Archive for January, 2009

Camels Passing Through Eyes of Needles

I liked this letter:

The Irish Times – Letters

A chara, – The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, does not see any problem with fee-paying Catholic schools (January 27th). How can he justify religious orders with vows of celibacy and poverty devoting their talents to the provision of private education for the wealthy and privileged? They have deliberately chosen the option of the rich. It seems to me to be a form of blasphemy. Their devotion subsidises private education and makes it available at a reduced cost. They enable those who avail of it to cover themselves with a veneer of piety.Jesus would have been excluded: his mother and foster-father could not have afforded the fees. Wily orders like the Jesuits, under pressure from their own well-meaning but misguided left wing, are aiming to have 10 per cent of the students admitted without fees. Belvedere has already achieved this target. The Labour spokesman on education, Ruairí Quinn, thinks that this is a good idea. In fact, it is quite pernicious. The Jesuits salve their collective conscience, while absorbing a carefully selected group of the intelligent, malleable, “deserving” poor into their elitist system (or so they hope!).

The State should stop subsidising these whited sepulchres forthwith. Why should the bountiful mother of the Ross O’Carroll Kellys get €4 million of taxpayers’ money every year? Private schools would flourish without State subsidy or clerical benediction. They would be clearly seen for what they are. Parents who want private education should pay the full market rate for that education. The diner who chooses to have an expensive evening in Patrick Guilbaud’s or in L’Écrivain does not expect that his or her caviar will be paid for by the widow’s mite.

The Archbishop is concerned that Catholic school identity is at risk. If the Catholic Church abandoned its cynical catering to social stratification, and placed all its resources behind an equitable education system for all the people who wish to avail of it, that identity would be secure and lasting.

– Is mise,

PEADAR MAC MAGHNAIS, Bothar Bhinn Eadair, Báile Átha Cliath 5

Up North, meanwhile, Catholic Grammar schools have used Catholic Schools Week to announce that they will be holding new entrance tests in place of the 11-plus.

It will consist of two “standardised reasoning” papers to be taken probably this autumn. Such testing was scrapped in the north about 15 years ago amid criticisms that children spent their time learning exam tricks.

I have been out on the DENI website looking at enrolment data for post-primary schools. Got the Excel spreadsheet and everything. Fun fact: 9% of children at Catholic Grammar schools are entitled to free school meals. In Catholic Non-Grammar schools, it’s 31%. Overall in Northern Ireland, it’s 6% for Grammar schools and 25% for Non-Grammar schools. So the disparity is greater in Catholic schools than in the NI system as a whole.

UPDATE: That said, maybe that isn’t the best indicator. I had a look at the number of children attending Catholic schools on free meals, and the % of these at grammar schools. The figure is 17%. For Non-Catholic Schools, the figure is 11%, which is worse. The overall figure is 15%.

So maybe CCE isn’t as good at social stratification as I thought. However, the fact that 83% of children receiving free school meals in the Catholic sector do not attend grammar schools by comparison with only 53% of those children not on free school meals, should give you some indication of where its priorities lie.

My Love Will Not Let You Download

So, this whole three strikes and you’re out thing agreed between big music companies and Eircom. Let’s say their methods for identifying IP addresses work like a treat, and you’re a hapless illegal downloader with no idea about what sort of software you should install in order to keep the ratbags at bay. Unless you are plunged into some sort of moral crisis at the prospect of being caught, you’ll be developing a strategy for your final bouts of downloading fun. You might take a long term view: develop a wish-list over a period of months, years even, and then download everything in one or two foul swipes. Or you might just download all the stuff you wanted but never got round to. The latter doesn’t seem all that appealing: you probably already have everything you ever really wanted anyway.

I am not entirely convinced by the claims from the record industry that it was costing them some €140 million annually, not least because sound recording sales, at their 2001 peak, were worth €146 million. Last year, sales were €102 million. So for the claim to be correct, sales should really be €242 million, which is just daft. It implies that people these days would be spending nearly twice as much on records than they did eight years ago. 2008 was a good year for music, in my opinion, but it wasn’t that good. The reality is that lots of illegal downloading is performed by people who would never buy the record in a lifetime if it wasn’t available for free download.


Why offer of pay outs is insulting – Lindy McDowell, Columnists –

But no. Even accepting all of this I still think that the Eames/Bradley suggestion to compensate the families of all those killed in our Troubles — including the terrorists — is wrong.

BBC NEWS | UK | Northern Ireland | Authors defend Troubles cash plan

Has your family been affected by the Troubles? What do you think about compensation? You can send us your experiences using the form below:

Gail Walker: Why money isn’t answer for victims – Gail Walker, Columnists –

It’s as if we have all been shareholders in Troubles PLC and what we experienced was some kind of violent Northern Rock collapse, and those who were killed were shareholders who lost more than us and this is as much as the sequestrators can afford to pay out as compensation after the company has been wound up and the creditors paid. We get peace and uncertain government because we’re alive, they get cash because they’re dead.

Parry speaks out over compensation (From Warrington Guardian)

THE father of a schoolboy murdered by the IRA has slammed plans that could see the families of paramilitary killers receive the same compensation as their victims.

Terrorists are not and never will be ‘victims’ – Belfast Today

So there we have it: dead terrorists are to be viewed as equal to the people they killed; the families of the innocent are to be compensated equally with the families of the terrorists

Another lurch into the grotesque, peace-process surrealism we’ve got used to over the years – Kevin Myers –

Since by their logic, with paramilitaries as much victims of the Troubles as the people they’ve killed, is it not only right that paramilitaries who have been imprisoned — and are therefore also victims — are given compensation as well?

These cash payments don’t take account of the pain of the victims – Eric Waugh, Columnists –

I think I heard one sceptic remark that, if one’s house is burgled, one does not compensate the family of the burglar. Well, not yet; though in the present condition of the public mind, anything is possible.

And so on. It would appear that this is about compensation. And yet:

Robin Eames: I share your pain – Local & National, News –

Speaking ahead of the launch of the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, co-chairs of the group, Lord Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, urged everyone to take time to reflect on the findings and recommendations.

On the £12,000 payment controversy, co-chair Denis Bradley said: “Over the past number of days we have heard some victims groups saying we don’t want money, we want justice. Others have said we don’t want money, we want truth. They are right to say that and our report will reflect both points of view.

“Equally they have to respect those who told us that they wanted neither justice nor truth. Others that we met want recognition by our society of their loss and suffering. This is not about compensation nor is it about financial reward. It is a small gesture by our society to acknowledge the grief of the families left devastated by the last forty years.”

The former Church of Ireland Primate Lord Eames added: “I would therefore ask everyone to take time to read our report. We would urge everyone to take the weeks and months ahead to reflect on its recommendations. This is too important an issue for instant responses.”

Good luck with that, then.

Reading all the commentary about this, there is a common thread in nearly all the articles: that to advocate paying money to the nearest relative of each person who died in the conflict is to imply that there is no difference, morally speaking, between an innocent and unsuspecting victim and someone who pulled the trigger or planted the bomb.

Alex Kane says:

To equate dead terrorists with the men and women they killed is to proffer a form of legitimacy for their terrorism. To say that the families of killed terrorists deserve financial parity with the families of those they blew-up, shot or tortured, is a logic-defying insult of monumental proportions. And please, please spare me the crap about the families of terrorists feeling the “same pain and shedding the same tears” as the families of the men, women and children they killed. Terrorists choose murder as a strategic option. They kill ruthlessly and without any consideration for the families of their targets: in many cases they shot them dead in front of their wives and children.

The pain and tears of the families of innocent civilians and the pain and tears of the families of security force members are not the same as the pain and tears of the families of terrorists.

Bearing in mind that the consultative group draws no distinction between those killed by terrorists and the terrorists who were themselves killed….

The Belfast Telegraph also says in its editorial:

Eames, Bradley proposals deserve close scrutiny – Editors Viewpoint, Opinion –

People will just not accept that there is an equality in principle, never mind in monetary terms, between innocent people and terrorists who were also killed. It is a recommendation that should be rejected by the Government when it comes to consider this report

In interpreting Eames here, the focus is shifted away from the nearest relative, who suffered the loss and who is the intended recipient of the payment, to the actions of the relative who died: not a nice move, considering that the point of the recommendation is to address the suffering of people left behind, and not the ones who died.

Even so, if a terrorist exercises a choice, in Kane’s terms, how can you hold the relative in any way accountable for that choice? And, even if one accepts Kane’s definition of ‘terrorist’, can’t a ‘family of terrorists’ also be a family (composed) of innocent civilians?

Then there are the conditions under which these terrorists made their choices. How much are the individuals and their families truly responsible for those conditions? Is the fact that very few young men and women from Bishop’s Stortford and Stroud chose to join paramilitary operations simply down to the upright moral character of the people there?

It seems to me that it’s very easy to be morally upstanding and talk about ‘families of terrorists’ once you can dismiss the possibility prima facie that they are human beings.

None of this is to imply that the gesture of cash payment is a good idea: I don’t know about that.

To date the recommendation has been politicised, as above, in terms of righteous victimhood, which I think is pretty indecent. The fact that you have all these people talking about ‘compensation’, which implies monetizing people’s suffering, then introduces the ugly prospect of weighing up how much each person ought to receive, as though there was some sort of continuum of responsibility against which the bereaved ought to be judged.

And the general response to the group’s declaration that there is ‘no hierarchy of victims’ seems to be that if there is no hierarchy of victims, then all victims must be somehow equal: an illogical, even ridiculous, response, but a widespread one nonetheless.

I do think, however, that if people are after some sort of meaningful settlement with true reconciliation, there has to be some symbolic recognition of the fact that there are groups of people in and around Northern Ireland -whether their children or brothers and sisters were terrorists or not- who have suffered immensely because they happened to live there, and that the responsibility for alleviating their suffering -which need not be confused with responsibility for their suffering in the first place- should be shared by everyone.

However, this simply cannot be accomplished on the state’s terms, since the state is simply incapable of disclosing the necessary facts or admitting any sort of responsibility for what happened. At least not for the next 200 years.

Au Courant

Some News/Current Affairs News: this blog has been nominated for Best News/Current Affairs Blog at the Irish Blog Awards. My thanks to whoever is responsible for the beau geste: I can only admire the breadth of your understanding of the meaning of News/Current Affairs Blog. I would rate my chances of winning at somewhere between zero and zero, but that does not matter. It is nice to be appreciated. Had there been a Best Use of Green Rubber Gloves In A Blog, or Best Reference To Randy Gameshow Host In A Blog Title, I may have picked up a couple of gongs. Perhaps this injustice will be redressed in future years. I may also float the idea of Most Obnoxious Use of Gallicisms In a Blog, and plan for victory accordingly.

Reading through the list of blogs, there is some good stuff there, but there are a couple of conspicuous omissions. Thinking in conventional terms about News/Current Affairs, I am surprised not to see Best of Both Worlds there. And the absence of Michael Taft’s Notes on The Front suggests that political economy is not high on the priorities of readers of Irish blog award nominators. For what it’s worth, I think his Recession Diaries series is easily the best writing in Ireland on the main question de nos jours.

Pour Mieux Sauter

So there was only one problem with the organization of political economy in the period after 1970; it was always, eventually, going to end in disaster. Other than that it was a great idea.

This is from an excellent (and very funny analysis) of where we are now and how we got there, and also how we might get out of it, titled Jump, You Fuckers, by Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason. Every paragraph is a winner in my book, but these three appeal presently:

In Britain [this, applies equally to Ireland- HG] it now seems that the financial sector is going to be taken over by the state. We are now, as citizens, facing incalculable risks. If we come through to a recovery, then we must ensure that we are never again put in such danger by the actions of financiers and their public servants the politicians.

This is not to argue for state socialism, by the way. The choice is not simply between state control and  private capitalism. The structure of companies has an important bearing on the opportunities for financial speculation. Employee ownership reduces them to zero. A system revised at the level of transnational capital flows must also be reformed at the level of the enterprise. State bailouts should be followed by employee buyouts as a matter of course.

As Richard Wolff points out, employee ownership and control, with oversight of management being seen as normal part of working life, will make a reformed global financial system more durable, by giving knowledge and economic power to those with an interest in defending it. Employee ownership ensures a more even distribution of wealth within companies and, by offering workers an alternative, it forces companies that remain privately held to pay their employees better.Trade unions need to be given enhanced powers to ensure that workers are able to secure a greater share of the wealth that they, after all, create.


You Never Know, It Might Catch On

China hands out death sentences over tainted milk – The Irish Times – Thu, Jan 22, 2009

The chairwoman of the dairy at the centre of China’s melamine-tainted milk scandal was sentenced to life in prison today for producing and selling fake or substandard products. Two other defendants in the trial were given death sentences.

That reminds me of a one-way conversation I had with a taxi driver on the way to the airport before Christmas. On arrival at the terminal, he said ‘Drug dealers!’ apropos of nothing, and then, ‘they should do with them what they do to drug dealers in China: shoot them and harvest their organs!’.

I hate it when people I don’t know make outrageous proposals to me. I don’t want to offend them by replying that their proposal is revolting, but at the same time, I don’t like just saying nothing. What happens instead, much to my regret, is a sort of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other pendulum type reflex, where I am tempted to weigh up the pros and cons and then offer some sort of practical suggestion as to why it’s never going to work. That time, I was on the verge of saying, yes, but drug dealer organs are probably in very poor condition due to the amount of drugs they ingest, not to mention their poor diet etc etc. I might even have referred to the story from the Eagle in the 1980s called ‘The Hand’ where a mass murdering criminal’s hand gets grafted onto a decent nice guy, and he ends up killing lots of people. Overcoming this reflex is the bane of my life, to a certain extent.

Work It

Today we have chosen hope over fear – US Elections –

Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over work

Iberian Wolf (Canis lupus signatus)
Image via Wikipedia

The most important thing about work, for me, is that I don’t want to do any. When I say ‘work’, I mean those tasks I am compelled to carry out in order to buy food and keep the wolves away from the door, which is what most people understand by work.

It’s worth pointing out that work, in the sense Obama uses it, is an abstract idea, but he talks about it as though it exists as a concrete reality (the same would apply to leisure). To illustrate, let’s test his statement with a few examples of things reasonably described as work:

It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over carrying out their duties as a concentration camp guard.

It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over having sex with drunken men in exchange for cash.

It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over playing snooker at the Crucible.

It has not been the path for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over shovelling pig slurry.

The process by which an abstraction is treated as though it had concrete form is known as reification. This is not a word you are likely to hear in an inaugural presidential address, for fairly obvious reasons.

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Update: Harry Browne has more on this.

The Day That’s In It

What’s Left After Obama? | Adbusters Culturejammer Headquarters

The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simply exhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to Obama’s speech on the night of his victory: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term’. On this view, the rhetoric of change (‘Together we can change the country and change the world’) was simply what it took to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative government is elected.

This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process. Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.

It’s a couple of months old now, but this piece by Simon Critchley captures the moment well.

Of Theft And Other Legal Pursuits

Mineral water being poured from a bottle into ...
Image via Wikipedia

On election night in the US I sat watching the results come in on TV in the company of a few senior company executives, all of whom were registered Republicans.

A couple of them were lamenting the fact that they would have to pay higher taxes under an Obama administration and how this posed problems for paying for college fees and so on. I suggested to them that giving people on lower incomes more money to spend would mean that even people on high incomes now would stand to benefit in the long run, i.e. they would not be burned out of their homes by rioting mobs. I also suggested that the reason for the current economic crisis was a housing bubble that meant people on lower incomes were induced into taking out mortages many multiples their salary, and that given the fact real wages for the majority of Americans had been pretty stagnant for decades, this was a recipe for disaster. Since, for instance, the marginal propensity to consume was higher among people on lower incomes, it made macroeconomic sense for them to have more money to spend, since if you can’t afford a car and a fridge, you can’t drive to the store to fill up your fridge with food, and so on.

It didn’t wash: their own take on things was that the crisis had been produced due to faulty practices in lending institutions, and that many people had taken out loans they had no real prospect of paying. So there were two sets of people more or less equally responsible in their view: the people who took out the loans, and those who provided the loans.

They didn’t see any systemic flaw in capitalism as such, nor for that matter did they see it as an economic crisis: for them, it was a financial one. It was more a failure of oversight, leadership, and so on. I tried arguing that it was capitalism that had produced the lending institutions, the deregulated manner in which they operated, and the conditions under which people believed their interests were best served by getting into potentially crippling debt. But criticising capitalism to them was like criticising drinking water.

The reason I mention this here is that, a few months on, I have been thinking about the crisis in purely systemic terms, in particular about the character of the institutions capitalism produces, and not in terms of the degree of responsibility to be attributed to people within these institutions. My own inclination is to see things in terms of institutional roles: that you can be a nice and charitable person both in and outside your institutional role, but since your fundamental obligation is the pursuit of profit, this will blind you, or you will blind yourself, to the entirety of what it is you are doing and its moral consequences.

The difficulty with this perspective, I think, is that it tends to absolve people within these institutions of their moral responsibilities. It seems to assume that this is the way people are going to act under this system, so what else do you expect? And I think that at the time of watching the election results coming in I may have given too little credit to what my companions were saying: from their perspective, which is one of far greater institutional power than my own, irresponsibiity was the key to the whole thing.

The reason I mention this today is that the other day I heard a prominent speaker on corporate leadership and effectiveness, who is very much concerned with making capitalism work, and who is paid for by corporate funding. He talked about the systematic behaviour of financial institutions in which there was no pricing of risk in lending activities, and gave a technical explanation of how things had developed. But then -and this was the interesting part from my perspective- he spoke about how forcing loans on the poor, as the lending institutions had done, was theft. Those at the top of the pyramid always knew of some mechanism by which they could be bailed out. The risk of pursuing this policy was always going to be a question, for them, of losing out on bonus payments, of minimum impact, whereas those at the bottom would starve and be forced out of their houses. It was, he said, robbery. (The words in italics are the exact words used.)

It’s important to point out that these criticisms weren’t grounded in
anything ethical: his viewpoint was more that of a person concerned
with how big firms maintain long term profitability. If firms by their
actions end up immiserating people and as a consequence obliterating
future sources of capital, they’re done for, assuming you’re taking a
medium term view of things and not, as was the case among many senior
executives, he said, eyeing up how long it takes for you to get
promoted after generating some fat short term profits by, say, not
bothering to reinvest in your plant.

In terms of how the situation could be retrieved, it was a question for him of reforming leadership practices, acting with corporate social responsibility, creating shareholder value instead of trying to meet short term earnings expectations, and so on. To me that sounded like rearranging the deckchairs, but I’m not so much concerned with his ideas for reform as with the language he used: far stronger than anything you would hear in the mainstream press, let alone the government, who prefer to express ‘disappointment‘.

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In The Name of Arse

The Irish Times – Irish News, Business News, Sports News & Ireland Weather Online

Bono and the Edge of U2 performing at the “We Are One” inaugural celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington yesterday. Addressing Mr Obama, Bono said: “What a thrill for four Irish boys from the northside of Dublin to honour you, sir.”

I have never been into U2, and am not entirely familiar with their biographies, but I understand that at least half of them are from northside ghetto hellhole Malahide, so to see them performing for the President-elect, well, the tears flowed like a toilet with a broken fill valve.

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January 2009