Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutually-reinforcing: as the owner cares for him, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.

Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond any individual’s life. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel.

Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.

A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent how life often imitates art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.

The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines.

Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres would depart in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.

Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, whose rejection leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.

Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters. It is hard to identify any real hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.

Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation.

Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.

The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to the character of Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.

But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fete which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:

I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!

The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.

It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society an all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr foretells the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his erstwhile associates.

It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing it, ensures we will never know.

The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

This imposes a great burden of responsibility on the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.

(This article was published in the April/May edition of The London Magazine

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Boys Do Cry – A Gonzaga Education

Revelations of sex abuse in all-male private schools in past decades have been powerfully conveyed across the Irish media. That barbarism should not, however, deflect from other enduring problems. I believe grave damage is still being done to the development of boys in ostensibly civilised institutions. Moreover, unequal educational provision widens inequality, and underpins a pervasive competitive individualism. I draw on painful memories of my own educational experience in Gonzaga College SJ to provide a personal critique of private and all-male education.

In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s boyhood character disparages children from non-private schools as “Mickey Muck and Paddy Stink”. We have an enduring educational snobbery, and many a privately-schooled chap still dons the proverbial old school tie.

By the 1920s, one of the leading Dublin Catholic secondary schools for boys of its time, O’Connell School on Richmond Street, recommended its pupils in the following terms: “Your ‘Richmond Street’ boy makes a good official. In the first place he possess the necessary academic qualifications to place him high on the examination lists. He has, in addition, certain qualities which make him a good colleague. This is an essential point. However clever an official he may be, he has to pull with the team …”. The abiding ambition of most all-male private schools remains not only to produce good examination results, but also to develop a cast of mind disposed to “pull with the team”, rather than swim against the tide. Jesuit institution have led the way in this regard.

Since independence a disproportionate number of high office holders in this state have been educated in Jesuit schools, Clongowes Wood SJ in Kildare, Belvedere College SJ in Dublin, and after its foundation in 1950, my own alma mater Gonzaga College SJ, also in Dublin. All three of these are all-male and private, while the first is also a boarding school.

The appointment of John Marcus O’Sullivan as Minister for Education in 1926 marked a tipping point such that non-combative Clongownians in the Cabinet outnumbered veterans of the 1916 Rising. Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton continue a long line of Clongownians, though the former was expelled, seemingly for under-age drinking.

This elite education is now more likely to produce managerial material in a thrusting private sector than diligent civil servants. But in these academic hothouses, creativity is still conflated with rebelliousness. After school, positions of influence, and wealth generation, are preserved by ‘old boy’ networks. Pressure is felt in middle class families to reproduce this status in their sons and, to a lesser extent, daughters.

A dominant Catholicism permitted horrific abuse against an older generation in Ireland. Nonetheless, professional lawyers applying Thomistic principles built a State founded on principles of universal justice. For good, and ill, Bunreacht na hEireann – our Constitution – is promulgated “in the name of the Holy Trinity”. The 1960s was the advent of an era of unprecedented judicial activism. By then most of our judges were drawn from all male, Catholic, especially Jesuit, schools. They “discovered” “Unenumerated Rights”, based on a Catholic Natural Law interpretation of the Constitution, an expansive approach the Court has since grown wary of.

Moreover, Fine Gael’s “Towards a Just Society” document, conceived by Belvedere-educated Declan Costello in the 1960s, aligned closely with Catholic social teaching after Vatican II, contemplating a society built on socialist principles, including state ownership of banks.

There are still Jesuits, such as the visionary Father Peter McVerry, who maintain a missionary vocation for social justice. But arguments for a fair distribution of wealth did not figure prominently during my own ‘Jesuit’ education, where charitable activities tended to be characterised by noblesse oblige, and an assumption that it was valuable to witness how ‘the other half’ lived. Class divisions were, if anything, upheld by an awareness of a pronounced economic fault line.

The 1990s was a peculiar era to be a teenager as Irish society embraced the conformities and staid hypocrisies, of 1950s America, which the beat poet Allen Ginsberg decried in his “Howl” (1954). He asked: “What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. In both, a hypocritical conformity was maintained. We abided: “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls”. Binge drinking – and later bad hashish – were our preferred responses to a creeping sense of purposelessness.

We stared agog at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and encountered foggy notions of an End of History. A pervasive popular culture, beholden to Mammon, including the exotic promise of sex in the sun played out on Australian soap operas, leached away instincts towards radical politics.

The Leaving Certificate-obsessed and rugby-besotted Gonzaga I encountered demanded a dull conformity that did not give room for progressive post-Catholic ideas to flourish. Free-ranging speculation of a sort associated with the intellectual, or poet, was widely scorned. We passed from strangling religiosity to Neoliberal vacancy without coming up for breath. This has hobbled some of our best minds.

Well before revelations of serious sexual misconduct, a Catholic ancien regime was already creaking, their pronouncements at odds with an upwardly-mobile generation of businessmen, who really ruled the roost. The emerging financial and technological sectors also boosted the professional classes, many of whose earnings spiralled.

Gonzaga College SJ is still among the leading all-male secondary schools in the country, claiming a thoroughbred stable of academics, lawyers, and politicians such as Anthony Clare, Michael McDowell, and Peter Sutherland, the so-called “father of globalisation”. A sense of meritocracy was based on an entrance exam and Leaving Certificate results that often bred a preening elitism, without consideration of the worth of either.

In my time, shades of Eton and Oxford co-habited with bog-Irish institutionalism, dissolving individuality into a corporate body toughened on rugby, and kept in check by cruel humour. Endowed with superficial polish, for many, meritocracy provided a fast train to plutocracy.

For ten years I spent most of my waking hours in a gilded cage: surveying the copper beech on the front lawn we were prohibited from setting foot on; running a gauntlet between the cynicism of peers and the naked ambition of certain teachers who saw students as examination numbers, or fodder for the rugby trenches. Fortunately I found interstices, where kindness and humour were weighed in the balance.

When I began the secondary cycle I dared opt out of playing rugby, and despite obtaining the necessary parental permission – I believe – I was selected for humiliation by the coach, who was also a teacher. As an awkward twelve-year-old I recall being ordered to stand with my back to the door for some minor infraction in one class. He warned menacingly that if anyone entered the room I would be stabbed in the kidneys by the knob. This version of Russian Roulette did not last long – the door never opened – but it had the desired effect.

In Gonzaga the real nastiness was expressed not in physical bullying but in contempt and exclusion – the not-so-subtle suggestion your face did not fit. This method honed a capacity for cutting speech advantageous in subsequent managerial careers. I acquired a forked tongue myself too, and am sadly aware that at times I threw my weight around.

Still, I recall tears welling inexplicably when it got too much. The memory of a “scrap” one lunchtime lingers. Tears flowed as a delighted crowd bellowed “AG-AGR-AGRO-AGRO”. My opponent repeatedly came at me with fists, which failed to land. I responded by putting him down with headlocks. At the end of ‘the fight’ he boasted he had won, because I had cried.

I hold an abiding image of stern-faced boys seated in rows down the classroom. Creative self-expression was left to a small group of self-identifying eccentrics who seemed unaffected by the constraints, but paid a price. They never had a hope with the local convent girls, put on occasional display as fragrant reward if you kept your head down, and kept shovelling at the Leaving Certificate pile.

Some years after leaving school, one of that rare breed was the random victim of what appears to have been a gangland initiation in windy Chicago. In my memory now he retains a mystic glow, insulating him from the petty egos in his midst: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”.

Another offbeat character from my class died of cancer last year. I still remember him standing up to a suburban bully intent on giving me a beating. But in school he would eventually face exclusion once the bitching started. I probably played my part.

I lived with a sense of being devoid of intelligence for many years. As a contrarian teenager I viewed homework with suspicion, but would work hard if I found a subject compelling. This brought inconsistency: I fell behind in mathematical subjects, whose contents read like manuals of machines I had no use for. The contest we were involved in required a loser, and that’s how exam results often portrayed me.

In later years, my worst experiences came in English class, where a teacher shredded my self-confidence as a writer. This in a subject that should have transcended the educational trough I felt I was feeding from. His poignant remark at the end sixth year was that he never liked me for accurately mimicking him.

We were embedded in the white noise of a Catholicism that had lost its lustre; chained to catechism that nobody bothered uttering. We bowed before creaking totems of authority, choking any wonder in a divine creation our youthful minds might have conjured. There were a few Jesuits still teaching in my time, but they had none of the vindictive clarity inspiring James Joyce’s Portrait. Instead we found inchoate conviction in some, and angry pedantry elsewhere; no manifest evil, but misplaced servitude.

For a period in the early part of my schooling, a cabal of rugby coach-teachers instituted a system of chastisement known as the “Levels” (proceeding unimaginatively from one to three), requiring us to copy out meaningless texts for designated offences. It was nostalgia for the biff on their part: offending boys were compelled to queue up after school to await the sanction, and its accompanying venom. It worked as well at rehabilitation as most forms of punishment.

The power of dominant teachers was inversely proportionate to the authority of those more sensitive, whose lives we made a misery. Our shrill arrogance is still probably ringing in their ears. Alas, the unquestioned authority of the disciplinarians demanded this sacrificial contrast.

Human warmth was rare in those insipid corridors, least of all in toilets emitting such noxious odours that some pupils avoided defecating over all their years in school. I took to smoking in the bike sheds as a palliative to the recurring blues of each morning’s bell summoning us to classrooms loaded with the tedium of the syllabus. The Leaving Certificate was a results business, and Gonzaga was primed for that purpose.

In a throwback to another age, Gonzaga maintained instruction in Classical languages. I revolted instinctively against Latin as the language of oppressive scholasticism, but at least I was exposed to the pagan marvels of ancient epic, when Classical Studies was introduced to those who bridled at conjugations. The muses whispered through the cracks of a frigid structure, their contemplation assisted in later years by a female teacher who brought quietly subversive, feminist ideas.

Another teacher I encountered with genuine charm taught biology. There at last wide-ranging speculation was permitted, of a type usually denied to us in religion classes. I became an atheist when the simplicity of genetic inheritance was explained, cohering with a growing contempt for an institution that drew legitimacy from blind faith.

Of course it could have been a lot worse, more violent anyway. For me at least, the first ever lay headmaster who arrived in my fourth year felt like a breath of fresh air, conveying a decency usually sorely lacking. An occasionally mincing authority figure, he probably made being gay seem less of a mortal sin. However, he might have contributed to the entrenched elitism of our “little Eton”.

School life grew more tolerable as the years passed: livelong summer afternoons playing pick-up games of football on the back pitches come to mind, and activities with neighbouring girl schools diluted the overpowering maleness. I rose to officer class, performing in plays, once even captaining a rugby team.

Thankfully, I was excluded from the full-blown hypocrisy of being made a prefect. This prohibition came about after a friend and I recited a salacious poem at an inter-school debate: “expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

In rugby, a sense of duty, not fun, was instilled, and certain coaches seemed to look favourably on a capacity for violence. In one senior second’s game I recall a member of our team kick an opponent full-force in the head. This required an ambulance to be called to the pitch. The next week the offender was elevated to the senior team.

I had been subjected to a similar attack in an earlier age group, when an opponent from another school stamped on my head, missing my left eye by half an inch. The next week I made my debut for the As, seemingly for sucking it up. Nevertheless I came to enjoy the game, on my own terms, mainly for the comraderie it brought.

I enjoyed the company of brilliant people growing up. Wits and raconteurs who would leave you breathless with laughter, but for anyone to emerge from that experience as an artist, or even entrepreneur, probably required purgation, and maybe a trip to a psychedelic Underworld. Sadly, great talent has been lost to artless corporate jobs. We were not encouraged to look askance at that grey world of conformity. It took me many years to escape that fate, and confront my background.


Children require space for new ideas to germinate, especially as the social and economic fabric of post-Second World War societies unravel under the weight of grotesque inequalities, climate chaos and the epistemological confusion wrought by the new medium of the Internet.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, all-male private schools have long incubated an upper stratum, who accumulate wealth and set cultural norms. But a simmering violence and sense of entitlement damages many students, ossifies class divisions and muzzles creativity.

I shudder to think of societies of hundreds of young boys co-existing for years without an admixture of femininity. Most of us hardly set eyes on girls of our own age, who were not family members, for months on end. Studious boys, especially, didn’t tend to hang out with other kids in their neighbourhoods. Many of us have, I think, found it difficult to develop meaningful friendships with that dangerous creature referred to as the “opposite sex”.

All-male educational institutions, including Gonzaga College SJ should be abolished altogether. Men may come together positively of course, even through rugby, but to segregate boys and girls from one another entirely throughout their formative years creates unhealthy gender divisions. Statistics show boys perform better academically in mixed environments, and measures need to be taken to address the growing preponderance of girls in higher education.

Moreover, when all-male environments coincide with wealth and privilege this taps into energies that are the source of much of the corruption in the world. This seems brutally apparent when the aggrieved male ‘winner’ brings a sense of entitlement into his sexual relations.

The damage to many boys is also apparent from the number of young men who commit suicide in a society where all-male education is the norm. Survival in that social milieu often demands emotional suppression: the tears that welled inside me were the accumulation of years spent in a setting where showing your feelings was a sign of weakness.

Embracing best practice would see all abilities being taught in a single classroom until the age of sixteen. This is what the Finns have done, while topping European league tables in reading and science for fifteen-year-olds. The great benefit of this approach is that weaker students “scaffold” their learning on those who excel. This could play a vital role in generating wider equality.

It seems an odd situation where the state pays the salaries of teachers alongside fees averaging €6,000 per annum for a private day school in Dublin. This is an added burden on anxious middle class parents who fret about their children being disadvantaged by attending a state school.

A Gonzaga education did not involve the infliction of torture on me – or any contemporaries I know of – unlike other institutions have done. But it is at the apex of an educational system that encourages a competitiveness that is the foundation of our growing inequalities, and where an often clandestine violence smoulders.

Gonzaga carried the pretence of a Liberal education with its copper beech and Classicisms, but it merely equipped some of us for financial success. It did little to encourage the pursuit of social justice the Jesuit order claims as their vocation. Moreover, originality was – in my team at least – conflated with rebelliousness. Above all, it strove for its pupils to achieve high Leaving Certificate grades, and pull with the team.

Gonzaga was the worst, precisely because it was the best where savagery was expressed in taunts rather than blows: the apotheosis of all-male private schooling justifying the rest.

Cassandra Voices

Dear followers,
Spring has sprung, though it’s hardly butterfly weather here in Dublin…
I hardly had a moment to write last month as I have been collaborating on another project called Cassandra Voices which is an online magazine and cultural space, where I have two new articles.
I will be publishing most of material on that site henceforth, so please don’t hesitate and check it out:
What is best about Cassandra is that it involves teamwork. Writing is such a lonesome business, so it has been great to collaborate with a photographer and a computer scientists to bring you the site.
Cassandra Voices will offer a forum for a wide variety of voices including my own. We aim to provoke but not gratuitously, and are quietly confident that this is the start of something significant. See for yourself.
All the best

Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Is Veganism Compatible with being Pro-Choice?

Last month I attended a protest in Dublin against slaughterhouses, where the impassioned cry rang out: ‘HUMANE MEAT IS A LIE. NO ANIMAL WANTS TO DIE’. I am guessing the vast majority of that crowd was pro-Choice, as I am myself. But I wonder is there a contradiction if we urge people to stop killing other animals, but remain silent on the plight of a foetus on which (or whom?) an abortion is informed? Like it or not we are dealing with a sentient being, albeit one that is dependent on its mother.

I am proceeding with care here, conscious that as a man I will never have to make a decision as to whether another human being is allowed to grow inside my body. Nonetheless, I feel bound to tease out this ethical question.

An obvious response might be that this is a matter of bodily integrity, and that anyone should have a choice as to what they do with their own body. But isn’t that the same argument the meat eaters uses when he says: ‘It’s fine you being Vegan but I don’t want to be told what I can or cannot eat.’

For the purpose of this argument let me set up an idealised scenario: a world where Vegan values are incorporated into the law, and where it becomes a crime, ultimately enforced by the violence of a state apparatus, for anyone knowingly to kill or otherwise harm another sentient being, apart from in cases of self-defence, or perhaps survival.

I reckon many, if not most, Vegans would be in favour of laws protecting other animals from human use, although I recognise there are Veg-anarchists out there too, who have a problem with the idea of any state using the violence necessary to uphold laws.

For those Vegans (including myself) broadly in favour of state laws, protecting other animals from human beings using them for meat and other purposes, I ask: what protection would you afford to a foetus growing inside a woman? After all, if you aren’t going to eat honey for the sake of the bee, wouldn’t you extend rights to an immature member of your own species?

But as I said, I remain pro-Choice. Ethical questions are never straightforward and any law we contemplate must operate in real life circumstances, not in
Utopian scenarios. I have found a caveat which keeps me pro-Choice.

Even some of those opposed to abortion on demand accept that where a woman is raped and becomes pregnant she should have a right to terminate the pregnancy.

It would seem intolerable for society to tell a woman that she is obliged to carry a foetus for nine months, and give birth, in those circumstances, as is the case in Ireland today. Thus, a woman’s right to bodily integrity would trump any countervailing right of a foetus.

But the problem for those who are conceding a right to abortion on those grounds is working out how a woman should go about proving rape in order to have a right to that abortion. Even for a woman, or girl, to acknowledge to herself, and her family, that she has been raped may, in some circumstances, be traumatic. How can you then ask her to sign blithely on a dotted line that she has been violated, or otherwise make a declaration to that effect?

Would a criminal investigation then proceed after a declaration of rape occurs? This could have the effect of leading women to make false allegation of rape in order to get an abortion, which might even cause men to be wrongfully prosecuted. It would be a complete legal minefield if this were to be the exception to the general rule that abortion should not be allowed on demand.

This is a violent world we live in. Rape is far from being an unusual crime. One in five Irish women have experienced sexual violence, and the #metoo phenomenon has exposed the extent to which women feel obliged to perform sexual acts in order to advance their careers, which is not far off being rape.

Put simply, in the world we live in today, abortion is a necessary evil and a form of self-defence for women against predatory men. The rape exception leads to an all-encompassing right.

A major problem with the abortion debate in Ireland is that the media set up binary positions that narrow the debate unsatisfactorily. This fails to acknowledge wider questions on sexuality, gender roles and reproduction.

Newspapers are commercial enterprises that dangle click bait that appeal to the narrow opinions on each side. The difficulties are compounded by an adversarial legal culture that sets protagonists against one another, and pollutes the body politic.

The debate should not descend into polarities. There are quite disturbing scenarios where abortion might be co-opted into the design of offspring, selected for good looks, athleticism or intelligence; an extension of how the cosmetic industry help us design our bodies, for a fee of course. The superficiality of debate is symptomatic of the Neoliberal zeitgeist of dissonance; neither side acknowledging the arguments of the opponents, thereby preventing a progressive synthesis from emerging.

Justice emerges through observation and experience of the world around us. Instead of tablets of stone containing commandments for all time, we should find the language of justice inscribed on organic materials that alter with circumstances. These insights may be illuminated in the same silence that is necessary for poetic inspiration.

I remain pro-Choice and favour repeal of the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution.

The End of Vegetarianism?

The End of Vegetarianism?

Vegetarianism is an increasingly old-fashioned affectation, fading from popularity like trouser braces and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. There are many still around, but the idea of someone going vegetarian is, frankly, a bit quaint. Nowadays someone with serious qualms about what human beings are doing to other animals proceeds directly to Veganism. As we say goodbye, it is worth considering a noble history, and the compelling case for those remaining Vegetarians to embrace Veganism.

In an excellent history of Vegetarianism, spanning three millennia, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (1993), Colin Spencer describes it as one of the signs of a radical thinker: ‘the individual who criticises the status quo, who desires something better, more humane and more civilised for the rest of society.’ This he says: ‘makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively’, leading ‘to persecution, suppression and ridicule’, in the West.

Thus a sign of the Cathar ‘heresy’ – a religion that grew up in Europe during the Middle Ages – was abstaining from consuming another animal’s flesh. They were suppressed unmercifully in a thirteenth century Crusade lasting twenty years. Ridicule became the dominant idiom of opposition in more recent times, when even an otherwise enlightened figure such as George Orwell described a vegetarian as: ‘a person out of touch with common humanity’.

The term itself is of relatively recent provenance, dating from the foundation of the Vegetarian Society in 1847 by William Horsell and others in London. Up to then, those who renounced eating flesh were known as ‘Pythagoreans’ in Europe, after the fifth century Greek mystic who also laid the mathematical foundations for Western music. To some extent there was no need for the term until that point as meat was usually a rare commodity for anyone outside the nobility, at least until the Second Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century.

Nineteenth century vegetarians also encountered Indian approaches to food inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism. Unlike in the West the highest Brahmin caste in India had always refrained from eating meat. Thus, immigrants from the sub-continent brought a refined ‘vegetarian’ cuisine from East to West, whereas in Europe plant-based dishes had generally been associated with the poor. But North Indian cuisine also included dairy produce, especially ghee or clarified butter, from cows that were considered sacred. This allowed an animal foodstuff to fly under the ethical radar of Vegetarian where the humane treatment of cows was not a religious imperative, giving rise to the ethical confusion of modern-day Vegetarianism.

In Europe during the middle ages milk products from cows and other ruminants were recognised as equivalent to meat, and referred to as ‘white meats’, or ‘bàn bídh’ in Irish. Their artisanal production of dairy, beloved of the organic-obsessive middle class consumer today, required a high level of brutality to function efficiently. In the 1st century AD the Roman poet Ovid compares the love-sick groans of the god Apollo to those of a young cow when ‘she sees the hammer come crashing down into the rounded skull of her own suckling calf.’

The necessity of exterminating male calves, or raising them in cages for veal meat, imports a level of brutality into the dairy system that was recognised by the Ancients. Modern agriculture, creates suffering for cows on an industrial scale, with calves swiftly seized after birth to prevent bonding with their mothers’. Relief is only found in the abattoir for mother and child. But modern agriculture is mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Dairy cows find themselves in a uniquely horrific system of agriculture. According to John Webster Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol: ‘The high-yielding dairy cow is, by some distance, the most hard-worked of any animal (including human animals) and it is little surprise that so many succumb to a number of production diseases and have to be culled after a working life that can be nasty, brutish and far too short to make sense even by the crudest of economic measures.’

He continues: ‘The cow must consume an amount of feed six times that required for bodily maintenance and her work load (heat production) exceeds twice that of maintenance’ The only animal species he found that used more energy were certain birds while feeding their chicks. Overworked and unloved, dairy cows suffer an array of ailments and most are slaughtered after three lactations. Lameness afflicts 25% of ‘high genetic merit’ dairy cows while mastitis is a recurring problem.

Not all of Ireland’s dairy farms are as brutal as the intensive farms in the US or UK, but many of the larger ones are. Moreover, all farm enterprises operate under an economic imperative of economic growth, and increased yields and efficiencies are mainly achieved through cruel methods, including automation.

There are also significant hidden costs to society. Cows are treated prophylactically with antibiotics, which has emerged as a serious problem for human health with antibiotic-resistance passing into the food chain. According to the UK’s chief medical officer it poses a ‘catastrophic threat’, and up to 25,000 patients are dying from antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains in Europe each year. A cut knee could lead to untimely death. In Ireland veterinary antibiotics are used without veterinary oversight, with as many as 100 tonnes sold each year.

Cows are also fed genetically modified feed, which may damage human health as 85% of the worldwide cultivated crops are tolerant of ‘Roundup’, a herbicide containing glyphosphate. One percent of the glyphosphate remains in the body a week after exposure, and according to a report by the Heinrich Boll foundation: ‘There is evidence that glyphosphate affects the human hormone system, which can cause irreversible effects at particular life stages, such as pregnancy.’ A convenient loophole in EU labeling allows meat, dairy and eggs to be sold without a GM labeling.

Some vegetarians are wary of renouncing dairy for health reasons, despite its novelty in the human diet. Its purported benefits are usually ascribed to a high content of dietary calcium, recommended for reducing the risk of osteoporosis. But a Harvard study of male health professionals and female nurses showed that individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than those who drank two or more glasses per week.

The Harvard School of Public Health cite lactose intolerance, high saturated fat content, possible increased risk of ovarian cancer, and probable increased risk of prostate cancer as reasons for avoiding dairy produce altogether. They say that dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens, and dried beans and legumes are healthier sources of calcium.

By eating dairy produce we consume a foodstuff intended for calves that grow to a weight of almost a tonne. That explains why the protein content of cow’s milk is twice as high as that contained in human milk, the ideal food for infants up to two. The consumption in infancy of high protein cow’s milk also correlates with childhood obesity.

The wider environmental damage of the dairy industry in a country such as Ireland is difficult to quantify, but environmental scientists are making headway. As Stuart Miekle writes: ‘A broader audience is going to become aware that intensive grass production in wet climates may, on the surface, seem to provide cheap dairy products, but add in the externalities, and cheap they are not.’

The good news is that a range of faux dairy products are taking the place of dairy products – an increasing number of plant-based cheeses – despite the best efforts of the industry to insist that without their elixir bones shatter like glass at the slightest impact.

Vegetarians are generally conscientious people who instinctively reject the inherent violence of animal agriculture. Over the coming years, it seems likely that many will accept the moral logic of that position and go all the way to Veganism.

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

Veganism Cost Me Dream Job

By 2009 I was ‘tripping the light fantastic’ as a journalist in the UK. I had landed a gig reviewing restaurants for the Spectator Magazine that once involved flying on a four-seater jet to France to sample the full range of Courvoisier’s Cognac. But as much as I reveled in luxurious dining a sense of guilt gnawed at the inequalities all too apparent on the streets of London: leaving the warmth of gastronomic hot spots, human misery was there for anyone to see.

Interrogating the environmental impact of the global food industry gave me further grounds for concern. In particular, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma opened my eyes to the damage done by industrial farming, especially of livestock. Anyway, beneath a veneer of glamour I was being paid pittance for my writing, and with an increasingly threadbare wardrobe I was looking for a way home to Ireland.

On the back of teaching experience, and articles that were offering a more scholarly angle on food, I was given an opportunity to teach a course in UCD on the history of food. I also managed to get in on reviewing Irish restaurants for a well-known publication. The more I learnt the more my unease grew with the way the Irish food ‘story’ was being communicated through the media.

So six years ago I decided to quit eating meat. But in order to keep going as a restaurant reviewer – arbitrarily I see now – I continued occasionally consuming dairy products. I managed to get through a few reviews by carefully selecting restaurants with plenty of vegetarian options at a time when there were still no exclusively vegan restaurants in Dublin. But my decision came to a head when I visited Aniar in Galway which purports to present a menu based almost exclusively on Irish ingredients. Their head chef J.P. McMahon is a columnist for the meat-promoting Irish Times Magazine.

By then I had almost completely excluded dairy, and after the meal in Aniar I developed a sickness in my body, which reflected the unease of my soul. So I decided to assert the harsh truth: ‘In recent times native chefs have begun to forge an awareness of the best of Irish, but the gastronomic limitations of our agriculture which places focus on a limited number of commodities, mostly for export, is apparent.’ I then let slip that I had already given up meat and fish.

It is fair to say that my review got a bit caustic after that. I said chefs should not confuse vegetarians with ascetics, and that the lesser caloric value of most plants means that portions should, if anything, be larger than their meat and fish alternatives. I complained that I had received sufficient barley to thread a pearl necklace, which at €18.50 seemed pretty steep.

After filing the review I got no reply from the editor, and was saddled with the expenses from the outing. I did later recover them when my sister, a fellow journalist, met the editor of the magazine, still a well-known food writer, and demanded I should be paid.

It was a form of liberation to be able to write without fear of losing that little sinecure, and I was free to adopt a fully Vegan diet, or philosophy to put it more accurately. I could then let fly with a series of articles drawing attention to the grave damage that Irish farming is doing to our environment.

Not long afterwards I lost my job in UCD. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with my increasingly radical critique of Irish food and farming. So I had to develop career alternatives after that.

Over five years have passed since then, and I have passed through a number of stages as a Vegan. First came self-righteousness. The first Christmas I went to war with the rest of my family over having a turkey on the table. I reduced one of my sisters to tears, and even refused to sit down with them for the meal. It wasn’t pretty, and I realised that approach did nothing to advance my cause.

Next came evangelical zeal. I have long been an enthusiastic cook, so having worked out a number of interesting recipes I began hosting concerts in my parent’s home accompanied by suppers. I hope I opened up a few minds to the possibility of making really delicious meals purely from plant-based ingredients. Some incredible Irish musicians performed in the house, including the late great Louis Stewart – a short film was made of his first concernt. I went on to organise national tours for another band the Loafing Heroes who played in the house.

New interests arrived, and I passed into another stage that of Denial. I no longer wanted to be associated with Veganism, even though I maintained the philosophy, and the hours slaving in the kitchen for little reward brought little satisfaction. I had had enough of being the evangelist and moved to Prague for a year to focus on other writing and teaching.

Having returned to Dublin the stage I have entered is a more integrated form I call Acceptance. I no longer see attitudes to Veganism as a moral index – there are many other worthy causes – but I still earnestly wish that more would adopt the abolitionist philosophy, for the sake of the billions of domesticated animals cruelly incarcerated, and the damage animal agriculture does to the environment, not to mention human health.

Not long ago, a friend who recently converted to Veganism said something quite telling to me: ‘I would have gone Vegan ages ago, but I felt like you would have won the argument’. It shows that it is not good enough simply to win an argument. Everyone should hold on to their principles, but we can accept that even close friends and family may need time to adjust their moral lenses. You don’t need to give up the fight, but don’t target individuals for systemic failings.

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

Unionists are seen as Irish ‘White Trash’

By 1900, when Joyce and Yeats were strutting the streets of Dublin, Belfast had a higher population. Moreover, Ireland is the only country in the world with a lower population now than in the early 1840s. The extensive livestock agriculture that dominated after the Great Famine depends on low labour inputs for profitability, and the Industrial Revolution never took off. Apart, that is, from in the north-east corner where Belfast was the industrial powerhouse in which the Titanic was built.

Today, like many other former industrial regions across an archipelago commonly referred to as ‘the British Isles’, Belfast and its hinterland has fallen into seemingly irreversible decline. A succession of industries have departed, notably the Harland and Wolff plant, while efforts in the 1980s to resuscitate a flagging economy, such as the arrival of the DeLorean motor factory, failed spectacularly. Of course the Troubles played a significant role in turning the Northern Irish economy into a basket case dependent on subsidies from HM’s government, but this stagnation has more to do with Belfast being a part of the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, like other post-Industrial cities across the North of England. The peace dividend in Northern Ireland was negligible, and even after s spectacular economic crash the Irish Republic is considerably richer.

Working class Protestant and Unionist communities also lack a tradition of prizing academic education, while historically even poor Catholic family, across Ireland, would have been accustomed to having a bright son study for the priesthood or enter the civil service. Leaving school at a young age to enter into an industrial job was linked to religious affiliation in Northern Ireland, where Catholics were often discriminated against. ‘Low church’ Protestantism tended to encourage education to a point where a person could read the bible in their vernacular. Catholicism on the other hand invited scholarship in a number of languages, as well as surveying a philosophical tradition dating back to Aristotle. This brought Irish Catholics into the mainstream of European culture.

The dominance of the Catholic Church over education in the Republic permitted terrible abuses, but religious orders played an important role in educating a population much of which was living in poverty, at least until the 1960s. Alongside the introduction of free secondary education under Donnacha O’Malley in 1966, this provided the intellectual capital for the emergence of the Celtic Tiger.

Until the late 1990s, Ireland was a highly conservative society by European standards, with divorce permitted only after a referendum in 1996, but since then the liberal intelligentsia have become the dominant force politically. The Marriage Equality Referendum revealed the increasing dominance of liberal ideas in mainstream media and politics. The victory of the unapologetically gay and half-Indian Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership election this year, and his subsequent popularity, appeared to reveal the Irish as a cosmopolitan outward-looking people; although continued absence of access to abortion in the Republic puts the state at odds with most other countries.

Having secured peace through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the gun seemed to have been finally taken out of all-Ireland politics, and since then Southern Irish liberals have tended to ignore the North. Most Dublin people I know have absolutely no interest in visiting there either, even though it’s only a couple of hours away. But Brexit and the prior collapse of the Northern Executive has re-acquainted liberal Ireland with the Northern Question, just as Westminster is now haunted once again by its own existential Irish Question.

It is hardly surprising that the DUP, which now represents the main body of working class Unionists, aligned itself with the Brexiteers in the UK. Lest we forget, Brexit was to some extent the revolt of the English working class who were doing poorly under the Common Market. Cities such as Sunderland (61%) and Hull (67%), structurally, and in religious makeup, similar to Belfast, voted by large majorities to leave the Union.

There were many reasons for Brexit, and also for the success of Trump, not least the cognitive unwinding that seems to have come about in the first wave of the Internet Revolution. The sounds chambers of social media seem to have amplified grievances and opinions. Liberal and Conservative have each become more shrill in their condemnation of one another, epitomised by Hilary Clinton’s condemnation of ‘the basket of deplorables’ who supported Trump.

This may have helped Trump’s side characterise themselves as defenders of a put-upon common man in states such as Pennsylvania. Liberal condemnation of the ‘white’ working class is common across Europe, as any defence of cultural relativism excusing their conduct does not usually apply. Simon Kuper observed in the Financial Times (17/2/16) when visiting white working class areas in Manchester and Lyon that he: ‘hadn’t realised just how much the white working classes are mocked.’ They can be referred to as ‘chavs’ in Britain, ‘white trash’ in the US and, sometimes ‘beaufs’ (‘oiks’) in France: ‘“Poverty porn” TV shows make fun of supposedly lazy, half-witted, track-suited scroungers.’ As a result: ‘Many poor whites complain that the “elite” care about ethnic minorities and gay people but not about them.’ This old-fashioned social snobbery is often evident in ‘respectable’ journalism, and its ventilation does not breach the same taboo as racism.

In the Irish media and politics the DUP are often portrayed as equivalent to a white trash on the economic scrapheap, with their noxious homophobia and ludicrous low church Protestantism. The high priest of Irish liberalism Fintan O’Toole often subjects them to ridicule, which falls short of outright abuse. Thus he wrote in June:

Dante and Beatrice. Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Cyrano and Roxane. Don Quixote and Esmeralda. These unrequited loves have great poignancy. But they’ve nothing on the tenderest, most poignant tale of unrequited love in our times, the tragically one-sided crush the DUP has on Britain.

He takes an unseemly glee at their political naivete:

It is one thing to be infatuated with someone who just ignores you. The unfulfilled love retains its bittersweet purity, its dreamy half-life of pure possibility. But the true tragedy occurs when your love is apparently consummated at last and you find that the loved one really despises you. The DUP has long dreamed of being wrapped fully in the warm embrace of the Tory world with which it strives so hard to identify. And now, miraculously, its moment has come. But the loved one is thinking of England, sneaking glances at her watch and praying “Oh god! When will this be over?”

The commonalities between the English working class ‘chav’ and the DUP ‘trash’ become more apparent:

does it [the DUP] notice that, even as the Tory party clasps it to its bosom, the lack of enthusiasm would be scarcely less evident if the Tories were wearing rubber gloves and surgical masks? They are not swooning with love, they are fainting with revulsion. The DUP may think it is coming home; most Tories think the mad woman has come out of the attic of an old hyper-Protestant British identity and is sitting in the parlour demanding tea and scones with lots of jam and a bucket of clotted cream. She has to be humoured for now, but only until there is some way to get rid of her.

O’Toole has also been a trenchant critic of the inequalities that beset ‘liberal’ Ireland, but an article he wrote in June for the New York Times puts a rather different spin on modern Ireland. He wonders whether Irish people should be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we ask whether the Brexit-voting English are fit for self-government, and refers to Theresa May government’s reliance in Westminster on a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, that trades on a ‘backward expression’ of British and Protestant identity.

He contrasts this with Dublin where a new prime minister Leo Varadkar is 38, half-Indian and gay, as well as being ‘leader of what is traditionally the most conservative of the Irish political parties, Fine Gael, long a bastion of Catholic moral values.’ Irish people he says ‘like him or dislike him to the extent that they like or dislike his party and the minority government it leads. The rest is just personal detail, interesting but of minor significance.’ Surprisingly, there is no mention of Varadkar’s conduct as Minister for Social Protection when he launched a campaign against ‘welfare cheats’, which seemed a calculated appeal to his own thrusting constituency.

Moreover, I am not convinced the Catholic Right has been completely extinguished from Irish politics. Overall, I find the tone unsettling: the division between the backward DUP, and the suave cosmopolitan Irish, epitomised by Mr Varadkar. O’Toole also reminds his American readers that Varadkar is a doctor now faced ‘with a neighbor going through a nervous breakdown’, which, ‘will need his best bedside manner.’ The intellectual gap is emphasised, but O’Toole must surely recognise that the shrill superiority of the liberal emboldens the reactionary.

One senses that this is a journalist playing to his gallery, and, frankly, seeking clicks online. An intellectual such O’Toole can do better. Indeed, one of the reasons why the DUP scuppered Theresa May’s first attempt to agree on terms with her European counterparts may have the crowing from the Irish media, not just of politicians.

On RTE’s Liveline, where our old friend Damien O’Reilly was sitting in for Joe Duffy, a pro-Remain Unionist guest, Will Taylor, told the aspiring shock-jock that ‘the example you give is almost inflammatory’. O’Toole himself, in reaction to the final agreement, triumphantly wrote: ‘To adapt Henry Ford, Britain can have any Brexit it likes, so long as it is green.’

I would like to see a United Ireland come about in my lifetime because I think the presence of a border represents a failure to reconcile diverging ideas. I believe the industrious Unionist people have a lot to offer the Republic; Protestant rationality has bred technical acumen that seems to have missing since the inception of the Irish state. I also suggest that stolid working class Unionist values would not have permitted the level of mendaciousness which has been tolerated of politicians in this Republic. The great tragedy of Irish history in my view is the failure of the United Irishmen of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter to remain a political force.

And let us not delude ourselves as O’Toole seems to be in some of his gushing articles in the foreign press, the Liberal, or really Neoliberal, Ireland of Varadkar is a country increasingly short on compassion for the poor. Health and education provision are steadfastly two tier, and if you don’t work in the corporate sector there is little chance of you even being able to afford to rent a house in Dublin’s city centre. The streets of Dublin are still filled with human casualties that hark back to a time when the city had comparably poverty to Calcutta, and the area beyond the Pale never recovered from the Crash. Varadkar’s only ideological commitment is to people who get up early in the morning, like himself.

While rejecting their xenophobia and homophobia, I suggest Irish politics could benefit from integrating working class values and technical skills. It might even be able to stop looking at Brexit as an earth-shattering calamity, but an expression of British exceptionalism that was never going to be accommodated in an ever-closer European Union.

I even dream of a time in Ireland when social discontents are no longer channelled through parties that draw their identities from approaches to the national question, from Fine Gael through to the DUP. If anyone wants to see a United Ireland they should be receptive to the Unionist identity, and failure to accommodate this is also a failure of imagination.

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

Paradise Papers, ‘Regulatory Capture’ and Democracy

We may fulminate against a corrupt nexus connecting multinational capital and a deep state, but identifying clear illegality is more difficult. The collapse of the Anglo-Irish trials shows ‘white collar’ crime is difficult to prosecute. This is because much of what is widely considered immoral behaviour falls short of criminality.

The generally accepted distinction here is between tax evasion and tax avoidance, the latter of which can be technically compliant. Transactions exposed in the Paradise Papers were, it may be assumed, largely in the category of tax avoidance.

A number of Irish Times journalists participated on a transnational investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), yielding evidence of companies and individuals – including U2’s Bono – channelling of assets or income through countries with low taxation regimes. These transactions were undertaken, in many instances, on the advice of one or other of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms in the world.

A particular specialism of these firms is to advise clients how to transfer assets between jurisdictions so as to avoid tax liabilities. Highly-educated individuals develop esoteric legal instruments and mathematical models that would defy the comprehension of most of us.

Such expertise also calls for intimate knowledge of the practical workings of a particular fiscal agency in a given country. This may lead to ‘Regulatory Capture’, which has been observed across a range of sectors including Pharma and Transport.

It could cover a situation where an individual gains experience in the state sector – working for NAMA say – leaves his job and then takes up employment in an accountancy or other advisory firm. Direct conflicts of interest, which could give rise to illegality, are naturally avoided; so-called gardening leave may even be demanded in some cases. But intimate knowledge of the workings of state institutions – and perhaps continued social relations – is of great value when it comes to a firm advising a client on how they should go about doing business anywhere, including Ireland.

Niamh Callaghan describes ‘regulatory capture’, as being where: ‘one operator in the market uses its influence or resources to extract a regulatory decision, or lack of decision, for their own benefit rather than the benefit of society as a whole’. It is a form of lobbying that is not subject to legal controls and disclosure requirements, for the benefit of a particular company or sector.

With these lenses I perused a recent opinion article in the Irish Times by Padraig Cronin of the accountancy firm Deloitte, one of the ‘top 5’ accountancy firms mentioned in the Paradise Papers. It is also noteworthy that the Irish Times Opinion Editor John McManus worked with the ICIJ.

As a long-time observer, and recent contributor, to this page I see an attempt to strike a balance between left and right views, although this occurs in a newspaper with a structural reliance on generally multinational commercial advertisers. This inevitably affects editorial positioning, favouring broad acceptance of the fiscal status quo, including our low corporation tax regime.

One can imagine that Deloitte contacted the Irish Times and argued that the editor, in the interest of balance, should carry an article representing their views, which would provide a balance to the paper’s coverage.

In the article that was accepted, Vice-Chairman Padraig Cronin begins by counselling that business operates best when there is legal certainty. On the surface, this is reasonable, but he also implies that no government should endeavour to change our fiscal regime. His rationale is: ‘Ultimately, the private sector creates jobs and opportunities, with government policy being the key enabler.’

The characterisation of government as “enabler”, and the private sector creator as “creator” of jobs and opportunities is a profoundly ideological statement, disregarding the creative work the state does in a whole range of sectors. A teacher is surely a creator of jobs and opportunities for a student, however deficient our Leaving Certificate regime.

In many of the most developed European states disproportionately large state sectors exist, and no business without a private security force could operate without a state holding a monopoly on violence in a given territory. Private enterprise may have an important role in harnessing human creativity, but a state can generate economic activity without private enterprise, however inefficiently, whereas private enterprise requires a state to operate.

Mr Cronin justifies the ‘various complex but legal methods used by businesses and individuals to minimise their tax bills’, meaning the bespoke advice on tax avoidance that firms such as his own offer at a rate no ordinary person could afford. The rule of law that underpins these methods is then referred to as ‘a key foundation stone of democracy’.

There is, however, a distinction between the Rule of Law and positive law. The idea of the Rule of Law was conceived in Classical antiquity by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, who said: ‘True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrong-doing by its prohibitions.’ Positive law, on the other hand, is any law, however unjust, which is passed by a legislature, carried out by an executive and upheld by a judiciary.

Mr Cronin also contends that ‘it is the role of an elected government to fulfill the wishes of an electorate as regards what the laws (including on taxation) should be’; followed by: ‘it would undermine the democratic model if corporate behaviour were judged not against how well it complied with the law, but against more subjective criteria and opinions.’

This is disingenuous, to say the least. The vast majority of voters in elections have little idea of how different tax codes work, which is why these specialists can charge such high fees for their services. Moreover, any bill that passes through Dail Eireann is the legacy of not only Dail committees, but also the oversight of civil service draftsmen and the influence of lobbyists; we also know that voting populations are easily manipulated, especially by those with deepest pockets.

Democracy, to quote Churchill is the ‘least worst system’, so let’s not pretend otherwise. In Ireland, as many environmentalists find, it takes an exhausting level of effort to bring stories that do not reflect well on big business to public attention.

Yet another contradiction emerges when Mr Cronin urges the government to make a long-term commitment to follow recommendations of the ‘OECD-sponsored base-erosion and profit-shifting (Beps) process’. These are non-binding legal instruments which purport to close off tax loop holes in participating states. Leaving aside the democratic oversight he previously urged, he argues that to ‘ensure it obtains a fair share of the increased tax take of this state must move at the same pace as other countries while maintaining its competitiveness as a location.’

He is now saying it is the OECD’s advice we should heed, and we may assume there is no better organisation than a top-5 accountancy firm to guide any client on what will emerge from the research of this transnational agency. But an important caveat is added: “while maintaining its [Ireland’s] competitiveness as a location”. A pro-business (or really pro-multinational) exception, maintaining our low rate of corporation tax, is thus lodged in his submission alongside (or perhaps at variance with) OECD recommendations.

The next paragraph speaks directly to Taoiseach Varadkar, calling for an examination of our tax strategy, presumably insofar as it relates to the “competitiveness” exception rather than adhering to OECD recommendations. Has democratic accountability asserted itself over OECD recommendations again?

In the most brazen passage of the article he writes: ‘If we do not do so we might all be “getting up early in the morning to work hard” but others could be eating our lunch.’ Cronin seems unaware that that is precisely the purpose of taxation: to ensure the poorest can eat lunch even if they are out of work, or homeless.

A coded message then seems apparent when he says: ‘Ireland now needs to determine how it will play to win within the evolving Beps framework’. What exactly does “playing to win” mean in this context? I suspect it relates to regulatory capture; dangling long-term incentives to officials of the Irish state in their negotiations with officials from other jurisdictions in order to manipulate a favourable tax regime.

Cronin returns to the theme of certainty in the closing paragraphs, calling for the government to set out a road map to 2030 that would bind future administrations: ‘sticking to it would send a powerful message to the business community that it should feel it is safe to get on with business and underpin economic growth’.

An earlier appeal to democracy is forgotten once again when he argues: ‘knee-jerk reactions by governments are bad for business, certainly with a knock-on negative impact on economic growth. We need to avoid these’. In other words: democracy is fine when it works to our advantage.

I also wonder who he means by “we”? Is that the Irish people living in a period of stark income inequality, or is he referring to the plutocratic circles in which he presumably moves?

Less damningly, he refers to research by OECD showing that a greater focus on consumption and property taxes would be more equitable than increasing income tax, again ‘while maintaining a competitive corporate tax regime’. Disregarding the bias of someone who undoubtedly enjoys a six-figure income there is merit to higher property taxes, particularly on unoccupied properties, while Carbon and Sugar taxes are eminently sensible. But he appears to be advising that low corporation tax regime should be defended at all costs.

He concludes with a slightly forlorn request that companies playing: ‘by these rules should be allowed to get on with business without fear of criticism.’ He seems to saying: stop investigating our activities because what we are doing is legal.

Accountancy firms such as Deloitte have been subjected to stinging criticism in the UK over the Paradise Papers, and not just by Labour leaders. Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: ‘Some years ago it emerged the big banks were facilitating tax avoidance and a code of conduct was introduced. It’s surprising and regrettable that accountants have seemingly failed to take the hint and carried on regardless.’

Even Justine Greening, the education secretary, acknowledged on BBC’s Question Time: ‘As we close down these [tax avoidance] schemes, accountants and lawyers will try and find out new ones, and that is why this business is never really complete.’

The evidence which has come from the Paradise Papers regarding Deloitte and other accountancy firms does not appear to involve illegality. For a firm such as Deloitte to advise a client to commit a criminal offence would be bad for business, and in any case, often unnecessary. This should be the case in Ireland where a multinational-friendly fiscal regime is already in place, but even then companies such as Apple have managed to pay virtually no corporation tax. Regulatory Capture, along with the best professional minds, allows firms such as Deloitte to develop greater acquaintance than even the government on the import of the state’s tax codes.

The rewarding of individuals in the state sector who work on behalf of private interests is almost untraceable. The pay-off may come much later in the form of a directorship or other sinecure. It might never arrive. But, we can assume that within the state sector a certain ideological conformity underpins the perseverance of sacred cows such as a low corporation tax regime, protection of which seemed to have been the government’s one red line during the bank bailout negotiations.

Whether a different Ireland can be built, one that is not a tax haven for multinationals, is rarely considered. A substantial, though diminishing, upper middle class does well under the current regime, while both of the main political parties favour the current model. I wonder can we imagine another kind of Ireland.

The Technological Savage

The Technological Savage

(Published in the Dublin Review of Books, December 2017)

In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US President threatens to ‘totally destroy’ another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.

Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a ‘technological savage’. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies, and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc, while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hariri: ‘by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.’ Science must be reconciled to these objectives.

Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes such that Nuclear Powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but none between members of the nuclear ‘club’, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a ‘rogue’ state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring ‘leader of the free world’ at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.

Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that ‘the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb’. He admits the assessment may be naïve and, since the success of Trump and other ‘morons’, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash a dread spectre. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.

The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States of States took on the role of Global Policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.

Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the Committee than a reflection of that NGOs ability to enter popular consciousness.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. ‘At the time’, according to Amitav Ghosh, ‘there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction’.

The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: ‘When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair’.

Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that ‘future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.’ In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in a the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse the monster announces:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.

Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genii is put inside the bottle, and humanity might endure. If only it was so easy.

A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.

In Terminator II (1991) the leading engineer of cyborg technology Miles Bennett Dyson takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzneigger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.

In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.

Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely enquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb (1995) presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Harry S. Bryant ordered bombs to be dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of ‘the before and after’ this terrifying exhibition of this technology.

History reveals that once one power acquires a new weapon whether it is the horse, the canon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertilizer from natural gas.

This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanization and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Similarly, the Internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media has facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US President is a master of the short written form of the tweet, and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the Internet have created an propagandistic monster, which threatens nuclear Armageddon.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man Charles Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:

Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.

Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chance of someone dying in violent circumstances has diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.

Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide.

An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.

We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: ‘the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer’.

According to Hariri what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.

Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing ‘good’ in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy.

There are now over seven billion humans in world which have a combined weight 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.

Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: ‘over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.’ We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually as Hariri indicates, this ‘orgy of reckless consumption’, may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many Climate Scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?

There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents has got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternative, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.

According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: ‘the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science’ She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine ‘several different methods belonging to different disciplines.’ She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, so she argues.

The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where according to Richard Feynman: ‘There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two department of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other’. Similarly, Einstein wrote that ‘specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker’, adding that ‘since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more’!

Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: ‘many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.’ The education system as it is currently ordered ill-equips them for this role.

Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that ‘it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen’. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.

More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.

But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.


Beyond #Metoo: From Hippies to Yuppies

Beyond #Metoo: From Hippies to Yuppies

On December 1st, 2017, the Irish Times carried an account of on an 11-year old girl who took her life weeks after posting a message on Instagram saying she was unhappy with her appearance and wanted to die. Prior to this she had written what appeared to be a suicide diary, self-harmed and scrawled ‘beautiful girls don’t eat’ along her arm.

Separately, the same edition reported that a jury convicted a man in his mid-30s of a sexual assault that occurred during a date arranged through the Tinder dating app. The woman in her early-30s – a foreign national learning English in Ireland – believed she was meeting him for a coffee. The man told Gardai he was under the impression it was a ‘hook-up’ for sex. She testified that the assault began after she rebuffed his advances to kiss her while they were sitting in his BMW in the grounds of University College Dublin.

Use of social media is notable in each case, but these tools amplify, rather than rupture, pre-existing tendencies in each gender. More poignantly, both lay bare pathological expressions of male and female sexuality in our time. The harrowing tale of the young girl reflects how many women feel under to reach an unattainable ideal of beauty. Young age heightened her vulnerability to social media, bringing premature exposure to dominant expressions of femininity. This is a manipulated demand for a highly cultivated beauty; which in a consumer society is perceived to be purchased, including through plastic surgery.

The tale of the Tinder date illustrates the value men attach to the acquisition of that cultivated beauty, and may react with rage if denied access to it. The man in the case could have felt that extended courtship via conversations on Tinder and WhatsApp entitled him to the prize. It is also notable that he drove an expensive car and was dating a foreigner, which placed him in a dominant economic position. Though seemingly sober, when his investment did not reach fruition all rational faculties deserted him, becoming, in the description of the woman, ‘an animal’.

When a woman invests in her beauty it becomes a currency valued by men, who bring a currency of their own to the sexual marketplace. This is often financial but it can take the form of a promise of career advancement, in exchange for the goods. Both sides can take advantage of their wealth, women of their beauty, men generally their money, although these roles can be reversed. This pessimistic generalisation seems to have long antecedents in the slave markets of antiquity, but its present iteration is a product of more recent cultural trends.

Western society is still digesting the seismic events of the 1960s, a period when objective morality both that defined as ‘Christian’, and that emanating from its Modernist rival Communism, were effectively abandoned by much, though not all, of the intelligentsia. What began as a countercultural movement, reaching its culmination in the Paris Spring of 1968, after which that generation assumed dominant positions in politics, academia and the media, merging into a singular entity that has been labelled ‘The Cathedral’. Above all, the countercultural movement was associated with sexual liberation, especially expressed through the Rock n’ Roll ‘revolution’, the era’s defining artistic genre.

The origins of this movement has been explored by the cultural historian Ian MacDonald in his superb account of the music of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head (2005). He points to the effect of a the drug LSD:

Though framed into terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shift of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD. Synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine, LSD is a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement – an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.

With the brain’s neural concierge removed:

The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgmentalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’ and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia.

He continues:

Using it, normal people were able to move directly to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness – as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig it’. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void.

Crucially, McDonald states: ‘the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.’ He claims that this was a precursor to the New Right that degenerated into the 80s yuppies, the essence of the politics of Neoliberalism: ‘What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualisation – and total fragmentation – of Western society.’ The Centrism of Blair and Clinton carried the main left-wing movements into embracing this “materialistic individualisation”, leaving the radical space to the right-wing populism of Brexit, and Trumpism.

Encountering The Void, leading members of the 60s generation lapsed into a lazy sensuality, epitomised by the self-immolation of icons such as Jim Morrison. For a long time the decadent rock star retained a sexual currency, as Michel Houellebecq describes in his novel Atomised (1998): ‘Young, good-looking, famous, desired by women and envied by men, rock stars had risen to the summit of the social order. Nothing since the deification of the pharaohs could compare to the devotion European and American youth bestowed on their heroes.’ In the novel, the character of David Meola, a failed rockstar, spirals into perpetrating Charles Mansonesque sadistic murders, while apparently emulating his archetypal hero Mick Jagger:

To be seductive he had to be evil, to be the perfect embodiment of evil –what the masses adored above everything was the image of evil unpunished. Only once had Jagger’s power been threatened, a clash of egos within the group – with Brian Jones. But the problem had been resolved in Brian Jones’s swimming pool. Though it wasn’t the official version, David knew that Jagger had pushed Brian into the pool; he could see it happening. It was this original murder which had made him the leader of the greatest rock band in the world. David was convinced that man’s greatest achievements were founded upon murder

But the sexual currency of the rockstar – a hangover from a distant Romantic era – did not last long, passing instead to the gatekeepers: executives in the entertainment industry, like Harvey Weinstein, that had rapidly usurped control from artists. Today the rockstar is an anachronism that spends much of his time compulsively checking his Facebook profile for new likes, and worrying whether he can afford the rent.

A wider nostalgia for the 1960s sustains a dwindling number of rock ‘franchises’, such as the Rolling Stones and U2, whic continue to earn vast sums of money on the back of their celebrity; the avant-garde has been decimated by the dominance of digital platforms, and the artist is merging with the entrepreneur. As William Deresiewicz wrote in The Atlantic:

we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial-self.

This, he argues, has come about because: ‘The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

Rockstars, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, really were once agents of a form of a liberation. However, as MacDonald observed, in their naivety they never embarked on the mystic path involving: “many intervening stages of growing self-awareness”. What remained was a basket of half-baked ideas around free love that unravelled once the collective hangover – that was the 1970s – kicked in.

Under a dominant market, an apparent liberation opened the way for abuse by economically dominant individuals, including providing opportunities for the assertion of aggressive male tendencies, which have long antecedents. As Houellebecq concludes: ‘The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.’

In response to the avalanche of allegations against Harvey Weinstein there have been loud cries against patriarchy, but the patriarchal order – in the West identified with ‘Christianity’ – for the most part enjoined men to show sexual restraint; although bringing a woman’s virginal qualities into marriage was the real guarantor of patriarchal order. Once married she became effectively a husband’s possession: in most countries marital rape was considered a paradox until very recently.

Parallel with expansion in women’s legal rights, since the 1960s sexual relations have increasingly been absorbed into the marketplace, including the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. A revealing aspect of the Weinstein cases was the absence of face-to-face intimacy through kissing. It was as if he had a shopping list of desires – from blow jobs to massages – he wanted satisfied in exchange for opportunities, or whatever else he dispensed.

An aroused male is a very violent animal. The accounts through history of what men, especially warriors, have done to women is shocking, and makes one wonder whether those of us with a Y-chromosome carry an Original Male Sin, as feminists suggested in the 1970s. Jung might have said that there is a rapist, as well as a murderer, in all men.

This male warrior archetype emerges in Virgil’s formative epic of Ancient Rome: the Aeneid. Aeneas symbolically carries his aged father (the patriarch) on his back out of a burning Troy – while losing his wife in the flames, as well as later rejecting Dido’s love in favour of his fate, or really ambition, to re-establish Troy as Rome. The character of his Latin opponent Turnus is also exemplar of Roman manhood. Turnus taunts his enemies:

We take our babies down to the river the moment they are born and harden them to icy water. Our boys stay awake all night and weary the woods with their hunting. For games they ride horses and stretch the bow to the arrow. Our men endure hard labour and live spare, subduing the land with the mattock and shaking the towns of their enemies with war. We are worn hard by iron all our lives and turn our spears to goad our oxen … our delight is always to bring home new plunder and live off what we take … But you like your clothes dyed with yellow saffron and the bright juice of the purple fish. Your delight is dancing and idleness. You have sleeves to your tunics and ribbons to keep your bonnets on. You are Phyrgian women, not Phrygian men.

Aeneas and Turnus eventually fight a duel to the death to determine who will win Lavinia the virgin daughter of King Latinus. She, along with womanhood, is condemned as ‘the cause of all this suffering, her lovely eyes downcast’. Christianity appropriated this ideal of the pristine virgin, subject to male, or divine, will, along with woman as temptress in the Garden of Eden, giving us, paradoxically Original Female Sin.

The response of right-wing politicians to the sexual revolution of the 1960s has usually been to call for a reversion to the old, patriarchal ways, last dominant in the 1950s – this is the substance of Trumpism, Steve Bannon’s brainchild. In Houellbecq’s novel the character of MacMillan the District Attorney who prosecutes Meola, and goes on to become a Republic politician, asserts:

decline in Western civilisation since 1945 was simply a return to the cult of power, a rejection of the secular rules slowly built up in the name of justice and morality. Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity. From this point of view, Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion.

The “justice and morality” that MacMillan is referring to are the traditional values that held sway as America asserted its ‘manifest destiny’ to colonise the ‘Wild’ West. That society saw women as second class citizens, who ideally conformed to ordained gender roles, while men waged war.

It begs the question how any man should contain his violent energies. Superficially, the commodification of sexuality through the market economy protects women from primitive male violence, as women now have a range of opportunities once denied to them to speak out against a violence that had once been tolerated. But the number of rapes that go unprosecuted remains truly shocking, and this occurs after an apparent ‘sexual liberation’.

In reality neither men, nor women, have been meaningfully liberated from destructive tendencies. Moreover, the violence against women is now often self-inflicted, through self-harming and punishing beauty regimes, including invasive plastic surgery. We’ve replaced one form of authority with another, and men suffer equally through this estrangement as financial wealth becomes a key determinant of sexual proclivity; a disproportionate number of men are committing suicide. All the while the possibility of meaningful love between couples diminishes.

This may seem an unnecessarily pessimistic portrait of relations between the sexes. An ideal of Romantic love survives – its endurance is attested to in thousands of soppy pop songs – although it tends to bring a set of fatalistic assumptions that have been conveyed by poets since the Troubadours. But I suggest the cultural stew in which we find ourselves makes even Romantic love increasingly untenable. Between the poles of a sexual liberation operating in an avaricious market, and regression to a conservative conception of a woman’s role, a middle ground is difficult to identify.

The ebb and flow between male and female energies is unlikely to ever reach a point of equilibrium. Although a resolution of sorts does comes about at the end of Atomised when the character of Michel Djerzinski realises a scientific breakthrough for precise human cloning, leading to the elimination of sexual reproduction. This prospect of a ‘Brave New World’ is a dystopian spectre, but I maintain we do require radical solutions to tame destructive male energies, saving women, and men, from themselves. In my view, this must involve a re-appraisal of our relationship with Earth, which is the eternal feminine, and has been exploited by a male will-to-power, the Roman mindset of Aeneas and Turnus, who despises “dancing and idleness”.

Can we recover a mystic path that was bypassed by the hippies with their use of LSD? This will surely be conveyed through poetry, and ultimately in new religious forms where the poet-artist is no longer an entrepreneur but a theologian, as Patrick Kavanagh maintained.

Robert Graves argued that ‘The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.’ The thesis he propounds in The White Goddess (1948) is that:

the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of the ‘unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remould or falsify the myths to justify the social changes: Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic.

This might seem like nostalgic primitivism, but a matrilinear society where ego and ambition are less prized is appealing. We could also envisage living arrangements beyond the nuclear family – which is seen by historians as a product of the seventeenth century – allowing generations and genders to intertwine tribally. Marriage might also be seen in less formal and contractual terms. This might improve the prospect of real love blossoming between couples in the West, where sex has moved from being a taboo to an obsession in the space of a generation, linked to the arrival of the pill and abortion access.

Ultimately the forces of sex and reproduction are played out on a planet that has been exploited to the point of breakdown by our appetites, and where humans beings kill over sixty billion other animals for food every year. By controlling this ambient violence we may tame male tendencies of acquisitiveness and female self-mutilation, both of which feature in the tragic stories that I began this piece with. The #Metoo phenomenon is an important cultural moment, but it will only prove redemptive if we acknowledge the true nature of our societies, where vile discrimination goes far beyond that which affects women. Greater development seems necessary of repressed feminine qualities, which are not restricted to any one gender, and may open hearts to a genuinely “oceanic consciousness“.