differ. The insurrectionists for the most part attacked armed soldiers. The IRA for the most part attacked civilians. The insurrectionists in a time before electronic mass media did not and could not reduce victims to media messages. The IRA, however, developed this form of conflict and killed for media effect.

Every journalist who is unaware of the struggle over the definition of terrorism and who permits the term to be bandied about as a mere synonym for bad, sides with those who would try to bury public discourse in a swamp of name-calling.

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Dear Brendan,

When it comes to Labour’s approach to the next general election, I disagree profoundly with you. However, let me be clear from the outset that in the next election I will vote Labour and then transfer to Fine Gael. I will do so for the reasons that you outlined in your Irish Times article.* It is very important not to risk what has been achieved. So, how then do I disagree with you? I disagree on a more fundamental level. I disagree with your political outlook – your view of Labour’s purpose in entering coalition. In brief and I don’t mean to offend, I find you unnecessarily liberal and insufficiently socialist.

You see three main reasons for Labour being part of a new government: i) that proportional to its strength in the next Dáil, Labour will push FG in a leftward direction mostly to do with tax relief and improving state services; ii) that Labour has a particular interest in increasing employment; and iii) that Labour will try to have the 8th amendment to the constitution rescinded.

With the possible exception of i) these three are not specifically socialist and could be championed by any half decent liberal party. Indeed if the tax relief is given to middle earners as “middle” is currently understood and if income relativities within state employment remain unchanged, none of the three is specifically socialist.

Before looking at the three in a little detail it would be right to say why liberal as opposed to left ambitions are just not enough. The first reason is that we’re talking about the Labour Party and if it doesn’t have explicitly left ambitions, it has very little purpose. It becomes a caring liberal party among a number of liberal parties all of whom exist to advance liberal ambitions. Secondly, if Labour doesn’t offer left ambitions to the electorate, left voters have no one for whom to vote. No leftist would be attracted to FF or FG and no decent person would vote SF.** There is a group of small left parties but they offer no more than protest. Indeed their function in Ireland is to act as a lightning conductor for unhappiness and dissent.***

Turning now to your reasons for entering government, when Labour talks in clichéd terms about tax relief for low and middle earners, it sounds like every other party in the country. This is because “middle” is not to be taken literally. In Ireland and indeed in Britain “middle income” includes the majority of the rich.**** I can say this because I regard the top 10% of earners as rich and their inclusion within “middle income” as a distortion of public discourse.

When Labour talks about expanding state services without expressing an intention to change pay structures within state employment, the party again sounds like every other party. Worse than that, it expresses an intention to maintain the practice of becoming rich – entering that top decile – through public service. It also shows disdain for those who object to rich public servants along with ludicrous pensions and for those who take seriously the notion that apart from a good standard of living, being a public servant is not primarily about maximising income.

It is hard to be critical of a Labour Party minister being enthusiastic about job creation. Indeed in present circumstances it might be hard to be critical of anyone being enthusiastic about job creation. That’s the point: everyone is in favour of job creation. Liberals are very much in favour of job creation; they call it trickle-down economics. You and every party member know that that creates inequality and that it would be quite simply evasive to say that redistribution and/or labour law must wait until near-enough full employment is reached.

Having opposed Labour’s involvement in liberal objectives, it might seem strange that I would support your ambition to rescind the 8th (“pro-life”) amendment to the constitution. Labour has, however, considerable history on this, being the one party right at the outset to refuse extreme Catholicism its demand to insert a ban on abortion into the constitution. Opposition to this and the sorry, cruel mess it created has been a feature of the Party’s recent history. That campaigning to delete the 8th amendment might attract liberal voters is a bonus but fundamentally it is the moral thing to do.

This amendment then should be the one point of contact between liberal Ireland and the Labour Party, a shared ambition.

What then of your two other ambitions? They are liberal and could be decent. The problem is that in themselves they support, if not promote, economic inequality, specifically inequality of income.

Labour could turn firmly left by stating a modest ambition to reduce inequality of income. This would also drive a left-right wedge into Irish political discourse and at the same time give voters who dislike the existing structure of inequality something for which to vote.

What then of coalition? Few journalists seem to realise that Labour cannot enter coalition without the approval of a full delegate conference. Regardless of what happens by way of voting pacts or suggestions, if the numbers after an election suggest a coalition which includes Labour, there will be negotiations to reach an agreed programme for government. In other words, journalists are failing to emphasise that Labour is precluded by its own rules from doing other than campaigning alone.

However, it is no longer credible to ask for voter support for a whole raft of policies and say that implementation will be proportional to whatever numerical strength the party achieves at election. Voters need to know in advance that if Labour enters coalition something particular will happen no matter how many or few Labour TDs are returned.

We are therefore talking about preconditions. They have to be few and focussed – and this is crucial: they have to be divisive.

The liberal one is already chosen: a government supported referendum to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution. Alone that’s neither sufficient nor leftist. The problem with the other ambitions, remember, was inequality. A second pre-condition should be a programmatic reduction – year on year over the lifetime of a government – of inequality of income.

There’s no reason to be side-tracked in controversy over measurement. Of course there is a number of measurements of inequality from which to choose but let’s not mess about; we all understand the basic objective.

The reduction demanded cannot be big or coalition could be refused by any liberal partner. Each year’s target for reduction will have to be modest. The point is to set Ireland on a radical new path to reduce inequality of income, to make the totality of government policy subject to this modest ambition, to place income inequality at the core of public discourse, to divide Irish society on the question of inequality and to give socialists and mild egalitarians something for which to vote.

Brendan, I’m not dismissive of this government’s achievement in restoring a liberal economy. I’m very aware of the threats to that progress. I’m not opposed to coalition; on the contrary I see it as the only route to leftward reforms. However, it’s time now to set out on that route: nothing revolutionary just a noticeable change in direction.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/brendan-howlin-labour-and-fg-can-provide-state-with-vital-stability-1.2342504?fb_action_ids=10206995868311751&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=.Ve1SQV6jS3M.like

** This might seem merely provocative. That is not the intention and I will argue it at length in a later blog.

*** Lightning conductor is an apt metaphor because these parties function along with media, activists and advocate groups to attract and conduct dissent harmlessly to ground, and maintain the structure of inequality.

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/

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

Yesterday I listened to a media debate on the Sinn Fein TD, Aonghus O’Snodaigh’s use of ink cartridges: €50k’s worth in two years. The media coverage was so limited as to border on completely daft. It was presented entirely as an issue of credibility. One side says basically that no one could possibly print and distribute that many leaflets and the TD must be up to something else. The other side says that the shifting of millions of leaflets is testimony to the service offered by this TD to his constituents.

The worst scenario and the one ignored by commentators is that Aonghus O’Snodaigh is telling the truth! Almost all of the leaflets that I receive are non-political. They market the idea that the candidate/TD is “active on the ground”, “serving the community”, “offering advice and information”. One TD of my acquaintance has never had a political thought in his life and he sees this as a virtue which enables him to support whatever constituents seem to want.

Perhaps we could do away with elections and decide who becomes a TD by weighing the total of non-political leaflets delivered by each candidate. Oh no, that wouldn’t be fair because it wouldn’t take into account other non-political activities “in the community” and “on the ground”!

Now, I’m well aware that if I became a candidate, I’d have to play this game of pretend because it’s become the norm. However, when a case emerges that illustrates quite how bizarre this “non-political” form of campaigning actually is, it might be expected that our media would shape public discourse to talk about a basic problem.

We need to begin to take seriously the pernicious effect of jargon, guff and blather on our lives. It’s certainly not new; Orwell’s “Newspeak” and Marcuse’s observations that “free” had come to mean “market” and that “intellectual” and “bureaucrat” had become terms of abuse spring to mind. Now that I think about it, Alice in Wonderland springs to mind too! There is of course a wickedly funny side to it. The, let’s call them, “goingforwardeers” and “drilldowners” provide hours of amusement. Recently a PR representative for Bus Eireann told a radio interviewer of plans to “roll out” new buses. Interestingly, the interviewer didn’t laugh.

The sheer scale of the balderdash, the confidence of its users, the lack of media criticism and the rise of a highly paid and unproductive elite suggest that perhaps something rather serious has happened.

It is of course a problem for public discourse when participants will not or cannot speak plainly. In most cases nothing very remarkable is being said; the jargon merely masks a vacuous lack of originality. What is remarkable is the lack of a challenging voice and the failure of media to clarify. It is worrying to think that there is a protective consensus around nonsense.

Anyone troubled by this consensus would be wide of the mark to blame capitalists or business. In trying to identify who gains, look not to the super rich but to a new elite who master the language of obscurity. These are the composers of mission statements, the change managers, the authors of impenetrable reports and pointless restructuring. They are many, they are relatively wealthy, they exhibit an extraordinary degree of solidarity and they are not subjected to public scrutiny. They are a nuisance – possibly, a menace – in that they smother innovation, creativity, and argument. A fake progressive and fake business lexicon is used to mask a layer of drones.

By all means let’s have fun with this. Let’s make the utterance of “key performance indicator” a capital offence! Let’s call for the closure of the Podge and Rodge School of Management! But, let us also begin to end this nonsense. Sooner rather than later searing clarity will be needed in government, business and the public sphere.