Less about the world, more about me.

Month: August 2012

Liberalism versus Secularism

I started following Kenan Malik on twitter a few months ago and I have to say, it has been something of an education for me. Describing the dangers of illiberal liberalism as we struggle for a truly secular world, has been a been an eye-opener. Take for example the Hijab. Intellectually and emotionally I find the very existence of this garment, offensive. But can I, as a liberal, condone it’s proscription? I thought I could, or more accurately, I thought I could without thought. Can I justify the State interdicting the transmission of values and mores I find offensive, from parent to child? Can I censor all religious utterances I find objectionable?

The problem for me as a liberal, an atheist, a secularist, a moral relativist and a democrat, is that I have to believe in two contradictory, yet wholly fundamental principles, at once. I hold that the individual is paramount in all things. I also believe that society comes first. It may appear confusing, but I am well aquatinted now, with balancing this nonsensical philosophy of philosophies. I can get by without encountering a personal moral conundrum, which confounds this tension. The problem arises when I have to decide about something like the Hijab.

I don’t think it should be worn and I suspect that many who wear it, do so due to pressure and/or indoctrination. Should women then be required to apply for a license to wear a Hijab? The granting of which involves an invasive psychological examination, which may or may not include interviewing the immediate and extended family, and their Spiritual Advisors. And of course, there is just enough subjectivity in psychology to argue that all things being equal, a woman who chooses to wear a Hijab, is displaying a symptom of a psychological problem.

As much as I may long to see the disappearance of the Hijab, I cannot see how the State can fruitfully intervene in a liberal fashion. Yes, it can vindicate the rights of those women who do not wish to wear the Hijab, by offering asylum and/or criminal penalties, but to do anything, other than react to being invited into a situation where an individual desires to not don this particular item of clothing, is necessarily illiberal. I hate that this may be the only consistent application of my philosophy.

I cannot escape the awful feeling, that in trusting to the eventual victory of liberalism, over restrictive religious practices, that I am condoning the abandonment of powerless women today. Similarly, must liberalism, to remain pure, allow children to be taught hate and fear and disgust? I cannot see a way around it, because to do otherwise is to invite the State into all our homes, into all our heads. To monitor all of our interactions, public and private. Thus, if a major religion has homophobia as a basic tenet, then the State can only seek the ameliorate this sacerdotal hatred, by not endorsing it.

That is what defines a secular state, rather than a liberal one. As an atheist and a liberal, I have to tie myself in knots, to justify not going after the religions for misogyny, homophobia, child-abuse and anything else real or imagined that I can lay at the feet of the religious. A secular State isn’t as emotional.

A secular State, simply doesn’t make laws that reflect the prejudices of atheists, which Roman Catholics must obey, nor does it legislate for Hindu taboos which Moslems must follow. That is the most vital thing about a Secular State, the quality to which, both my atheism and my interfering liberalism must defer, not legislating for one side’s prejudices. Not supporting a taboo by legislation. Not using the law of the land to force Catholics and non-Catholics to adhere to Catholic dogma.

This is the reason I’m never really sure why organisations like the Roman Catholic Church conspire to thwart secularism. Is it because it wishes non-Catholics to obey its rules or is that it wishes the secular authorities to force Catholic to behave like good obedient Catholics?

Is this the reason that Christians are so against people like Tony Nicklinson receiving the help he so desperately wanted? Do they fear that Christians will opt for this service, thus reducing the power of the various Christian Churches? Or is there something even more arrogant and sinister at play? Do they wish for nonbelievers to play by Christian rules?

Many Christians, similarly rail against marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, divorce and assisted suicide, yet none of these things can be forced on people who do not wish to experience them. In a secular State, I am free to marry whomever I wish and the Roman Catholic Church is free to disapprove, but I am unable to censor their disapproval. In a secular State, a pregnant woman would be free to do as she wishes with her body and I would not be allowed intervene, even if she chooses to forgo life-saving treatment, to protect her unborn child.

In a Secular State I would be free to live my life as a liberal atheist, as long as I did nothing which harms anyone else, without their consent. In a Secular State, a Roman Catholic would be free to practice, proselytise and campaign on behalf of their values, but again, would be constrained by law, from physically or legislatively interfering in the lives of those who do not share their beliefs.

Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure that I am cut out to be a campaigner for secularism. The fate of Tony Nicklinson leaves me too angry and bitter and not a little terrified. Does my future include having to starve myself to death, just to find final surcease? It is difficult to temper one’s words, to engage with respect, to give the benefit of the doubt, to people who have stood in judgement of Tony Nicklinson and the many other men and women who are enduring similar agonies.

You see I can speak about the Hijab and the Human Rights implications, because it is a Human Right i.e. some other human. Similarly I can speak about abortion with a certain detachment, I am a man. Gay marriage, I’m not gay. Divorce, I’m not married. Children’s rights, I don’t have children. But one day I may be afflicted by a debilitating disease. A condition that may render living, finally less attractive, than no longer existing. And the idea that my choices would be restricted by men and women who’s opinions I do not respect, fills my stomach with a raging tension. To be the tortured slave of another person’s prejudices? How does one learn calmness in the face of such vicious infamy?

Marriage Equality (Letter 2)

 As appeared in Letters – The Kerryman – 22 August 2012 edition


Patrick O’Neill (August 8, 2012) seems to defend a narrow definition of marriage on three grounds. First, the Constitution promotes the family. Second, the traditional family unit has been with us since time immemorial. And third, he contends that children are so much better off in traditional families, that to change marriage, would be to selfishly reduce the quality of life, of children, who will be raised by gay couples.

In my view traditional marriage is discriminatory and I think if I was going to use any document to defend it, I too would probably wield our Constitution. A Constitution our Government is keen to drag into the 21st Century. This is the Constitution that did not protect thousands of our poorer children being locked up and used as slaves. This Constitution did not protect singe-mothers being enslaved and their children sold. This Constitution did not protect women from being raped by their husbands. And it did not protect gay people from legal discrimination. That’s our Constitution. A document that now needs amending just so the State will be empowered and obliged to look after children properly.


As for history? Marriage and the Family have been evolving since our species left the caves. The idea of co-equal parents, bonded for life, as father and mother, is as recent as it is rare. Even our understanding of what a child is, continues to develop. And I don’t mean we view children differently today, than we did a century ago, but every decade our attitudes and understanding changes. Some cultures once discarded their infirm children. Other cultures sent eleven year olds to the gallows. We allowed teachers to beat children. There are even some people who still think teachers should be allowed beat children with sticks. But times do change and, for children, it is much now thn has been in the past.


As for children doing better with a father and a mother? Well I have yet to see any credible evidence, which shows that children with mixed-gender parents, do any better than children with same-gender parents. And be assured, people who campaign against equality, are spending huge amounts of resources looking for any evidence that would allow them to say, children will suffer if equality and respect become the norm.


I see no rational grounds for continuing to treat gay people as second class citizens. Quite the opposite in fact. Gay couples up and down the country have children, but exist in a legal limbo as our laws continue to treat them as less than other humans. Marriage is the only institution which can regularise these unions and give legal protection to their children.


Yes the Catholic Church is against recognising the equality of gay people, but this is not about the Catholic Church. This is about respecting all of our citizens and treating them as equals. Science cannot distinguish between the children of gay couples and the children of straight couples. So will we choose to continue to discriminate or will we say to all of our children, that regardless of their sexuality, regardless of the sexuality of their parents or parent, they are all entitled to respect, dignity and equality? I know which Ireland I would prefer to live in.



Holding Hands

An hour to go. She wondered if it would be worth her while making another cup of tea. A quick calculation of caffeine content, the affect of a full bladder, and the desire to have that last chocolate biscuit before the day-shift arrived added up to, tea winning. It had been a dull night. None of her twelve clients had stirred. The reports were written. The morning meds prepared and the handover, ready. She moved quietly over the blue-grey carpet tiles, deciding on one last sweep before settling down with a hot mug.

She would be the focus of some envy come handover. No one got a free-ride on the Millennium ward. A nickname they had all disapproved of, when first coined by that smart-arse young doctor. It had taken him only a few seconds to scan and laughingly declaim in his smart-arse young doctor way, that the combined ages of the twelve patients came to over one thousand years. He had used it disrespectfully, but it became a badge of honour for those who lived and worked on this wing. A thousand years of life. In this one corridor. She never felt anything less than awe, at so much lived life, concentrated in so small a spot.

A sweep was little more than looking through the glass window of their doors. They were a sprightly lot. Yes, there were health issues, there were absences and there were often night-time accidents and there could be querulous confusions. Time consuming all, but rarely seriously medical. She passed Number 12, hardly pausing to look. Her mind already in chocolate. She paused. Turned and returned and looked again.

She opened the door, hand pressing her pocket alarm. He was struggling to breathe. Switching on the light, she reached for the oxygen mask. He pushed her away. Flailing with his wasted arms and crooked fingers. Mumbling and distressed. She grunted in annoyance, then realisation hit. His teeth, were still jarred. The vain fool. She gave them to him, though the anguished rasping of his chest spoke of more pressing concerns. Teeth in, he consented to her administrations. Shock, he kept his lecherous hands to himself.

Looking into his eyes, she saw the terror. She nodded to him. A tear left his eye. They understood each other. Sitting on his bed, she took his hands in hers. They waited. Help arrived. They worked around her. The motions had to be gone through. Chart checked. Chart filled. Only a matter of time now. His hands shook in hers. She held them tighter, smiled brighter.

The day-shift arrived. Matron came to say good-bye. “Will he be wanting a priest at all?”

“No need Matron, he’s not a believer.”

“Will you be staying?”

“I will surely.”

“For him?”

She grinned at the older lady. “Aye, for him.”

The Matron threw her eyes to heaven. All, even the Matron, had been pinched, insulted and generally abused. “I’ll fetch you a cuppa.”

Matron gone, she looked back at him. His hands now still. His breathing shallowing. She leaned in closer, “You’re a notorious prick Sean, but you will not go alone. You will not be alone.”

He heard.


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Day Trip

He shuffled from the kitchenette to the door of the flat. In his hand the bowl of cat food. Setting the bowl down he reached for his jacket. Checking the cat was distracted, he slipped out the door, as fast as his ailing body could carry him. He locked the door. A young man passed him in the corridor, no greetings were exchanged. Down the stairs. Checked the post box. Nothing. Through the front door, to be hit by the fury and fumes of North Circular Road traffic.

Pass in hand he waited alone with all the others. All so young. So young that foreign becomes meaningless. There were all alien to him. A noisy mess of otherness. Things that passed by and around and if they thought they could, then thought him too.

The bus arrived. An impatient grunt told him his boarding lacked the alacrity of a Dublin day. His speckled hand gripped harder the bar, as he searched each pocket for his pass. Panic rising, had he forgotten it after all?

A voice, drip dripping with patronising bonhomie, “It’s in your other hand granddad.”

The chuckles cut. He looked at his hand, tight gripping the bar, crushing the plastic covered pass. He searched desperately for another bar, not wanting to risk a careless driver jerking the bus back into traffic. No longer first in the queue, these aliens had all pushed by. Paying or carding or passing, all transactions done in unconcerned flashes. The driver had already lost interest. Old was old, who would question a man so wrinkled and infirm? The privilege of being a condition.

As he’d expected the bus jerked hard. He kept to his feet, two hands on the bar. This was not how he’d hoped he would reach town, but to move now was to risk sprawl and all, that would entail. A score, perhaps even two, of these aliens brushed by him, entering and exiting by he same door, not seeing him on the way in and not seeing him on the way out.

His knees ached. His back complained. His hands screamed in their vice-like grip of the bar. But there finally was bold Parnell atop his column. And there, that alien antennae, piercing the sky. His stop, one hand then the other, relaxed their hold. He moved into the crowd, disrupting the flow. And like a fallen tree in a running river, a gap opened before him and a jostling crowd began to stack behind him.

One slow foot after the next, and he was street level. He carefully remembered not to take an immediate pause. He moved his slowing frame out of the now rereleased stream. Only then could he take the reward of rest. Breathing and flexing and allowing himself to relax. Minutes passed, before he was ready. He walked to the shiny alien metal and with his back to it, he looked up Henry Street. It was lunch-crowd full. Hundreds of these not seeing things, ears stuck to their communication devices. Their alien speech directed at the never there.

He took out a notebook and examined his list. Name after name, crossed out. He turned a page, then another. He saw yesterday’s mark. Below it, unscored. Today’s target. Putting away the notebook he crossed the road. Around him he sensed only the chaos of speed and disregard. He kept is eyes on the ground, always conscious of being tripped-up by the merest thing.

There was Moore Street. He paused here to look further up Henry Street. In the distance he could see his goal. Jervis Street Shopping Centre. Breath retrieved, he walked. A glacial arrow cutting its way through the madding crowd.

Two more breaks and near endless shuffling and he was there, facing the glass edifice of his quarry. He didn’t wait. He reached out a hand and then took it down again, as the door greeted him by opening unbidden. He didn’t allow the minor unsettling, vex him. He continued, even finding his feet on those soulless moving stairs.

And there it was. A shoe shop. He straightened the long scarce strands of hair, over his bare head. He walked in and paused to identify the men’s section. He walked to it and sat on a chair. Then it happened. Everything slowed. There was a voice.

“May I help you Sir?” It was a young voice. The accent unidentifiable to him, but it was directed at him. He breath shallowed, his heart slowed and his face relaxed into a smile.

“Thank you Miss, I would like to purchase a pair of brown leather shoes.”

“Of course Sir. Do you know what size you take?”

“An eight and a half. I remember a time when I was a nine, but Mother Time takes her toll in unexpected ways.”

Ah, she knows when to laugh as well. His smile broadened. She left for a few moments, returning, burdened with half a dozen boxes. She placed the boxes at his feet and looked at him. “Will I help you try them on Sir?”

He nodded. She knelt and undid his laces. “Did you have far to travel today Sir?”

“No, only a few minutes for me. I live on the North Circular.”

“And you picked a fine day for it. I brought a raincoat and an umbrella to work today. Seems like the weather likes to make fools of us.”

He took his turn to laugh. In short order he was wearing her first suggestion. He stood, taking her offered arm to help him up. He looked at them. He examined them in the mirror. Their conversation never faltering. After two pair, they knew each other’s names.

After the third, they learned that her people were from unpronounceable Białystok, his from far off Lyreacrompane. By the fourth pair, he was speaking of his late wife. Her slow death and the relief it had been at the end. She showed him photos of her children. Smiling little Polish boys in their Dublin jerseys. On trying the last pair he shrugged and demurred. Nothing was exactly as he wanted. He would try elsewhere, but return for that pair with the extra support for his arches, if he could find nothing that really grabbed him.

She smiled and the world remained slow for a few moments more. Old shoes on, he left the shop. He stepped lightly on the stairs. All was slow. Someone pushed by him and his smiled disappeared. He paused before the doors, took out his notebook and scored through the shop name. He sighed as he contemplated the long journey back to his flat. But no, he would not despair. Today someone heard his voice. Spoke his name. Tomorrow he would visit another shop. He could not be dead if people speak his name.


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