The ‘progress’ of Irish society has come at a high price, writes John Waters
There’s an essence of Ireland that does not reside in landscape, or institutions, that rarely manifests nowadays in formal culture. It’s to be encountered chiefly in fleeting encounters with people – benign explosions of mirth and knowingness that leave you changed for the day. It cannot be communicated as a blow-by-blow account of an encounter.
You had to be there. It speaks of a spirit devoid of claptrap, ideology or political correctness. It is gently ironic, mischievous, anarchistic. It sees through things without stopping to parse them. It is not cute-hoorism, or ‘crack’, still less ‘craic’ (awful makey-up word). It’s astute and empathetic and deeply affectionate – a hug for the soul when you least expect it.
Immigration has driven this sensibility underground somewhat, the mixture of contemporary company almost invariably demanding more literal forms of exchange, a cultural Esperanto that leaves us lonelier and colder.
During my ‘bother’ of 2014 [when Rory O’Neil/Panti Bliss accused me of being homophobic on national television] – under siege from toxic twitterati and the trendier end of the mainstream media – I often feared this Ireland had gone for good. It seemed that we had arrived somewhere that was not merely post-irony and post-reason, but that had also left behind the possibility of perspective, balance, fairness, truth or decency. In the depths of February 2014, I went to London and found myself walking around wondering if, what with the way things were going, I could live there now and start over, not caring about the public life of the place I lived in, privatising myself and emulating several of my peers by writing indifferent novels as though Beckett and Kafka had never bothered to burn the building. But I couldn’t deny to myself that I loved something deeper in Ireland than what currently seemed to be available, belonged to it, shared its pulse.
More recently I’ve begun a process of separation in myself, between Ireland and the people who have raped her. If I stay around Dublin more than a week or two at a time, a destabilising foreboding enters my soul, so I just get away, to Lislary [Co. Sligo] or Spain or Italy or America.
Nobody, not even a Dubliner, should stay in Dublin for more than a fortnight at a time. If you do, the nonsense closes in around you, a bubble of regurgitated cant that smells of staleness. You need to get out, beyond Lucan, beyond Leinster, beyond the Shannon.
Even down there, listening too much to RTÉ or Newstalk, I’d begin to think they described the world as it is, but then I stopped listening to them and my country began to come back to me.
Walking the beach at Lislary I could become certain that whatever they describe, it is not Ireland. Nowadays I listen only to Dylan Radio, and occasionally, when I think of it, to Start the Week on Monday mornings on BBC Radio 4.
In the very depths of the ‘bother’, I would find myself thinking there was no safe place left to walk without the need constantly to avoid eye-contact.
At a four-year remove, I can say that the only times I encountered negative personal responses were in Dublin – southside Dublin, as it happens – from people who seemed to have no more than slogans to work with and always hurried away after flinging their quantum of abuse.
A couple of guys on bikes spat some toxic verbals at me as they passed me in the street; one young American woman walked up to where I was sitting in Starbucks and told me, without elaboration, that I “ought to be ashamed” of myself; a guy at Dublin Airport muttered something sourly sarcastic about going off to get married as he scarpered past my table in Butler’s Café.
Nobody I met had ever tweeted anything, or cared one whit what some drag queen had said about me, or what had happened afterwards. Had I been less sickened and unnerved by the experience, I might have become fascinated by the absolute determination of virtually all media outlets to keep on the agenda something that was exciting close to zero interest among the population at large.
At first this realisation was difficult for me to arrive at, although some of my friends were telling me almost from the beginning that I was becoming deeply deluded if I imagined that Twitter, RTÉ and the Irish Times were in any way representative of Ireland as a whole. Most people I encountered beyond a narrowly defined Pale had registered nothing of it, and those who had were even more perplexed. One woman told me it was a shocking thing to be accused of being a queer!
This is Ireland. I don’t mean ‘the real Ireland’ – a phrase contaminated by kitsch and makey-up. I mean, rather, the ‘true Ireland’, where the historical personality of the Irish people might be located if you had a mind to look for it.
It’s not that it’s impossible to describe this place, but that no single statement on its own amounts to a truth about it. It’s contradictory and paradoxical and Janus-faced – both/and, not either/or. This is why you hear this Ireland described less and less: because most commentators utilise an Anglo-Saxon viewfinder in which things are either one thing or another.
This Ireland, for example, is neither ‘conservative’ nor ‘liberal’. To know what this Ireland thinks, you’d need to cross-examine each and every one of the human conundrums who populate it.
The more you speak to these people, the more you realise that they don’t fit into easy categories, that their outlooks on the world are carved out of personal experience – of sorrow and hoping and watching and listening. This is not an Ireland of received opinions, or fads, or right-on kneejerk stances. This Ireland observes and cogitates and judges by its own lights. This Ireland still exists, but it is diminishing, and, worst of all, is increasingly only to be located in the company of the old.
We’ve been talking a long time now about ‘progress’ without anyone remarking too loudly that we appear to be going around in circles. No one has ever postulated what the destination might look like. It’s all very vague – abandoned to a process of mimicry that renders our destinies dependent on how things turn out elsewhere.
It seems we’re aiming to be something like Sweden, although most of us have never been there, and never wished to spend more than an hour in the company of any Swede we met. Moreover, by all accounts of recent times, Sweden is not necessarily the paradise it’s been cracked up to be.
Our most intractable problems may be that our national personality is too complicated and ironic for the purposes of nation-building. Proper administration requires clarity, literalness and singularity, whereas our culture, at its deeper levels, tends to operate at the levels of doublethink and weightlessness.
Our core personality is centred on an existentialism that arises from a sense of the transient nature of everything. This makes us wide and philosophical, but also devil-may-care. Our quandary is that we understand that to ‘progress’ we need to shake off our complicatedness, but we also know that, if we do this, we risk self-disintegration.
Most people out there nowadays tend to speak in code, to avoid pursuit by the guardians of the new orthodoxies. Others just play along, reserving their energy for battles about immediate things.
There is this odd situation whereby a majority, or at least a sizeable minority, of the population is appalled and scundered at the way things seem to be going, but dare not give any indication that they are dismayed. This generalised sense of confusion and disgust is a great secret, even between people who hold to the same view. At the level of the central conversation, the facts are denied or distorted to uphold the official line that only a tiny minority of recalcitrant throwbacks have any difficulty with anything that is happening.
Most people daren’t even enumerate these current absurdities, but are dimly aware of the patterns: in the obsession with personal freedom expressed sexually, and the unrelenting emphasis on the ‘rights’ of nominated categories of person in the matter of doing whatever they please.
They observe these agendas being driven in the media by what are termed ‘human stories’ – carefully selected sociological narratives, chosen and tweaked to indict the past and the way things used to be seen and done. There are the women who have been denied abortions and the women who have had abortions and seem to be proud of this. Both are deemed heroines, or is that heroes?
There are the men who are really women and the women who are really men, and the men or women who are men one day and women the next. What was a short time ago unheard of is now, it seems, ubiquitous.
At the core of all this is what appears to be an attempt to insinuate sex and sexuality as the centre of human existence, human happiness, human being. It is not possible to dissent from it, even to ask that you be spared the details. In the alleged new era of truth-letting, no one is entitled to claim an amnesty or immunity.
Because the lie has been sold that everyone was involved in suppressing and oppressing those who have now ‘bravely risen up’, everyone must show up to salute their bravery and applaud their freedom. ‘No thanks’ is not an acceptable response, being likely to qualify as hostility, which invariably qualifies for a designation with an ‘ism’ or an ‘obia’ at the end of it.
This new culture has crept up on us, so that for a long time many people thought it was just a few isolated groups of soreheads demanding this and that entitlement they say had been denied them. Now, people are beginning to twig that there is a pattern here and that it is growing more insistent and pronounced.
The escalation of this new culture has taken on an exponential character, to the extent that it often seems to be dictating the nature and significance of everything the media suggests as important. Chat shows are dominated with the stories of people who would once have been considered to have a bit of a want on them.
These individual stories seem, moreover, to be connected, and plugged into the central grid of agenda-setting, which in turn appears to emanate from a lobby sector that commands the ear of government and instant access to the media. One story is crazier than the last, and tame compared to the next. But the weird thing is that nobody ever says – or at least not publicly – that the stories are crazy; instead, the subjects of them are congratulated for their ‘courage’ in speaking so personally about things that most people think should remain private.
Anyone who dissents from this analysis is likely to be eviscerated – first on social media, and then in the mainstream, which is essentially the same people acting in, respectively, their anonymous and bylined manifestations.
Most people are simply perplexed by all this and confounded as to where it is coming from and going to. The idea that it is simply a series of isolated stories is starting to wear thin, and people are becoming more open to the idea that something fundamental has shifted in our culture, though they cannot even begin to say what.
‘Political correctness’ is a short-circuiting term that prevents people penetrating what is happening, keeping them on the surface of existing understandings and imposed definitions and agendas.
They tend to think of PC as some faddish thing that’s come in and will go out again, a silly and puerile way of looking at reality. But PC is more than a banal preoccupation with fashionable posturing. It’s already clear that behind it lies a determined initiative to change the meanings of fundamental things and in so doing to render the world more in tune with the advances of consumerism and technological change, which essentially means uprooting reality from its bed in nature.
In truth, what is called ‘political correctness’ is actually a kind of force field thrown up around a phenomenon sometimes called ‘cultural Marxism’, a mutated version of the original, directed at changing fundamentally the way western societies conduct their everyday existences in the most intimate areas of their family and community lives.
In this climate, nobody wants to say anything for fear of touching off one of the multiplicity of tripwires now booby-trapping public reality. People still have conversations, of course, but in the main they consist of material supplied by approved sources.
They may mention the refugee crisis and avow that it is ‘shocking’. If you ask them why it is shocking, they may add some tautological platitude about how terrible it is to see people displaced in this way, and an occasionally brave soul will make a comparison with the Great Famine, which has become a trope of public discussion of these matters.
But again, if you delve into this comparison in a way that threatens to draw them out further, they will lapse into a silence punctuated by ‘hmmms’ and ‘haws’.
Of course, the culture of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ is not new. Ireland was always a place in which one of the most valuable talents was the ability to talk for a long time without committing yourself to a position. But it has entered a new phase in recent times.
The ‘marriage equality’ referendum did not initiate this escalation, but it certainly made it clear that we have entered an era of privatised opinion: people are now so browbeaten by unreason and illogic that mostly they’ve decided to keep their positions and beliefs to themselves and opt out of expressing any view of what should happen in the public realm.
It’s quite amazing to feel the difference: people now ask questions but respond to your answers with vague noises and platitudes. It’s as if everyone is terrified of being reported for holding unorthodox opinions. Better, then, to wait and see which way the wind is blowing.
Edited extract taken from John Waters’ new book Give us Back the Bad Roads, published by Columba Books (€19.99). See www.columbabooks.com