Archive for October, 2009

Grinding The Lens

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Do you know that TV ad for an insurance company that stitches together a load of resonant images from Ireland’s past, like Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to warn the nation that ‘we’ were living beyond ‘our’ means? The point of the ad seems to be the development of an idea that the company that insures your car is so woven into the fabric of one’s own memories, one’s own sense of the world, that it can be trusted, that it has a real personality, and that it is not in any sense contingent on fluctuations in your own personal fortunes, or that of the country you identify with.

To me, the ad barely resonates at all. So many of the images have no immediate personal relevance for me. I have no recollection of Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to make that address. It might have been broadcast to the North, but I wasn’t watching. Until the end of the 80s, the RTE signal we got in our house was never that reliable, and I only ever looked at it on a Friday afternoon for the children’s TV programmes, and even then it caused a strain on the eyes.

When did news start to make its way into my view of the world? I think it was around the time of the miners’ strike. To me, that event went on for an age. It lasted a year or so, which at the time was about an eighth of my life.

I had a video recording of Superman II, one of my favourite films back then, and the recording also took in the news report either immediately after or immediately before the film. It’s way over 20 years since I last looked at it, yet one of the images that lingers is that of the juxtaposed photos of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, each occupying half the entire screen. I don’t remember what the Scargill photo looked like, but the Thatcher photo was the one they always used when they broadcast the audio from the House of Commons: her looking up, tidy, firm, resolute.

What does an eight year old learn from this image? A sense, I think, of a conflict between two individuals of equal power and stature. It is a long time ago, but I can also recall some of the analysis, if you can call it that, that got floated about in the media. That each was as stubborn and intransigent as the other, that neither was for backing down, and so on. So the sense that comes across is one of a conflict of personality.

Now, I can see that the focus on the respective personality traits of Thatcher or Scargill were merely a way of reducing the underlying conflict -between the mobilised working class and the capitalist state- to a mere question of personal disagreement, to be resolved through a degree of compromise. Yet in historical terms, there could be no question of any such compromise: what appears or gets represented as compromise in the confrontation between labour and capital can only ever be a deferral, a sublimation.

Or a defeat. But that depends whose terms you are applying. In an interview with Vincent Browne, Scargill dismisses the idea that the miners were defeated, since the epic nature of the miners’ struggle will always serve as an example to workers struggling under capitalism, no matter where or when. He cites the case of Jesus: no-one would say Jesus was defeated, even though he was crucified. This is true, but there is a problem. For every Jesus there are millions of people who struggled against oppression and were crushed for their resistance, but we know nothing about them because generations of historians writing from the perspective of the ruling class did not see fit to record what happened to them, even if they happened to know about it. We don’t know very much about the people who lived in villages laid to waste by the armies of the Roman Empire. There’s no guarantee that the reality of struggle will get recorded let alone remembered, and there is no guarantee that the miners’ strike will be remembered as Scargill is entitled to hope.

Certainly, as long as the miners’ strike is represented primarily in terms of a showdown between two individuals, the nature of what was really at stake is at risk of being buried and forgotten. An RTE radio news report (audio here) on Scargill’s visit, for instance, was introduced by Edith Piaf singing ‘Je ne regrette rien’. The connotations were fairly clear: the strike was some sort of drama long ended, and Scargill occupied the role of prima donna, and if he did not regret doing what he did, it is certainly something that he would do well to consider. It is hard to imagine a similar introduction being produced for anyone who actively participated in crushing the miners. An Independent columnist had a characteristically bone-headed response to the Scargill visit, claiming that it was down to Scargill’s leadership that miners ‘were starved back to work after a year of suffering. The mining industry subsequently collapsed’, the implication being that if the miners had quietly accepted their fate, they would have saved their jobs, as though it had not really been the intention of the capitalist state led by Thatcher to crush organised labour, and that Scargill had really put them up to it through his intransigence. But this is what you get when history is viewed through a lens that picks out isolated individuals and personal choices but sees neither labour nor capital; this is a lens that grew in power and scope once the miners were crushed.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Internet Pygmy Launches Assault On Cultural Colossus

I really shouldn’t.

Commentator on The Culture John Waters has rolled out his Serious Artillery today, taking aim at The Internet.

Only Blair has the right stuff for top EU position – The Irish Times – Fri, Oct 30, 2009

At the core of this culture is the idea that peace is natural and conflict always a self-serving choice made for base reasons by bad people. This outlook has gained increased traction of late as a result of the internet, which allows an active minority, overburdened with free time and entirely unburdened with responsibility or accountability, to increasingly dictate the drift of thought in our democracies.

So if only there were greater restrictions on free independent thought, people might get Serious. Only then could they attain the level of Seriousness needed to see Big Things like ‘the drift of thought’.

Serious people, in contrast to Those On The Internet, can see that Tony Blair is the man for President of the European Council, and it has nothing to do with the fact that Tony Blair is a Roman Catholic who does God, even though such people are eo ipso Serious. Nor has it anything to do with the fact that he speaks at Catholic Faith meetings attended by Serious people who even write about it in Italiano (see linked article by Giovanni Dell’Acqua, writing under a cryptic English-language pseudomym. ‘Ciò che abbiamo visto ieri a Rimini era un uomo continuamente proteso a imparare cose nuove, ad osservare la realtà nella sua incarnazione più profonda, e a portare la propria fede a misurarsi con ogni cosa’. I’m no Italian expert, but the grandiose generalities sound vaguely familiar)

….only Blair has the stature to transcend this narrow ambition, to redefine not just the council presidency but perhaps the entire EU project, as seen from both inside and outside the tent. If the EU is to shake off the sense of disconnection that has rendered it culturally moribund, what is required in the new job is a leader who can define the presidency outside the bureaucratic framework already established by EU institutions, signalling to the citizens of Europe and the wider world the EU is at last becoming a community of peoples.

There is something in this. Blair is despised across Europe because of his role in the invasion of Iraq. If he were to become president, he would serve to unite millions of people across EU countries who otherwise might find it difficult to articulate a common purpose. His appointment would be a signal, for instance, to the people of the Middle East, that the EU thinks it is a fairly good idea to bomb Arabs. Blair’s status as a uniter, and his friendship with the likes of George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi and Cliff Richard still has a lot of untapped potential.

Blair has the skills and personality to communicate a renovated message about the nature of the community, to nurture relations between Europe and the rest of the world, and to speak authoritatively about issues such as climate change, immigration and new models of economy.

Not a renewed message: a renovated one. A message with a kitchen extension and an en suite bathroom in the guest room. What Blair might say authoritatively about climate change and immigration I have no idea. On new models of economy, ten years of continuing policies initiated by Margaret Thatcher might suggest to Internet People like me that he does not know much about it, but this is because we are overburdened with free time and entirely unburdened with responsibility or accountability. Luckily We Internet People are also overburdened by power:

The danger is this perhaps final chance for the EU to become a genuine political organism may be scuppered by the underhand diplomacy of bloggers and pygmy politicians.

It is a pity indeed, that when NATO forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade some years back, that they did not also bomb the Blogger Embassy. That would have put manners on their underhand diplomatic corps. I would note in passing that it is not very nice to use pygmy in this context, though his ire is not directed at pygmy politicians qua pygmies, but rather issuing a deft ya-boo-sucks to politicians who do not possess Blair’s world-bestriding stature.

When the bloggers are not spitting at Blair because of his role in the invasion of Iraq, they are dismissing him as the sultan of spin. Although undoubtedly a politician of the media age, Blair also exhibits a deep seriousness that counterpoints his superstar image. You only have to look at his record – not least the legacy of peace on this island – to know that here is a politician who used his charisma to conceal a deeply serious heart, in many ways out of tempo with its time.

Spitting is a filthy habit, and I condemn those bloggers who engage in it, just as surely as I condemn those bloggers who use puns on Dire Straits song titles to make a point. I would, however, make a plaintive appeal to Mr Waters to expose these bloggers by name. Every paragraph is precious, particularly when it is his, but announcing, from his Olympian position, even a handful of names –, keyboardhitlerindrogheda, or whoever- would allow those who have just the right amount of free time, accountability and responsibility, to flush these Unserious goons from the body politic as though they were but a bothersome hardened stool. As for Blair’s ‘deeply serious heart’, only Serious people can grasp the deep seriousness of a man who joined the payroll of JP Morgan for a matter of millions after it was established that wreaking the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis did not pose an issue for the institution’s Corporate Social Responsibility commitments. One notes in passing the felicitous aura an Italian word can bring to a sentence in English, since a heart out of time with its time does precious little sense make.

Serious people take serious things seriously, however, and the writer is serious enough to allow reality to attempt to encroach on his argument.

And while it is true that the situation in Iraq since the 2003 invasion has gone from bad to appalling to better and, right at this moment, back to appalling, none of that should be the measure of the morality of the cause. Whatever about the presentation of the issues to the public, it is clear – for example from the Alastair Campbell diaries – that Tony Blair was motivated well in advance of the invasion by a desire to rid the world of its ugliest dictator. There are few who, when the argument is couched in these terms, can argue convincingly he was wrong.

Serious people can couch an argument in whatever terms they wish. So, if we couch the argument about Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe in terms of the need he saw to acquire food and natural resources for the use of the German people, we can argue convincingly that he was right. And even those who argue that he was wrong, well, they would need to view the fact that he was sincere in his desire as a mitigating circumstance. Couched in the terms proposed by John Waters, the deluded were always right.

But the well of popular opinion has become so contaminated on this issue it is almost impossible to be heard in Blair’s defence. Then again, perhaps it is precisely the intensity of the dislike he generates that speaks of Tony Blair’s strongest qualities: his willingness to adopt clear stances, make unpopular decisions and stand over them.

People are stupid. Only Serious People Not On The Internet can recognise that a person’s qualities are abstract properties, with no relation to what that person actually does. So the fact that Tony Blair’s strongest qualities by Serious people’s lights are qualities that one might also observe in Caligula and Pol Pot should not blind us to precisely how important those qualities are.

Apart from Northern Ireland, his role in bringing a moral gaze to bear on Sierra Leone, East Timor and Kosovo show Blair is a leader who stands head-and-torso above his contemporaries when it comes to courage and moral clarity.

Serious people know what a moral gaze looks like. Look at me. Look. at. me.

Facts are Facts

New Statesman – “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it”

And it is the job of philosophers and intellectuals to engage in that ideological struggle. In other words, theory matters. Žižek tells me a story about a friend of his going to meet Noam Chomsky, the “most influential public intellectual” in America. “My friend told me Chomsky said something very sad. He said that today we don’t need theory. All we need to do is tell people, empirically, what is going on. Here, I violently disagree: facts are facts, and they are precious, but they can work in this way or that. Facts alone are not enough. You have to change the ideological background.
“I’m sorry,” Žižek says, ending the anecdote with a cackle. “I’m an old-fashioned continental European. Theory is sacred and we need it more than ever.”

Žižek comes out with an awful load of claptrap. I should know, I’ve read about 14 of his books. This is not to say that he’s entirely incapable of delivering useful insights, but they are mostly commonsensical, and I have often found myself wondering why, beyond the delight of stumbling across the odd good and often dirty joke, I have patiently traversed so much Hegelian-Lacanian bric-a-brac. I got into reading his books through an interest in Marxism and psychoanalysis, but I am not sure if he has anything really interesting to say about either. To be fair, he really has no truck with facts, and his references to anything that might actually have happened are processed in Hegelese. His latest work, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, proudly boasts a footnote that his account of the “Qarmatian republic” and the Zanj revolt ‘relies heavily upon the relevant Wikipedia entries; see in particular the entries on the “Quarmatians” and the “Zanj Rebellion”‘. Hamid Dabashi described Žižek’s recent intervention on Iran as ‘entirely spontaneous and impressionistic, predicated on as much knowledge about Iran as I have about the mineral composition of the planet Jupiter‘. In a recent interview I heard him say that his book Welcome To The Desert of The Real had managed to raise the ire of both Zionists and Arabs, the Socratic irony of which he seemed to enjoy, but did not seem to have taken into account the possibility that the book was racist toward both Jews and Arabs. Joseph Massad referred to Žižek’s ‘Zionist-inspired propagandistic claims that have no bearing on reality, namely that “Hitler is still considered a hero” in “most” Arab countries, and that The Elders of the Protocols of Zion and other anti-Semitic myths are found in Arab primary school textbooks’ and his ‘own anti-Semitism which manifests in reducing Judaism to the anti-Semitic notion of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition, and which identifies Jews anti-Semitically as “cosmopolitan”, is never clear to Žižek who projects it onto the Palestinians’. Chomsky, for whom Žižek regularly proclaims reserved admiration, does not escape Žižek’s ability to develop characterisations that bear no actual relation to reality, attributing to Chomsky the ‘biting remark that Obama is a white man blackened by a couple of hours of sun-tanning‘. Perhaps there is an elegant theoretical framework that serves to explicate this sort of thing and I am too thick to grasp it, but I have yet to come across it in Žižek’s work.


We studied Animal Farm at school, and part of our GCSE coursework was to write a continuation of it. I recall that lots of the kids in the class wrote accounts of how Snowball came back, pulled together all the other animals, and kicked Napoleon’s ass, and then all the animals lived happily ever after. I, on the other hand -oh jesus this is embarrassing- wrote a tortuous account of how things took a turn for the better when another pig -I can’t remember the name I assigned him- with a distinctive purple blotch on his ear introduced a series of liberalising reforms, including opening up lines of co-operation with other farms, and then all the animals lived happily after. This was around the time Russia was undergoing its neo-liberal shock therapy, seeing massive increases in poverty, organised criminality and capital flight, to which I must have been rather oblivious. I had rejected the embryonic Trotskyism of my classmates for…embryonic Jeffrey Sachsism. None of which is all that important, I fear. But it came to mind when I read this Martina Devlin piece this morning. I know you’re not supposed to take these things seriously, but what can I say, I’m a nidiot.

It made me wonder: how much of a latent inclination is there toward communism in this country? Devlin takes the pigs of AIB to task for operating according to the corrupt Stalinist insertion of ‘…but some are more equal to others’. In order for this criticism to work, the notion that ‘all animals are equal’ has to bear some sort of legitimacy. So if AIB are giving a pay rise of 3pc, then that is contrary to the principle that ‘all animals are equal’ because no animal should be receiving a pay rise. Not, of course, that I think Martina Devlin is a communist: far from it. Indeed, it is entirely in the ruling class interest, albeit in a blatantly stupid manner, to propose that all Irish citizens are equally responsible or equally affected in the jaws of recession-cum-depression. Because by proclaiming that there is equality where there is none, the effect is the consolidation of existing unequal relations. However, it is worth recognising that these demands on the part of ruling class interest for ‘equality’ are on account of the fact that lots of people are concerned with equality. A couple of weekends ago I was at a conference in which various people expressed frustration about the selfish nature of Irish people. But in the depths of this recession we are surrounded by verbiage about sharing the burden equally, acting in the common good, in a public spirited manner, and so on. If people were really only motivated by narrow self-interest, this sloganeering would have no traction. It is precisely because a substantial people are not generally selfish that so many spokespeople for ruling class interest can get away so shamelessly with all these appeals to equality, or the ‘national interest’. There is certainly a huge gap between egalitarian communism and the formal appearance of equality based solely on citizenship, and I do not see the country falling to the communists tomorrow. Nonetheless I think that notions such as ‘equality’ and the ‘national interest’ are being monopolised by ruling class lackeys (if you will pardon my Lenin), and are going uncontested at the minute, and there is an opportunity for fighting back on precisely these grounds.

Waiting In Hope

Yes, taking issue with what is essentially advertising copy for Aer Lingus is the activity of someone beset by reptiles of the mind, but still…

The quiet life in Andalusia – The Irish Times – Sat, Oct 17, 2009

It’s best not to be in a hurry in this part of Andalusia. Linguistically, the Spanish draw no distinction between waiting and hoping; esperando means either. When you know that, you know everything you need to know about the local character.

Is it true that linguistically the Spanish, and the Spanish-speaking population of the rest of the world draw no distinction between waiting and hoping? As they say in Andalusia: no. It is true that the verb ‘esperar’ can translate as either to wait, or to hope, or even to expect, but strangely enough the Spanish have this thing called context which allows them to draw the distinction. Actually, the distinction is only really needed for the purposes of someone who needs to translate the words back into their own language. Therefore it’s more accurate to say that they rarely need to draw a distinction between esperar in the senses of waiting and hoping just as they rarely need to draw a distinction between an elephant and a telephone. So if you are making off down the street with my sofa because I have not been keeping up with my debt repayments and I call out ¡Espere!, I am imploring you to wait, and I do so confident that you will not misinterpret this as an exhortation to hope. Now, when it comes to things like ‘esperando el autobus’, I have done a lot of this in Spain, and elsewhere, and I can attest that there is no greater an element of hope in this activity in Spain than there is anywhere else. Indeed, my experience of buses in Spain is that they tend to be a lot more reliable than those of, say, Bus Eireann. There are other things to be said here, like how the subjunctive mood may be a clue to the non-native speaker as to whether the intended meaning is ‘wait’ or ‘hope’, but I shall not bore you with these.

As well as some famous remarks about history, Marx’s 18th Brumaire makes a rather apposite remark in this regard: ‘the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue’. One of the consequences of translating things back into your mother tongue is that you can end up attaching salient features to particular words which have no salience for the native speaker. I remember sitting in a Spanish class and hearing someone remark about how delightful was the Spanish verb disfrutar -to enjoy- with its connotations of eating fruit. Well, it’s true that the origin of disfrutar has something to do with fruit (though not necessarily with the fruit of a plant), but the association itself does not indicate that when a Peruvian tells you he enjoyed the Randy Newman concert that his experience of the same was more inflected with the prior experience of the enjoyment of fruit than your own experience was. It may very well turn out that his experience was inflected with the prior experience of the enjoyment of fruit, but that would depend mostly on his taste for fruit. If he spent every waking hour devouring bananas and papayas, then it may well turn out that when he said ‘disfruté del concierto de Randy Newman’, the image of fruit loomed large in his mind and he picked this word instead of many others that might convey a sense of enjoyment, but I would surmise that this would be down to a coincidence rather than any general property attached to the meaning of the word disfrutar on the part of the average speaker.

So hopefully you can see how unfortunate it might be for the traveller suitably aroused by the promo article to arrive in Spain with the expectation that they will come across people who do not tell the difference between waiting and hoping. Let us hope they do not wind up in the waiting room of a casualty ward, lest their experience be inflected by a wholly unnecessary despair. My personal experience is that waiting times in casualty in Spain are considerably shorter than those in Ireland. And -shock- you do not have to pay. Which leads me on to the next sentence in the article.

Nonetheless, the bullfight, perhaps alone in Spanish society, always starts on time.

I would have edited this a bit, replacing ‘perhaps’ with ‘certainly not’. Where this idea comes from, I have no clue. It’s true, for example, that the evening meal in Spanish society starts late, but it only by the standards of the likes of people who associate the evening Angelus bells with the onset of dinner time. As to whether the bullfight always starts on time, I have no idea, having never attended one and no intention of doing so at any point in the future. Maybe the idea of the punctuality of the bullfight in opposition to all other things comes from the Lorca poem about the bullfight, La cogida y la muerte, which begins with

A las cinco de la tarde.
Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde

And then repeats a las cinco de la tarde -at five in the afternoon- on each alternate line. I would submit, hopefully uncontroversially, that Lorca’s primary preoccupation here -though he was fond of bullfighting (as a spectacle, I should stress: he was not a bullfighter himself) – was not with the striking punctuality of the bullfight in general, though I suppose that is a potential line of interpretation, if a rather dull one.


Economic recovery – The Irish Times – Mon, Oct 19, 2009

Over recent months some encouraging indicators suggest the worst of the economic downturn might have passed. Tax revenues, having fallen sharply for much of the year, show signs of stabilising. Unemployment, while still rising, is increasing at a much slower rate as more immigrant workers return home

Today’s Irish Times leader thinks it’s a good thing for immigrants to go back to where they came from. The economy will continue to improve with a continued exodus of unemployed immigrant workers. Immigrants, by virtue of the fact that they are immigrants, cannot be at home in Ireland, because Ireland is only the home of Irish people. It is therefore encouraging for the Irish Times that they are going home.

A Few Good Irishmen Jokes

Irish jokes in British prison newspaper prompt complaints – The Irish Times – Fri, Oct 16, 2009

The newspaper, Inside Times , carried two jokes submitted by prisoners in its September issue, and then dismissed complaints from Irish prisoners in its October issue, when it carried a third joke.

One joke reads: “A condemned man sat in the electric chair awaiting his execution, but there was a fault. They called in Paddy the electrician to try and sort out the problems. After two hours, he still hadn’t found it and told the Governor, ‘This thing is a bloody death-trap.’”

A second read: “An Irishman goes for a job on a building site. The boss asks, ‘Can you brew tea?’ Yes, he says. The boss then asks, ‘Can you drive a fork-lift?’ ‘Why, how big is the tea-pot?’” Describing the jokes as “deeply offensive”, an Irish prisoner wrote to the newspaper to complain they implied Irishmen “are basically stupid”, and asked if similar jokes would have been directed at black people or Muslims.

The average Irish Times reader is unlikely to be offended by the jokes involving Irishmen published in a British prison newspaper, since it’s almost a middle class pastime in Ireland to tell imaginary English people how open-minded you are, and how you’re not at all like the quick tempered coat-trailing savages of yesteryear. The sophisticated critique of the jokes from such quarters would be something like this: we all know that Irish people are not like that, because lots of them have university degrees, and we also know that English people are not anti-Irish, because some of them are my best friends, and it’s time to move on from the bad old days. The critique might also point to the universal form of the joke: all cultures have their inferior other, you could hear similar jokes getting told in Russia, or the US, only they wouldn’t have anything to do with Irish people at all. So it would be impossible to take offence at this particular instance of the joke because we all know that Irish people aren’t like that, and furthermore, Irish people are no longer even the inferior other in British culture. OK?


For me there’s no denying the jokes are funny. In a way they are very fine jokes indeed, but what really matters is the particular context in which they are presented, and the function of the jokes within that context. If I share these jokes with another Irish person, their function is not at all the same as if they are shared between two English persons. In the latter situation, if they’re found to be funny, it’s more likely that there’s a shared feeling of superiority in play, founded on national affiliation: ‘we’ -the English non-Irishmen sharing the joke- are normal people, whereas they -the Irishmen- are stupid.

The function of the Irishman here has little to do with what Irish people are really like; rather, it’s more to do with showing how people like ‘us’ -the English non-Irishmen- are reasonable, perceptive and wise. Shared between two Irish people, on the other hand, there still be a shared feeling of superiority, but the joke may carry an ironic inflection, based on a knowledge of the history of Irishman jokes and the assurance that whoever told the joke originally didn’t have us in mind. In Ireland, for the more prosaic ha-ha-they-stupid stuff, you always have the travellers.

‘Irishman’ is a peculiar locution. It has no direct translation into other European languages. English describes the man from Ireland as an Irishman, the man from France as a Frenchman, yet the man from Spain is a Spaniard, the man from Greece is a Greek. Spaniards, Greeks, Iraqis, Indians, Italians are lack this sense of ‘man’-liness. There is no universality in the application of the -man suffix. Other languages, in ascribing nationality, entail no such irregularity. The bearer of the ‘-man’ suffix is a member of an elite English club: ‘-manliness’ is the product of an intimate, particular, historical relation.

Who’s the Irishman of these jokes? In the first joke, he’s an electrician. In the second, he’s a building site labourer. In both cases, he’s an idiot. Let’s take three hypothetical contexts and explore how the joke might work. One, the jokes get shared at the coffee dock in a City law firm. How the joke works may depend on how the lawyers view not only Irishmen, but also the work the Irishman does. So the joke may work not only on account of the Irishman being particularly stupid because he is an Irishman: it may also work because the protagonist is a manual labourer, and he is an Irishman for the purposes of the joke because that is what Irishmen do. Or, the fact that it is an Irishman may be completely besides the point of the joke. Or, the scenario is simply implausible since typically speaking jokes do not get shared in City law firm coffee docks any more than babies get eaten in Texaco filling stations. I surmise, nonetheless, that there are quite a few City lawyers who tell jokes about Irishmen and feel quite pleased with themselves, on grounds of both class condescension and of national affiliation (the two, of course, are often intertwined), for so doing.

Two, the jokes get shared in a supermarket warehouse somewhere in the south of England. Here, the jokes may work differently. The fact that the Irishman is a manual labourer may not matter so much, though the aforementioned norm of superiority is still in play: less, perhaps, on account of overt class condescension, but on account of national affiliation. Still, even though the Irishman is an idiot, he is saying something about power and authority. What that something is, I’m not too sure, but the Irishman-as-idiot seems to throw a spanner into the normal works of things. In the first joke it’s the process of the state killing people. In the second it’s the power enjoyed by the interviewer/boss.

So the jokes are not merely about laughing at Irishmen, even though they depend on the figure of the Irishman as idiot. But what does this mean for my third hypothetical context of publication in a prison newspaper? First, I think we’re still left with the fact that the corollary of the Irishman-as-idiot is the reasonable, perceptive and wise joke teller and audience. Yet if you’re locked up in prison, it’s not because the state considers you reasonable, perceptive and wise (even though you may very well be all these things). So the publication of the jokes for prisoners in British jails may, for the British prisoner, deliver a sense of relatedness to an ordinary existence, of a country in which people go to work, run into difficulty with the boss, in which Irishmen are still Irishmen, and nationality is a common bond, even though the prisoner who reads the jokes is totally denied any such ordinary existence. The Irish prisoner in the British jail, however, runs the risk of being transformed by the joke into an Irishman.

One other thing:

Denying the paper had been racist, Inside Time operations director John Roberts said he had asked Mr McGinn to write to him to explain “so that we can see exactly what the issue is”. “We do not do anything with a view to offending people. Obviously, it isn’t our intention to do so,” said Mr Roberts, who is married to an Irishwoman.

Not that there is anything wrong with being married to an Irishwoman, but I do wonder why this detail has been included. If a spokesman for a paper denies it has been misogynist, would it be sensible to describe the spokesman for the paper as ‘married to a woman’?

Cheer Up It Might Never Happen

Good interview with Barbara Ehrenreich on Democracy Now!

Author Barbara Ehrenreich on “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the research. I think that’s going to surprise people, what you just said. I mean, years ago, you were in biology. You were at Rockefeller University.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Oh, yeah. No, I—and here it finally came in useful. I think there’s a widespread idea—it sounds so familiar that, you know, you would, you know, just let it go right by you—which is that your immune system will be boosted if you are thinking positively. Well, there’s not a whole lot to that. There’s not a whole lot to support that. And furthermore, more to the point here, it’s not clear that the immune system has anything to do with recovery from cancer or with whether you get it in the first place. Now, I had—I guess I had kind of accepted those things, too. But that is the ideology, though, that you find in so many other areas of American life, too, that if you—you can control things with your mind, if you just have the right thoughts and attitudes. There is nothing in the material world that’s causing your problem; it’s all within you.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how did this ideology, this positive thinking movement, become so pervasive in American society? You document its rise in the culture.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah, well, I go back to the nineteenth century, because I’m always interested in history. But it really began to take off in a very big way in about the ’80s and ’90s, because the corporate world got very interested in it, got interested in it during the age of downsizing, because it was a way to say to the person who was losing his or her job, just as you would say to the breast cancer patient, “This is in your mind. You know, you can overcome this. If you—if something bad has happened to you, that must mean you have a bad attitude. And now, if you want everything to be alright, just focus your thoughts in this new positive way, and you’ll be OK.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have read people who have lost their jobs in this recession in the newspaper saying, “But I’m trying so hard to be positive.” Well, maybe there’s no reason to be positive. Maybe you should be angry, you know? I mean, there is a place for that in the world.

From all this negativity I can only conclude she hasn’t been introduced to Tony Quinn yet.

The Long Way Down

Structural problems of capitalism

Can the system be “put right”? What would it take?

Again the Marxist critique is invaluable here – there are attempts to stabilise the system by forcing people to pay a heavy price. We’re going to see this particularly in 2010 with the threatened public sector cuts. This is not “putting it right”. This is a short-term set of policy initiatives, a stopgap if you like, in the face of a long-term structural crisis. Ultimately to be put right it has to be dealt with politically.

People with vested interests are digging in deep to preserve their position. This is illustrated by the way the media have used the rise in the government deficit as an excuse to argue for an attack on public sector workers. We’ve got an enormous deficit, which has clearly been caused by the credit crunch and the collapse of tax revenues, but the conclusion we get from the right wing media is that we’ve got to cut public spending because it’s out of control. There’s no connection between the two, but politically they’re seizing their moment. This is an outrageous position and shows that the left has a lot of work to do.

One of the things I touch on in the book is this issue of wages being cut. We may find that cutting wages will not lead to the economic recovery that people on the right assume it will. Their traditional argument has been that if you cut wages, profits go up, the stock market goes up and the economy recovers. History shows that this only works if central banks are able to keep cutting interest rates. What happens if the central banks have used up all their policy options and you’ve already got zero rates yet wages keep going down?

We haven’t actually been in that situation before, not even in the 1930s. So I think the right are going to be in for a shock at some point. If you keep cutting wages, how can you expect company revenues to go up? Without wages going up, and with consumer credit contracting now at a rapid pace in the US, Britain and much of Europe, there’s going to be no increase in demand. The right’s policies are self-defeating.

He’s not talking specifically about Ireland, but the caubeen certainly fits here too, not least as I bask in the sickly glow of the latest ESRI report calling for further public sector pay cuts (alongside slashing child benefit by 20%) and the latest raft of uncorrugated stupid from yer one for equality on the way down, whatever the hell that means. The book looks interesting. I will get it one day, once I crawl out from under the inglorious pile under which I find myself buried.
A successful campaign to drive wages down in the public sector will also help drive wages down in the private sector and raise productivity. This is said to make the economy more ‘competitive’ because the cost of buying labour power becomes lower relative to other economic entities. However, nothing competes for anything on its own: other economies compete too, and will therefore seek to drive down and depress wages in order to continue competing. Business leaders -known in antiquity as ‘bosses’- will take their cue from the state and justify slashing their own wage bills, regardless of whether their firm is profitable or not, on account of the general dire straits of the economy as outlined by the government.

They will also take their cue from the government with regard to solidarity. Just as the government makes a call to the people in the interests of national solidarity, the business leader -normally male- will echo that call among his ‘people’, i.e. his subordinates, whom, in warm fuzzy moments, he may even address as his ‘family’, as I witnessed recently. But whereas a citizen is unlikely to be punished for seeking to oppose government actions in this regard, at least in this part of the world, there are real risks in the private firm -particularly in the absence of collective bargaining arrangements- usually so real they do no not even need to be considered, for people who would actively oppose pay cuts. Even when no pay cuts are put in place, fear is still an excellent motivator for raising productivity by forcing workers to put in longer hours and, when possible, compete against one another for the prospect of a more secure existence. It’s all good.

The Hidden Persuader

What skullduggery the chaps got up to back in the day. Bracing stuff. With hilarious consequences. OK, not-so-hilarious consequences.

Recruited by MI5: the name’s Mussolini. Benito Mussolini | World news | The Guardian

For the British intelligence agency, it must have seemed like a good investment. Mussolini, then a 34-year-old journalist, was not just willing to ensure Italy continued to fight alongside the allies in the first world war by publishing propaganda in his paper. He was also willing to send in the boys to “persuade” peace protesters to stay at home.

How times change, what? Thank heavens that these days there’s no need to pay journalists extra to publish war propaganda, because that’s usually their job anyway.

I on Twitter

October 2009