Archive for September, 2009

Of Crack Sceptics And Tyrannical Surplus

My last, scattered thoughts on the Lisbon Treaty before I either go out and vote No again, or I don’t.

First, shame on Joe Higgins for leading the No campaign and putting forward a serious, principled and cogent argument for voting No, based on the particulars of the treaty and how these mean the formal entrenchment of neo-liberal capitalism in Europe. Shame on him also for making workers a central concern of the No campaign. Luckily, his opponents, such as Donal Barrington, Micheal Martin and Generation Yes, put forward a serious, principled and cogent counterargument, based on Higgins’s personal desire for a repeat of the Red Terror and the possibility that he has something to do with whipping naked women in public.

On the Yes side, prominent writers, who have unearthed Ireland’s often miserable past for us to great acclaim, such as Bill Cullen and Seamus Heaney, have spoken out about the world historical nightmare that may unfold should Ireland vote No. The great John Montague (I say this without irony or sarcasm) too, who knows Europe because he goes there a bit, reports that ‘our friends’ are baffled by the ‘current lunacy’. With a flourish, he demands that ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan should not become a wallflower again!, reflecting the current concern among Viennese psychoanalysts with the question of What Cathleen Ní Houlihan Wants.

The Irish Times has learned a lot since the last vote, eschewing this time the possibly counterproductive diagnosis of the country having gone buck mad, choosing instead to focus on hearty exhortation as the best medicine, but not before blaming No campaigners for driving 43% of No voters into the ranks of ‘outright Euroscepticism‘, a viewpoint it applies to those who hold that ‘it would be better not to be part of the European Union’. I am sure I mentioned the use of the term Euroscepticism before, but I think I focused on the Euro- part, rather than the sceptic part. Well, sceptics are people with a tendency to doubt. As the Free! Internet! Dictionary says:

sceptic or US skeptic [skep-tik]
1. a person who habitually doubts generally accepted beliefs
2. a person who doubts the truth of a religion [Greek skeptikos one who reflects upon]

Neither of these definitions of sceptic applies to someone who thinks it would be better not to be part of the European Union. If I think it would be better for me not to smoke crack, you would have to wonder at the objectivity of someone who calls me a ‘crack sceptic’. This is not to say I share the position of the Irish Times’s ‘Eurosceptics’ (I don’t), but the IT’s use of the word is revealing. Because if scepticism as it relates to the European Union is held to mean complete opposition, is any other form of scepticism acceptable? And if so, what would you call it?

Similarly, talk of ‘democratic deficit’ is -how shall I put this- a big pile of arse. It’s supposed to work like this: there is a set of institutions known as the European Union, and it is not subject to sufficient democratic control, therefore it needs more democracy, therefore there is a democratic deficit.

This is an application of the quantity theory of democracy, which is a theory I just made up. To have a ‘democratic deficit’ in a given situation necessarily implies the possibility of a ‘democratic surplus’: there can be too much democracy, or, perhaps more accurately, lots of democracy we can do away with.

If, on the other hand, you have a situation in which can never have too much democracy, you can never have a democratic deficit, since a situation in which there is always room for more democracy means that you can only ever have a democratic deficit, which is a nonsense.

If there is a deficit in democracy, there is a surfeit of the absence of democracy. Can the absence of democracy be defined in positive terms? How about ‘oligarchy’ or ‘tyranny’? Talk of a democratic deficit in the European Union could therefore imply an oligarchic or tyrannical surplus. I am not dealing here with the matter of whether there really is an oligarchic or tyrannical surplus: I am just saying that this is what you could have if you have a democratic deficit.

Talk of a ‘democratic deficit’ in relation to the European Union is constructive criticism. Its use implies an a priori legitimacy of the European Union institutions, but emphasises a need for reform in terms of rendering its institutions more democratic. Not all deficits, of course, are bad. In international economics, a current account deficit in one country may be useful for the purposes of the economic growth of that country and of others, or it may not. So a democratic deficit could under certain conditions be regarded as useful for the purposes of having desirable institutions. I emphasise ‘could’; I don’t know if it ‘is’. However, it is worth noting that not asking European citizens direct questions about what the European Union should be is still quite popular. I think that if you asked all European citizens direct about the Lisbon Treaty, it would probably not pass. If you’re convinced, contre moi, that it would pass, well, there’d be no harm in asking, would there? It doesn’t have to be on Lisbon as such. Jürgen Habermas, for instance, talks about ‘daring to use democracy‘ through a Europe-wide referendum. Or would that be too much democracy for the governments of the member states? Maybe this can be the next grand projet for The Age Of Consent, sorry, Generation Yes, and the rest of those who want to be at the ‘heart of Europe’.


To this:

As I said, Tiernan’s gravest sin was not in the sour taste his comments left in the mouth but the fact that they weren’t funny — something many Jewish friends of mine have been quick to point out — and while we can dance around the houses all night about whether he was genuinely satirising anti-Semitism or merely pandering to it, some of the responses to the now infamous tirade show a worryingly censorious streak.

The Sunday Tribune, which broke the story, also carried an editorial suggesting he could be prosecuted for Incitement To Racial Hatred, a sentiment every bit as appalling as his comments.

Yeshua. OK I agree with the censorious bit. And this is not the only piece denouncing Tiernan primarily because he is not funny. But here he appears to be saying that it’s better to be anti-Semitic than to be unfunny. Or maybe if you’re going to be anti-Semitic, you better make sure it’s funny. Perhaps any serious conversation, in the absence of potential for mirth-making, should be leavened with a bit of anti-Semitism to keep things on an even keel.

Blogger Defends Attack On Jews

A bad week for Tommy Tiernan, then. First, the Sunday Tribune published articles recounting his ‘startling attack on Jews‘ which took the form of a ‘shocking anti-Semitic tirade’, an ‘expletive-filled outburst against members of the Jewish community’ that the Tribune suggested was ‘hateful, revolting and insupportable on any level‘, and ‘also probably illegal’. Tiernan had made the remarks two weeks previous to the Tribune story, on September 5th. One is inclined to wonder if the audience in attendance were too reeling with shock to do anything about it. Then, the Archbishop of Dublin came out and condemned the remarks. Public intellectuals Ian O’Doherty and David Adams also weighed in.

You can listen to the interview here. It’s worth listening to in full because he says some interesting things.

Somewhat irrelevant to the anti-Semitism charge, but worth remarking on, was him saying in the interview that he was more worried about Brian Cowen’s remarks at the Ard Fheis that Ireland was a ‘brand’ than the blasphemy law. Olaf Tyaransen, his interviewer, said he had been at the Ard Fheis and that in fact, Cowen did not say that Ireland was a brand, but a land. This contradicts the account of Cowen’s speech on the RTE website in which Cowen says Ireland is a brand. But it was interesting to see Tiernan cede to Tyaransen’s assured declaration. It was as though the tone of Tyaransen’s voice were sufficient to convince him he was wrong.

A man with an African accent starts asking a question, and Tiernan starts imitating him. Tiernan tells the audience that if the man were from Cork, the audience wouldn’t have a problem with him doing the accent. It’s as though in Tiernan’s vision of the world, everyone’s from some county or other. But though he might think anyone’s accent is fair game for imitating, he seems oblivious to, or perhaps thinks he can override, any broader historical considerations; what he does here is clearly not the same thing as impersonating a man from Cork: the inter-county badinage is a long tradition; deciding for someone else that they are going to be part of it isn’t.

Digressing for a moment, it’s also worth remarking here about the way accents work in these islands. Some accents are held to carry a weight of authority about them, and many people who don’t speak with such an accent can feel their own accent places them in an inferior position, as though there were a link between accent and knowledge. Relative to a notional ‘neutral’ accent, people hear certain accents and infer stupidity, backwardness, dourness, mean-spiritedness, thievery and so on. It’s no small part of the private education industry to produce individuals whose way of speaking, inclusive of accent, confers an air of poise and authority. There are Irish people who went to England in the 1960s and attended classes to remove traces of their Irish accent, which they saw as an impediment to getting ahead. If you think accent is a minor matter, try and imagine a set of RTE TV license advertisements in which the accent is a product of Finglas. Accents still connote the authority that comes with class privilege, even if, especially in Ireland, they can be a misleading indicator of class power. Tiernan seems to believe any accent is fair game for mocking, which is at odds with the view that he later attributes to Frankie Boyle, who seems  more in tune with the power the stand-up comic has with a complicit paying audience:

“There’s still a lot of racism in stand-up,” he says, “but they [the comics] don’t seem to recognise it. They just think they’re doing a ‘funny’ Spanish accent or a ‘funny’ Chinese face. I find it offensive that these people haven’t grown up or educated themselves. I have pointed it out to them at times.”

Toward the end of the Question and Answer session, which entails such matters as silver dildos and the Edge’s hats, Tiernan is asked by a man in a Viva Palestina t-shirt if, on account of his jokes about Nazis and Israel, he has ever been called anti-Semitic. There’s a video of Tiernan on Youtube, partially censored by the person who posted it,  in which he characterises Israelis as saying to the people of Palestine “Ye can’t be living there. Fuck off to some place where you don’t come from. We applied for planning permission in the Old Testament. It’s just come through now, so fuck off.” I wonder if it was this routine that prompted the question.

Tiernan confirms that he has, and recounts the joke that prompted it… “The Jews say they never killed Jesus…well it wasn’t the fuckin’ Mexicans”. He then talks about the fanatical righteousness of the two Jewish people who confronted him for their inability to take a joke.

“Have you ever seen people whose eyes are so aflame with righteousness… The whites of their eyes are so pure and fucking white. They’re just one-stream people, they’re not people that have gaps for more than one train of thought. This one train of thought fucking purifies them. And these people were just that ‘the Israelis are a hounded people’. And God, Olaf might have more to say about that than me, but… You know, whatever, I’m not here to hound anybody, but these people come up to me afterwards…”

The Tribune article classified this as ‘a stinging criticism of Jewish people’. In a way it is, but only, I suggest, in the same way that referring to Cóir as fascists is a stinging criticism of Irish people. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the problem with his complaint about their intolerance is his failure to take account of the fact that the joke is anti-Semitic in content.

If all stand-up comedy boils down to is someone telling jokes to more than one person, then the best case you might make in defence of Tiernan is that his idea of ‘the Jews’ seems to come from a view of the world in which everyone comes from county somewhere. ‘The Jews’, ‘the Mexicans’, ‘the Dubs’ and ‘the Africans’ are basically the same, they all have their own peculiar way of life, and that therefore there’s no reason why they can’t all rub along together, and hence they’re all fair game for comic attention. And sure if they killed Christ sure what odds? The problem with this would be that these names -Jew, Mexican, Dub- don’t fulfil the same function, and the first one has a long history of being mobilised for the purpose of persecuting minorities. There is the Jew of European Christian anti-Semitism, the money-grubbing figure held responsible for the killing of Jesus, and the Jew of Nazi ideology, the necessary other to Hitler’s doctrine of Aryan racial supremacy, which led to the extermination of millions of people on account of the fact that they fulfilled Nazi racial criteria. When you talk about ‘the Jews’ killing Christ, you’re implying a real connection between a specific group of living people and the anti-Semitic figure of ‘the Jew’.

But, if this is all simply an act, and stand up comedy is really a form of performance art, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that delivering an anti-Semitic line constitutes an anti-Semitic act. On stage, Tiernan’s persona fluctuates between refined raconteur and muck savage. These turns and twists are all part of his act. If it’s art, it would be in the context of the overall act that any particular joke acquires its full effect. A barbarous joke is implicitly recognised as the joke of a barbarian. This is fairly obvious in other established forms of art. If you have a novel with a character who makes anti-Semitic jokes, it might be stretching things to classify the novel as anti-Semitic. At the same time, it might also be stretching things to say, of a novel about a heroic figure who overcomes anxiety about only having one testicle to regenerate his country and rid it of the racially impure malign subversives, that the fact it is a novel means it is not anti-Semitic.

Tiernan immediately goes on to object about Frankie Boyle’s view on accents, and he says ‘that comedy about trusting your own soul and allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special, protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously’. Clearly this post is getting a bit long to start talking about what constitutes art. But there are a couple of relevant questions here, since Tiernan’s talk of a ‘special, protected environment’ is very similar to the space normally claimed for art.  Is some sort of consensus needed in order to establish that a particular act is art? Does the ‘artist’ need to declare that it -whatever it is- is a form of art in order for it to be experienced as such? Is calling it ‘art’ enough to protect it from censure? I think the difficulty with stand-up comedy, by contrast with other performances conventionally recognised as art, is that it depends on the consent and complicity of the audience to get going. This means involving real people. No-one is likely to imagine that a character in a novel is insulting them personally. You can’t make the same claim for stand-up.

The meaning of what came next –

But these Jews, these fucking Jew cunts come up to me. Fucking Christ-killing bastards. Fucking six million? I would have got 10 or 12 million out of that. No fucking problem! Fuck them. Two at a time, they would have gone. Hold hands, get in there. Leave us your teeth and your glasses.

was plainly telegraphed in advance by his remarks about a ‘special, protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously’. Listened to in their original context, it is immediately clear that he intends them as an example of how you ought to be able to say anything, no matter how barbarous, in a space preserved for comedy. The subsequent outrage indicates many people, not least the Sunday Tribune, who ‘broke’ the story two weeks after the remarks were made, don’t agree that such a space should exist. Tiernan appears to have fallen victim to the gap between ‘ought’ and ‘is’.

The Tribune story headlined ‘Comedian’s startling attack on Jews’ reports the remarks, in the following terms:

Before making the remarks Tiernan said a comedy stage “is about allowing whatever lunacy is inside you to come out in a special protected environment where people know that nothing they say is being taken seriously”.

However, there is no way of inferring, from the Tribune piece, that Tiernan had any intention other than to produce “a shocking anti-Semitic tirade”.

A Tribune editorial comment offered its own slant on what was permissible in comedy:

There’s nothing wrong with a gag being offensive. And a good comedian has a positive duty to deal with subjects such as race, religion, politics, minorities, sexual relations, sexuality, gender balance and even the great unmentionables such as paedophilia and terminal illness.

But the jokes should also be funny.

In that case the obvious question is: who decides what’s funny? The Sunday Tribune?

Demonstrating a solid commitment to free speech, it continued:

This time, he has crossed a line so far that a transcript of what he said needs to be investigated by the gardaí to see whether it breaches race or incitement to hatred legislation.

Those who offer Tiernan a stage and a fee also need to ask themselves whether this unfunny person is worth a platform.

So whilst a comedian has a duty to deal with ‘the great unmentionables’, comedians should be investigated by the police if they make remarks that the Sunday Tribune does not deem funny, even if these remarks are obviously intended as an illustration of a particular point about how comedy should work, and even though ‘there’s nothing wrong with a gag being offensive’.  Why the Nazi holocaust should be so unmentionable that it is not allowed to figure among the great unmentionables is a matter for another day. Perhaps, like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Tribune believes that it constitutes ‘a sacred memory’. That should make for some interesting cases involving blasphemy legislation.

Whatever the motivation, the Tribune story has the mark of a stitch-up. But at least it was given some degree of thought, which is more than you can say for Ian O’Doherty’s remark on Tuesday:

And, since Ken Sweeney’s story in the Sunday Tribune about Tiernan’s undeniably anti-Semitic diatribe at the Electric Picnic, he has managed to offend an entire race.

It will be interesting to see if the Tribune’s crusade against anti-Semitism picks up on the fact that a national newspaper publishes an article in which the writer, in keeping with Hitlerite racial ideology, contends that Jews are a ‘race’. Something to look out for this weekend. OK, maybe the weekend after.

Big Bad Dongs

The Irish Times – Letters

Madam, – I refer to the article by Patsy McGarry (Front Page, September 19th) concerning the revamping of the Angelus, which, as you know, exhorts us to take a moment to reflect.

The assertion that it is “the most watched religious programme” I think may have something to do with the fact that it is followed immediately by the main evening news. I would like to submit that, as a licence-fee payer, I would welcome the permanent removal of the Angelus from RTÉ radio and television at 6pm every day as it constitutes a waste of our fees. In a multi-religious society, I consider it inappropriate use of programme timing and have no wish for my listening / watching to be interrupted by it any more. – Yours, etc,


La Vista Avenue,

Killester, Dublin 5.

I regret to say I’m undecided on the matter of the Angelus going the way of the sound of the corncrake in the morn. One the one hand, it symbolises the persistent mark of church domination in this country. On the other, it’s a good way of reminding you that you need to get started with the dinner.

The television images show people of all ages engaged in all sorts of productive activity, who pause for a moment to reflect in the alpha and omega. I have never seen any images of people sitting watching television, which is what most gongstruck people are at in that precise moment. Nor have I seen any images of concrete mixer drivers pausing for an encounter with the infinite as they dump a load of their grey gold into the foundations of the new shopping centre. The Angelus is a vestige of a more predictable, regimented society, in which broad swathes of the populace could be expected to be engaged in more or less the same thing, and a moment’s pause would not produce an economic catastrophe. Still, a canny religious advocate for its preservation could make the argument that the Angelus can also function as a health and safety break, and, just as health and safety representatives up and down the land advise workers to take a break from their computer-based labours every half an hour, the Angelus could function as a pivotal moment in raising the productivity of the nation.

More Letters

There is an excellent draft letter for Fianna Fáil TDs here. If your representative falls under that abominable category, I would strongly encourage you to use it.

Letter Rip

You can write to TDs and Senators using the following site:

Here is the letter I wrote to the TDs of North Dublin.

A chara

I write to inform you that I shall not vote, on any occasion in the future,
for any TD who backs the NAMA legislation in the Dáil.

I shall interpret the decision of any TD who backs this bill as complicity in
massive robbery, and just as I would not vote for an individual who ransacks my home, I will not vote for you if you see fit to side with the interests of the powerful and wealthy by forcing a generation of Irish people, my child included, to shoulder risks that wealthy investors have no intention of bearing as they seek to consolidate their grip on this country.

Whereas wealthy investors would simply shoulder the risk of pecuniary
inconvenience, ordinary families in this country will have to shoulder the
risks that come with deprivation, exploitation and decay.

I await the outcome of your vote with interest.

That was me being polite and collegial.

A Thought

Contempt for politicians no reason to repudiate vital national interests | Irish Examiner

Any amount of contempt for our politicians is insufficient reason to repudiate our vital national interests. A treaty rejection must prompt the phrase “Last out, turn out the lights”.

You know, I would definitely vote No to Lisbon if it came with a guarantee that Ivan Yates would just fuck off, as he implies here.

Airwave Mind Control

The desperate and ludicrous Jim Corr gets wheeled out to pour fourth his paranoid trash about the ‘Hegelian dialectic’ in order to keep the people of this country as stupid and ignorant as possible. The point of his increasingly regular outings is to lend his interviewers’ programmes a veneer of rationality and worldliness, and give the audience a feeling of knowing complicity, so that the interviewers can proceed with their usual business of conducting rigorous question and answer sessions in line with the ideas of the ruling class, with the audience feeling sufficiently clued up to buy up all the other strangled pups of the intellect that today’s radio programming has to offer.

Counting Not The Cost Thereof

Lenihan taking a gamble but it’s only a small one – Analysis, Opinion –

The question is, will the loans be worth €54bn in 10 years’ time? If they are, there is no cost to the taxpayer. If they are not, there will be a cost. If they should turn out to be worth more, the taxpayer will gain. It may not, however, be the most important question.

I don’t get into the mechanics of economics on this blog, because I’m very conservative about how much I actually know about them. But if I take the fire extinguisher to the burning wheelie bins of my mind for a moment and attempt to recall one of the first things I learnt in economics class, the matter of opportunity cost looms rather large reading the above sentences.

A good illustration of opportunity cost comes from this example by libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, of the man who spent one year in the business of trading one red paperclip for a house.

Kyle traded his way up through a fish pen, a Coleman stove, a generator, a snowmobile, a van, one year’s free rent in Phoenix, an afternoon with rock star Alice Cooper, and finally to the house, one year later.

That sounds impressive, but was it worth the time and trouble? The answer is yes, but not for the reasons we might think.

Judging from the local real estate market, Kyle’s house is worth about $50,000. Why didn’t Kyle just go out and buy a house? Surely such a smart and able person could have spent the year working at a good job. Even if Kyle would not have earned much his first year, he would, over time, likely attain a much higher wage. A good floor trader on a commodities exchange can become a millionaire. A good salesman can, on commission, earn more than a company president. The cost of Kyle’s trading is not what he could have earned his first year, but rather what he could have earned in that one missing year from the latter part of his career. I’ll hazard a guess that is more than $100,000, or in other words, more than the value of the house.

So, with regard to NAMA, even if the loans are worth more than €54bn in 10 years’ time, following the logic of opportunity cost, that does not mean that there is no cost to the taxpayer, since the cost to the taxpayer really ought to be measured in terms of what could have been done with that €54bn during the ten year period. I will leave the calculations of how that €54bn could otherwise have been used up to you.

But, with regard to NAMA, why focus on the taxpayer? Joan Burton was on the radio yesterday talking about how the Labour party’s interest was in protecting the taxpayer. It was as though the function of government were that of a private investment agency and the taxpayer’s role that of the investor, which I suppose is not so surprising in a place where the notion of the country as an incorporated enterprise -Ireland Inc- is commonplace among politicians and media. There are lots of problems with this paradigm, not least the fact that there are lots of citizens who would not fall under the rubric of ‘taxpayer’, but who will nonetheless be directly affected by the decision to fork out €54bn on property loans. Most of them are under 18, and a substantial number of them aren’t born yet. Perhaps their economics teachers will point to their dilapidated schools as an illustration of the concept of opportunity cost.

Robbery And Other Pursuits

The point of introducing NAMA legislation is this. Investors don’t give a rat’s ass about what it is like to live and work in Ireland: they want relative certainty that they will get a return on their investments. That a generation gets plunged into economic stagnation and debt peonage is neither good nor bad in their eyes: it simply forms a certain basis for making predictions on investment returns. Making the value of built property a central concern of national economic activity may be very bad news for most of the people living there, but that of itself isn’t much of a problem to the calculations of investors, since a heavily indebted workforce is a docile workforce, and the prospect of squeezing labour further never posed much of a problem to robber barons of any nationality. It is tempting to characterise this instance of the party in government’s passionate intensity to built property as Fraggle Rock’s Doozers Do Metaphysics, but that does an injustice to how acutely they grasp the needs of the local members of the class whose interests they serve most faithfully.

I on Twitter

September 2009