Carlsberg politics of easy options is an ugly hangover

Tue, Jun 24, 2008, 01:00

As Ireland is no longer weak, it is time it rid itself of the colonial hangover of evasion and duplicity in political life, writes Fintan O'Toole.

ACTUALLY, FORGET about the Eurobarometer surveys and the EU's collective psychoanalysis of the Irish after the Lisbon debacle. If you really want to understand the nature of the contemporary Irish psyche and the way it has knocked the European project off course, think Carlsberg. I don't mean to suggest that, when we voted on Lisbon, we were, as the old codger in The Fast Showused to say, "awfully drunk at the time". I mean rather that there's a set of Carlsberg ads tailored for the Irish market that could have been for the successful No campaign.

One is set in a bar in New York. A young Irishman leaves his mates and goes to chat up an attractive blonde woman sitting at the bar. She tells him that he has to either go back to his mates or face her hulking boyfriend who is just looming into view. Instead, he embraces her and introduces himself to her boyfriend as her brother. The other ad is set in a bar in some non-English-speaking country. The Irish lads are invited, in a threatening way, to do something Irish. The options are either to run like hell or start trying to dance a humiliating jig. Instead they start speaking bits of pigeon Irish as if it were soulful poetry: "Is maith liom cáca milis. Agus Sharon Ní Bheoláin." The tag line for both ads is "It's not just A or B. There's probably always a C".

It is a perfect encapsulation of the way we approached, and continue to approach, the whole Lisbon process. Option A is that we buy in, broadly speaking, to the European project and accept that the rules that can be agreed among 27 member states are inevitably compromises in which nobody gets quite what they want. Option B is that we pull back from that project into a semi-detached relationship with the EU. So we go for Option C, a vague belief that we can squirm away from the hard choices and through our marvellous charm, cunning and persuasiveness, get something completely different.

The view of the world that underlies those Carlsberg ads and the mentality expressed in our approach to Lisbon is a very old fantasy, embodied in the trickster. In folk tales, the trickster is a weak figure, an ordinary peasant, who gets one over on the strong - the king, the lords, the bishop - by evading and inventing, by ducking and weaving.

He embodies the wish-fulfilment of the weak. You can't shape the world, you can only poke it in the eye. As Robert Darnton has put it: "Tricksterism is a kind of holding operation. It permits the underdog to grasp some marginal advantage by playing on the vanity and stupidity of his superiors. But the trickster works within the system, turning its weak points to his advantage and therefore ultimately confirming it ... Tricksterism provided a way of coping with a harsh society instead of a formula for overthrowing it."

We inherited this trickster mentality from our colonial past, but we've had a very hard job leaving it behind.

Culturally, tricksterism has been our great strength - much classic Irish literature is about evading history and weaving a way around the apparent certainties of the English language. But politically, it has been our besetting weakness. It is a mentality that takes weakness and lack of control for granted and sets about dodging a way around them.

In political terms, tricksterism translates, at the personal level, into stroke politics and at the collective level into populism. The stroke - the concept, in this sense, is uniquely Irish — is all about pulling a fast one. It assumes that the system is rotten and will always be so, and uses this assumption to justify the raising of low cunning to the level of high art. The point is not to reform or change the system, but to exploit its weaknesses.

Populism is this mentality writ large. Its mantra is drawn from the great Danish philosopher Carlsberg - It's not just A or B, there's almost always a C.

The aim is to avoid explicit choice, to have something for everyone in the audience, to let everybody know that you're on their side, even when those sides are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Decisiveness, in this way of configuring politics, is the ultimate sin. The Irish solution to the abortion problem - none of that filth here but, sure why not go to England? - is the ultimate manifestation of genius.

This political tricksterism, this art of ducking and diving, of endless evasion, is forgivable in the weak. It expresses a view of the world that has helped to get the oppressed through their miserable days for much of human history. But at what point does a society grow up and realise that it's not weak anymore? Could we have reached that point now, where we're actually willing to live with the consequences of the way we've voted rather than looking for someone to save us by concocting a phoney plan C?