Less about the world, more about me.

Month: December 2013

Column: Merry Christmas

My column in The Kerryman. 23 December, 2013

I’ve been asked in the past if I celebrate Christmas. Not an unusual question for an atheist. To some, atheists embracing Christmas may look like having one’s cake and eating it. None of the guilt and misery parts of Christianity, but huge bunches of all the fun bits of what is supposed to be a religious festival. Am I big fat hypocrite for loving Christmas? Oh yes I am and I don’t care who knows it.

The adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies. This time of the year has spawned any number of different festivals down through the millennia, today the season is firmly rooted in Christian mythology. We are supposed to be marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The more pious among us still cling to this ideal, but the festival has morphed into something else.

Christmas no longer cares about your religion. Christmas is at once a vast commercial exercise in flogging overpriced toys to overworked parents for their overindulged children and it is also a memory of childhood that inspires millions of men, women and children, to travel from all corners of the planet, on a vast pilgrimage back to their families and friends.

The numbers involved, the miles traversed, the resources expended, are without precedent outside of war or natural disaster. We do not collectively subject ourselves to anything like this kind of stress and expense for anything else. And we do it willingly, just to have those fews days back home, reliving and recapturing those memories of unwrapping presents, over-eating, family squabbles, television and true belonging.

This festive season generates a spirit of bonhomie, this wonderful unique time of the year inspires people to try for a smile rather than a grimace, just because it is this wonderful time of year. That is why Christmas is irresistible. Even a picky and prickly atheist like me cannot but love this festival’s many charms.

Of course as an atheist, I recognise a political context to Christmas. Living in a Christian country, I know everything operates to accommodate the Christian majority. Little or no thought is put into catering for non-Christians. No other time of year so reminds me that I am part of a very small minority.

Even the use of terms like ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ can be a political choice. Intellectually I prefer the more secular ‘Happy Holidays’ but Christmas has become something of a victim of its own success. It has so penetrated the lives of every nation and culture with a Christian heritage, that it’s outgrowing its Christian origins. I think the less religious term, ‘Happy Holidays’ may become unnecessary even before it gains acceptance. I am often guilty of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to other joyless atheists and they have said it back to me. Fortunately no one can be thrown out of atheism, so we can indulge in such heresies.

We indulge because no matter what happens in the future, no matter the cultural progress or regression, no matter the economic conditions or political atmosphere, no matter even the climatic calamity to come, or even because of it, our species needs the grand nonsense that is Christmas. A festival that laughs in the face of our darkest hours would have to be invented, if it didn’t already exist.

Kerry Column 05

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Column: Nelson Mandela

My column in The Kerryman. 18 December, 2013

When the best of us leave, as Nelson Mandela has left us, there is a need to remember the greatness that had once been among us. A need to describe both the grief and awe and to take a snapshot of an entire species, reduced. For that is the reality we now endure; he who was the best of us, is no more. We are a smaller people. We are a lesser people.

Mandela was not superhuman, he was not a superhero, neither was he a saint nor a god. He was one of us, so to describe him is to describe us at our greatest. But what is greatness?

I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led. When we elevate one to rule us, we’re saying we are unable to govern ourselves. We’re saying we are children, we are sheep, we are slaves. But there are exceptions. In a time of terrible crisis, an individual may rise. In times of terrible crisis, we may need a single unifying figure, with the intellect, charisma and overwhelming ability to lead. Apartheid was such a crisis.

In ancient Rome when the City was threatened, they’d elect a dictator. He’d hold supreme power until the crisis was ended. The Romans hated a tyrant, but a crisis was a crisis. One of the greatest of these dictators was a man named Cincinnatus. The Romans faced defeat and so granted supreme power to Cincinnatus to stave off this ruin. He mobilised an army and saved the city. He then immediately resigned the dictatorship.

The city of Cincinnati in America was named after this man. They named it Cincinnati in honour of George Washington. He had accepted the leadership of the American colonies in their desperate battle for independence. He could have been a King, but instead he served his term as President and then handed power to his successor.

Imagine the temptation a great person must feel to cling with whitened knuckles and terrible deeds to power gained. Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Zedong, mighty empire builders but unwilling and unable to relinquish power until assassinated, utterly defeated or brought low by ill-heath.

One of the heroes in the defeat of white power in Africa, was Robert Mugabe. No lesser figure than Nelson Mandela, but Mugabe has never seen beyond the thrill of power. He has led Zimbabwe into an abyss to ensure his continued vicious rule. Nelson Mandela would have been an anointed dictator, his undemocratic rule applauded. Instead he chose to serve his term as the democratically elected President of South Africa and then stepped down. He simply refused to take personal advantage of the power he had, nor the devotion and loyalty he inspired.

In Ireland we know how seductive that cult of personality can be. Over the decades we’ve elevated any number of gombeen men, corrupt little people, to the status of demigods, so that we may fawn over them like slack jawed peasants.

I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led, but with the death of Nelson Mandela the best of us that has ever been, ceased to be. We are less. We are less. We are less.

Kerry Column 06

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Column: Man up re domestic abuse

My column in The Kerryman. 11 December, 2013

Up to 1000 Kerry women experience domestic abuse annually, emotional, physical and sexual. Adapt Kerry is the main provider of support for those women. They have a refuge in Tralee that employs outreach workers and has contacts with many other relevant services. They’ve been quietly saving lives for decades. They help rescue women and children from situations that had traditionally been seen as a woman’s lot in life.

While our society has progressed to the point that domestic abuse is now considered to be wrong and illegal, centuries of conditioning means that there is still a degree of helplessness experienced by the abused. Women and their children can find themselves in prisons without bars.

It’s important to try understanding that. To try understanding that helplessness is both taught and learned. It can be internalised to the point of paralysis. And even for those women still independent enough to seek escape, that escape may mean throwing themselves at the mercy of charity, a risk of homelessness and legal proceedings whose outcome can’t be guaranteed. On the other hand, studies show that half of all women who are murdered, are murdered by a partner, past or present. In an abusive relationship, the clock is always ticking.

To help end this abuse, a campaign called Man Up has been started. It’s an attempt to encourage all men to take an active roll in making violence against women a thing of the past. It’s a call to all men, to simply and definitively man up. Every time we turn a blind eye, every time we mutter ‘there’s two sides to every story,’ every time we accept black eyes explained away and every time we allow a friend say something ugly, we are enabling that abuse.

The men who abuse their partners and children are not that hard to understand. We’ve all sometimes felt what they feel. I’ve felt terribly small in the past. I’ve felt threatened, inadequate, scared and out of control. I’ve felt anger and rage and such pathetic self-pity that I could rationalise all kinds of actions I wouldn’t normally countenance. Who hasn’t had that near overwhelming urge to impose their needs on someone else?

Fortunately the majority of us manage those occasional feelings of smallness without resorting to violence, without abusing those least able to defend themselves. Many of us find solace in the arms of our partners, who help us overcome those inadequacies.
Manning up means owning those feelings of inadequacy, not punishing others for them. To man up is to be a role model for all men. To man up is to create a culture where violence of any kind against a woman, means the virtual shunning of that man who abuses, till he too mans up.

To man up means that when we feel the need to control and hurt those closest to us, we resist that easy escape. There’s nothing wrong with feeling small and scared, a real man looks for help in that situation. A real man battles his demons head on. He battles them in such a way that will inspire his partner, he does not abuse her to make himself feel more like a man.

ADAPT Kerry can be contacted at 066 7129100

ADAPT Limerick Women’s Refuge at 061 412354

And visit Man Up at manup.ie

Kerry Column 07

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Column: A referendum about children

My column in The Kerryman. 4 December, 2013

I don’t know who I feel more sorry for; those of you with no interest in the subject of marriage equality or those of us who are very interested. With the announcement of a marriage equality referendum to be held in the first half of 2015, the longest referendum campaign this country has ever known has just begun. It’ll be drawn out and it’ll most certainly be ugly.

According to the polls the result will be overwhelmingly positive for marriage equality. That should be taken with a large pinch of salt. The Seanad referendum looked like a slam dunk too and look what happened there. Plus, marriage equality advocates have achieved one very important thing, they’ve made supporting marriage equality fashionable. There are people who’ll nod in agreement, but vote no. So, for those in favour of marriage equality, there’s no room for complacency.

Whatever anyone tries telling you, this referendum is not about a human right, nor is it really about marriage. It’s first and foremost a referendum about children. It’s about giving children the very best chance at a secure and content childhood. Every child, born after the recognition of marriage equality, who grows up to be gay, will finally grow up normal. Today they’re different as they’re not allowed the same aspirations, hopes and dreams as their straight peers.

If this country chooses marriage equality, for the very first time in our history, all of our children will be normal. For the first time it’ll be the bigots and the haters and the ignorant who’ll be the subnormal ones.

That’ll not be a mere symbolic victory for some liberal, god hating, elitist conspiracy. It’s not an attack on a timeless institution. Oh if only it were such a petty thing. If only the stakes were so low. The struggle to define what is normal and what is different is a matter of life and death. Growing up can be difficult enough without having one’s future circumscribed by arbitrary laws. Difficult enough without being defined as less deserving of fulfilment.

Gay teens die at a greater rate than their straight peers. They grow up in a country where gay teachers may be dismissed at the whim of their school. They grow up in a country where their parenting skills are derided. They grow up in a country where their desire to marry is seen as an attack on straight married people. They grow up in a country where the dominant religion would deny them the full expression of their humanity. Even more than the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, marriage equality will finally make possible an era where children will not be limited by the smallness of others.

This referendum is also about the children born to our gay brothers and sisters. The desire of gay people to start and raise families may not be recognised by our laws, but they exist and they’ll continue to exist. Are these children not entitled to the same status and protections as every other family? Are they not entitled to normality?

It’s going to be a long 18 months. Full of heat and noise and the tumult of unreason. It’s a campaign that’ll be watched closely by our gay children. They are about to be judged by us. If nothing else, remember that.

Kerry Column 08

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