Governments must govern -- not try to shape our culture
Wednesday July 22 2009
In its own twee way, the very name, An Bord Snip Nua, gets to the heart of the issue.
Its utter bogusness echoes so much of what state endeavour has been about: pretending to protect and preserve ancient forms of Irishness, whether it is some precious cultural commodity west of the Shannon, or a peat bog in the Midlands, or the Irish language. Whether the McCarthy report is implemented in part or in whole, it is now on the political agenda: and underlying its proposals is a desire for minimalist government, without any great non-political projects as policy. In other words, an end to the notion of the State as a means of shaping the culture of Ireland, and how its people think.
This would be one of the most revolutionary events since 1916, which in essence was not merely about achieving a Republic, but giving that Republic great cultural projects. Thus Pearse thought that the Congested Districts, the most forlorn and impoverished corners of all of Europe, should be the social models for the new State. Which is the equivalent of making Bord na Mona the cornerstone of a space project. However, the actual founders of the State, after a more than usually stupid civil war, realised that nothing could be done with these human tipheads: they were capable of accumulating no capital, and generating no enterprise.
So they became Indian Reservations, where to stultify was to be Irish, and where backwardness was a form of cultural purity. The people here actually received government grants merely for talking. Everyone over 40 was crippled with rheumatism, and the entire population subsisted on a unique frying-pan diet, which explored the extent to which the human frame could survive without any vitamin C whatever.
There were other places of distinctive national virtue, namely the islands. The idealised role model for young people was thus Peig Sayers, whose senile ramblings were jotted down feverishly by teams of folklore stenographers, and turned into the Holy Scripture of the New Old Ireland. Prophets in other lands have emerged from the deserts. Our native form of revered dementia came from a wind-lashed and uninhabitable island: hence the term, Blasket Case.
Generations of children had their will to live broken on the wheel of Peig Sayers. Did any one of them ask, how come if she is so Gaelic her name is Sayers? The same, of course, for that other cultural icon from the West, Brian Merriman. So the very notion of some pure aboriginal Gaelic island folk offering a model to future generations of free Irish people was based on the words and thoughts of descendants of English settlers -- actually, rather like Pearse himself.
So the Irish language itself became a Government Protected Zone (GPZ). The Gaeltacht naturally became an extended GPZ. The islands became a GPZ. History became a GPZ. Even turf-burning became a GPZ. Moreover, this insanity became a perverse template for all sorts of other state projects. Mail and phone services were already GPZ. In the 1940s, all public transport became a GPZ. Air travel then became a GPZ. Arts became a GPZ -- indeed, the arts were hardly seen to be arts at all unless the State gave them a subsidy.
Even economic development was graded around a GPZ hierarchy.
The plain people of Ireland got the IDA. The semi-pure in the west got the Shannon Development. But the purest of the pure got Udaras, the job-creator for people who spoke Irish in a GPZ, a local shop for local people. In more recent times, Udaras has operated within the very ministerial embodiment of the GPZ, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which has a budget of €40m, with some 240 civil servants: almost one for every native Irish native speaker left.
Through these GPZs, the State became deeply involved in matters it knew nothing about. To be sure, this pleased politicians, for it increased their power of patronage, and thus accorded neatly with a culture of populist clientelism, as well as satisfying the ambitions of the few political ideological TDs, such as Eamon O Cuiv and Michael D Higgins. These see the primary duty of the State to be the pursuit of Great Cultural Projects, each within its own respective GPZ.
The dreams of such zealots are now dross. Nearly all state cultural projects have failed. The Irish language is effectively dead in its GPZ. The preposterous and Haugheyite confection, Aosdana, has achieved nothing whatever in its GPZ. CIE is a mouldering corpse in its GPZ. Every town now has its own empty GPZ, namely an arts centre, with its deserted craft shop offering (but not selling) environmentally sound raffia condoms, seaweed dental floss, and hand-crafted soaps made from pigfat. Government bribes have resulted in two multi-million pound GPZ stadiums in Dublin -- both of which will be empty, most of the time. And the fortune spent on the GPZ that is Olympian sports has produced just one bronze medal -- in bee-keeping.
The great dream is over. It's finally time for Ireland to be a normal country, one in which governments simply govern. Let the Great McCarthyite era begin.
Superb! And full credit to the Irish Independent for bringing Kevin's articles to us.
A lot of people do not like that odious little man. You do your case more harm than good by quoting him at length.
John, thanks for the comment. I would reply with two points.
Point 1, regardless of whether people like Kevin or not, there is an opportunity cost (not just a monetary cost) to engineering an artificial cultural identity (independent of whether it is modern or regressive). This cost is the detachment of the engineered culture from the global one. Hence, Ireland lacks its own historical and cultural engagement with the rest of the world, except via emigration and literature, both of which were the forms of rebellion against the closed-loop cultural system this country operates.
I don't think there is much point in outlining what is being lost every time we claim a triad to be ‘our own’ while, say, Saint-Saëns or Shostakovich to be ‘foreign’. Or when our National Gallery elects to showcase the Irishness of Paul Henry (not the worst of the Irish painters, in my view, but certainly not an important artist) but cannot be bothered to show the universality of, say, the New York School or German Expressionism.
Falsehood permeates the fabric of any society that embarks onto a path of 'constructing' a 'unique' identity. With time - decades of cultural engineering will do - there is nothing left, but fake.
The pseudo-aboriginal and the global cannot be combined – they are mutually exclusive, for the culture that promotes artificiality can never organically embrace excellence that make global art and science so powerful.
In my view, what confirms global values is the test of repetition. Take a simple comparison. Ronaldo v Gaelic Football Star. Ronaldo passes a repetition test many times each month and with millions of fans. A GFS, no matter how good he is, will never be able to match this test. Now, the tragedy here is that, possibly, the same GFS could have been as good as Ronaldo, but he will never know that, because he will never be engaging with the rest of the world. Inter-county rivalry is what he will be a part of - an engineered cul de sac of culture, and he is at that end of it, where even making a u-turn will require life changing effort.
Personally, pursuit of a local value (‘best guy in town’) might be fine. Collectively, for a culture, it is isolationist and disastrous, as the Soviet artists have learned in the 1980s and 1990s when they started discovering the world outside their own Soviet art. Cul de sac of socialist realism in its artificiality was the dead end of Soviet culture and more artistically destructive than Stalin’s prison camps ever were.
This is why we graduate students with no knowledge of Greek drama or philosophy, or Roman history, without understanding of the basic foundations of Enlightenment or modern philosophy, without having read American, English, French or Russian literature as their own (as the members of the Western Civilization). This is why Edmund Burke - the only Irish social philosopher of historical magnitude - has only one statue to his name in this country, while footnote figures are elevated to a hero status. This is why we have an 'intellectual elite' that routinely resorts to quoting obscure Irish 'scholars' from 1930s on and this is why we admire policymakers of the past who were able to tell this nation what the rest of the world already knew for decades. Like a mediocre mountain climber ascending the Everest of the world culture, we are infinitely grateful to sherpas, bringing us our oxygen of world knowledge, because having decided to be ‘unique’ in our Gaelic identity, we have starved ourselves of it.
What Kevin is saying is correct. We allowed this state to actively isolate ourselves from the world culture by creating an artificial minority identity.
Point 2, I disagree with your assessment of Kevin and his writing. I regard Kevin as a master writer, a person with his own and unique voice and beautifully crafted language. This is an aesthetic view, so it is neither right or wrong.
Finally, to sum my view on the post - this blog is not about doing me any good. And I do not have a 'case' to make. May be speaking my mind has done more harm than good to my case. But this leaves me a luxury of not having to make any cases, the luxury of just looking at the world and thinking about it independently.
This blog is about sharing with anyone who cares a space where we can express our views, where we can have a luxury of not making any cases. I am but a moderator who throws in a few thoughts of his own. So please keep engaging!
Kevin Myers piece goes overboard on the criticisms of the state in protecting and promoting Irish culture and its regions. And it mixes up two types of state intervention, that of protecting and promoting culture and heritage which is under threat and that which supports unions/closed shops, ineffeciencies whilst attempting to provide a national transport service.
Lets tease these out: I for one am fully agreeing that when the economic proverbials are hitting the fan as they are now, where oh where will all the money and time we have ploughed into Irish language (as it has been ran) have gotten us? The answer is not a lot. We would have been better teaching our kids a useful international language.
However, to counterbalance that we DO need the state to protect our culture and heritage. Its a case of where and how much and by what means. So, Irish yes, cupla focal is fine, some spoken, but not to the extent of giving Kevin Myers nightmares about a single book namely Peig. I do not have nightmares about it as many do but abhorred Fios Feasa.
Governance is all about the state 'meddling' in what would be a free for all pure capitalism model which ultimately ends up aimilar to the wild west? All(?) countries have adopted a government system which intercedes for the benefit of all, perhaps not totally fairly, there is no perfect country yet, and we are probably far from that now in these challenging times.
So setting up a CIE, did it work out? Perhaps not, but did it partially work? Well yes, partially, there is transport happening. Who did it benefit most, the workers or the users of the service? The workers. Can it be better? Definitely.
So in summary, yes, we do need state governance and state intervention. Can it be better? Most certainly? How do we change that? Through the ballot box and by voting for parties/entities/people that meet our views and carry them through.
While I wholly agree with your kind comments on Mr Myers (who has a usefully iconoclastic style to get you thinking outside the box), I disagree that the promotion of Irish culture and its language was/is the cause of our cultural isolation.
While we Irish do have a poorly developed visual arts (which arguably may be due to 500 yrs of occupation or whatever), the same cannot be said of our music spoken and written arts are right up there in universality. As for our sports - face it, no one can do it like the Irish :)
The opportunity cost of any undertaking becomes crystallised in negative terms by poor management. This epitomises our Public Service and Meyer's GPZ is for me a excellent metaphor for gross mismanagement. I would argue that the isolationism is not cultural but more due to a recent historal legacy (last 100 yrs) brought on by the combination of too much church influence and a farming elite who got too much influence at the formative stages of our state. This legacy is still taking time to shake off and still preserves an elite (GPZ) which is becoming more inept as a result of its own isolationist/eliteist approach. Indeed I would suggest that the Russian negative experience is rooted is equivalent mismanagement issues (different historical reasons)from elites.
The teaching of the Irish language was an attenpt to try and get people in touch with their roots (which are more universal than you realise)- not to isolate. Eliteist Mis management made it isolationist. Peig Sayers is a classic example of maintaining this status quo and creating a elite closed shop. The idea was to ensure people hated the language!!
In the meantime, I think we Irish will be destined to be wanderers - welcome most places and who knows...saving the world.
Fab blog by the way
Something for you to graph:
A: The amount of state support given to the banks both with recapitalisation and by implictly cost reduction with the state guarantee.
B: an estimation of the cost to the state for NAMA over next two years (2010+2011).
C: the amount of money put into companies by Enterprise Ireland in 2008 (ie: 34m).
Note that C is the one that can potentially create jobs.
MK1, excellent idea, but mind you the scale of EI money is so small (roughly 1/1000 of the expected losses on NAMA) that you won't see it on a chart. That said - I am going to post tomorrow afternoon a short presentation on NAMA balance sheet and expected costs and losses - it will be fun, I promise... so tune in.
I read your article in the Independent the other day on "deadweight government." Thanks for writing that. I live in the USA and was recently in Ireland for a holiday.
Constantin: mind you the scale of EI money is so small (roughly 1/1000 of the expected losses on NAMA) that you won't see it on a chart.
Exactly, which is what people need to realise. So whilst the government on the one hand talks about an innovative and knowledge economy, in practice where its putting its money is for shoring up bricks and mortar and brownfield sites and land, and past bad decisions taking risks based on those entities.
So rather than the government putting money into job creating entities, it is paying off on the risks taken by others in the past. This is very backward thinking, wouldnt you agree?
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