I criticise the country I live in, on an almost daily basis. It is mired in so much self-inflicted catastrophe and neurosis that I sometimes can’t help feeling contempt for it. It is healthy for me then, to occasionally remember why I still live in Ireland. I live here because I am free. I would be equally free in the UK and just a tiny bit less free in the rest of the EU as I am a citizen of an EU nation. That freedom is easy to take for granted, so it really is healthy to remind myself how privileged I am to be Irish-English-European. I may have no emotional attachment to these three labels, but I feel giddy every time I get to vote in this country.
It is so easy to forget how rare a thing it is, for an individual to be consulted on the affairs of their State. It is a thing almost non-existent in the annals of history and it is a thing still restricted to but a privileged portion of today’s world. I don’t have to worry about the Security Forces kicking down my door at night or the State dealing with me in an extrajudicial manner and there is nothing, but my own incompetence, preventing me from standing for public office. That is a remarkable thing.
Remarkable and rational. There are two ways to look at our species. We are fallen angels, constantly fighting the forces of evil, internal and external, so one day we may ascend into heaven. The other is to see our species as rising apes, capable of great reason but still subject to our animal nature. As an atheist I obviously see more reality in the second view.
When we look at our closest relations, the other primates, we see that successful leadership and dominance are not the preserve of mere strength alone. Intelligence and the fostering of loyalty through kindness also play a part. We see that reflected in the best of our society. Kindness is built into our species. Why else would we hate beggars? For the vast majority of us, there is a little wrench of emotion as we walk past a beggar, pretending to not see them or muttering a lack of change or bitterly dropping a few cent into their cup. We may eventually learn contempt, but to learn that contempt, we must first unlearn something innate, compassion.
We may also scorn our politicians, but they do some amount of buttering us up, to get into the positions of power we put them in. They smile and they promise and they remind us of what kindnesses their father did for your father and we desperately want to believe them because even now, being lied to face to face, seems like something unnatural and even, despite all the evidence, unlikely.
And what do we elect them for? We elect them with only one purpose in mind; that we may leave the security of our little castles, cross our moats and safely navigate the world beyond. I deride the State for many things, but I will never question its importance in denying the biggest among us, the freedom to behave as we imagine the creatures of the jungle behave. An all powerful silver-back maintaing order is no longer practical, so we’ve created a collectivised notion of a silver-back and called it the State. It is a big, mostly dumb and prone to being a very greedy creature, but it only exists and persists because it works for the majority of us. We have institutionalised altruism and reciprocity i.e. we are civilised.
The persistence of civilisation has paid off in ways beyonds safety. We have invented rights. Again, think about voting rights. Think about democracy and the obligation to cater to minorities. Think about all those politicians and their fake smiley pandering. Really think about it because it is beyond wonderful. Every nation in the Western World is a liberal democracy. It is our gift to the World, a World which we were so recently robbing blind.
Big L Liberals and big C Conservatives may battle for the hearts of our democracies, but we remain liberal democracies in that we all vote, men and women, rich and poor, non-caucasians, non-Christians and even those people who persist in voting for the smaller parties. Everyone is included and we have systems that seek (with varying degrees of competence) to cater to and manage the mishmash of aggregated and conflicting, social and economic and cultural values that make up our multifarious nation-states. So many contradictions contained within all our neat and not so neat borders. All with one thing in common, the perceived right to walk the streets unmolested by the State and other bullies, real and imagined.
We are so free that we protest when members of our police force speak about us behind our backs, or when our politicians smirk at us or when private clubs don’t have rules which reflect our values or when foreign parades don’t include people we want included. Now I’m a liberal, a dyed in the wool, marriage equality supporting, anti-prohibition, proud feminist and welfare state loving liberal, but even I can’t take seriously some of those issues. I do however feel a great deal of gratitude for living in a society which is so liberal, that people feel entitled to object to what people say about other people behind their backs.
The alternative is a society where liberal becomes a term of abuse. A society so opposed to progress, that equality can be objected to on principal, rather than someone having to go to the effort of constructing a coherent and viable argument against it. A society of unreason, where the strong are unrestrained and where even our castles are unsafe.
We must then return to the beggar. Those of us who do not suckle at the breast of Ayn Rand, tend to not want beggars intruding upon our streets. We may just not want to see them and are happy with; out of sight out of mind, or we may have a genuine wish to have their plight ameliorated in some fashion, up to and including the transfer of wealth from our pockets into the pockets of a cohort of professionals who will care for the beggars. Criminalising or socialising, both have the same result, we don’t have beggars messing with our emotions or more importantly, we don’t have a visible manifestation of our civilization’s shortcomings showing us its open palm, on our daily work commute.
Short of experiencing poverty oneself, nothing shouts out societal problems, like seeing poverty asking us for help so directly. For the most part, poverty is as hidden as child abuse. Most of us can get by without unduly worrying about the frayed edges of our society, of our civilisation. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing even impractical about that. Poverty is still not prevalent enough to endanger the status quo. And we have enough shame left that the majority of those in poverty stick to living lives of silent despair. Suicides may be up, but again, shame keeps us out of that issue too, we are much more comfortable talking about car safety. Fingers crossed, we will get through this recession before we have to start digging mass graves for the casualties.
The beggars though, they can come into our castles now. We inadvertently invite them in. Our exposure to a multiplicity of media, fed to us through a plethora of different platforms, means we have to work very hard indeed to harden our hearts to the out-stretched hands, from all across our planet. If we would move beyond compassion, if we would learn to be harsh, then let us do so. Let us develop a philosophy of non-compassion. A philosophy that we are comfortable teaching to our children. Let us teach them that we are richer than the all the rest, ah well, aren’t we financially and genetically and politically fortunate and/or entitled.
When we boast of our weakened State and we compare it to, let’s say, the Chinese State, which routinely puts bullets into the heads of criminals, just before harvesting their organs, we need a ready answer for our children’s inquiry as to why we are happy, no, eager, no, coquettishly and obscenely enthused, by the prospect of doing business with China? Why are we playing nice with Russia while they prop up the murderous regime of Assad in Syria? And why do we have diplomatic relations with nations which continue to treat women as cheap brood mares?
We can lie to our children and say that the tenets of Cultural Relativism require us to give equal deference to all different societal values, especially if that culture is predominately dark-skinned. Or we tell the truth, that money and jobs and raw materials come from foreign lands and if we wish to get our grubby and increasingly desperate paws on those materials, then we are going to have to accept that we only value human life where and when it is convenient. And anyway our dead ancestors were mean to their equally dead ancestors so we get to keep our eyes fixed firmly on our feet, because we are conveniently embarrassed by what dead people did.
It is this learned cynicism that keeps us sane when we encounter that bloody beggar. The learned cynicism that comes with embracing helplessness. It is a seductive feeling. It allows one to retreat to the cocoon of one’s own intellectual and emotional castle. What can ‘little Ould Ireland’ do against the might of international scum-baggery? What can an individual do against the multitude of tiny evils that cause girls to have their genitals mutilated, homosexuals hanged, dissidents blown up, apostates beheaded and of course that whole thing of explaining to our fat children how malnutrition kills children every single minute of every single day on our planet?
Truth be told, there is nothing I can do to convince this Government and a critical mass of Irish people, that it is a damning indictment of our democratic values to even have diplomatic relations with a nation such as China, never mind the nauseating spectacle of our elected officials rolling over to have their bellies tickled by the Chinese Government, just so they’ll throw us some of their custom. I may despise it, but my mortgage repayments, my responsibilities and my family situation all mean I have not experienced desperation and even if I eventually lose my house, I still will not suffer any emotional damage. How then do I preach solidarity with a Syrian, who’s name I can’t even pronounce, to my neighbour who is facing the loss of everything he/she have worked so hard to accumulate?
The problem with our freedom and with our economic depression is that we are now, more than ever, as a bag of cats. Our population is divided by those who feel robbed by the State and those who feel robbed by the Wealthy and we are also all points in between. We are divided by those of Faith and those of none. We are divided by those who agree with basic human rights, or authentic human rights or that human rights are a nonsense. We are divided into europhiles and europhobes. And we are now either beggars with our hands out for help or beggars with our hands out to help.
No wonder then, that if an ordinary nation like Ireland can be so conflicted about its values, that a plurality of nations would be so utterly incapable of finding a consensus. How can we be surprised that the United Nations would find itself tied in knots as it haplessly attempts to address the despotic suppression of dissent in Syria? There is no rational reason for us to think that the UN should be able to intervene usefully in Syria. The UN does not exist independently of the nation states that are its membership. And like every democratic international organisation, the biggest members, with the largest armies and a proven willingness to use said military prowess, cannot be gainsaid.
Small-fry like us? Well we did almost as much to facilitate the United States in its illegal (if one takes the UN seriously) invasion of Iraq as we are now doing to support the legal (again, if one takes the UN seriously) occupation of Afghanistan. I’m one of those few people who once supported both invasions. My mind was not changed by any moral break, but by the sheer incompetence of the occupation of Iraq. The fascinating thing though, was that despite the protests, our Government did not lift a finger to hinder the use of our airports and airspace by the United States and again, despite all the protests, not a single TD lost their seat due to their/our tacit support for that illegal invasion.
We knew then, what we know now; the side of our toast on which we’ll find the butter on. It is on the same side as almost every other small nation. We will vote to condemn or to support or to resolve, but we are not going to act against our economic best interests. I wish it were different, but then, I was for the invasion of Iraq and the majority, were softly softly against.
So not only am I trying to convince people who face economic ruin, that they should care about unpronounceables out foreign, but also that they should entertain the idea of not only offending possible economic benefactors, but that they should also consider the possibility of actively involving themselves in activities that harm the interests of those big and mobile monied nations.
For example, I want the EU to invade Syria and impose democracy. Further, that the EU guarantees the independence of Syria against all-comers. The list of reasons why that is never, ever, you’re dreaming man, it’s just not going to happen, is about a mile long. And at the very top of that list is the lack of military might and competence within the EU, to impose our power (and thusly our values) beyond our borders. Second on the list, but even more importantly, the citizens of the EU, do not want the EU to, in principal, possess that kind of power, neither do they want to have to pay the huge sums of money required to attain that level of military competence. And they definitely don’t want to, nor even can they imagine, killing and dying for the entity known as the European Union.
So Syria? So the plight of women in Islamic Nations? So that statue of C.J. Haughey in Dingle? So smoking in cars? So the weather? Too much, just too much. So we switch off our brains and then compassion soon follows. We can’t demand that the Chinese and the Russians forego their interests in the Syrian regime and not expect to have to endure economic consequences. Why suffer for people we stopped caring about the moment complexity reared its head? Now a tsunami is OK. We can dig deep for that. It is a simple exchange of money for relief. Helping flood victims is not going to threaten anyone’s livelihood.
That dichotomy does not anger me. I’m an adult and I know how narrow one’s horizons get when the mortgage needs paying, but I am no longer content to remain cynical about our species. I despise feeling powerless. And the intellectual dishonesties and illusions required to deal with that powerlessness have begun to lose their efficacy. I blame having too much time to write or perhaps it is the grey in my beard reminding me that soon I will cease to exist, but for whatever reason, for the last few months I have been rediscovering the energy required to care. I have begun to reengage with organisations I was once active in, I am trying to set up a new one and I am contemplating joining others.
I am never going to be able to save a woman from misogyny disguised as religion. I’ll never be able to put anti-tank ordinance into the hands of Syrian rebels. And I am never going to be able to save a child from starvation. I can’t even live in a county free of Haughey statues. What I can do is fall back in love with democracy. All I can do is become again an active participant in this tiny, achingly self-conscious, little democracy. It is an unlikely aspiration, but perhaps one day, I will convince one other citizen that there is such a thing as tainted money and perhaps there are good reasons to sacrifice one’s immediate economic interests for something more discreet. Perhaps to fully appreciate the awesome dimension of democracy one must accept the responsibilities of being the protected beneficiary of democracy. And if those responsibilities do not include the protection and propagation of democracy, then surely we are nothing more than economic units and consumers, with nothing separating us from the lumpen, but time.
It takes the wind out of you when you discover you will never be able to change the world, but wait a decade or two and that desire may return and that idealism, tempered by cynicism is the kind of thing that can sustain one through the unpleasant task of fruitless effort.