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  • Reshuffling personalities

    March 25, 2010 @ 4:00 pm | by Bryan

    Appointments of Ministers at Áras an Uachtaráin last night: (front seated) Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Pat Moylan, Ceann Comhairle Séamus Kirk, Chief Justice Mr John Murray, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills Mary Coughlan; (Back row) Minister for Social Protection Éamon Ó Cu?v, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport Mary Hanafin, Minister for Enterprise,Trade and Innovation Batt O'Keeffe, Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs Pat Carey, Minister for Defence Tony Killeen and Chief Whip John Curran. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

    Appointments of Ministers: (front seated) Pat Moylan, Séamus Kirk, Mr John Murray, Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan; (Back row) Éamon Ó Cuív, Mary Hanafin, Batt O’Keeffe, Pat Carey, Tony Killeen and John Curran. Photograph: Cyril Byrne.

    I have been trying to make sense of the latest cabinet reshuffle and the response to it. To begin with, the response. From Stephen Collins’ excellent report:

    According to Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny – “The Taoiseach has retreated from the challenge of leadership that fell upon his shoulders. He could have been courageous, taken a different approach and from among those on his own backbenches he could have reshuffled his Cabinet so that it would bring some semblance of life to an exhausted group who are fatigued and flattened. They are without ideas, energy, ideals or commitment.”
    Translation, I don’t like the people Brian Cowen picked?

    Labour Party leader, Eamon Gilmore – “Why is the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, still in office? By any standards, she should be removed from office. While I acknowledge she has been a good Minister in other departments and has made a major contribution to public life, her record as Minister for Health and Children has been hopeless.”
    In other words, I really don’t like one of the people Cowen picked?

    Last but not least, Green Party leader, John Gormley – the appointment of two of his party’s TDs as junior ministers represented a “very successful day for the Greens in Government”.
    That is, I’m delighted that two of my people got picked?

    And then there’s the reshuffle itself. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the guiding principle was ensuring stability, and that by rewarding allies, pacifying wavering partners, and only moving things around so long as doing so did not get in the way of the rewarding and pacifying.

    Is it just me, or do the political leaders all seem to be far more interested in who gets political power than with what gets done with that power? Even the Greens, who probably have the clearest political agenda of the lot, seem more concerned with staying in power than with realising their vision, as if that vision could not possibly be realised without their presence in government. It is easy to pick on the Greens, but I can’t help but feel that everyone else is the same. Had the Taoiseach sacked half of his cabinet, or the whole lot, and replaced them with the most promising and articulate deputies from every party, I’m sure he would have been hailed as a genius. But would that really have been any different from the action he took? Sure, it would have meant spreading the political power around like a good democrat, but what good does it do the country in the long run if the distribution of power is effected for the sake of popularity, legacy or just good naturedness rather than for personal political survival? Isn’t the real issue the socio-economic transformation of the state?

    What I found really sad about the reshuffle and then the terms in which it has been subsequently analysed is that apart from the fuzzy, non-specific talk of innovation and economic recovery, there hadn’t been much in the way of articulating a comprehensive vision for the future. Not by government, nor the opposition. The discussion has been something like discussing the merits of a new football signing without any reference to team he has joined, long term goals, their style of play, their likely position at the end of the season, the competitions in which they will be involved, and so forth.

    I think it’s really sad that whether a politician is a good media performer, is articulate in the Dáil, is liked or otherwise, comes from such and such a part of the country, and so forth, that these things set the parameters of the discussion on political appointments as opposed to questions around where the country is going.

  • On strike

    March 22, 2010 @ 11:26 pm | by Bryan

    A large queue of people outside the Molesworth Street Passport Office in Dublin before lunchtime today. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien/The Irish Times

    A large queue of people outside the Molesworth Street Passport Office in Dublin before lunchtime today. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times.

    The first industrial action that I came across in this country was the nurses’ work-to-rule a couple years ago. I distinctly remember thinking that if this is how the rich world does strikes, then either it has got something right that my part of the world has yet to figure out, or people here just don’t understand the concept of the strike.

    Leader of the Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, brought that back to mind. In response to the strike by officials at the passport office, he is reported as saying:

    I full understand the anger of low-paid public sector workers who have had their salaries unilaterally cut twice during the past twelve months, but those who are suffering as a result of action now being taken are not responsible for these pay cuts.

    This is where I suppose the cross cultural misunderstanding sets in. Growing up, industrial action was explained to me as something people did to a third party in order to force their employers to yield in to some set of demands. It therefore goes without saying that those who suffer are not responsible for creating the conditions that led to the industrial action in the first place.

    I don’t like industrial action in general. I don’t like it because I don’t see how it succeeds apart from a complete disregard for the public; and even then success isn’t guaranteed. In order to be successful, it often demands that the aggrieved do, or at the very least be willing to do something egregious in order to demonstrate their right standing, which is just twisted. In reality, that means that unless it were now impossible to obtain a travel document, or Gardaí refused to arrest anyone, or all health professionals decided that they wouldn’t turn up to work, industrial action by any of the above is not likely to be taken seriously. If it is taken seriously, it is most likely to be thought of as an annoyance and unlikely to serve the interests of those striking. Should providers of essential services refuse to work, on the other hand, the public would rightly turn on them and blame them for the ensuing disaster.

    But what’s a trade union to do? I don’t know. But in a country in which people prize their convenience, I don’t think inconveniently highlighting the plight of the low paid worker will win much sympathy. The trade union might win political capital. Politicians will seek to do the same on the basis of their reactions to the situation. But the passport office worker will almost certainly lose out.

    Then again, in this part of the world, you can’t just fire an entire department for going on strike. So maybe there’s hope.

  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 7

    March 18, 2010 @ 10:51 pm | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self

    For Augustine as for Plato, the vision of cosmic order is the vision of reason, and for both the good for humans involves their seeing and loving this order. And similarly, for both what stands in the way is the human absorption with the sensible, with the mere external manifestations of the higher reality. The soul must be swivelled around; it has to change the direction of its attention/desire. For the whole moral condition of the soul depends ultimately on what it attends to and loves. “Everyone becomes like what he loves. Dost thou love the earth? Thou shalt be earth. Dost thou love God? then I say, thou shalt be God” (p. 128).

    I enjoyed reading this chapter. Part of it was to do with a longstanding fascination with St Augustine. But more than anything else, I find myself drawn more and more towards the idea that we become the thing we fix our gaze on, or as Taylor tells us Augustine proposed, we become the thing we love. It’s an idea that I think reality endorses. It’s hard to argue that the love of material possessions has literally turned society into a collection of units of consumption. Margaret Thatcher, it turns out, was a prophet and there really is, in a sense, no such thing as society. She probably just realised long before most that the object of our affection – whether we choose to call ourselves out and out capitalists, Marxists, or something in between – is ‘stuff’.

    Augustine says we become what we love. Were he alive today, he might he to add to the quotation above, “Dost thou love ‘stuff’?” And if we all gave a collective nod of the head? He could, for consistency’s sake respond with something along the lines of “Thou shalt be ‘stuff’,” or, “Though shalt treat each other like ‘stuff’”. But having watched John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel recently, I would suggest that, “Go and watch The Road to see what thou shalt become,” would be a more appropriate response.

    I haven’t read the novel yet, but I can believe Peter Bradshaw’s claim that Hillcoat’s one fault was in trying to tone down McCarthy’s vision of a post-apocalypse world. I also agree with Bradshaw that The Road is one of those “What if this really happened?”/”This is really going to happen,” apocalyptic films. And while, in order not to scare everyone away, the film attempts to show that humanity isn’t all bad and that there’s hope, I think McCathy’s major contribution is to give us a glimpse of the end result of loving stuff above all else.

    If Taylor has given a faithful account of Augustine’s thinking, and if we really do become what we love, then McCarthy’s work of fiction ceases to look that fictitious. In fact, McCarthy begins to look at least as much a prophet as Thatcher.

  • The brightest and the best, or the rest?

    March 16, 2010 @ 3:19 pm | by Bryan

    Reading through the comments on Declan Kiberd’s Returning to the spirit of Tiger Ireland is pointless. Only a completely new political movement can tackle the challenges, one response jumped out at me. Though his main target was the senior civil servant, Labour TD Joanna Tuffy evidently took offence at the Prof Kiberd’s characterisation of the political system in general, and TDs more specifically, who he referred to as “high-maintenance ward-heelers who open their main shop for business on just 96 days a year.” Part of Tuffy’s contribution to the Kiberd article was to provide a link to her response on her own blog.

    Before I go on, I must issue a disclaimer. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Deputy Tuffy, and since that brief encounter, I have thought very highly of her (a lot of which comes down to her not having come across as a ‘politician’).

    Disclaimer out of the way, what struck me most about the Tuffy response was her defence of the political system. She writes for instance, that:
    Blaming the political system for particular political choices is to buy into some idea that there is no political differences. Contrary to the gist of Professor Kiberd’s article there are alternatives being put forward by the opposition to the Government’s approach and thanks to our political system, the voters will have a chance to vote for or against those alternatives at the next election.  

    She then goes on to note that:
    [Kiberd] suggests we should bring in a superior calibre of politician than the one the voter currently elects. He even suggests they should be paid more! … Does he not remember that it is the voter that votes for our current TDs?  And that they can vote to re elect them or elect different TDs and different political parties at the next election?  His notion of “bringing in” a superior calibre of people to those the people elect smacks of something very elitist and undemocratic to me…

    Tuffy concludes with the observation that it is ordinary people who visit the local TD’s constituency clinic, not those who are powerful enough to lobby government decision-makers. She backs up this point with a comparison between a TD’s interventions on behalf of the ‘poorest of the poor’ and the power bankers were able wield in the form of the government’s Bank Guarantee in September 2008.

    There are two ways of reading this response. One would be to reduce it to the actions of a self-interested individual making a case for the continued existence of her job. There are also slightly more flattering routes to the same conclusion. She could, for example, be a member of a group that has been blinded to the realities of life beyond its professional cocoon – the same sort of condition which sometimes afflicts senior civil servants, hospital consultants, trade union bosses, and even social welfare recipients. Let’s face it, the tendency to see the world solely through the lens of one’s own group, and to be blind to the realities of others, is pretty universal.

    But I don’t think that is what is happening here, at least not primarily. I don’t think Tuffy is defending the current number of TDs and the political system as a whole because she is a shrewd politician. Her position is so out of keeping with the prevailing mood that such a move wouldn’t be shrewd at all. I think she has a fundamentally different philosophic view on governance and democracy to Kiberd. Tuffy doesn’t want elected representatives to predominantly come from the professional classes (of which she is a member). She doesn’t want the ‘best and the brightest’ running things, but regular folks, who are representative of the places they come from. Ultimately, the Tuffy – Kiberd beef is a difference of opinion about the structure of society, and specifically, the structure of the ruling class.

    I don’t completely agree with either. Prof Kiberd is right, in my opinion, to question the overall political system. That said, I’m not sure his conclusions are consistent with his criticisms. He goes after the idea of an almost omnipotent senior bureaucrat, who is removed from the day to day experiences of the professional on the ground he or she dictates to. I’m not sure that getting rid of that bureaucrat and then replacing her with politicians from the various professions solves the problem. Even if doctors run the health ministry, if they don’t talk to other health professionals on the ground, if they don’t talk to patients and relatives, there will still be the problem of a distant, unresponsive, non-representative managerial class. On the other hand, I think Tuffy’s partisanship keeps her from seeing that the status quo is far from the representative ideal that she aspires to. I think she places too much stock in the difference between Labour and the parties in government, and exaggerates the substantive degree of choice that is afforded to voters.

    Be that as it may, we have a substantive debate on our hands! Granted this particular one is between members of two fairly unrepresentative groups (an academic and a politician). And it is being mediated by a newspaper. It’s still far from being a spontaneous thing that occurs in the work and marketplace. But it is still a real debate about something that matters. That’s something.

  • Identity crisis

    March 12, 2010 @ 10:07 am | by Bryan

    The following is part of a comment by Patrick on a previous post:

    I guarantee that if you started a thread tomorrow asking us to propose an agreed definition of “virtue ” or “happiness” you would get very few comments. The common reaction would be that such discussions are too “up in the air” “idealistic” ‘divorced from reality” “will never put butter on the table” etc.etc.

    It reminded me of Richard Pine’s opinion piece last week titled Greece is a real country – unlike Ireland. Making a similar point, Pine wrote:

    Ireland has ceased to have any discernible sense of purpose. It is hardly a real country at all. In 1986 an editorial in the Sunday Tribune expressed frustration with a debate on Irish identity … Drawing attention to the issues of poverty, the threat of national bankruptcy, and citizens’ alienation from the institutions of state (this was 1986, remember), [a Sunday Tribune] writer asserted that “at best the issue of identity has only a tangential relationship with any of these problems – no navel gazing is required.”

    …Nearly 25 years after the Sunday Tribune urged us to look outward rather than inward, the issues raised – poverty, national bankruptcy, alienation – have not gone away, nor have they been resolved, nor are they likely to be.

    A surprising number of comments following Pine’s article are unflattering. I wonder if that is because, as Patrick pointed out, discussions about things like ‘identity’, ‘values’, ‘direction’ and other wooly, intangible concepts just don’t go down too well. I wonder if, in keeping with Neil Postman’s thesis in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we would simply rather be entertained than engage in a drawn out, boring debate about abstract issues. Or maybe, as Taylor argues in Sources of the Self, having ditched the values of the past, modern Europe just hasn’t figured out what it values? Maybe the reason why a blog post asking for a definition of ‘virtue’ would get few comments, and Pine got the response he did is that no-one really knows the answers to those questions?

    I could be wrong. Does anyone know how things like ‘virtue’ or ‘happiness’ or even ‘the purpose of life’ are, or ought to be defined in today’s Ireland? Was Pine right? Does the country suffer from a crisis of identity?

  • Maybe openness is overrated?

    March 11, 2010 @ 8:15 pm | by Bryan

    A few days ago, Maureen Dowd wrote a column titled Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca. In it, she expresses frustration at the fact that non-muslims are not allowed to visit mosques in Saudi Arabia. In her own words,

    You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall … You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak — and have your picture snapped with him afterward.

    …But at the Jidda Hilton, I was told that non-Muslims could not visit mosques — not even the one on the hotel grounds.

    A Saudi woman in Jidda told me that the best way to absorb Islam was to listen to the call for prayer while standing on the corniche by the Red Sea at sunset.

    That was indeed moving, but I didn’t feel any better equipped to understand the complexities of Islam that even Saudis continually debate — and where radical Islam fits in. Or to get elucidation on how, as Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria put it, “the veil is not the same as the suicide belt.”

    For the most part, Dowd makes a fair point. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t keep Islam per se separate from the specter of terrorism. It’s also a shame that she seems to think of religion as this almost uniform thing, such that if Catholicism and Buddhism broadly relate to non-members in one way, all religion should do likewise. But that aside, Dowd asks a fair, and an important question: why won’t Islam reveal itself fully to non-Muslims, and if that continues to be the case, how is the rest of the world (read the Western world since the rest of the non-Western world probably isn’t that bothered) going to learn about this mysterious other?

    I know so little about Islam that I’m not even going to try to hazard an answer. That said, I can see the wisdom in refusing to open up. China did it, the Quebecois are doing it, and quite frankly, I think it’s a shrewd survival tactic.

    One of the ‘truths’ of the modern world is that opening things up to public scrutiny is a good thing. It is based on the idea that we are capable of evaluating things rationally, and measuring up a thing solely on the basis of merit. So if a religion has nothing to hide, if it doesn’t have dodgy tenants, if its adherence will lead to the betterment of people, it should welcome the peering gaze of an unbelieving public. The bigger the audience, the larger the pool of potential converts. Better still, if non-mainstream religions and cultures open themselves up to the rest of the world (again, read the West), then there will be greater intercultural understanding and the world will become a better place.

    But reality doesn’t work like that, does it? As the history of the Catholic church, or the modern American tele-evangelical movement demonstrates, the more open ‘non-mainstream’ things get, the more likely they are to be gobbled up, or to turn into something like its dominant onlookers. If French speaking Canada felt so threatened by the dominant English speaking culture of North America that laws were passed compelling non-French speaking school children to be educated in the French language; if Ngugi felt that writing in English posed a grave threat to the continued existence of African languages; and if the Chinese decided that they could only survive culturally (as well as politically and economically) by closing in on themselves until they felt ready to face the rest of the world; then maybe the Saudis are onto something?

    Maybe there is no surviving the ‘progress’ of the secular, consumerist, English speaking, Hollywood driven modern world except by erecting walls and trying to, at least in part, shut it out. If that’s the case, frustrating Maureen Dowd’s desire to learn is a small price to pay for cultural survival.

  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 6

    @ 8:00 pm | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self - Charles Taylor

    Plato’s Self-Mastery

    I found this week’s reading a little boring to be honest. Learning about Plato’s outlook was good, but because Taylor has said that he wants to trace the development of this outlook to Augustine and then Descartes, I suppose it’s understandable that I felt as though the story didn’t move.

    That said, here’s my favourite quotation:

    …partly deriving from [the] tradition of Christian resistance to Greek philosophy, our modern age has seen a number of rebellions against the moral philosophy of reason. From some Romantics in one way, from Nietzsche in another, down to the Frankfurt school which borrowed from both, the notion has been developed that rational hegemony, rational control, may stifle, desiccate, repress us; that rational self-mastery may be self-domination or enslavement. There is a ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’, in which reason, which promises to be a liberating force, turns into its opposite. We stand in need of liberation from reason.

  • Impotence, power and human nature

    March 8, 2010 @ 9:37 pm | by Bryan

    In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre puts forward this unusual suggestion:

    Consider the following possibility: that what we are oppressed by is not power, but impotence; that one key reason why the presidents of large corporations do not, as some radical critics believe, control the United States is that they do not even succeed in controlling their own corporations; that all too often, when imputed organizational skill and power are deployed and the desired effect follows, all that we have witnessed is the same kind of sequence as that to be observed when a clergyman is fortunate enough to pray for rain just before the unpredicted end of a drought; that the levers of power … produce effects unsystematically and too often only coincidentally related to the effects of which their users boast.

    MacIntyre’s aim is to challenge the idea of managerial expertise in the political and commercial spheres. And he may well be right in thinking that all the ‘little guy’ needs to do is wake up and exercise his or her will in order to change society. But I’m not sure that change would necessarily be positive. I’m not sure that ‘power to the people’ automatically leads to anything but a restoration of the status quo, just with some alteration to who holds which positions on the social ladder.

    That said, I think MacIntyre is right in a more fundamental sense than the one that is immediately at hand. We are ‘oppressed’ not by something external, like another’s power, but by something that is both internal and common to us all: human nature. It sometimes manifests as impotence, but more often as fear and greed. That’s why, given the opportunity, just about any other Irish government would have behaved during the Celtic Tiger in the same way as the government of that period. It is why rich and powerful nations to this day impose unfair trade arrangements on weaker ones. And why the poor will always be among us.

    But there are exceptions. There are still innumerable examples of virtue displayed by both individuals and institutions. I just haven’t figured out where they fit into my pessimistic outlook.

  • We Need to Draw a Distinction Between Charity and Justice

    March 5, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | by Bryan

     “You need to find a way to sell your ideas to people. Make them want to buy into them.”

    That was the advice given to me in a little Belfast coffee-shop months ago by a lady whose area of expertise is working with troubled youth. Promoting social justice issues for her is akin to selling brand X toothpaste. Idealism is all well and good, she seemed to be saying, but it is pragmatism that moves toothpaste off shop shelves.

    Eamon Delaney’s thoughts on Irish overseas development assistance in these pages reminded me of that conversation. The core of his argument seems to be this: convince me why I should buy into the brand X toothpaste that is overseas development assistance. Given the proclivity of people in the developing world for procreation, given the state’s dire financial circumstances, given also that, most importantly, Ireland has already proved herself as one the world’s most generous nations and benefactor to some of the poorest, most pathetic peoples, what reason can the development sector possibly put forward to justify the continued national purchase of overseas aid?
    (more…)

  • Sources of the Self – Chpt 5

    @ 11:15 am | by Bryan

    Sources of the Self - Charles Taylor

    Moral Topography

    What we are constantly losing from sight … is that being a self is inseparable from existing in a space of moral issues, to do with identity and how one ought to be. It is being able to find one’s standpoint in this space, being able to occupy, to be a perspective in it. (p. 112).

    This is a very short chapter, but a brilliant introduction into the book’s next section. I’m blown away by Taylor’s understanding of what it means to be an individual. Individual probably isn’t the right word. Judging from the preceding chapters, I suspect he would say that others are so important for our being who and what we are that the term ‘individual’ is inappropriate. Hence the use of the slightly unusual term, ‘self’.

    I can’t wait to see how he understands difference. It’s clear that he believes standpoint is primarily the result of history, and that he is trying to trace the development of the modern Western standpoint all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But what about others? What about Asians, Africans and others who don’t descend from that tradition?

    The really difficult thing is distinguishing the human universals from the historical constellations and not eliding the second into the first so that our particular way seems somehow inescapable for humans as such, as we are always tempted to do (p. 112).

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