Democracy and despotism of the majority

As political predictions go it took a good deal longer to unfold than he may have expected, but it rings a great deal truer than much of the pundtitry of our time.

Have we at last entered an age when our masters can in fact do that which we were warned to fear most – those who can destroy not only the body but also the soul, and I’m not referring to the speculations of Donald Tusk about the eternal destiny of his adversaries in the Battle of Brexit. It is a fearful prospect.

Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… The excesses of monarchical power had devised a variety of physical means of oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind…

Under the absolute sway of an individual despot the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul, and the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose superior to the attempt; but such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.

These were words written nearly 200 years ago. They described an anticipated tyranny whose seed was seen in the very structure of the evolving democracy of the United States of America. For a number of reasons – geographical, institutional and cultural – that seed did not germinate or flower in the lifetime of the author of those words. Nor did it flower in the lifetime of many of the subsequent generations – until now. 

In the past several decades, with the shrinking of the world and the spread of democracy, what Alexis de Tocqueville feared might happen to the fledgling democratic polity of the United States is now to be feared across much of the globe. Indeed it may no longer be just a fear. It may be our lived experience.

This lived experience is already a reality in the United States and is preoccupying any number of thinkers in that country who are contemplating the unfolding of many of the dangers feared by de Tocqueville. Among them are Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, and Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed  (Yale University Press, 2018). On this side of the Atlantic, Douglas Murray engaged with the same issues in The Strange Death of Europe.

In Levin’s view the late 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s constituted the darkest, most ominous time in America’s post-war path-—it was the moment when we could no longer deny that something fundamental was changing and that, in some profound way, America seemed to be coming apart under the pressure of “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.”

Levin is not a pessimist. Neither is Deneen, who argues that the flawed foundations of liberalism have led us into a dangerous cul de sac. This unsustainable politics has provoked a reaction which has brought us into a culture war – bordering on a “cold” civil war – which is going to get worse before it gets better. Both see a hard time ahead.

What is truly remarkable is that de Tocqueville foresaw this nearly two centuries ago, foresaw it happening at the moment which mankind abandoned that understanding of itself which identified human solidarity as the key to a politics of peace and prosperity. While he was fascinated by the great good he saw in the democratic politics of America in the 1830s, it did not blind him to a certain paradox he perceived in the system.

De Tocqueville, grappling with that paradox, wrote in Democracy in America that he held it to be “an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do whatsoever it pleases”, even though he still asserted that all authority resides in the will of the majority. What de Tocqueville feared – and what we now have stalking the body politic of numerous nations across the world – was the tyranny which the apparently simple and benign concept of majority rule seemed to forebode.

We now identify these as populist movements – and they occupy all sectors of the political spectrum, all equally threatening to our freedoms. What do they all have in common? They are movements riding, with passionate intensity, on waves of emotion and prejudice. They have abandoned the principles of justice and have replaced them with the principles of power and majority rule. They simply neither accept nor recognise that majority rule is no more than a technique by which we organise government, not a principle of justice. They are technocrats, not democrats. They are those who consider themselves not to be populists but to be “on the right side of history” while their opponents are the populists.

De Tocqueville saw it this way:

A general law—which bears the name of Justice—has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are consequently confined within the limits of what is just.

When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right which the majority has of commanding, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. It has been asserted that a people can never entirely outstep the boundaries of justice and of reason in those affairs which are more peculiarly its own, and that consequently, full power may fearlessly be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this language is that of a slave.

Majority rule is a dangerous Leviathan in a society where relativism has resulted in Justice being denied as a universal principle. For that reason he is of the opinion that while in practical terms one social power must always be made to predominate over the others, liberty is endangered when the vehemence of this power is unchecked because it is the inalienable will of the people.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny…

But it is his observations on the power of public opinion, in league with the tyrannies he foresees, that he most prescient and worrying.

Even in his day he saw public opinion in the United States as being far more influential than in Europe. In America, he argues, “as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.”

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad… But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one sole authority, one single element of strength and of success, with nothing beyond it.

Is he exaggerating here? Even if he was in terms of what prevailed in his own time, it is certainly not an exaggeration for our time. The Republic of Ireland might be taken as a sample of what the prevailing democracy now offers the dissenter. A two thirds electoral majority effectively legalized abortion there last year. Immediately the defeated minority was jeered at and told by the victorious majority, “It’s over.”  Months later, a public representative, one of those who defended to right to life  of the nation’s pre-born children, was shouted at in the street, “Ha, you lost”.

The reality is, the dangerous reality is, that power exercised in this way, as was done by the Democratic Party’s populist regime under the Obama administrations, produces a populist counter response and gives us the Presidency of Donald Trump.

De Tocqueville foresaw this kind of culture crippling freedom of thought and speech. He argues that within the barriers set by public opinion, the opinion of the majority, an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them.

Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.

He imagines this new sovereign power, this new Leviathan, saying to its subjects,

You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people… Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence comparably worse than death.”

How real all this now seems for the defeated and politically marginalized “losers” of Ireland’s battles for life and natural marriage? They are experiencing life as envisaged by Adrian Vermeule, Professor of Constitutional Law in Harvard Business School, when he summed up in First Things,the forms that “death” is now taking in the heart of our liberal democracies:

Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what?

De Tocqueville concluded that monarchical institutions of the past had thrown odium upon despotism. Let us beware, he said, lest democratic republics should restore oppression, and should render it – despotism – less odious and less degrading in the eyes of the many, by making it still more onerous to the few.

Have we disregarded his warning, to our cost?

“You can check out…but you can never leave”

I’m sure this has been noticed before, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of it: Hotel Europe – “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

And it looks like Donald Tusk is the head porter.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to Donald Tusk after his remarks: “They’ll give you terrible trouble”.

It will be nothing like he trouble they have cooked up for the British. The bureaucrats ruling Europe have no intention of accepting the sovereign will of the British people – regardless of what plan they might have made. How could you plan for dealing with so implacable and determined an adversary as that?

What a nightmare! Let’s hope UK can be the exception the proves this rule. Bye, bye sovereignty for rest of us.

I was very glad, during the referendum campaign, that I did not have the privilege of voting. I do not think I would have had the courage to vote ‘leave’. Whether that was rooted in prudent caution or craven cowardice, I’m not sure.

But with every day that passes, as I see the bloody-minded arrogance of the European establishment trying to thwart the democratic process, I pray harder and harder that the British will stay the course and vindicate their sovereignty. It will not only be bad for Britain if they fail. It will also be bad for Europe, an enterprise which began based on the highest principles of political morality. It will be debased to the status of a shoddy tyranny.

‘Network’ still gives us a sobering message for our time

“I’m mad as hell and I wont take it anymore!”

Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, in partnership as film writer and film director, have left us with one truly amazing piece of cinematic art. It is an extraordinary legacy. Their work together on the film, Network, back in the 1970s – it was adapted as a stage play for the National Theatre in London two years ago – is still almost beyond belief. Almost, but not quite. It is still terrifyingly prescient and terrifyingly real. It is not just a work of art. It is a sobering message for our time.

The film’s genesis was the response of the two me to the frustrations they experienced while trying to write and produce drama for American television in the late sixties and early seventies. The dumbing down of the medium – which to them had shown great artistic and cultural promise in its early days – began in those years. With Network they attempted to show us what the endgame was going to be.

They assembled a cast of superb actors – the late Peter Finch and William Holden, along with Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, to name but four of the total ensemble  – to fill out this vision of the slide of the medium into crass commercialism and a vehicle for the transmission of imbecilic mindless fodder to pass as entertainment for the masses.

But what is astounding about this work is not just that it put the medium of television under the microscope and predicted where it would be at a point of time in the future. It showed us what this abused artefact of our inventiveness was going to do to our society and what would happen to the individuals, real people, in our society who surrender themselves to this shallow and superficial culture. What they saw happening to the limited information technology available in that age, we can now extrapolate to everything it makes available to us in our age.

Network is a grim satire on our frightening capacity to tear our humanity to shreds – while laughing, applauding and cheering ourselves all the way to the slough of despond. The film is funny but it is an uncomfortable laugh. Satire is like that. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is outrageous, and Gulliver’s Travels is funny – a story told to children but with a deeper meaning for adults. Both satires are too close to the bone to enjoy with abandonment. But one difference between Swift’s satire and that of Network is that mankind, to some extent, learned a lesson from Swift. Sadly, we do not seem to have learned anything from Network.

Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network is often regarded as his masterpiece, and has been hailed as “the kind of literate, darkly funny and breathtakingly prescient material that prompts many to claim it as the greatest screenplay of the 20th century.”

Chayefsky was an early writer for television but eventually abandoned it, “decrying the lack of interest the networks demonstrated toward quality programming”. Network was his attempt to bring it to its senses. In itself it is a masterpiece. As a lesson, it failed – so far.  Among the dreadful things it predicted was the advent of reality television by over twenty years and the “dehumanization of modern life” that this appalling genre perpetrates.

Nicholas Barber, writing for the BBC back in 2016 on the fortieth anniversary of the film’s release said that Network was Chayefsky and Lumet’s furious howl of protest about the decline of the industry, and the world. “It was a triumphant black comedy, winning four Oscars, being nominated for two more, and going on to be held in ever higher acclaim. In 2006, the Writers Guilds of America chose Chayefsky’s screenplay as one of the 10 best in cinema history.”

At the time of its release Chayefsky and Lumet’s bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was considered outrageous. Looking at it now we see it differently. We ask ourselves why, when we were warned about this, did we still let it happen? Barber says that we now realise that even its wildest flights of fancy it no longer seem outrageous at all. “The film was so accurate in its predictions that its most far-fetched satirical conceits have become so familiar as to be almost quaint.”

The plot opens with a film noir type narrator telling us about Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a veteran news anchor-man on the UBS (fictional) network who has just been given two-weeks’ notice because his ratings are falling. He confides to his friend that he has  decided to take revenge by shooting himself dead on his final show. He backs off from that, but has now got the attention of millions and launches into a diatribe about the world we live in and what the people in charge have been doing to it. On air he asks everyone watching to get up, go to their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” All of New York does so and for the next few hours, across the time zones of the continent, all of America follows suit.

His ratings soar and he becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves”. The stock of UBS soars as well and it becomes the darling of corporate global business. News now becomes entertainment and the networks all madly rush to the bottom of the barrel – on the strength of the ravings of an unfortunate human being who has now lost his mind. But what do they care they are all making barrels of money?

But his friend, Max Schumacher (William Holden),  president of the station’s news division, is appalled that Howard’s mental state is being exploited. He is having and affair with a callous and ambitious producer, Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway), and it is through the vehicle of this relationship that Chayefsky exposes the dehumanizing effect of a life lived on these terms. She is so poisoned by the values of her world that she is incapable of any real love or affection. The only positive outcome is that Schumacher, awakening to the realities of that whole sordid world and the monsters it has created, goes back to his wife and family asking for forgiveness.

“Seen a quarter-century later,” wrote Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, “it is like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?” 

Barber in 2016 agreed that was a fair question. “A further 16 years later, though, it’s tempting to ask whether Chayefsky was imagining today’s podcasters, or even today’s shock-jock politicians, who sway voters by “articulating the popular rage” in terms no more sophisticated than Howard’s.  Add to that mix the trolls infecting cyberspace on any or all of the social media platforms we live with.

We have every reason to ask ourselves today whether the driving forces behind the multi-billion dollar online communication ventures which dominate our culture have any sense of a duty of care for children whose deaths we read about almost daily and which are connected with the facilities they have launched into our world.

The Daily Telegraph reported on one such tragedy over a week ago. We were told that little Molly Russell was such a “caring soul” that she did not want to burden her parents with the depression she likened to a storm bearing down on her. Instead, the 14-year-old retreated to a terrifying online world algorithmically tailored to encourage her darkest thoughts.

As far as her loving family could see, Molly was happy and doing well: she was a keen rider and sailor and had just landed the lead role in her school’s forthcoming production of Fantastic Mr Fox. But Ian Russell, her father, now believes that in private she was being assailed by graphic images of self-harm and suicide on the social media sites Instagram and Pinterest.

Can we not work out some policies and practical approaches which will allow us to benefit from the great potential which modern technology gives us to do good in the world, without having to experience the evil fictionally suffered by Howard Beale in the 1970s to the palpable evil suffered by so many in our own time?

(‘Network’ is now streaming on Netflix)

The hunger-for-hustle epidemic raging through a generation

Posted earlier today to ‘Rise and Grind’: on the pathology of work.

I read a book many years ago entitled On the Theology of Work. It impressed me. I might go further and say that it was part of a process which set me on a road in which my vision of life and its purpose led me to a very good place.

However, now, in the 21st century, it seems that another book is called for. We still need that earlier book but more urgently we seem to need a book entitled “On the Pathology of Work”.

A cri de coeur came from Erin Griffith writing in the New York Times last weekend about a rather frightening world of work apparently unfolding before us now. She described a new culture of work and the workplace, “obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape. ‘Rise and Grind’ is both the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a book by a ‘Shark Tank’ shark.”

This new culture glorifies ambition not just as a means to an end, but as a lifestyle, an end in itself.

Life for the younger generation immersed in this culture, she explains, is just about ambition, grit and hustle – everything of value about work comes from this striving. It is a culture in which work is about engaging in “a sweat session that sends your endorphins coursing … a vision which “expands your way of thinking.”

Work for its disciples never really stops and they don’t want it to stop because it is the source of their rapture.

When these people take exercise it is only to ensure that they can continue to get their highs on the job; if they take time off to relax with music it is a necessary evil – because if they don’t they might underperform in the job.

The evangelists of this new culture don’t say this, but in fact their model of work is a drug on which you get high and the more you engage with it on this level, the more you need to. It is a one-way ticket to “workaholism”.

Is this not just one other symptom of our age falling victim to excess?

Read the full post here.

“Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Easier said than done

Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the British political system. Our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of what is troubling us. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

This book was written by Isabel Hardman and published late last year – the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Hardman is a political journalist and the assistant editor of The Spectator. She has written for The Observer and currently writes a weekly column for The Daily Telegraph. In 2015, she was named Journalist of the Year at the Political Studies Association.  

Essentially, the concerns she raises about our electoral choices stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it is no longer fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the basis of what she has observed over those years watching the system at work – or not at work – we can surmise about what needs to happen.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. They must also be reasonable and not demand that their representatives combine fixing their parish pumps along with legislating wisely and well.

Hardman accepts, by and large, the basic good intentions of those who present themselves for election as public representatives. The picture she presents us with is one of men and women struggling with conflicting demands on their time, conflicting loyalties, and conflicting responsibilities. These are men and women whose first responsibility is to legislate wisely and well but who end up neglecting that in the pursuit of other ends: power in government; trying to satisfy the demands their constituents make on them for things that have nothing to do with legislation or government, trapped by the awareness that failing to satisfy those demands may mean the end of their parliamentary careers. On top of all this is the debilitating culture of what is now called the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

Whether or not that perception is accurate, it is held by a large proportion of the population and feeds the distrust with which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland.

MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth. The public don’t like politics as a line of work generally, but they also tell pollsters that the quality of the politicians is the feature they dislike the most.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Worryingly, 41 per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’. 

This is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum last year now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterizes politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mold public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

This latter was the political force which radically changed public opinion to bring about two big referendum majorities opening the door to gay marriage and abortion on demand in Ireland over the past few years.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone to cover Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain was the face of honesty in politics and as such seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by the power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

 “I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.”

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?

Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie (“How would you like it if. . . ?”).

And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks — that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in is really just a game based on lies. Young Voters have been taught well and thoroughly. You may not personally remember Vietnam or Watergate, but it’s a good bet you remember “No new taxes” and “Out of the loop” and “No direct knowledge of any impropriety at this time” and “Did not inhale” and “Did not have sex with that Ms. Lewinsky” and etc. etc.

It’s painful to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot.

Is this true of the culture of Irish political life today? It surely is, when, to get elected, the man who has driven Ireland’s abortion law through parliament assured the pro-life movement that he was pro-life. Irish mainstream media simply turns a blind eye to this deceit. To Ireland’s pro-life community, the campaigning columnists in the Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner are very reluctant to report anything negative about the politicians who are pursuing the secular liberal agenda which they themselves have so close to their hearts.

Disenfranchisement may be a technical term denoting the formal removal of voting rights but the name of what has happened is not the important thing – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – and not having anyone to vote for, whatever you call it, smells just as rotten as anything that ever polluted a body politic. A combination of three malign forces have succeeded in consigning one third of the Irish population, commensurate by and large with that section of the population which takes seriously its commitment to the moral principles of the Christian Faith, to the margins of political life – for now. Something must be done to cut the Gordian knot in the tummy of the Irish body politic.

The woes of the British political system depicted in Isabel Hardman’s book do not make strange reading for the Irish looking at their own parliament, essentially a child of that Westminster mother. They are all too familiar – just an Irish version of the same rot.

A troubled and troubling country

What is in a smile?

It was all over the internet at the weekend: a short video of boys from a Kentucky Catholic high school, in Washington for the annual March for Life, mocking a peaceful Native American elder from an Indigenous People’s March. Their ringleader stood smirking at the man while other boys gathered around chanting to drown out the elder’s speech and drumming. They were wearing MAGA hats, which tells you everything – doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t, as a two hour video of the same incident later showed. But reaction to the original snippets does tell you something, wrote one (Catholic) mother in The Atlantic on Monday.

Admitting that her own initial reaction got it wrong, – she was one of many, indeed multitudes, for that is the scale we are dealing with on the internet – Julie Irwin Zimmerman described the whole thing as a political Rorschach test, that psychological test where you are shown inkblot images on a piece of paper and are asked to describe what you see. The popular understanding of it is that it reveals a person’s unconscious thoughts, motives, or desires.

Substitute the video story for the inkblot, Zimmerman suggested, “tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016, and your general take on a list of other issues — but it shouldn’t be.”

Yet this is the depth of unreason to which political, indeed not just political but general civilized discourse has now descended, and not only in America.

When more video of the confrontation – it cannot be called anything else – was shown it was not clear who was confronting whom. But there was now a big enough question mark over it all to make some of the outraged begin to backtrack. There was no real evidence that the boys said or did anything that was hostile.

According to a statement issued by the student at the centre of the controversy, Nick Sandmann, the students were also victims of harassment by the indigenous group’s protest, and they had tried to defuse the situation by singing school spirit songs over their chants.

Sandmann said the encounter between himself and Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, was “a misunderstood moment taken out of context.” He claimed that he was utterly confused by the man who had confronted him on the assumption that because he was wearing that particular cap, he was a die-hard supporter of Donald Trump.

Phillips, meanwhile, maintained that he and his companions felt threatened by the confrontation with the students, most of whom were white.

Argument over the video evidence continued in Rorschach mode. But media scholar Ian Bogost in a piece for The Atlantic drew the sanest conclusion:we should just Stop Trusting Viral Videos.

Well, good luck with that. The video hits your screen and where you are on that Rorschach scale will determine the rest. You don’t ask yourself is this viral – because that proves nothing about what you have just seen. Really principled media people – how many of them are there? – will have rules about checking sources, but that takes no account of what happens when the virus is raging through the body politic.

A great deal of the interpretation of the visual in this case hangs on the smile of young Nick Sandmann as he stands face to face with Nathan Philips.

Bogost offers the opinion that the actual intentions and motivations of Sandmann and his colleagues seem vital to any account of what took place. “But not only can we never really know what those were, they also don’t matter once the original video has been shot and shared. That short clip shows a young man with a smirk, wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, appearing to stare down a Native elder: Simply describing the scene, at this political and cultural moment, suggests a racist threat.”

That opinion really shows us the problem at the heart of this truly appalling state in which we find ourselves.

The problem is the breakdown of trust. Of course, there are many things which we may never really know about each other. But to deal with that lack of knowledge we have the quality of trust. Abandon our readiness to trust each other and take offence at careless words and ambiguous looks, and we compound the deficiencies in our capacity to know to a terrifying degree.

One man’s smile may be another man’s smirk – but to categorically call what you see on Sandmann’s face a smirk betrays naked prejudice. That smile could mean many things – nervous fear, a desire to be a friend, bewilderment. And the general appearance of the group of boys? Have any of the outraged ever been in the presence of a group of raucous schoolboys? These look perfectly normal. They are not the picture of mature refinement – but what group of boys on a day out ever are?

Without trust, as this episode demonstrates, identity politics rushes in to fill the vacuum. Should we not begin by simply seeing one American disagreeing with another. Why should racism have anything to do with it? It might, but is that conclusion just another consequence of the inherent prejudice of the viewer? Simply reflect on the motive which brought these boys all the way from Kentucky to Washington – to vindicate and defend the right to life of unborn children of every race on the planet, of every shade of skin.

America is not alone in experiencing such ill-founded social eruptions. We must believe that we can do something about it, but will we?

(This is the revised version of this article which was published this morning – January 23 – on under the heading What really happened between some Catholic schoolboys and a Native American elder? The original was published on this blog on Tuesday evening.)

A new Nostradamus?

Michel Houellebecq (New York Review of Books)

Michel Houellebecq’s novels are not for the morally conscientious, replete as they are with what is euphemistically called “explicit content”. Neither are they safe reading for the snowflakes or the politically correct of this world.

But there is certainly something uncanny about the man’s apparent gift for reading the times we live in, and even giving us advance warning of the times we will be living in. Also, while he’s thoroughly French, he doesn’t give his countrymen an easy time.

The publication of his last novel, Submission, imagined a time – not far from now – wehen a Muslim France elects a Muslim president. On the day of its publication Islamic terrorists went into the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and slaughtered everyone they could find. People found the coincidence – because that is what it was – a bit unsettling.

M. Houellebecq’s latest work, Sérotonine, is now being seen in France as another piece of semi-prophesy. He began writing it more than two years ago but seems to tell us about the current street protests against President Emmanuel Macron by gilets jaunes (yellow jackets).

Houellebecq and Macron are in fact friends. Whether this puts a strain on their friendship remains to be seen.

An article in The Spectator last week noted Houellebecq’s “willingness to speak his mind in an age of stifling literary conformity. This has earned him the predictable epithet of the ‘enfant terrible’ of French literature.”

“In a recent interview with Harper’s Magazine he didn’t shy away from this reputation. Not only did he dare to suggest that Donald Trump was doing a good job, but he then described the EU as ‘a dumb idea that has gradually turned into a bad dream’. Houellebecq is no Anglophile but he admitted that in voting for Brexit, ‘the British had once again shown themselves to be more courageous than us in the face of empire’.”

We might wonder how Napoleon Barnier might like that?

Disenfranchising the Dissident Irish

Political Scientist, Dr. David Thunder has been talking to us again on the real problem in Irish political life: disenfranchisement.

The last disenfranchisement of the Catholic Irish took place with the Act of Settlement in 1701 and subsequent penal acts depriving both them and Protestant Dissenters of all sorts of civil rights. That wrong took well over a hundred years to put right. Indeed, in Northern Ireland the British Government only got around to restoring justice at the end of the last century – about 300 years later. This new marginalization , at whose root again is the issue of conscience and faith, is more subtle and therefore harder to combat. Will they be living in this condition for another 100 years?

This loss of rights and privilege of citizenship for faith is nothing new.

“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.” (Letter to the Hebrews).

That will be the same path which many doctors, nurses and health workers in Ireland will now also take in the face of abortion legislation which was signed by Ireland’s President last week.

“We have effectively disenfranchised…33% of the population from Irish politics.” On Friday Dr. Thunder discussed how this happened and what we can do about it with Wendy Grace on Spirit FM.

Here is the full 14 mins podcast (you can fastforward to 36:40):


Looking back in anger, looking forward in hope

There is a special poignancy in our Irish Christmas this year. In some way it links aptly with this no less poignant famous picture of Joseph helping Mary and her unborn child along the road to Bethlehem, just over two thousand years ago.

It is Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, from the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In it, The Guardian newspaper (believe it or not), tells us that we see Mary and Joseph who are on their way to Bethlehem through a rocky landscape. She has climbed down from the donkey, perhaps afraid of riding down such a perilous, ankle-breaking slope. Joseph, grizzled and weary, is helping her along with all his loving kindness, his actions (rather than her physical appearance) suggesting just how pregnant she is. He is doing everything he can, as husband and prospective new father, to protect his little family from hardship and danger.

In Ireland the unborn have now lost the protection of the State. The fatal decision was made by a majority of the Irish people last May. That they did so, many still find very hard to come to terms with. Legislatures, at one remove from the will of the people, pass laws like this – but that a people should directly ask it legislature to do so is in some way harder to comprehend. But comprehend it we must.

The antiphon to the second Psalm, a substantial portion of which constitutes part of the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah, proclaims:

“His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. “

These lines challenge us, challenge our faith in the word of God. When I look around me at our crazy world and my apostate nation, I have the temerity to question these words as so much self-delusion. I’m inclined to say, “Really? Serve and obey? Will they really? You must be joking.”

Credibly enough, the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Quare fremuérunt gentes, et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?” Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? Indeed the more direct translation, “thinking up inanities” might be better.

Tumult certainly; useless also; even self-negating – all that self-grandising posturing which we call identity politics, signifying nothing; hang-ups over ‘diversity’ to the point where the world is becoming a new Tower of Babel.

And the political classes, left, right and center? They also fit into this picture, personified by the royalty of a former age:

“They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed. They shout, ‘Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.’”

There is certainly a great deal of that around. How else are we to interpret the abuse piled on those who dare to defend the rights of medical professionals whose consciences are being trampled on by their own elected representatives? For our “rulers” conscience is now a fetter, a yoke to be cast off.

“Carol Nolan TD (a member of the Irish Parliament) has received a lot vitriol abuse from fellow TD’S for opposing the abortion bill,” we were reminded courtesy of Facebook a few weeks ago.

But then comes an even harder bit for the beleaguered remnants of Israel to take on board.

“He who sits in the heavens”, we are told, “ laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage. It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”

But where is he, we ask, as the division bell rings in the Irish parliament and “the kings of the earth”, the “princes”, troop to the lobby to pass death sentence on thousands of unborn children? The estimate is that close to 10000 Irish babies will perish next year under the legislation now passing through the two Houses of Parliament – with only a few brave voices offering resistance.

We look around and see a crumbling civilization. I walk through the campus of a famous university; I pick up a student newspaper – free because it is printed with money from taxpayers, in the name of education. What do I find in it? Very little that is not advocating licentious hedonism. Irony of ironies, this university was dedicated to the Most Blessed Trinity over four hundred years ago. If I were an advocate of “safe spaces” for young people I would certainly not be recommending this university campus, my alma mater, as one of them.

But then, in the midst of all these temptations to doubt the sacred texts, we remember the crumbling of Christ’s cohort of followers. Just four are left at the foot of the Cross, while faithful Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus face up to the powers-that-be and prepare to take him down from the gibbet to lay him in the tomb prepared by one of them. That makes six out of all those who, less than a week before, the were hailing him as the Son of David.

Then we hear the psalmist say with utmost confidence:

“I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.’”

And the reckoning?

“‘With a rod of iron you shall break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar.’ Now, O kings, understand; take warning, rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage.

Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze.”

Can all that really be balderdash? No. These words have been sung and believed in for more, much more probably, than three thousand years. They have also been scoffed at by kings, princes and peoples who delude themselves with “useless murmuring”. These words have been at the heart of the Christian transformation of the world foretold in the Old Testament and announced in the New. Strip away all that has come to us from these words and we will be left with a nasty and brutal world dominated by superstition and fatalistic myth, ruled by fools who think they can mold human nature into whatever shape they dream up or desire.

The final line of the psalm proclaims, “Blessed are they who put their trust in the Lord.” So, with those words, all doubt melts away – if trust in the Lord is the condition for Blessedness what more is there to say. If we were to value anything in the world over this then we make ourselves nothing more than useless murmurers and lackeys of the “kings of the earth”.

That trust, that Blessedness, will still be as real three thousand years from now, as real as it is today, as real as it was in the souls of Mary and Joseph as they struggled towards Bethlehem with the unborn child who is the saviour of mankind; and as real as it was three thousand years ago – in spite of the world’s Herods, dictators, pseudo-democrats and all the other varieties of rulers it offers us.

Human flourishing, families and where they live

Location, location, location – a slogan meaning what?

This phrase has been around for a long time. It tells us that what’s around a home remains as important as what’s in the home…

Not true!

Let us make another slogan to help us realise something even more fundamental.

If we want to change the world, to change our society and our culture, to evangelise and re-Christianize it we might think that our politics is where we should begin, or even our Church.

No, it is not – and this is where our new slogan comes in

Family, family, family.

We must think family, we must do family, we must – and this is what falls to all of us and is possible for all of us – help families wherever we can.

Something flagged for me in In First Things this week fleshes out this priority even more.

John Cuddeback argues that a flourishing society starts with flourishing households:

“One can be part of a family without being part of its household. This distinction is important if we are to understand and renew family life…Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

“The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

“Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply ‘traditional,’ but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father ­usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have ‘out there.’ Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

“A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together.”

Read the rest.