Archive for May, 2009

Three Bags Full

I am seriously considering voting Yes at the next Lisbon treaty referendum.

Politics » Lisbon

In my humble opinion, many people who voted No last year will vote YES before a ball is kicked in the campaign.Some of the issues are of substantial importance – military neutrality, sovereignty, and the democratic deficit – but they will be outflanked (and I’m not saying this is right; not at all) by the economic imperative.

People will view a No vote with the same eyes that they now view holiday homes in Bulgaria, expensive spa centres and stretch Hummer limousines – as a luxury we can no longer afford.

The word ‘vote’ comes from the Latin votum, meaning “a vow, wish, promise, dedication”. The best definition I can come up with for its proper meaning in the context of democratic politics is the formal expression of a wish.

‘The economic imperative’ referred to here can be described thus: do whatever it takes in order to save the country, and by extension ourselves, from catastrophe.

Yet although I might feel this imperative as a brute objective fact, I should try and realise how much this imperative is the product of threat and coercion on the part of ruling elites. I could go further and say that there is no general imperative, merely a vast range of particular imperatives: in order to save our asses, I -through my government- must cut the budget of children’s hospitals; I must cut minimum wage and unemployment benefit; I must privatise public services; I must all rally around the flag and have a bit of pride in the shirt. I might, however, discern a common thread in each of these particular imperatives: I must act in strict accordance with neo-liberal best practices, further subordinating labour to capital under the guise of acting in the national interest and maintaining competitiveness.

At a personal level, there are other imperatives: I must do whatever it takes to make myself competitive as an individual, which is to say, I must work longer hours in exchange for less money, and I must strive to be more productive than my nearest available substitute, whether man, woman or machine. I must also pro-actively develop my own substitute as I become less productive. I must become a key stakeholder in my own obsolescence as a factor of production. I must contribute more of my wages to subsidise the speculation activities of individuals whose salary is many multiples my own. And I must supress any deviant urge to raise any form of complaint about any of these things, since to do so would be to give the outward impression of a bad business climate, which would only serve to render all the other imperatives even more urgent.

Most important, I must also accept that if I do all this, things will get better.

Another imperative is that my vote in the upcoming re-run of the Lisbon Treaty must take into account all these imperatives. My vote will therefore not be so much the formal expression of a wish for anything in particular as a matter of saying the right thing so as to inflict as little punishment on myself as possible. There is the same degree of choice here as might arise from an encounter with a thug who asks you if you want a knee to the groin or a dig in the head. Or, to use a slightly more benign example: I can marry the husband chosen for me by my parents in an arranged marriage or become an outcast.

But what to do about it? Should I vote based on the polite fiction that I am presented with a real choice, and vote as though all these considerations were of no import at all and that this is just one more installation in the grand pageant of enlightened liberal democracy? Or should I vote based on the knowledge that this is a forced choice?

I see no point in the first option. To vote on the pretence that this is an instance of democracy is to suck the idea of democracy dry of any useful meaning. At a European level, the Irish episode will be represented as just one more hiccup in the grand project of nice European neo-liberalism, and at a local level, it will be portrayed a vindication of the local neo-liberal managers who, it will follow, were claim to have been right all along.

At this stage, not only will a conventional No campaign, based on the premise that there is some sort of real choice to be made, be defeated, but it will also legitimise the forced choice. The best way of registering the falsity of the choice would be for everyone who previously voted No to now go out and vote Yes, with the target of a 95% Yes vote. The ‘No’ campaign should be conducted along the following lines: we have no choice but to vote Yes, because if we do not, we shall be thrown to the wolves, as our fellow Yes campaigners and their backers have eloquently attested. Some good might come of that, if done right.


Qualia of Quality

Buckfast Tonic Wine – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Brown bottle” Buckfast variant, typically from the Republic of Ireland

This variant is produced by Grant’s distillers in Clonmel, presumably from concentrate. The taste is similar to, but not the same as, “green bottle” tonic wine[citation needed].

All sorts of bores go on about Wikipedia and how unreliable it is, but any tool that demands a citation for the claim that brown bottle Buckfast tastes different from green bottle Buckfast gets the thumbs up from me. For what it’s worth, I happen to believe that the claim is true, and that green bottle Buckfast tastes superior.

Religious Extremism On The Rise

Pricewatch » Shocking holy costs

Over the last four weeks, more than 60,000 children will have made their way up the aisle at a cost which is truly staggering. When the clothes, the cash gifts, the bouncy castles and the food and drink for their nearest and dearest are all totted up the nation, collectively, will have little change out of €80m.

That is mind-blowing.

It is, say people involved in the Communion industry, money well spent. Marion Gale’s Donnybrook boutique has been kitting out many of south Dublin’s little girls for their big day for 20 years, and she says business this year has been “excellent”.

She says that girls’ clothes in particular have proved to be recession-proof, with parents willing to go without to ensure their children get what they want. “People want the best for their children and why should they apologise for that?” she asks.

This is mind-blowinger: the idea that blowing upwards of €200 on a dress for a kid is a matter of giving the child what she wants, or worse -wanting the best for the child. The dress is for adults -a way of conveying a message to other adults, through the child, that they are financially solvent, that they care about their child, and so on. If a child is anxious about looking good in a communion dress, it is down to a desire instilled and nurtured by adults.

I liked the Republic of Ireland a lot more back in the early 1980s when I didn’t live there and on Fridays I’d come home from school, nostrils aflare with the smell of oily fish and copy of Our Boys (the Christian Brothers’ in-house mag) in hand, to watch a dramatised version of The Bible (God usually put in an appearance, in the form of a few rays of sunlight bursting forth from behind a load of clouds). One of the things that attracted me to the Republic was its religiousness. Back then I used to knock about with a fella whose uncle was a priest (and, as it turned out, quite the ladies’ man), and priests for us were like heroes. By which I mean superheroes. We’d act out adventures involving ghosts and priests performing exorcisms. I also recall acting out scenes in which we the priests would crucify the evildoers, even shouting Crucify Him! This was in the weeks leading up to First Communion. Anyway, the fact that they showed the Bible and the solemn dongs of the Angelus on RTE lent the place more than a whiff of incenseful mystery, by comparison with Northern Ireland, which, while not particularly wanting for priests, just seemed to have a lot more stuff that had nothing to do with priests.

One of our primary school teachers, despairing of the Religious Education curriculum for confirmation, would read extracts from the story of Fatima instead. I remember being terrified by one of the children’s visions of hell, which I envisioned as a big durty rhino in flames. Hell seemed a lot closer then, maybe partly because another teacher, a couple of years previous, had asked us to bring in a candle for a special prayer. We 8 year olds all lit the candles, and the teacher told us that before our prayer we were going to learn something really important. We were told to place our fingers in the flame of the candle for just an instant, until we could feel the first tinge of a burning sensation. Everyone did, and as we laughed and sucked our fingers, the teacher, who was probably about 25 at the time, said, ‘Now boys, just imagine. If that’s what only a tenth of a second feels like in one tiny part of your body, imagine what it’ll be like in hell, if your entire body is engulfed in flames hotter than you can possibly imagine for the rest of eternity.’ This was 1985.

At The Window

Sad news in Spain of the death from lung cancer of Antonio Vega, singer, songwriter and former member of Nacha Pop. I was introduced to his songs little more than a year ago, and since then have been continually struck by the tremendous unity of lyrical and musical precision in his songwriting. In his lyrics nothing gets left to chance, but each time you listen it feels as though the images he creates are spontaneously unfolding before you for the first time.

To give an idea of his cultural import, the title of his best-known song, La chica de ayer, was used as the title for the Spanish remake of Life on Mars. Here’s the song, which I posted before:

Here are the lyrics:

Un día cualquiera no sabes qué hora es,
te acuestas a mi lado sin saber por qué.
Las calles mojadas te han visto crecer
y con tu corazón estás llorando otra vez.
Me asomo a la ventana, eres la chica de ayer
jugando con las flores en mi jardín.
Demasiado tarde para comprender,
chica, vete a tu casa, no podemos jugar.

La luz de la mañana entra en la habitación,
tus cabellos dorados parecen el sol.
Luego por la noche al Penta a escuchar
canciones que consiguen que te pueda amar.

Me asomo a la ventana, eres la chica de ayer.
Demasiado tarde para comprender.
Mi cabeza da vueltas persiguiéndote.
Mi cabeza da vueltas…

The song is addressed to a girl. Right from the start, we don’t know when this is happening. ‘Un dia cualquiera’ could mean whatever the day, or no day in particular, or just a day like any other. Anyway, on this day, she doesn’t know what time it is, but she’s lying down beside him, and she doesn’t know why. The wet streets -which could be from the rain, or -if we’re in the Malasaña area of Madrid where the Penta club mentioned in the second verse is located-, from the men out hosing down the streets first thing in the morning- have ‘seen her grow up’, and the image of water reappears in the next line, with her heart she is crying -again.

He goes over to the window, and exclaims ‘you’re the girl from yesterday’ (eres la chica de ayer) -or is she yesterday’s girl? Is he talking to her, letting her know who she is, or is he talking to himself? Then, in the next line, he reveals a further detail: the girl from yesterday, playing with the flowers in his garden. Does he see the girl when he looks out the window? How can she be in his bed and out in the garden at the same time? Are they two different people? Does looking out the window call forth the memory?

Whatever the explanation, he then says it’s ‘demasiado tarde para comprender’ -too late to understand- and says ‘chica, vete a tu casa, no podemos jugar’ – girl, go home, we can’t play. Whom is he sending home: the the girl out the window, or the girl in his room? Why’s it too late to understand, who’s doing the understanding, and what is to be understood? Is it too late for the crying girl in his room to understand what is happening because of something that has happened between them: some matter of lost innocence? Or is he telling himself that it’s simply too late -or too early in the day- and he’s too tired to be able to understand why there’s a girl in his room and a girl out playing in his garden?

In the next verse, the light of the morning (though, given the fact that this concerns a girl from yesterday, you could also understand ‘mañana’ in the sense of tomorrow) comes into the room. He tells her that her ‘golden locks’ – ‘cabellos dorados’ seem to be the sun. ‘Rizos de oro’ is the Spanish name for Goldilocks, the story of the little girl out playing who ends up going into a house where she has no business. Is this a sly reference? (OK, this may be a bit far-fetched. The report on his death in El País quotes him saying that ‘each person makes their own reading of my songs and finds things there that were never my intention’, but if he hadn’t written such rich material in the first place, this sort of thing wouldn’t manifest itself)

Abruptly, the next line transports us from this scene to the night time of the aforementioned Penta, where he (or they) are off to listen to songs that make it possible for him to love her.

Then, just as abruptly, back to the refrain, he’s back at the window, she’s the girl from yesterday, and his head spins as he tries to follow her, or to track her down. Can he really see her out there? Or is he trying desperately to find out who -or what- this girl is? I don’t think it’s too extravagant to propose that the closing image of him at the window pursuing what has gone before recalls the last image of Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, with the knight alone and palely loitering.

Casting The First Stone

So, the pope. Not a big fan, all things considered. Still. I don’t think much of this The Pope Was In The Hitler Youth And Therefore He Bears The Mark of An Unspeakable Nazi business. Particularly since I have a high capacity for moral cowardice, and I imagine that if I, by some quantum leap, were living as a 16 year old in Germany during World War II, I would have joined the Hitler Youth. I’m not proud of that, but I happen to think it’s true, based on what I understand about my character and the traits I have displayed hitherto. The question to my mind is whether I would have been roused to fervent defence of the Fatherland, enthusiastically signing up to defend our people from the threat of international Judeo-Bolshevism, or if I would have been alive to the reality of Nazism, but joined anyway on account of the fact that the costs of not signing up would have been too great.

Nearly everyone thinks they’d be a hero if the call came. This is utter Hollywood hero bullshit. Most people would act to save their own hide, even if they hadn’t been intoxicated by war propaganda and hadn’t fallen prey to the idea that the excitement of war had delivered a higher meaning to their existence. As Chris Hedges points out in War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, even the few who do display extraordinary moral or physical courage end up doubting after the fact that they could do it again.

Here’s Hedges:

One’s Link Just Pops Out

I pruned the blogroll for the first time, like, ever, mainly deleting stuff that’s no longer updated or removed. If you think you are the victim of an egregious slight, then let me know. I’m not fussy about who I link to. So if you want a link because you’re a publicity whore, let me know too, and watch that monthly site traffic skyrocket by the pair.

On Blasphemy: Mill, Ahern and The Consolidation of Class Power

I can’t recall the time I had last re-read a book, excluding the likes of Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? (which I like a lot) and -for shame- a horrible, garish volume on Tractors and Trucks replete with strokable engine grills and caterpillar tracks, the latter an instance of what happens when you allow a 17-month old boy to exercise his own taste in matters of literature.

But I am doing so at the minute with On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, which I first read earlier this week, I am embarrassed to admit. I have read a fair few books over the last 15 years or so, but not so many in which you constantly experience the sensation of your tiny mind expanding with each sentence.

And Mill has lots of compelling and relevant things to say on the contemporary hot potato of blasphemy and the law. I quote him here at length because I see no benefit or justice in paraphrasing.

First, on the matter of freedom of opinion:

In order more fully to illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we, in our own judgment, have condemned them, it will be desirable to fix down the discussion to a concrete case; and I choose, by preference, the cases which are least favourable to me—in which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on the score of truth and on that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief in a God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality. To fight the battle on such ground, gives a great advantage to an unfair antagonist; since he will be sure to say (and many who have no desire to be unfair will say it internally), Are these the doctrines which you do not deem sufficiently certain to be taken under the protection of law? Is the belief in a God one of the opinions, to feel sure of which, you hold to be assuming infallibility? But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive any one’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity but of the pernicious consequences—not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.

Thinking about this with regard to Dermot Ahern’s crime of blasphemy (the one he intends to introduce, not any such crime he may have committed hitherto). Following Mill, it is the implicit assumption of infallibility, in determining that particular expressions of opinion constitute blasphemy, that we should be most worried about. But the crime of blasphemy goes much further: it outsources the assumption of infallibility to the persons who might be inclined to outrage:

Blasphemous matter” is defined as matter “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

There are renowned cases in history of people found guilty of the crime of blasphemy. Mill picks out two: Socrates, and another individual I mentioned in this context last week when I was still ignorant of Mill’s text.

To pass from this to the only other instance of judicial iniquity, the mention of which, after the condemnation of Socrates, would not be an anti-climax: the event which took place on Calvary rather more than eighteen hundred years ago. The man who left on the memory of those who witnessed his life and conversation, such an impression of his moral grandeur, that eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person, was ignominiously put to death, as what? As a blasphemer.

Men did not merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he was, and treated him as that prodigy of impiety, which they themselves are now held to be, for their treatment of him. The feelings with which mankind now regard these lamentable transactions, especially the later of the two, render them extremely unjust in their judgment of the unhappy actors. These were, to all appearance, not bad men—not worse than men most commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and respected. The high-priest who rent his garments when the words were pronounced, which, according to all the ideas of his country, constituted the blackest guilt, was in all probability quite as sincere in his horror and indignation, as the generality of respectable and pious men now are in the religious and moral sentiments they profess; and most of those who now shudder at his conduct, if they had lived in his time, and been born Jews, would have acted precisely as he did. Orthodox Christians who are tempted to think that those who stoned to death the first martyrs must have been worse men than they themselves are, ought to remember that one of those persecutors was Saint Paul.

To reinforce the point I am making. To develop his total opposition to the idea that freedom of opinion should be restricted by law, Mill outlines that, in the particular case of blasphemous crime, those who were outraged at Jesus’s speech were not unhinged savages bereft of any powers of reason, but most likely sane, judicious and cultivated men: people whom, if you were living at the time and were forced to accept that a crime such as blasphemy ought to exist and had to choose someone to make the judgement, you would entrust with the responsibility of weighing matters up. But Dermot Ahern -whom not even his most resolute defender would characterise as an eminent authority on anything- thinks it fitting that the crime of blasphemy should be determined by those groups of people most given to outrage.

Mill also deals forcefully with the argument that, since the penalty for committing the crime of blasphemous libel is relatively minor (A €100K fine beats crucifixion in my book, anyway), there is no need to be concerned by its existence in law.

These [referring to cases including that of ‘an unfortunate man, said to be of unexceptionable conduct in all relations of life, was sentenced to twenty-one months’ imprisonment, for uttering, and writing on a gate, some offensive words concerning Christianity], indeed, are but rags and remnants of persecution, and may be thought to be not so much an indication of the wish to persecute, as an example of that very frequent infirmity of English minds, which makes them take a preposterous pleasure in the assertion of a bad principle, when they are no longer bad enough to desire to carry it really into practice. But unhappily there is no security in the state of the public mind, that the suspension of worse forms of legal persecution, which has lasted for about the space of a generation, will continue.

That is, the fact that we live in a more liberal and less persecutory society now by comparison with fifty years ago is no guarantee whatever that we will continue to live in such a society. And obviously, the proposed introduction of a crime of blasphemous libel is of itself evidence of a less liberal and more persecutory society.

There are other changes afoot in Irish society, as this report indicates:

In search of spiritual comfort, Catholics from the U.S. to Ireland are flocking to Mass now that the global economic situation is in crisis.

Catholic leaders around Ireland, north and south, are reporting increases in mass-goers, and many parishes in Ireland have reported up to 30 percent increases in mass attendance in the past few months.

Parish priests are attributing the surge in attendance to the economic recession.

“People are experiencing deep crisis for the first time in their lives,” Bishop Joseph Duffy of Clogher, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland told the Catholic News Service. “The pace of this economic collapse has been so swift, I think it is causing people to stop and search; this naturally finds a home in coming back to church.”

Mill sketches how the public mind might change:

In this age the quiet surface of routine is as often ruffled by attempts to resuscitate past evils, as to introduce new benefits. What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strong permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution.

I find it extremely difficult to argue against the proposition that we are not witnessing a ‘revival of religion’ at present. To give a couple of apparently inocuous local examples. The Ryan Tubridy morning radio programme on RTE recently featured an interview with three priests, who spoke openly and candidly about their vocation. The presenter continually expressed surprise at the ‘refreshing’ attitude of the priests and their modern outlook, and read out texts from many well-wishers praising the priests for coming on the programme. An excerpt of this interview is now used in regular advertisements for the programme. Yet there was nothing ‘refreshing’ about this: the fascination with the modern, open-minded priest who was just one of the lads has been a feature of Irish broadcasting for at least thirty-five years. A few months back, the Drive Time programme on RTE had an interview with a member of the clergy who was reporting that with the onset of the recession, more people were choosing to get married. The presenter deemed this to be an unqualified instance of good news. More recently, a news item concerning a young man who had been critically injured in Australia but had made a surprising recovery focused on the matter of whether or not his recovery had been a miracle through the intervention of an Australian nun who was a candidate for canonisation, as had been claimed by the young man’s family. No doubt you can add your own examples.

The question to my mind, following Mill, is how many ‘narrow and uncultivated minds’ there are out there to produce a ‘revival of bigotry’, and furthermore, whether the ‘strong permanent leaven of intolerance’ in the minds of the middle class of this country will lead to active persecution.

If the Minister for Justice is to be taken as an example of middle class opinion, the omens are not good. Diarmuid Doyle wrote in the Sunday Tribune:

And it’s not as if he’s hiding his allegiances like some Freemason with a funny handshake. Ahern flouts his intolerance for all to see. As far back as 1993, he listened carefully in the Dáil while Fine Gael’s Brendan McGahon pronounced upon the evils of homosexuality. “I regard homosexuals as being in a sad category,” McGahon said, “but I believe homosexuality to be an abnormality, some type of psycho-sexual problem that has defied explanation over the years … They endure inner torment … Homosexuals are like lefthand drivers driving on the right side of the road.”

Ahern was next to speak and made it clear that he was in full agreement with McGahon. “Will we eventually see the day when … homosexuals will seek the right to adopt children?” he wondered. Ahern is a serial visitor to successive popes and on one occasion at least, has assured the pontiff that Catholic policy on a particular issue would remain the policy of the Irish government. Despite EU support for the funding of human stem cell research, he told Pope Benedict in 2006 no such funding would be allowed in Ireland.

But if we are willing to invest unwisely in the belief that good sense will drive out bad, and that the neanderthal attitudes of  Dermot Ahern and some of his colleagues in government are a quickly disintegrating relic and not a gleaming new chalice for ‘narrow and uncultivated minds’, and that the crime of blasphemous libel itself is a mere formality never to be enforced, Mill has some words:

For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom. For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

So it is not that we should be primarily concerned with the consequences for the individual who performs a Black Mass in drag outside the Cardinal’s residence and is prosecuted, but the fact that the mere existence of the penalty serves to impose boundaries on how people ought to behave in general on account of their opinions. That is, it operates as an instrument of thought control and class domination.

I ought to give a practical example of how this might work in an Ireland in the throes of a ‘religious revival’ in which social welfare is slashed and unemployment spirals upward as its increasingly authoritarian government clings to neo-liberal dogma in its efforts to maintain class power and privilege (witness Brian Cowen’s vision for ‘a society that benefits all of us on this island, irrespective of class, colour or creed‘, i.e. existing class relations must be maintained).

One of the features of the last ten years of relative prosperity in Ireland was the fact that the particulars of religious belief did not matter.  Low unemployment levels meant that people were, more than ever, ‘independent of the good will of other people’ with regard to the ‘means of earning their bread’. But in situation where public expenditures are collapsing as unemployment spirals, all manner of informal alliances proliferate as basic welfare gets positioned as a matter of privilege instead of entitlement, and getting a job becomes more a matter of who you know than what you know.

In a country where the Angelus bells still toll on the national broadcaster, where the constitution acknowledges ‘all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ’, where judges are ‘sustained and directed by God’, where religious orders still exercise huge power in the education system, a person may yet end up attending church once again not to save her soul, but to save her bacon. And prohibitions on blasphemy will make sure she is not inclined to think about raising her voice in protest.

Contrary to what the ‘narrow and uncultivated mind’ at the Department of Justice claims, a referendum on blasphemy would not be ‘a costly and unwarranted diversion’, but a cost-effective means of stopping a headlong dive into poverty, ignorance, and domination by obscurantist authoritarianism.

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