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Within the wave… three possible terrorist attacks in the UK June 30, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Terrorism, The War On Terror.
3 comments

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So, that’s possibly three attacks so far. Two car bombs found in London and thankfully made safe, although the unbelievable detail that one was unknowingly towed away bomb and all is quite something else. And now an incident at Glasgow airport by four people in a Jeep Cherokee which according to the BBC:

A Whitehall spokesman said the incident was not being treated as a national security threat however the prime minister is being kept informed of developments and is expected to chair a meeting of COBRA – the emergency committee later.

Two thoughts strike me. Firstly the low level nature of these attacks, assuming Glasgow is an attack, which is not to say that they might not have potentially been lethal in effect had they succeeded. The technology used was bare bones stuff. Gas canisters, nails, petrol. These are everyday items, easily accessible. And that tells us something about the nature of these attacks. They are not part of a serious co-ordinated campaign such as was seen during the 1970s through to the early 1990s with PIRA. Instead they seem to blossom from tight social groupings who act, not quite on impulse, but with a seeming lack of any long term (or even mid-term) strategy. Their access to serious weaponry appears, thankfully, to be limited.

The problem here being that this sort of DIY terrorism is enormously difficult to contain by the sort of security measures that eventually brought the PIRA to a stand-off. In fact it is arguable that the sort of intensive high surveillance operations that blanketed the North would quite simply be unacceptable in Britain and perhaps impossible to implement. And that gives considerable opportunity to those who want to utilise violence in this fashion. All they need, as the most recent events seem to imply, is a car and some petrol. And that in and of itself can shut down a major transportation centre.

But what is also striking is the rather muddled and contradictory nature of these events. What exactly are the political effects they are supposed to produce? The new British Cabinet appears to be tilted towards the anti-Iraq war position in a very public way. Milliband was outspoken in criticism of the Lebanon interventions by Israel last Summer. John Denham resigned over the Iraq invasion. Mark Malloch Brown was, as Deputy Secretary General of the UN, strongly critical of both the invasion and the US administration. There is credible evidence that British involvement is being scaled down in Iraq. This is not a cabinet which would support intervention in Iran. This is a cabinet which might find itself non too pushed ultimately (and I’d argue wrongly) to support a continuing presence in Afghanistan.

So a bomb campaign would appear – in terms of the aspirations of those carrying it out – to be at best pointless, at worst counterproductive. This really does seem to be purely gestural political violence. A reminder.

And it is that lack of focus which is so striking. The bombings aren’t intended to achieve anything concrete. Instead they’re almost a sort of rhetorical flourish, demonstrative. An indication that the forces which resulted in 7/7 remain active, perhaps will be strengthened, as was suggested on Channel4 News last night, by a newer generation of radical Islamists.

If true, then we are within a wave of such attacks. There might be more as some seek to emulate the current events. And there will presumably definitely be others. Low level, probably with very long gaps between events, often displaying an amateurish but stupidly effective lethality , sometimes not, but likely to recur again and again and again.

And worst of all essentially immune to whatever changes there are in the political environment.

Welcome to the future.

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do does live after them… June 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, The Left.
29 comments

I’m genuinely interested in the responses to my previous piece on Blair. So let’s consider what I was trying to do, what I did and what I was critiqued for possibly doing.

Firstly I was trying to reflect in a fairly dispassionate way on the power Blair had. That was a power which transcended political division and yet was clearly very human. I think it is indisputable that he retained enormous power in that even after the Iraq War, and the passions that it engendered, he was still able to shape a third election victory. Now one can read that a number of ways. Perhaps the Iraq War simply didn’t upset many people as widely as it did deeply others. And the way in which the Conservative Party still held onto a significant vote share while Labour still maintained a majority of the seats might indicate some truth in that.

I think I noted that on many issues I felt his government was craven. Education, health and social services are three that I mentioned. I have noted before how even the traditional Labour right in the 1950s and 60s was more to the left than the current incarnation of the party (incidentally did I ever mention I was a member of British Labour in the early 1990s?). The ideas that underpin my socialism and in particular the implementation of a blanket state education from primary to third level simply didn’t register on the radar of New Labour. And I’ve critiqued the way in which substance was almost always overwhelmed by style during the Blair premiership. Indeed the only positive notes were to recognise that Brown had maintained at least some element of redistributionist instincts (marginal though, still marginal) in Number 11 and Blair had done reasonably well in relation to the North [incidentally I don't agree at all that any other PM would have done as well. British Labour has rarely been a true friend of the North. I can think of quite a number of faces around the cabinet table - even today - who would have relished the opportunity to play macho gestural politics on the issue to the detriment of any sort of progress. It is also arguable that had he not had so much of his reputation banked upon it that he might not have made such a great effort in the last two years to see some sort of resolution].

Now I’ve been taken to task, albeit gently and I truly appreciate that, for finding so many kind words. I genuinely am at a loss to find anything other than a ‘more in sorrow that anger’ tone to the post. And that sorrow is because I find him a fascinating personality. I think he was uniquely talented in his ability to deal with people. I think he had a capacity to reach beyond the Labour party (actually I’m certain there is a thesis on how he managed not to reach within much of the Labour party) and speak to different sectors of the society. To recognise these strengths is in no way to applaud the ends to which they were shaped. Quite the opposite. The problem is that these were opportunities missed. That personality could have wrought much more significant changes in British society. Perhaps a serious engagement with the European Union. Perhaps some sense that they were engaged on the transformative social politics that is necessary, now more than ever as the saying goes.

But I’ll tend to shy away from the rhetoric of disgust, the politics of condemnation. I can’t be bothered for one thing. Secondly I think it is a bit pointless. We know the history. We now need to work out how to avoid repeating it. Blair supported some atrocious decisions, but largely decisions that would have been made – such as the Iraq War – whether he supported them or not. I don’t think he was either bloodthirsty or stupid on the issue, but arguably far too egocentric to realise that his counsel would count for almost nothing in Washington during the course of that war. Had Britain not joined in the invasion that invasion would have happened. It was foolish – and wrong in light of what later came to light concerning the rationale for war – for them to support it. But again egocentricity masked in what ejh notes was a strange sort of piety won out.

And any leading politician will make decisions which will result in deaths. Worse than Bill Clinton who appears to have used the death sentence as an electoral crutch? Better than George Bush who did the same? I don’t know. In the end he appears almost an example of how the individual is shaped by historic forces and processes rather than the contemporary vogue for believing the opposite.

I have political differences with him that I will continue to have. But I have political differences with everyone. And I think it is perhaps implicitly a little contradictory to take the line that he was unimportant say in relation to the North and not then to accept that he acted as pretty much all centrist politicians of this era, whether or left or right, act. Who else who came to power as British PM in this period would do much differently? He cut his cloth according to his measure. And as for being a liar, every politician I have ever met, and I’ve met more than my fair share, have been liars. But then every human I have met has been a liar to some degree. I expect some level of dissembling, it goes with the territory. So he was hardly sui generis.

No, the problem with Blair is not that he did these things, which almost any politician would ultimately have to do, but that he did them in an almost egregious and off the cuff fashion. That he abandoned the project even as he said he was strengthening it. Or as Nick Cohen, who still wrote the best critique of New Labour in Pretty Straight Guys wrote:

Blair and his entourage looked, smelt and sounded like an elite. They had abandoned the Labour Party’s traditional hope of creating a more equal society and cheered on the rich. For the aristocracy of wealth which mattered more than the aristocracy of birth, Blair was everything it could have desired. Its wiser members knew the Tories couldn’t stay in power for ever. By changing the Labour Party, Blair had removed the possibility that the Labour Party might change the country.

Now that would indeed evoke disgust…

I return to his personality which was, like it or loathe it, remarkable and the real tragedy that had it had truly fixed moral and ideological moorings it could have been used for the force of good which in his own mind he clearly believed and still believes he is.

It wasn’t.

But this leads to a question as to why we expect[ed] better. He was a Labour Prime Minister. As Easterhouse put it so much more eloquently than I “You have to draw the line Sometime And I draw mine at Labour’s house-trained socialists, the lowest form of hypocrite” (not all are hypocrites, not all are house-trained…) …. That he did well on Northern Ireland is in itself remarkable. I’m not for a second suggesting that we got off lightly. Clearly we didn’t (but it could have been worse – for example had it been a Conservative government in power during that period). And here too he was author of his own misfortune.

The incredible rhetoric of May 1997 was never going to be fulfilled on this earthly plane… and there are too many ‘I’s’ in the above post.

“Goodbye. I don’t think we’ll miss you….’ but we probably will. June 28, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, The Left.
14 comments

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Well, so said Cherie, in a parting shot to the media. Very droll, and naturally this will spawn a thousand blog posts inverting the meaning. So perhaps not entirely clever. Yet the truth is that Blair will be missed.

It’s amazing to think it has been just over ten years since he first took power, and remarkable to reflect upon how that ten years saw his reputation, if not his project, founder in the most catastrophic fashion possible.

Except, it didn’t. Not really. Even after the Iraq War debacle he retained sufficient authority to fashion a third Election victory. One can point to the lack of vigour of the Conservative Party and suggest that was the reason why they failed. But it was arguably something else. They simply found no purchase on a politician, who whatever one believes (and I can sense Chekov reaching for the keyboard here) was possessed of a consummate ability to read and manipulate both the political and the emotional. I find it most interesting in my own case, since much of what he represented was completely at odds with my own political beliefs, and even then I could feel myself warming to him.

Now that might be a generational issue, in that he spoke, to some extent, the same language as I did (although he would be thirteen years older than me). Recognisably of the contemporary period, casual, relaxed, efficient. And yet, this is all fluff in the greater scheme of things. Except, it wasn’t.

That capacity to, in some sense, reflect back the personality of those he was with was a crucial aspect of his political success. And cast your mind back to the Women’s Institute conference where they slow hand clapped him, I think in 2000. A shocking moment where his ability deserted him, reflected in the response and reflected again in his dismay at what must have seemed an incomprehensible reception. There wasn’t so much talk about the ‘forces of conservatism’ after that.

And yet this concentration on the personal, on the man, masked a government that by any serious progressive yardstick had some fairly significant questions to answer. Granted the man in Number 11 was dispensing largesse on a grand scale, and one hopes that that is indicative of his future approach. But on a superficial level there was a sort of vacuity to the enterprise. An approach to politics that reified rather trivial aspects of contemporary British culture. Not great in itself, but the government itself in its perpetual cycle of reform of education, health, social services appeared caught on a treadmill that across ten years had no particular purpose. Worse again was a curious blind spot to business interests, one which appeared almost credulous as to their good nature. And appallingly a remarkable lack of judgement when it came to dealing with Ministers who had transgressed. To see the same faces return within a dismally short period to time to high office was both arrogant and a negation of any sense of right and wrong.

Not that there was no sense of right and wrong. The hard work on the North proved that. But unfortunately, as with Iraq too often the sense was simply wrong.

His reputation is not quite in tatters. No man who can be welcomed by Nelson Mandela is beyond redemption. But even that visit had the sense of Blair seeking some sort of temporal forgiveness. Too late. Too late. To be wrong was one thing. To make no apology for being wrong and to make no apparent effort to overturn that wrong was what has sealed his fate.

As he slouches towards Jerusalem that too is perhaps another effort at redemption. I don’t share the scepticism of the new role of Middle East peacemaker, in the sense that an envoy, any envoy, might just make some headway. But I expect almost nothing to come from it. And whatever about the bizarre scenes emanating from Northern Ireland over recent months (one has to ask when the real Ian Paisley will return)…somehow bridging the gap between Haifa and Ramallah is going to be exponentially more difficult than that between Paisley and McGuinness.

Perhaps he will confound us all. Perhaps there is still some small service to be performed (and isn’t that a revealing word in itself). But I suspect that his reputation, diminished as it is will simply diminish further. A grave day indeed when even Ian Paisley must offer the kindly word and wish him ‘Good Luck’… a day when he is given a standing ovation in the House of Commons, perhaps as much an indication in its own way as to the failure of his project, the disaster of his policies and his still enduring personal charm that he could elicit such a response.

Still, we’ll miss him. Whatever else politics was, it wasn’t dull. The problem is that dullness is not the worst of all possible political environments and the furies that Blair in part encouraged (although did not, in fairness, initiate) will probably continue long after he has left the stage.

And his successor, if that is the correct word for a man who has waited, what…fifteen years for the job of Prime Minister.

One of the most remarkable aspects of his persona is how little we genuinely know about the man And I wonder is that deliberate, a ploy developed across the last decade or more in order to make his arrival at the centre stage a fraction less predictable, to let some aspect of humanity shine forth as it were.

The attempt at a smile towards the end of the speech outside Number 10 said it all. This wasn’t the sun coming out, this was the serious stuff given the most transitory (and somewhat unconvincing) varnish of human emotion. Normal politics is resumed perhaps. Normal division entrenched despite the Cabinet of ‘all the talents’. And it is all a world away from the informality of the last ten years, a world away from the aspirations of 1997. There will be no standing ovations in two years time, or seven years time (which is after all the best length of time in power Brown could credibly expect). He is a man in a hurry. The clock is ticking on his premiership as soon as it begins.

And before we greet the socialist millennium it is crucial to recognise that his fingerprints are pretty much on all the decisions, all the judgements of the last ten years. For all that I hope he does well. It was heartening that he was in contact with the Taoiseach yesterday, a sign perhaps that the new relationship may well endure. We’ll know more as the days pass.

But the sense of unreality remains. Prime Minister Brown. Strange. It doesn’t yet roll off the tongue.

Some thoughts for the day… June 27, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, The Left.
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Just indicating the mountain the left has to climb (however we define it), Gordon Brown is the sixth British Labour Prime Minister ever (although three of that number served more than one term). British Labour has had power for just 30 of the last 107 years.

Let’s not even think about Ireland.

Islamism…somewhere between tradition and modernity? June 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Islam, Religion.
4 comments

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While we’re on the subject of the Supreme Being a most interesting article in Prospect this month about the genesis of the 7-7 London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan. In interview Shiv Malik managed to talk to acquaintances and relatives of Khan and the picture he paints is of a curious clash of modernism and tradition in the circles within which Khan moved. It also speaks of the incredible tenacity of traditions drawn from the rural, something we have seen – and perhaps continue to see – in this society in terms of the area of home ownership, organisation of our cities and so on (and for more I can only recommend the excellent series of articles on Dublin Opinion by Conor).

Most notable to my eyes, and Prospect Editor David Goodhart mentioned this in the editorial, was the ‘extent to which extreme Islam can act as a kind of “liberation theology”, allowing young Muslims to claim western freedoms, such as marrying for love, without rejecting their Islamic heritage’.

Malik deepens this analysis pointing to how a generational conflict was a spur to differentiation of approach to Islam amongst parents and an off-spring:

When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants (from Pakistan) moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system [whereby marriages were arranged in order to retain tribal ownership of lands] should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes. Explaining his parents attitudes, Ali [a member of the community] said they would ‘rather you marry someone from your own caste, your own community, your own relations’.

So when the Mullah boys [the circle Sidique Khan was part of] started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, the local Islamic bookshop on the Bude road, it caused a stir. Ali says that when Sidique Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and his brother married white girls, and a Bangladeshi girl married and Afro-Caribbean guy, the community elders became very worried.

One aspect of the above which is remarkable is that this process incorporated both men and women, quite at variance with the traditional roles imposed within the baraderi system. Of course it is difficult to read externally precisely the dynamics which would lead to a Bangladeshi girl marrying an Afro-Caribbean, but at least it is indicative of a substantial rupture with the previous system.

But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.

How much of this was down to Khan’s personality is an interesting question. Malik notes that Sidique had moved away from his family as he was drawn to the more fundamentalist (at least on one axis)Wahhabism. He had a ‘determination to marry for love’ and his future wife was ‘a Deobandi Muslim – a South Asian Wahhabi-linked movement directly opposed to the Khan family’s traditionalist Barelvi convictions’. Yet there are also curiosities about Wahhabism. Unlike the traditional mosques Wahhabi’s ‘did things differently’ from delivering sermons and pamphlets in English, unlike the Urdu used by the community mosques. And there is a bizarre echo of Protestantism in this.

Yet it would be unwise to draw the comparison too far. I don’t want to pre-empt others reading what is a compelling and fascinating article, but it is clear that the socially revolutionary aspects of Khan’s circle were limited to what was possible through very strict and literalist readings of the Koran (which granted is similar to the processes that have fuelled Protestant fundamentalism into the modern period).

And if one takes that as the starting point text will limit or curtail action. So what may appear to be a ‘liberation theology’ may indeed be anything but. Although Islamists treat Islam as Malik puts it as ‘not just a religion but as a socioeconomic system’ there are clearly difficulties in translating it into the sphere or the social or the economic, particularly the latter. Many is the transformative project which has foundered in that area.

Yet, there are interesting echoes of an argument I have never really found entirely convincing, that articulated by John Grey in Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern that Islamists are very much a product of ‘modernity’.

Here perhaps there has been a subtle process of societal osmosis whereby elements of the dominant culture have been appropriated in part by Islamists. And this should be no surprise at all. Because identity, even in this hugely contested area, is a process of negotiation and constant refinement. Just as Khan sought to shape the world in a particularly malevolent fashion, he too was shaped by it in more subtle ways than might have been expected.

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and while we’re on the subject of Prospect…

I first started subscribing to Prospect magazine back in 2003 having endured years of trying to get every new issue in Eason’s. A thankless task due to the curious approach they had at the time to stocking it. Minor gripe, it’s impossible if you live in Ireland to get the two year subscription plan – neither good, nor heartening as an indication of it’s possible longevity, despite the fact the UK Arts Council now supports it.

Anyhow in the years since it started it has remained an essential channel of communication for anyone on the centre left concerned with a broad range of issues (and I know Donagh of Dublin Opinion is another reader). It’s non party political but it has taken a clear line, as for instance with it’s considered but ultimately anti-Iraq war stance in 2003. Moreover the scope of the discourse within it’s covers (and on-line) is remarkable. Economics, social policy, history, current affairs, culture and so forth (even to the point of getting Gay Dad’s former drummer to write about music).

As a means of understanding the dynamics of International and US foreign and social policy it’s hard to better with a range of contributors from Robert Kagan to Frances Fukiyama. Off the top of my head it’s had a series of excellent articles on Lebanon, the US, France over the past twelve months. Multi-page, in depth analysis of a sort rarely found anywhere else outside the pages of the really heavy duty international policy journals which to be honest are too expensive anyway.

And it’s not been shy of controversy. Some years back David Goodhart, the editor, ran into a row about identity and race when discussing those issues where he argued for – and I hope I’m not doing him an injustice – the formation of a stronger British identity to strengthen social cohesion in a society with differing ethnic and religious groups. Whatever else he is Goodhart isn’t a racist and some of the charges against him appeared willful at best.

I’ve never been entirely happy with their coverage of Ireland, for example two of their contributors on that subject have been Fintan O Toole and Carlos Gebler (although heartening to see Mick Fealty of Slugger writing more recently). So it’s fair to say that it has run to a rather dated post-nationalism of sorts…but that quibble aside it’s still a serious endeavour and it’s heart remains wedded to what could be called ‘progressive politics’. Sure, it’s centrist, liberal and probably overly pragmatic for many a reader from the left.

But at least it remains of the left… and for that reason alone I think it’s worth anyone who is interested in the discourse you read on here checking it out.

Anyhow, they underwent something of a redesign for the March 2007 issue.

And…it’s not bad. I’m sorry they’ve refined their previous rather ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings. But the new look is as the joke goes pretty much like the old look, ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings with the addition of a smattering of sans serif faces and some new illustrations for their regular articles. And the not always very funny cartoons remain, which is oddly comforting.

So all told not bad. And as a resource I’ll keep mining it for information, even that strange “in fact” column of not entirely enlightening statistics, for example did you know that just before WW1 the UK Home Office employed just 28 people whereas today it employs 70,000?

Where else but Prospect?

The Supreme Being and its Discontents June 25, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Books, Religion, Skepticism.
19 comments

Last Sunday, a little piece of the internet came to Ireland in person. For admirers of Christopher Hitchens, the debate at the Gate theatre between him and John Waters entitled ‘God is not great’, organised as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival, provided an opportunity to see him in person, rather than relying on Youtube, Google video and downloaded mp3s.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that, for me, bringing my books along to be signed and having bought my tickets as soon as they became available, there was the same ripple of excitement that I used to get going to concerts. It was, I suppose, the web-nerd equivalent of a Morrissey gig. I should really know better.

To the debate itself. Moderated by Brenda Power, the unthinking man’s Olivia O’Leary, it was broadly amicable (disappointingly) consisting of short opening remarks from the protagonists, a longer discussion between the two and a few questions from the audience at the end.

Anyone who has seen any of other debates Hitchens has participated in recently in what seems to be The Anti-Theist World Tour 2007 (here‘s a typical example), or who heard him on Newstalk or, more amusingly, sparring with David Quinn on Today FM prior to the debate, will be familiar with his arguments. Indeed, much of what he said has already been covered by the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Grayling and Harris, although Hitchens says it much more eloquently. Essentially, not only is there no God, but the belief in God is itself immoral and causes otherwise good people to do very bad things: anything from the circumcision of infants to flying planes into the World Trade Centre.

Pre-empting the suggestion that without God as some sort of ultimate horizon of truth there can be no objective morality, he presented a challenge to the audience (as he has done on numerous other occasions): give an example of a single moral action or statement coming from a religious person that could not also be made or carried out by an atheist. Examples of those who nobly and selflessly stood up to fascism based on their religious principles doesn’t really hold as a justification of faith, Hitchens argues, unless one is to also accept that the unquestioned sacrifices made by those communists who fought against Hitler in some way justifies Stalinism.

It’s a neat trick on Hitchens’ part, but I think it’s the wrong answer to the question of whether there can morality without God. He’s probably right, to an extent, when he argues that the moral impulse is innate, part of our evolutionary heritage. He’s wrong, though, if he thinks that there can be some sort of objective moral framework which exists outside of subjective experience, as theists would hold. A more correct and more honest response might to be concede that indeed, an atheist position means that we can never truly know what the correct moral action is in the same way that we ‘know’ that 2+2=5. The important addition, however, is that theists can’t have absolute moral knowledge either. It’s no more subjective for me to say “I feel killing is wrong, therefore I choose to believe that it is” than it is for someone to say “God tells me that killing is wrong, therefore it must be”, as the theist still has to choose which ‘God’ to believe in.

Surprisingly, to me anyway, Waters was more impressive than I expected in his opening remarks. In a preview of what we might expect from his forthcoming magnum opus Lapsed Agnostic, he took us on a little autobiographical journey where he told us about his rejection of religious faith earlier in his life, and his recently rediscovered affection for God (to the extent that he prays and attends Mass). Knowing that there are few crackpot theories that Waters hasn’t, in the past, both misunderstood and embraced, it was eye-opening to see him speak rather eloquently on what he claims is an inherent desire within mankind to understand the meaning behind everything around us, and the need for mystery, or (although he didn’t put it this way) the experience of the numinous in our lives. Whatever else, you have to give him his sincerity, even if he does seem at times to be teetering on the brink of madness, and he’s a far less objectionable figure than some of the tarted-up religious conservatives currently writing (the likes of Ronan Mullen, Breda O’Brien and the appalling David Quinn).

However, like so much of what Waters argues, when you try and get to the root of the argument behind all the flashiness, it falls apart. He has a point when he suggests that an exclusively empiricist or ‘scientific’ view of the world is rather limited. For example, while we might understand the evolutionary reasons why people for relationships, or love their children, it doesn’t make the lived experience of those relationships any less valid. Similarly, people will always search for something beyond their own understanding, and ask whether there is a particular significance to their lives or, indeed, to existence itself.

Where he’s wrong, however, is to claim that this someone suggests the existence of a God. The existence of a question (e.g. “Why are we here”) is one thing; what Waters does is extrapolate an answer (“Because of God”) from the question itself, rather than trying to answer the question or, indeed, think about whether the question makes sense at all. He certainly should look at Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, which is far more discrediting to faith itself than anything by Dawkins or Hitchens, as it provides a plausible evolutionary basis for why people ask those kinds of profound questions, rather than tackling the flaws in the answers.

When Waters found himself debating religion itself, he was on much less steady ground. Admittedly, he tried to cover himself at the start by admitting that much of what Hitchens stated was true and that religion (sorry, ‘organised religion’, that great bugbear of the hand-wringing liberal) was responsible for much evil in the world. Indeed, he conceded so much at the start that it was hard to understand what he actually believed in, other than some vague notion of something approaching the concept of ‘God’. You’ll find that this is a common tactic of the smarter theists when dismissing the work of Dawkins or, more recently, Hitchens. They argue that what’s presented is an ignorant caricature of what religion actually is, and lament that such a straw-man version of faith is being debated. Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of religious adherents don’t actually have the sophisticated understanding of theologians, the best response to this strategy that I’ve seen is the so-called Courtier’s Reply.


Waters’ bravest, or most stupid, move was to suggest that the freedoms we enjoy in Western society are a consequence of our religious, specifically Christian, heritage. Now, he’s right in arguing that we have no way of knowing whether we would be in a better or worse position today if religious belief had never existed; of course, he has no way of knowing it either, so it’s something of a pointless argument. However, when he suggests that those who attack religion are like people in a tree sawing away at the branch they’re sitting on, he’s displaying an amazing ignorance of the history of religion in society. The Catholic Church, the faith to which he subscribes, has consistently opposed every progressive political movement in history and has found itself sympathising or siding with the worst kinds of tyrannies. The liberal freedoms such as freedom of expression which Waters lauds are enjoyed by him despite the actions of the Church, not because of them. As Hitchens put it, he is wearing the medals of his own defeats.

So who won? Well, in one sense I’d have to say Hitchens. His arguments were stronger, he was a better debater and, I think, he broadly had the audience on his side (apart from a few morons during the questions at the end who seem to believe that shouting about ‘your friend George (Bush)’ constitutes a valid argument). Waters, while sincere, descended into incoherence on a number of occasions, although he put up a respectable defence.

On the other hand, there can’t really be any winner. This isn’t an argument that’s ever going to convert anyone, a point which Hitchens concedes, even if Dawkins doesn’t. Religious faith is, by definition, impervious to rational argument so no matter how persuasive the prose, it’s difficult to see how someone whose belief already defy evidence and reason are going to have those beliefs changed.

While the current atheist renaissance is all very enjoyable and the holy texts well worth the reading (Hitchens’ is probably the best – broad, but shallow), it’s worth remembering that this year marks the 80th anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian’ (collected in a book of essays of the same name). Everything you’ve heard Dawkins or Grayling, Harris or Hitchens argue against religious belief is already captured in that short work.

The Left and the EU Constitution. Marianne’s Revenge. June 25, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, media, The Left.
3 comments

It was all so familiar. The meetings between diplomats going on behind closed doors to shape our future into the early hours of the morning. Nervous fears among our political elites that they might not this time pull off a deal. The Poles ‘gently’ reminding the world of the dangers of Germany getting too powerful and Blair hovering in the background desperately trying to burnish his rather tawdry legacy.

Nothing like an EU Treaty conference. Of course, as is to be expected, a deal was reached and we now face into a referendum on the Treaty some time next year.

So, what has changed in the newly revised Treaty? And it is a Treaty by the way, no longer a Constitution it seems despite Ahern stating that 90% of the EU Constitution as drafted by him during the Irish Presidency remains in the new ‘Reform Treaty’ and the only significant changes seem to be the dropping of the flag and anthem as reported here last week in the run-up to the summit. As Ahern eloquently put it:

“Beethoven is out and the flag is out. I don’t think that will make a damn difference to anyone in Europe. I don’t think anyone will move it off their cars and their flags, but it does make people feel better that it is out of the constitution. That makes them feel better, so I am thrilled and ecstatic for them,” he said. And considering it will make his job easier in getting it past the Irish electorate, he should be thrilled and ecstatic himself.

So, in essence, it is still a Constitutional blueprint for Europe, a point that should not be lost in the context of what will no doubt be determined efforts by supporters of the Constitution to argue that to describe it as such is inaccurate and more EU sceptic scare-mongering.

So, what now? The last two Nice Treaty referendums saw three distinct blocs organise in opposition to Nice and it is likely those same three blocs will be represented again, albeit in different formations and strengths.

Firstly, we have the right. The Justin Barrett led No to Nice campaign was a key part of the Nice debates, in particular in the first campaign, though I have long maintained that it’s role in the first victory was always overstated, and deliberately so by a liberal establishment media. If one examines the vote constituency by constituency, one sees that the highest No vote was in Dublin South West, and other high votes were recorded in working class constituencies like Dublin Central and Dublin North West. Even the highest rural votes against the Treaty have more in common with a correlation of areas of Sinn Féin strength, than traditional bases of right reactionaries.

That said, without the campaign from the right, as anathema to left values and as ignored by the left as it was, the Nice Treaty would likely not have been defeated on the first occasion, even if attributing the lion’s share of the credit for the victory to them was unfair. This time, there will again no doubt be something similar. The omission of the Judeo-Christian entity known as ‘God’ from the Constitution is already something that has been remarked negatively by the Irish conservative right and in Kathy Sinnot, they have their Dana for the next referendum.

The second bloc consists of the larger radical parties, a phrase that will no doubt drawn it’s own objections. In both Nice referendums this was made up of Sinn Féin and the Green Party who did the heavy lifting in the campaign from the left’s perspective. Interestingly, it was a well-matched double act. Sinn Féin focussed on using it’s party organisation and support in working class areas to turn out that vote. The Greens provided arguably the most articulate critics of the Treaty in Gormley and McKenna and provided a veneer of respectability in the establishment media to a Nice opposition too easily caricatured as combination of the Barrett’s racist Little Irelander’s and the evil Marxist Fascist Provo Death Squads.

This time round, the Greens will certainly not be campaigning against the Treaty. Long prior to the election, even prior to the French and Dutch votes they were toying with the idea of embracing the EU Constitution as a way of proving their ‘maturity’. According to today’s Irish Times (Sub required) the Greens will be consulting their members before making a final decision with Dan Boyle half-heartedly suggesting they could take a neutral position on the Constitution. Possible, in theory perhaps, but extremely difficult, especially for Gormley and Ryan. With the Greens on the other side of the debate, or at best neutral, the anti-Constitution forces are weakened though short-sighted people in Sinn Féin (No shortage of them by all accounts) might see an opportunity to seize political space as the only significant left opposition to the Treaty.

Bringing us to the third bloc. A disparate collection of political parties, groups, organisations and individuals with a track record of opposing EU federalism and neo-liberalism, but not unified in any sense. We can expect campaigns of one type or another against the Constitution from the Socialist Party, the Workers Party, the SWP and it’s People Before Profit front, the Communist Party and so on. Independents like Tony Gregory TD and Cllr Joan Collins, possibly Seamus Healy, might also be involved. Trade Union figures like Tony O’Reilly. Sections of the Labour party such as Labour Youth, which is already committed to opposing the Constitution, whatever about this document, and possibly elements of the Green Party like Patricia McKenna and Deirdre de Burca on an individual basis.

There has been some effort to bring these hugely disparate groups together. The Campaign Against the EU Constitution has been knocking about for some time on the margins of the debate and has called for a meeting on July 7th to begin the job of organising against the Constitution. One of the comments on the Indymedia article in the media refers to the dangers of such a campaign being a “letters to the Irish Times” style campaign and it is a fear that is likely justified. Certainly I get no impression that the Campaign is anything other than a loose alliance of policy types and independent activists based exclusively in Dublin. Useful to a point, but you don’t win referendums that way.

Against this, the political, media, social and economic establishment of this state. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the PDs and in all likelihood the Greens. ICTU and IBEC will put aside their differences to try and convince their respective members that the deal is best for them. IBEC will be right. The farming organisations will weight in but probably with little enthusiasm. The media will back the Constitution to the hilt. If memory serves, the Star and the Sunday Business Post opposed the Nice Treaty, but I would be surprised if even that level of opposition is maintained in a media either ignorant of European politics or desperately eager to support the EU as a project regardless of what’s on the table. And then we have individuals like Brigid Laffan and think-tanks such as the Irish Institute for European Affairs.

It’s an under-strength David against a refreshed and revitalised Goliath.

Does this mean the fight is hopeless? My boundless optimism refuses to accept such a notion. But it does mean that the left needs to start thinking now about how this campaign is going to be fought. For most of us, this means looking at what the third bloc I refer to above is going to do. The right will do it’s own thing. The Shinners will do theirs. But if the referendum is to be won it will be because over the next twelve months a left-wing version of the 2001 No to Nice campaign is organised and put together.

That’s not a small job of work. But perhaps the Campaign Against the EU Constitution is a place to start.

If it wasn’t for that pesky Enlightenment… Academy and Engagement… June 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left.
26 comments

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I was at a conference recently and found it quite fascinating. The broad area was that of visual and material culture.

But then I heard a number of eye-watering phrases used by some of the participants. These ran along the lines of the “Enlightenment being the patriarchal hierarchical endarkening which resulted in the barbarism of Nazism’. Later there was reference to societies ‘in thrall to the enlightenment that resulted in progressive politics that resulted in disaster’. And who was trotted out to justify this contention? Why none other than one T. Adorno, late of the Frankfurt School.

Now, round here we value progressive politics. Indeed we value it highly, so it is always intriguing to hear the term thrown into any debate or discussion.

But in this context it appeared to be be so unformed, so lacking in connection to any serious engagement with either history, ideology or philosophy that it made me wonder just what sort of misreading of Adorno (“Dialectic of Enlightenment” wasn’t namechecked but one presumes that was the source), or indeed of the meaning of the Enlightenment, is being transmitted through academia at the moment. Or more importantly, since when has it been thought that Adorno, surely as much of his time as any other person constitutes the first and last word on the subject?

And this – coincidentally – feeds into Donaghs post on Dublin Opinion about post-modernism. The critique quoted by Donagh makes a point which links directly to the approach quoted above:

The warm, desiring, palpable body [of post-modernism] is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production.

Keep this in mind for later in this post. But I think Bakhtin (from whom this quote is taken) overstates the significance of postmodernist thought in the general scheme of things, and more pointedly, I don’t see any way back to a pre-postmodernist position intellectually, no grand narratives that will suffice in the mid to long term other than a general and rather diffuse humanism. Which if one thinks about it is pretty much where we have been (in the self-defined West) for quite some time and arguably for considerably longer than the term postmodernism has been bandied about.

In any case I lack a reflexive suspicion of post-modernist thought. I find it interesting in what it attempts to do, although I suspect that the goal is unattainable and can lead to obfuscation as much as…well…er…enlightenment.

But what on earth was the participant at the conference trying to say?

Was it that this straw man Enlightenment – that she posed – was somehow responsible for … say, Nazism and Communism? That appears to me to be a highly dubious contention. Surely any serious historical reading would see the former in direct opposition to the Enlightenment, in other words a response to it. The latter, for all its myriad flaws was by contrast – and particularly in terms of its humanist core – very much of the Enlightenment. But can one trace a direct line from the Enlightenment to the Politburo and say one is the inevitable and natural outgrowth of the other. This I find difficult to sustain except in the broadest sense that any political or social or philosophical movement however democratic and egalitarian contains within it the seeds of totalitarianism. Indeed to talk about the ‘failure’ of the Enlightenment – as with regards the events of the 20th century – is to take an almost essentialist view of social, cultural and political movements.

But so what, is arguably the proper response to that argument, since more importantly, even if true in the particular does that then invalidate the Enlightenment in general? Would the essential principles that it articulated…rationality, humanism, liberty… be somehow nullified because it had been misread, misinterpreted, misapplied? And that is before we engage with the question of whether we can read the Enlightenment as a single mythic entity, self-contained unto itself, which of course it wasn’t.

This is – unfortunately – a mode of expression which is familiar in the present political era. The idea that ‘democracy’ is a sham, whatever about its flaws…because of Iraq, Afghanistan, US policy, hypocrisy (as if any complex human society is, or could be, anything other than hypocritical) has a certain currency in certain places.

Consider too the very deliberate use of the term ‘progressive politics’ in the discourse outlined above. In what sense have ‘progressive’ politics led to disaster, unless again we take the line that those who raise issues are responsible for the response to the raising of those issues. In the context of the US or Europe where this speaker originated the statement was nonsensical. I can think of few instances in either location where progressive politics resulted in any such disasters. Actually I can’t think of any. What I can see is an anti-rationalist, anti-humanist anti-Enlightenment movement that in perhaps three places in Europe took root for a relatively brief historical period.

And the fact that the views expressed above are almost indistinguishable from a conservative analysis of the Enlightenment is perhaps no surprise. Because they are in themselves a very conservative, and rather self-serving reading of the issues.

So, is this simply a modish lash, the faintest echoes in contemporary academia of debates which shaped in part the discourse of the 1960s and 1970s and in other areas have moved on, or is it indicative of something more fundamental? I’d suggest it is both. And the more fundamental aspect is – unfortunately – in the visual sphere an ahistoricism which ignores political, economic and historical methodologies in favour of purely metaphorical approaches to decoding information [incidentally, last year I was at a conference on material culture and what struck me was the dearth of knowledge on the part of those there, including myself, as regards economic theory. Yet here was a hall full of people who had made as their primary research focus material produced by changing economic processes largely driven by industrialisation].

There is something lulling about a sort of poetic discourse leavened only by unformed chunks of Frankfurt School jargon. There has been and remains a fluffy sort of aversion to “Reason” (capital R) in some areas of artistic discourse, eschewing it in favour of a discourse that centres on the senses, the body and artistic individuality albeit laden with jargon which leans upon sociological and sub-Marxist terminology – and actually the more I think about it the more I am reminded of the stereotypical 1930s and 40s cinema depictions of the artist as flighty emotional individualist albeit lent a post-modernist sheen in this theoretical updating. And for examples of this I’d suggest considering some articles in contemporary arts magazines.

I have no particular problem with this.

Indeed the Enlightenment has to be seen and critiqued within the historical context it developed and for both positive and negative attributes. But the sort of manichean approach to arts discourse which presents us with Enlightenment (bad, proto-totalitarian, patriarchal, etc) and antagonism to Reason (good, human, emotional, etc) is undercut by work such as that produced by Lisa Jardine in “Ingenious Pursuits” which explicitly links together the development of arts and science in tandem during the period of the Enlightenment.

Where I do have a problem is with a sort of ‘tick the boxes’ approach to this discourse which applies the Frankfurt School in a recieved and entirely uncritical fashion. Because that sort of approach is at root no more than an attempt to justify individual artistic engagement which may or may not be appropriate.

There is simply no point in railing against the Enlightenment – in the academy of all places – unless one understands it, and what it sought to achieve.

Garzón, ‘clowns’ and freedom of speech and dissent on the left… June 22, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in media, Media and Journalism, The Left.
7 comments

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Who would be Judge Baltasar Garzón?

According to a report in todays Guardian he has fallen foul of the Venezuelan government. Apparently in reference to the non-renewal of the license for opposition TV station RCTV he said that “closing a medium of communication was not the best means for guaranteeing freedom of speech”.
The response from the Chavez administration had been rapid. The Guardian notes that…

Mr Garzón’s intervention prompted a furious response. The deputy president, Jorge Rodríguez, told a rally that the judge was a “clown” who spoke on behalf of privately owned media organisations. The foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, said the judge’s comments were “cowardly and sad”, and echoed anti-Chávez propaganda from Washington. “It appears he has become a mercenary”.

The president of Venezuela’s supreme court, Luisa Estella Morales, said Mr Garzón lacked ethics and morals.

It’s not a big thing, but Garzón is a man of the left, or as the Guardian notes:

The strength of the response reflected official sensitivity about criticism of Mr Chávez, even if indirect and from a figure who would normally be considered on the same side of the ideological fence.

Indeed he would be. A quick perusal of wiki indicates that Garzón was not merely the man who issued an arrest warrant for Pinochet, but also was active in seeing that Argentinian junta members were open to prosecution on genocide charges for the murder of Spanish citizens. He has been strongly antagonistic to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and was against the Iraq war. George Bush is also under ‘threat’ since Garzón plans to sue him.

He was a member of the PSOE, and tellingly adheres to a strongly pro-Madrid line on the Basque issue (which must make for some intriguing conversations in his head about previous PSOE administrations and their stance and activities on that issue – although his work was pivotal to the later conviction of a PSOE minister due to acts related to the GAL).

But all in all he is broadly of the left, certainly the humanitarian left (and distinctly not of the ‘cruise-missile’ left).

Whatever about him, the response from the Venezeulan government appears disproportionate. I’m always a bit troubled when governments use injudicious language. We saw a good example of same in this country in the not too distant past where a government minister was able to make allegations about a journalist. And the point is that government is often a bully pulpit.

As to the rights and wrongs of the issue, in principle Garzón is clearly correct in so far as any abridgement of press freedom, even that of such a partisan voice of that which he (indirectly) defends. He’s not alone in that, Human Rights Watch amongst others is disturbed by the action.
Problem is that the victim does appear to be at least in part the architect of its own downfall. And this sits on a line where it is hard to see it as a massive infringement of press freedom.

Yet the principle remains and to my mind to close any media outlet necessitates considerable deliberation.

But what is truly depressing is the sort of proto-Jacobinical language that is used. Garzón is no ‘clown’. He is indeed quite the opposite, whatever one might view his position on individual issues. He is not an enemy of the Chavez government. He has simply enunciated a principled position. And even if that position is one that the Chavez government disagrees with, as indeed is their absolute right, it demands a better discourse than ‘clown’ or ‘lack of ethics or morals’. It’s pointless to – often correctly – accuse others of bullying by their words and actions and then take the lift down to their level. That rather macho rhetoric is empty and counterproductive.

And that goes for a broader discourse within the left. Those with opinions that are different, difficult to listen to or to accept also demand a respectful hearing, even – perhaps particularly – in a context where agreement cannot be reached.

That too is difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.

Class/Culture…Centre/Periphery June 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Culture, media.
36 comments

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Reading Conor’s post on Dublin Opinion about representations of the Irish working class brought back memories.

Many of them bad. Many of them centred on RTÉ.

There was Strumpet City which was okay. Then various programs such as the late and unlamented The Spike (set in a school in a working class area) which was pulled as I recall before it ended the run because of episodes which depicted amongst other things students pissing in bottles in class, a life-drawing class for adults and – gasp – the vernacular.

Didn’t much like it, even though I was in my early teens. One of the advantages of going to a primary and then community school in Kilbarrack was that one developed an ear for the plangent middle class tones of many Irish actors and consequently their mangling of working class Dublin accents. But The Spike seemed gratuitous for other reasons. The effort expended hardly worth the result.

I’ve mentioned in response to Conor’s article how I always felt there was something a tad condescending about the way in which life in ‘Barrytown’ was depicted in the Roddy Doyle books and how it was curious that a man who had been through the Democratic Socialist Party of the late Jim Kemmy (good socialist, somewhat raving two nationist), would in a sense present a deeply depoliticised account of working class life quite at odds with the experience of my daily life. By depoliticised I mean that there was no real political activity in the books. Everything from the Commitments onwards seemed to centre on the personal rather than the political. That in itself is no crime. But it seemed odd in a Kilbarrack where Labour, the Workers’ Party and the real hegemon Fianna Fáil organised strongly that this wasn’t reflected by any serious acknowledgement.

But on to the central point. What struck me reading his post, and in particular the way in which he noted that British depictions of working class life were more accurate and representative of anything found on RTÉ during that period (and perhaps even today), was that part of this was due to the commonality of language, the remarkably centrist culture in Ireland (or at least the representations of same in the media) and perhaps the actual quality of the material being produced across the Irish Sea.

But then consider depictions of Northern Irish working class life. Give My Head Peace while in parts enjoyable is hardly an outstanding example, but I’m pushed to find any other example of television that has touched on this. I’m wary of treading on this ground because – I’ll be honest – I don’t follow UTV or BBC NI sufficiently to know for sure, but in some ways the aversion to depicting the working class in the North might have similar roots to that in the South. Class was never the issue. Identity was centred upon national, political and/or (slightly more diffusely) religious affiliation in the North, centred on national identity in the South. Labour could wait, not merely politically, but culturally. Cultural production was restricted – or contained might be a better term – to a fantastically small milieu centred upon television, stage and music and within a rather constrained geographic area. And what representations of labour in cultural production were apparent were reified to an absurd degree…consider the way in which O’Casey’s plays became part of the discourse of official Ireland, their oppositional core sidelined by their status as almost untouchable artifacts of the new state.

And in part this was because Dublin, for all its pretensions was never quite the centre. Perhaps that was because it had once been part of Empire, second city, or was it third after Birmingham? But part of a pecking order whatever rank it had. Elsewhere I’ve written about how the ‘myth’ of the Irish Revolution (and I mean ‘myth’ in the sense understood by Barthes i.e. a societal discourse) was one where the Revolution failed. Consider how Leinster House is never seen as central to the ‘myth’ of Irish nationhood unlike the G.P.O. And that in itself is revealing. The Republic of Ireland was incomplete, truncated. Independence was initially circumscribed by the Treaty, later by the reality of partition.

Emigration meant that often Dublin was a way station on route to the exit. The centre, psychologically was to the East in London or far to the West in New York and Boston. And exemplifying that was a reality which saw all, bar one, of my closest school friends from Kilbarrack and Raheny leave for London between 1985 and 1988. All bar one of my close college friends leave for London and New York between 1990 and 1992. I went too.

That’s not to say that Dublin was the periphery. It wasn’t. But it was failing and failing fast. Articles in the Irish Times seriously argued that the optimum population of this island was two million. Perhaps less. Senior politicians could state, with no hint of regret, that emigration was a social good. It is truly bizarre looking back on that now.

And culturally this meant that the eyes of the bulk of the population were raised beyond Donnybrook as and when British television became available (and note that as recently as 1997 Tom Gildea was elected to the Dáil in Donegal on the ticket of ensuring continuity of supply of the British channels to that region). Cues were taken from Coronation Street and East Enders. This was true in music as well – and in some respects still is. Punk didn’t happen in Ireland, bar small outposts in Belfast. Bands didn’t come to Dublin, except when they had reached the fag-end of their careers. Cheers to the Damned in the SFX sometime in 1985.

No, to get somewhere, to hear something, to be someone, option A was to take the ferry to Holyhead and the train to London, and then disappear into the maw of the metropolis. Generally, it has to be said, disappearing to small colonies of other expatriate Irish working in the council or Underground or wherever. And living in that social context changed people remarkably. Given time paunches developed. Hair thinned and children appeared. Accents and attitudes softened. More settled than returned. And a modern Irish accent was almost always acceptable in business or at a social gathering.

Nor was ‘official’ Ireland unaware of these developments. As far back as the day that RTÉ started transmitting television Eamon de Valera opened the new station with the words:

“I am privileged in being the first to address you on our new service, Telefis Éireann. I hope the service will provide for you all the sources of recreation and pleasure but also information, instruction and knowledge. I must admit that sometimes when I think of Television and Radio and their immense power, I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy, it can be used of incalculable good, but it can also do irreparable harm. never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude”.

This caution, almost an aversion tells us much about the constrained cultural space within Irish society. In such a context what place for the working class or working class culture?

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