I have never sought to be someone who is contrarian or purposely ‘provocative’
Opinion: It is important to believe that you are writing for citizens who want to live in a fairer and better society
“My essential views, as those who most dislike this column would point out, haven’t changed much.” Photograph: Claire Keogh/Provision
Not many people get to read their own obituary. I will have something like that dubious pleasure tomorrow, though – sorry to disappoint so many people – I am not quite dead. The Irish Times will publish a supplement to mark 25 years of this column. I think of this period since 1988 as my afterlife: I was 30 when I started and, when you’re 30, you think your best years are behind you. Many readers, I’m sure, will feel that, in this if in nothing else, I was right.
In preparation for the obsequies, I had to read over a lot of old columns. There is, to put it charitably, a certain sense of continuity, or, to put it less kindly, a lot of banging on about the same old stuff. Of the first six columns I wrote for the paper, one was about a subject of little continuing interest. The other five could just as easily form the basis of my sermons today. The first was about U2, a beat group still popular now in certain circles. (I suggested they were reviving “a mythic America . . . never more powerful in its ability to convince young Irish people that life even as an illegal burger flipper in the Bronx is preferable to staying in Ireland and trying to change it.”) There was one about hospital consultants being overpaid and how some of them were encouraging the development of a two-tier health system.
There was one about the arrival of satellite TV and how it would make Rupert Murdoch immensely powerful, and another about the Catholic Church and how it needed to embrace the energies of democracy. And there was one about the mass emigration of the Irish young and the fatalism that underlay it: “we are a people who can adapt to anything except change.”
Not only could these same subjects form the basis of columns a quarter of a century later but, I freely admit, I would probably say more or less the same things about them. My essential views, as those who most dislike this column would point out, haven’t changed much. I would actually go further and concede that these views were old-fashioned even in 1988. I was formed by post-war European social democracy. I believe in a republic that can provide all its citizens with the basic requirements for a decent, self-respecting existence – and I believe just as strongly that beyond this the State should keep its nose out of people’s business.
This puts me at odds with the dominant orthodoxy that emerged from the Reagan-Thatcher revolution that purports to believe the market will take care of everything and that collective institutions are a menace. (Except, of course, when they are required to start wars, bail out banks or stop gay marriage.) It also made me a critic of the accumulation of unaccountable power by both Fianna Fáil and the institutional Catholic church.
But I’ve never wanted to be merely against things. I’m not, to use a term that became fashionable in the 1990s, a contrarian. Going against the grain – regardless of what the grain may be at any given time – is great fun but it has always seemed to me the journalistic equivalent of the statement wrongly attributed to Groucho Marx: Those are my principles, but if you don’t like them, I have others. I always hated debating societies. I am repelled by the idea that it doesn’t matter which side of an argument you take so long as you take it with style.
For that reason, I’ve always found “provocative” – the accolade that those of us in the opining business often crave – to be the most back-handed of compliments. Of course, any writer would hope to provoke thought and feeling. But provocation in itself is as easy as shoving a stick into a wasp’s nest – any fool with a thick enough skin can do it. One of my misgivings about the age of social media – and I am old enough to have started on a manual typewriter – is that we now have easy metrics of provocation. It is very simple to work out which topics will poke the online wasp’s nest, get hits and drive traffic and revenue. But to what end? If provocation is a value (and literally a monetary value) in itself, all opinion columns will cluster around the same “hot” subjects and write in the same shrill tone. There has to be something beyond provocation – some belief that you’re writing for a community of intelligent citizens who actually want the place they inhabit to be better than it is.
An anachronistic trade
This belief, boringly unaltered, probably makes me the equivalent of a cooper or a thatcher – a practitioner of an anachronistic trade. I’ve had the rare luck to be able to work in a protected space, with no sugar daddy to flatter: in 25 years, no editor has ever asked me either to write something I didn’t think or not to write something I did. That freedom is old-fashioned and undramatic and perhaps boring too. But if it’s an anachronism I hope it’s one of the odd ones that civilised cultures continue to tolerate.
A supplement featuring a selection of Fintan O’Toole’s columns over the last 25 years will be published with tomorrow’s newspaper.