datbeardyman

Less about the world, more about me.

Month: December 2014

Secularism?

Gandalf knows I’ve little interest in competitive 1916ing. I would avoid the sport altogether, except it does provide an opportunity for a little thought experiment. Imagine a class of 35 teenagers is asked to write a short essay about what it means to them, to be Irish. That is 35 individual perspectives on Irish identity.

Now before you read the essays, ask yourself the following questions; if you disagree with an opinion, does that mean the teenager is wrong? How much uniformity do you hope to see in the essays? Will the essays be much different to what would’ve been written ten years or fifty years ago? If different, is this a good or a bad thing? Will you value the opinions of the new Irish as much as the old Irish? Do you think you’ll be able to detect differences based on gender, income, sexuality, race and religion? Do you think this class of teenagers would write the same thing in ten or fifty years from now?

What I’d hope this experiment would successfully demonstrate, is the fluidity of Irish identity. I would also like to think (and I’m open to contradiction here) is that there is now greater variation in today’s multitude of Irish identities than there has ever been since the foundation of the State.

I happen to think that’s a positive development. I remember when I was in school, we were taught that one of the causes of The Great Famine was monoculture i.e. an over reliance on one crop. I can’t help thinking that the dreary sameness of Irish culture up to quite recently, had a part in producing a State seemingly incapable of dealing with crises or indeed difference.

That’s possibly why I react so negatively to 1916ing. I keep hearing so many different people insisting that their 1916 is the most authentic and that all you other 1916s are revisionist, reactionary, counter revolutionary, and not the right sort of patriot. And if you even question the motives of the 1916ers themselves, well then you’re clearly a West Brit hankering for a return of the Irish Raj.

It is as if demonstrations of physical bravery sanctify actions however misguided. This deathly piety, infects and animates both left and right with equal vigour. Will those who died in the crossfire of this ‘idealism’ be remembered? Will those who were maimed in a cause they did not support be afforded equal respect? Of course not. All that matters is that we wave the flag and insist 1916 means such and such a thing.

What the fuck, you may be asking, has this got to do with secularism? Well let me explain. Traditionally, when an Irish atheist speaks about secularism, we tend to simply attack the Roman Catholic Church. It’s almost a reflex at this point. Any and all demonstrations of Catholicism provokes us. We use terms like ‘sky wizard’ and ‘flat earthers’ and ‘Bronze Age inspired homophobes’ (ok I just made that last one up, but you get the picture).

Has this ever proven useful? I fear it hasn’t. It inspires a defensiveness we’ve never really been able to overcome. And when we resort to seemingly neutral terms like ‘rights’ ‘equality’ ‘pluralism’ and the ‘UN’ we very much meet the same reaction; this is a Catholic country and if you were in Saudi Arabia you’d know your place.

This failure, no our failure, was brought home to me by a recent incident in my own county of Kerry.

A cross at the top of Kerry’s Mount Carrauntoohil, was vandalised, cut down by someone who climbed the mountain with an angle grinder. Now my first reaction was, there’s a cross at the top of Carrauntoohil? Followed by a shudder, then the thought, is there any where in this country free from these Catholic symbols?

Then something unpleasant occurred to me. What if this was one of our lot? And I use ‘our lot’ in the broadest sense, meaning anyone who might have been motivated by secularism, atheism or anything similar. I prayed to the gods I don’t think exist, that this would prove to be a work of pure vandalism or even perhaps a rather energetic environmentalist. Gandalf knows we could do with more environmentalists in Kerry.

I’m ashamed to admit, that I even momentarily hoped it was of one the many victims of the Irish Catholic Church, exacting some revenge. An unworthy thought. Being president is just not that important.

Soon after this, representatives of Atheist Ireland were interviewed on local and national radio stations. As a member for that organisation I was hoping they’d see the danger and opportunity this incident represented. I was sadly and emphatically disappointed.

No sympathy for the communities, who’d erected the cross, was offered. And worse, its restoration was questioned. I was appalled, still am. I engaged with Michael Nugent on Twitter, but I failed to make him realise how badly Atheist Ireland’s response reflected on us all. Worse, it now makes the removal of the crucifix in the Kerry County Council Chambers even less likely. The only response from Atheist Ireland should’ve been, ‘this is terrible and how may we help?’

The cross was put back up, in an almost secret operation, such were the fears of the local communities. Think on that. What hope does a secularist now have in engaging fruitfully with those people? They are actually scared of an organisation with next to no influence and even less power.

(As it happens, the vandal did turn out to have a gripe with the Catholic Church)

I let my membership of Atheist Ireland lapse. Its clueless and tone deaf behaviour shocked me too much to have anything else to do with it.

Thing is though, I still support its stated aims of promoting atheism, reason and an ethical, secular state.

I don’t actually wish to spread atheism, but I want everyone to be as familiar with it as they are the various Christian sects, Islamic traditions, Eastern philosophies, weird American cults, astrology and paganism. Which is to say, I’d like Irish people to be as equally ignorant of the several tensions that exist as atheism, as they are the about the divisions, contradictions and rivalries that exist within all the other groups. I want this for one reason and one reason only, so that we can make some progress in creating a truly secular state.

Why? Why this need for secularism? And where does having a go at the current fashion for 1916ing come into it? Be patient, I’m getting there.

Secularism is derided by both left and right as being innately conservative and far too radical. If the Marxists and reactionaries hate you, then you’re probably doing something right. The thing is, both are entirely correct.

Yes the cause of secularism is profoundly conservative. Look at us. We are almost exclusively white men, living comfortable lives. I am not fit to wash the feet of a secularist living in Saudi Arabia. I’d blush in the presence of a Russian secularist. And I’d be tongue tied if I met a woman secularist. In Catholic Ireland I must labour under the yoke of not being allowed be President, a judge or a member of The Council of State. Imagine my rallying call; come all, join me in my fight to have the theoretical right to a pointless, but well paid, office. Help, help, I’m being repressed.

And yet, the cause of secularism is profoundly radical. For there can be nothing sacred in a secular state. Not the right to have one’s opinions respected. Not the right to cut a small child’s genitals. Not the right to impose one’s beliefs. And never a right to state sanctioned privilege.

Those of us who identify as non-religious are a disparate lot. That which is the non-religious part of our identities, contributes to our Irish identities. To some, this is a defining feature, for others, it is but a tiny aspect of the over all. But we are about 250,000 of the population. That’s a big chunk of people.

On the other hand (as opposed to other side) there are the ‘still’ millions who identify as Roman Catholic. This group is as disparate as the many contradictions found among the non-religious. And again, in varying degrees, these multitudinous identities, influence their Irish identities.

That these identities are privileged is inarguable. That they represent the vast majority of identities, is without question. And that they have the weight of tradition and history behind them, is clear to all.

They are as entitled to the respect as this ‘militant’ atheist wishes he was afforded. But for secularism to succeed they will need to change, they will need to cede some of their power, they will need to accept uncomfortably new modes of behaviour. Their perception of Irish identity will need to broaden, in some cases, considerably.

But if they ask why they should change? Why should they give up anything? Why can’t things just stay the same?

Do I answer with, your God is a sham, I want to be president (in theory), the UN said so, in fact comparing ourselves to Saudi Arabia demonstrates such low national self-esteem you should probably seek help or because you’re just being mean not giving me my own way?

Thing is, there is no right answer. There is no silver bullet for convincing someone that the way things have been done for a century is discriminatory and worse, self defeating. Convincing someone of something, who doesn’t want to be convinced, is an exercise is such futility that one must grope for Greek legends for an appropriate metaphor.

And when that attempt is made with clumsy insensitivity, then that rock gets heavier and the hill steeper.

But is this a call for surrender? No. Far from it. Nor am I suggesting, hinting or even hoping that secularism is in anyway a natural progression and we need merely sit back and watch it grow.

Even in this time of competitive 1916ing and all the atavist nonsense that it entails, it is clear that Ireland has changed and is continuing to change. While people will (in these few nostalgic riven years) speak about the Irish character and Irish identity, the days of everyone following the flag, step in step (if indeed that ever existed) is long gone.

There is now, no Irish identity. And if anyone tells you there is, they probably trying to sell you something. There are many identities, many cultures, many ways at looking at the world and now, several opportunities for minorities to assert their claim to equal treatment and esteem.

And yes, that implies I am putting the non-religious into the category of oppressed minority. And yes, I am. But quell your ire, for this is the key point I am struggling to make in this overly long post. There is a queue of minorities, all standing and waiting or marching and demanding equality. All looking for their threads in the tapestry of Irishness to be recognised. The non-religious absolutely belong in that queue, but near the back. And while standing and waiting (occasionally raising our hands to remind people we are here) our main focus should be in supporting those people ahead of us is the queue. Because if and when we’re the only ones left, we won’t even have to ask anymore.

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A view of the water charge protestors

First things first, a few disclaimers. I have a water meter and I signed up to pay the charges. Paying won’t be easy, but I will. I’m a member of Fine Gael and I also supported two of the previous three governments. Finally, I entirely agree with the concept of paying for the amount of water I use

So there are my cards on the table.

It’s also important to note that I think if this government falls because of the water charges controversy, they will have entirely earned that calamity. Even if I am knocking on doors, canvassing for a Fine Gael candidate, I won’t be pretending Fine Gael and Labour acted sensibly. Everything about the setting up of Irish Water smacks of arrogance, incompetence and noxious presumption. When a government fails to fear its electorate, then it’s time for that government to get a firm slap or go.

This blog post however isn’t about the prospects of an early general election. I want to write about who I think the protesters, who have thronged our streets, actually are. And for all of Fine Gael and Labour’s fault, they did finally provoke 100s of 1000s of people into protesting. A fitting epitaph, if one is soon required.

Obviously, as a member of Fine Gael, I am expected to rail against the ‘sinister elements’ that are piggy backing on public discontent to ferment anarchy and threaten our very existence. Pure bollox, but it’s a good lie because it resonates. It resonates with me, even though I know it’s bollox.

The attack on Joan Burton did shake me. I despise, with all my being, anyone who uses physical violence to make a political point. I am quite content to get all reactionary conservative on people who indulge in those kind of antics. It is not correct however to seek to understand the multitudes who are protesting, by referencing a fringe of a fringe.

I will not discount them entirely. But a tiny few organised thugs combined with some easily led (or eager to be led) young men, hungry for action, is in no way representative of so many people from all over the country. They are just not prevalent enough to tar such a huge movement.

So to my list of participants.

I will begin with those who actively (which does not equate to violently) seek to overthrow our system of government and uproot its foundation stones of democracy and capitalism. I’m talking about the Far Left and the even further left. Marxists, Trotskyites, communists, anarchists and various other labels I don’t understand, even after consulting Wikipedia. Fortunately, for this democrat and capitalist, they are few and far between. I’m glad they exist though. Capitalist democracy is far from perfect and is often guilty of missteps. If nothing else, a radical and explicable alternative, waiting to pounce if our democracy loses popular support, should help keep anyone with a vested interest in the status quo, honest.

The second group are the political opportunists. I would put Sinn Fein, various independents and shameless members of Fianna Fáil into this category.  I can’t criticise any of these groups for this. Water Charges are not some social or moral issue that must be supported by decent folk. It’s merely a money raising scheme, with some theoretical environmental and state finances benefits. If opposition politicians didn’t jump on this issue and use it to beat the government with, then this country would be in a worse state than it already is. Now, I’m not saying I’d trust anything these opportunists say, but if protests of this size had no politicians involved, then democracy, as I understand it, would be in serious trouble.

The third group are those who are taking a principled stand against what they understand to be a double taxation (triple if you throw in the Household Charge and quadruple if you include the USC). It’s difficult to argue against this. We’ve paid for water through general taxation since 1973. Now we are expected to pay for it again, but with no discernible decrease in income tax. The answer given, is that our water system has been so neglected, that we need extra money to fix it. It’s a compelling argument, unless one asks why has it been allowed to deteriorate so badly? Then politicians are forced to look at their feet and suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. It has been neglected for one reason and one reason only, there were no votes in it. The vast majority of us have been getting more or less drinkable water for decades, so why promise to spend money on something not yet in crisis? But now the crisis has arrived. And it’s arrived during an economic meltdown. Who’s going to pay for the decades of neglect, those politicians who prioritised elsewhere or the ordinary citizen? Exactly.

The fourth group are the people who simply can’t pay this new charge. If you need that explaining to you, then you probably stopped reading at the part where I didn’t give the leftists a bit of slipper.

The fifth group are the citizens who probably can pay, but have this feeling in the pit of their stomach that tightens when they think of the so many billions of euro that have already left Ireland to pay bank debts. Ordinary people, with reduced standards of living, people who got nothing from The Boom. The people who have lost family members to emigration, lost family members to suicide, lost their homes, face the prospect of losing their homes, have gone hungry to keep their homes, people who are forced into internships, the people who are losing hope that this iniquitous austerity will one day end. The response of Fine Gael and Labour to this, is a blind faith that more and more low-paid jobs, in a possibly improving economy, will cause enough people to forget that we’ve been royally and systematically screwed. And it’s a policy that may succeed. I’m hoping it does to be honest, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

The sixth and final group are the ‘enough is enough’ people. This is pretty self-explanatory. Fine Gael and Labour promised all sorts of utopian nonsense at the last election. They won a huge majority, yet instead of radical change, the most they appear to be able to do is ‘the best small country in the world in which to do business.’ Has there ever been a rallying call so uninspiring? Worse, it is now virtually impossible to distinguish this government from the governments (the ones I supported don’t forget) who destroyed our country and condemned so many to poverty, immigration and despair. Enough should certainly be enough.

These groups are not discrete. They overlap in several places, but for the most part, they feel they have a genuine grievance with those elected to govern this country through an existential crisis. And they have enjoyed a certain degree of success. The government has already backed down once, quite considerably too. Unfortunately, it appears that this government thinks it has moved far enough. Almost a million households have signed up for the charges. This has all the appearance of overwhelming compliance, which the government presumes to mean satisfaction.

But I can’t help thinking they’ve misunderstood the multifaceted and complex motivations of the protesters. Or worse, they have understood and have decided to now only concentrate their efforts on appealing to their base. If that is the case, this government, which I wish to support, will end, being thought of as even worse than the previous one.

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