Archive for January, 2010

The Unmerited Merits Of Merit

Oh God it’s the Red Tories.No equality in opportunity | Phillip Blond and John Milbank | Comment is free | The Guardian

Paradoxically, what we need is a new synthesis of the traditional left’s emphasis on addressing economic inequity and the old right’s concern with justified inequality. In terms of the former, it is impossible to provide equal opportunities for children without improving the existing outcomes of the lives of their parents. We need a new political economy that will distribute resources more evenly and give working people greater assets and confidence, thereby ensuring a better start for their children.

The modern left scarcely addresses this need. Instead, by vaguely implying that all inequality is bad, it remains impotent in the face of a persistent inequality that is both merited and unmerited. But common
sense tells us that inherited inequality is in part the result of economic injustice and in part the result of disparities of intelligence, skill and application. Currently the left tends to admit the latter truth for future practice, but to deny it in their theoretical account of the past.

It can escape this contradiction by embracing the “old Tory” view that privilege is not just reward for success, but also a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.

I haven’t come across such obnoxious neo-feudalist bollox since I read Zizek and Milbank’s The Monstrosity of Christ, which is probably the biggest pile of crap I have ever read in book format, apart from maybe Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. These two seem to be part of some sort of Tory wheeze to present a Conservative government as softer, more compassionate than the likes of Maggie Thatcher. If the Tories get elected, I imagine they will fade into insignificance once again, free to write introductions to GK Chesterton novels or whatever.

I mean ‘inequality that is both merited and unmerited’: what sort of cod-theological quackery is that? Let’s say that I enjoy substantial health and wealth by comparison with a subsistence farmer outside the European Union as a direct result of EU policies, both for me and for him. Is that inequality merited or unmerited?

It seems, according to these two chancers, that it’s both. So you have the inequality imposed by economic injustice. Which is, one imagines, unmerited. But you also have inequality, according to them, on the basis of ‘intelligence, skill, and application’. That is, if some degree of my prosperity is on account of my intelligence (a socially defined property) then to the extent that this has enabled me to earn enough money to buy a bit extra foie gras at the weekends, something my subsistence farmer counterpart, with his lower intelligence, would not be able to buy if he could be somehow transported into my skin and situation, this is merited inequality.

That is, I deserve being able to stuff my face, whereas my subsistence farmer friend would not. But not only that: my subsistence farmer friend also deserves me being able to stuff my face. Inequality is a relation, after all. If it is unmerited, it is an unmerited relation between two parties, not merited by one and unmerited by the other.

This may seem harsh, but I can reassure myself with the knowledge that he will never fully understand why this is justified, on account of his inferior intelligence, but this does not matter, since the inequality of itself is a lesson to him: by seeing me scarf down my deep-fried foie gras, he will learn to aspire to higher things. And if he’s not happy with that, we can get Douglas Hurd or somebody to explain it to him.

Frankly, I prefer Maggie Thatcher. At least she didn’t piss down your back and tell you it was raining.

Cardinal Errors

Cardinal Brady statement: if the dialogue is a trojan horse for removing faith from schools, then we are destined to remain locked in tensions – The Irish Times – Fri, Jan 29, 2010

Critical to this dialogue is the clear recognition that parents have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions. Consequently, the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. It is important to point out that Catholic parents are taxpayers.

What gives parents the right to decide that their children should be educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious convictions? There are a myriad of such convictions, and no doubt some parents hold some very damaging and harmful ones. So where does the right come from?

If I’m convinced that failure to atone for sin will result in eternal torture in the flames of hell at the behest of an omniscient policeman, as one of my teachers taught to a bunch of 8 year olds, do I have the right to expect that my child be educated in this tradition?

This is not to say I think a state, on the other hand, has a right to determine how a child should be educated, or is automatically in a better position to determine that than the child’s parent: on the contrary.

I simply fail to see whence this ‘right’ emanates, if not from mere assertion. And as such, I fail to see how it follows from this that the State has a duty to support this right with public funds. Nor does the fact, cited by the Cardinal, that Catholic parents are taxpayers, have anything to do with it: if a Satanist is a taxpayer, there would be very few takers for the suggestion that the State should provide the child with an a Satanist education. Which leads me to a problem in this formulation:

Those parents who choose and value the Catholic education provided for their children are taxpayers in exactly the same way as parents who send their children to other types of schools. To disadvantage any group of parents because of their faith is completely contrary to the principle of equality and pluralism.

But in Ireland many parents who send their children to other types of schools are not necessarily doing so on account of any particular ethos -to use a popular term among the Catholic hierarchy- imparted by that school, but simply out of the desire to avoid a Catholic education. In this sense, the predominant position of Catholic schools in Irish society is in itself completely contrary to the principle of ‘equality and pluralism’ cited by the Cardinal.

And I have a problem with said principle. How can equality and pluralism be bundled into the same principle? If equality means equal entitlement to educational needs being met, perhaps including religious ones, then there is not much wrong with that. But one can hardly be equally entitled to diverse educational needs being met, as pluralism implies. The insertion of pluralism here lends truth to the charge levelled by Fintan O’Toole that the relativism adopted by the Church hierarchy on this score is merely strategic: would any Catholic bishop really believe that the children of fascist parents should be provided with a fascist education in the interests of pluralism? OK, perhaps that is not the best example, but you get the point.

At the same time, I also have some sympathy with the following:

There is no such thing as a value-free school. If parents want the government of the day to define and manage the ethos of their schools, it is important to ask what philosophy of life, of the human person, of the child would the government of the day promote? What system of values would it seek to promote? That of the particular party in power? Would it change from government to government?

The distrust of government is well-founded, but the problem posed here is based on a false opposition between an ethos imparted by the government and an ethos imparted by a church (leaving aside the problem of what an ‘ethos’ actually is and whether it should be a defining element of what a school does). He’s saying that if you take out the church, then the government will step in and impose its own ethos. So for him it is the question of the substitution of one centralised, top-down power with another. But, if it can be agreed that parents should have a say in how their children should be educated, and that schools are an important element of a local community, shouldn’t the local community simply have a greater say, via an acceptable set of fora, in how the school ought to be run? Assuming there can be some basic guiding principles to such an exercise, like, say, equality, or, if you like, cherishing all the children of the community equally (which is hardly at odds with Catholic teaching) wouldn’t local parents be best placed to agree on what should be studied and what ethos should be imparted? I see no reason why this would exclude religious education for those who hold it to be important, and it would mitigate the risk of indoctrination by Church or State.

Sing When You’re Winning

A book on my to-read list at the minute is a memoir by a Chilean writer about his activities in the Chilean undergound resistance to Pinochet rule. It’s sitting at home at the minute and I can’t remember the title or the name of the author. But it looked good when I took a peek at it over the holidays. Anyway, on Chile, El Público has a story about how the victory of the multimillionaire Sebastián Piñera has provoked excited celebrations among Pinochet nostalgists.

The chanting, outside the Chile Communist Party headquarters goes like this: ‘Comunistas, maricones, les matamos los parientes por huevones’. A rough translation of this is ‘Communist poofters, we killed your asshole relatives’, referring to the 3,000 people who were assassinated or ‘disappeared’ under Pinochet’s rule. Another chant is ‘Con Allende haremos un gran puente por donde pasarán Augusto y sus valientes’, or ‘We’ll make a big bridge out of Allende for Augusto and his brave men to walk over’. Obviously the attraction of the rhyme and rhythm is lost in translation.

Howard Zinn 1922-2010

Saddened to read of the death of Howard Zinn. Daniel Ellsberg has a tribute.

Like many people the first time I came across mention of his name was when I saw Good Will Hunting, in the scene where Matt Damon’s character tells his counsellor played by Robin Williams that he should read Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States. I didn’t get round to reading it until about six years later. It’s a monumental, intensely moving and bracing work of committed political writing, concerned with bringing to light voices and struggles buried by official narratives of US history. If you haven’t read it I recommend you get a copy.

His A People’s History, which sold by the million, wasn’t a work designed for inclusion in an academic canon, but for ordinary people to get a sense of how what is presented as plain historical fact, a reality to be accepted, is but an image crafted and mobilised by ruling class institutions.

In The Politics of History, written some years previous he discusses his approach:

History can have another effect, however. Like memory, it can liberate us when the present seems an irrevocable fact of nature. Memory can remind us of possibilities that we have forgotten, and history can suggest to us alternatives that we would never otherwise consider. It can both warn and inspire. It can warn us that it is possible for a whole nation to be brainwashed, for “enlightened” and “educated” people to commit genocide, for a “democratic” country to maintain slavery, for oppressed to turn into oppressors, for “socialism” to be tyrannical” and “liberalism” to be imperialist, for whole peoples to be led to war like sheep. It can also show us that apparently powerless underlings can defeat their rulers, that men (for at least moments of time) can live like brothers, that man can make incredible sacrifices on behalf of a cause.


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We’re shirking our duty if we don’t ban women from writing for the Irish Independent

How many Irish women write voluntarily for a filthy right-wing propaganda rag with its glandular masculine effusions, without any form of coercion whether explicit or implicit? Just a minute while I do the sums. Okay, I’m ready: the answer is none.

Even those who claim to do it willingly are brainwashed. They conceal their true beliefs because they are bulldozed into it by a patchwork quilt of reasons, from social to familial to cockeyed religious grounds. Free will is a fig leaf when it comes to writing for the Irish Independent.

Irish women in Ireland, as in other countries, may tell themselves they choose to write for the Irish independent. They may even believe it. But a woman living in a tight-knit Irish community is under intense pressure to conform. Rebel, and she becomes an outcast.

So it is up to the host country to set the standard. It is not racist to want all women to be free. Forcing them to write for the Irish Independent, and sometimes drippy novels, is a form of fanaticism amounting to repression which we should not tolerate.

Far from protecting them, conditioning women to believe they must express right-wing views in public undermines their dignity.

Here in Ireland, our Government shirked the issue when it had an opportunity to show some leadership on this divisive ideological barrier between the writer and mainstream culture.

In 2008, a Wexford school asked for Department of Education guidelines on whether the Irish Independent was acceptable as part of the curriculum. The department left it up to individual schools.

This is not tolerance but cowardice, and duty shirked. We need policies on Irish women writing for right-wing hate mags, and we should formulate them now while we have a relatively small population of Irish women journalists. Anyone who opts to live here subsequently will be aware of the standards our society is setting.

We are paralysed by political correctness, however; horrified at the thought of our journalist community waving the censorship card, protesting against victimisation, or complaining about restrictions on their freedom of expression.

But the Irish Independent is the tyranny — not its prohibition. The Irish Independent, with its foul sexism, is a symbol of authoritarianism on the part of men and subjugation on the part of women.

The Irish Independent woman writer is also sending out a negative message, that either she or her family do not wish her to be a full member of society. This stance doesn’t just affect those who write for the paper, but anyone who comes into contact with a writer.

It takes France, with its well-defined sense of national identity and its significant journalist community, to address the dilemma. A cross-parliamentary body has recommended banning the expression of foul right-wing opinions in state buildings and on public transport. Inevitably, this is misrepresented as an erosion of human rights. On the contrary, I see it as reinforcing them.

France is not the only European country weighing up bans. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy all either have laws, or are considering legislation, against writing which rots the brain.

One of my colleagues attended a media conference in Algiers last April, where post-graduate female students from the university acted as interpreters. These women, who were journalists, were asked not to write nasty material by the state broadcaster running the event, because it was felt they would send an anti-progressive signal to international delegates.

The young women complied, but were jeered at by men on the street as they walked empty-notebooked from the campus to the conference centre. Were they angered by these hecklers? On the contrary, their indignation was directed at the organiser for asking them to refrain from writing incendiary garbage, thereby laying them open to taunts.

This reaction highlights the duplicity at the heart of any discussion on the role of Irish Independent women writers. Women are indoctrinated by the dominant male element in their communities to believe free will is exercised when they write inane trash — instead they are controlled, censored and reduced to chattel status.

We are repeatedly fed the subterfuge that Irish women choose to write for the Irish Independent, finding it ‘liberating’. Implausibly, having a newspaper column is even described as a tool of female emancipation: they are set free from the shackles of their sexuality, or so the deception goes.

The sight of a woman writing for the Irish Independent dismays and saddens me, just as the image of a young girl tricked out like a Jordan-wannabe is disturbing. Any form of extremism has ominous undercurrents.

Some contend you can’t fight repression with a ban, and highlight the irony in such a move. They pontificate about incentivising women to stop writing such trash, without specifying how this might take place.

While we can’t force people to assimilate or integrate, we can frame laws and oblige citizens to abide by them. Many schools require children to read materials — the Irish Independent should not be allowed on the list. Currently, it is being produced as a way of testing the water in Ireland. If we accept it, the path is cleared for more nativist press coverage.

Such writing reduces a woman’s right to be a person, and dehumanises the writer. Yet the Koran only requires modest opinions– for men as well as women. The obligation on a woman to write inane garbage is a man-made one. Still, if it makes women feel any less victimised, I’d gladly have men’s hateful opinions banned as well.

Writing racist, neo-colonial trash in a right-wing rag are less an anti-western statement, more an anti-female one. Let’s use the law to protect all women in Ireland . . . journalist or otherwise.

Both Sides Now

Via the Angry Arab.

I Believe In The Gospels, And That Means Bullets

Catholic ‘control’ of schools exaggerated – The Irish Times – Thu, Jan 28, 2010

It is in this context that Catholic Schools Week gives us the fresh opportunity to acknowledge the contribution that Catholic primary and post-primary schools make to Irish society by inviting young people to model their lives on the values of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels.

Last year marked a very successful beginning of an all-Ireland celebration of Catholic Schools Week and we hope this year to build on that foundation and continue to create a space where we can articulate the ethos and identity of Catholic schools.

‘The values of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels’ me hole. Some of the biggest crooks and liars of this country went to Catholic schools. Especially to the exclusive Catholic schools for the rich, where they learned manipulative strategies for dominating people. Read the Murphy report: ‘the authorities in the Archdiocese of Dublin and the religious orders who were dealing with complaints of child sexual abuse were all very well educated people. Many had qualifications in canon law and quite a few also had qualifications in civil law. This makes their claims of ignorance very difficult to accept’. Just as those people were the products of the Catholic schools system, you can be damned sure that plenty of others who didn’t join religious orders have been educated to be adept at the same sort of crack in a secular context.

As for O’Reilly’s claim that the Catholic church does not ‘control’ schools. Perhaps the question should not be on the degree to which the Church intervenes in the running of schools day-to-day, but the amount of power concentrated in Catholic institutions by comparison with other schools. Apart from the matter of the Catholic fee-paying schools dedicated to the cultivation of a power elite, here’s a thought: take a look at new school buildings erected for non-Catholic institutions in the last 20 years and compare them with the schools already in existence that belong to Catholic schools. How do they compare in terms of available space, location in relation to where people live, play facilities, and so on. My bet is that they come off pretty badly. Opinions to the contrary welcomed.


OK, I’m back again. Baby steps, baby steps.

I read a whole load of stuff I really shouldn’t, like David Brooks’s unctuous slobberings in the service of the self-evident truths of robber baron swine. The pompous turdbag befouled himself something shocking over Haiti, with a cornucopia of racist depravity dressed up as free-market rationality, and I am therefore slightly troubled to find a little common ground with him in today’s column.

What I agree with is where he says that populism, conceived as a policy of the ruling class, is but a mirror image of elitism.

Third, populism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.

One bristles at the idea of a ‘Democratic ruling class’ as though there were two ruling classes in America: an absurd fantasy, but the fundamental idea is sound. That is, if you have Democratic party strategists or cheerleaders talking about how Obama should adopt a more populist stance on this or that, they are only doing so as a means to an end: the implementation of a particular policy or set of legislative measures. They are not really concerned with people having the means to decide what they want and then get it; rather, it is a question of being sufficiently manipulative of a sufficient number in order to exert pressure for a sufficient length of time so as to achieve the final goal.

Anyway, it hardly matters that much now, since, as Krugman notes, a propos of the recently announced spending freeze:

And it’s a betrayal of everything Obama’s supporters thought they were working for. Just like that, Obama has embraced and validated the Republican world-view — and more specifically, he has embraced the policy ideas of the man he defeated in 2008. A correspondent writes, “I feel like an idiot for supporting this guy.”

Huzzah for populism!

Why Lord, Why?

The Irish Times – Letters

Madam, – As we turn our thoughts to the next presidential election, may I suggest we look no further than Martin McAleese, husband of our existing President?

This man has worked tirelessly behind the scenes during his wife’s presidency, meeting hard-line Ulster Unionists to bring peace to our land.

Our President would, I’m sure, accept that she would not have performed her duties so diligently, and with such serenity, were it not for the support and advice from her devoted and loving husband.

I’m certain he would bring continuity of the same dignity and respect to the office, as that so graciously performed by his wife, President McAleese. – Yours, etc,


Wesminister Lawns,

Foxrock, Dublin 18.

You know the way when you’re drinking Buckfast and someone tells you something mildly improbable but certainly not beyond the realms of possibility under normal circumstances but under these special circumstances you find the information so outrageously incredible that you can only conclude, after searching for the smirk you know that’s just about to appear on that someone’s face but never does, that the person is having a mighty laugh at your hapless naivete? And then you want to stomp that person’s face in but are prepared to resolve it civilly provided they admit it is not so?

That’s the way I feel when reading this letter.

The World Turned Upside Down

Should mature students be allowed to go to college? – The Irish Times – Fri, Jan 15, 2010

And so on and on, like a broken record. It’s very unattractive but there you are. Leaving Certificate mothers cannot help parroting phrases that have been handed down from previous generations, no more than they can help sticking chemistry tables and quotes from Shakespeare on to the fridge, or regaling the candidate with tales of excellence – the 13-year-old admitted to Cambridge and so on.

Our guard may have been down for a while. Statistically speaking the class of 2010 had been in line for a reasonably easy run. After more than a decade of falling points and expanding career options, all signs were that getting into a reasonably fulfilling college course would be just a matter of filling in the forms. But the great recession has put paid to that. Certain courses are no longer attractive at all, such as those leading towards a career in property or construction. The inevitable swing towards the sciences or any course that might feed into Brian Cowen’s beloved “smart economy” will increase competition for places. This year more people will sit the Leaving Cert than ever before. And now there’s talk of a wave of the newly unemployed going back to college.

More than 12,000 mature students are apparently seeking college places this year, while there has also been a surge in the numbers set to sit the Leaving Certificate, after several years of decline. You can’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to quit the job search and spend a few years learning something new and ogling young ones.

But 12,000 is an awful lot of them. Should they all be allowed go back to college? Emphatically no, says one friend who not so long ago was considering doing a degree course herself but has now shelved all plans until her eldest is safely into third level.

“Who needs to see the grey workforce spilling over into uni,” she says. “They would only be sucking the life blood out of the university.” That is putting it a bit strongly. She would like to see all 12,000 herded off into a separate college, preferably in the North.

Years back, there used to be a column appearing on Fridays in the Guardian by a writer called Bel Littlejohn, who would gush forth with all manner of blithe middle-class slobberings. An American friend of mine, (one who really exists, as opposed to an imaginary one created as a rhetorical device for avoiding identifying myself with opinions I myself might be embarrassed to admit to but hold nonetheless) perturbed on having acquainted himself with one of her articles, poured forth his outrage and disgust to me at the jejune, empty-headed arrogance and sense of privilege on display. I felt bad when I had to tell him that it was the work of satirist Craig Brown.

These Friday columns are the closest thing Ireland has to a Bel Littlejohn, though I understand that the writer in this instance is not fictitious. This can only mean that what appears as fictitious satire in other places is in fact the real world here, and vice versa. So the tens of thousands of workers thrust into unemployment and anxiously trying to learn new ways of avoiding getting thrown on the scrapheap are in fact slapstick figures driven by indolence and lascivious urges whilst the clownish, braying flibbertigibbets are serious people who decide who and what counts.

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January 2010