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Bill Clinton does the business… and meanwhile Desmond Fennell and the white woman’s burden… August 28, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Society.

Anyone who writes a blog or posts comments on a website will, from time to time, have experienced that sickening thought, “Jesus, did I go to far that time” or “what was I thinking of” in reference to one thing or another. It might be an over-emphatic criticism, it might be a fear that PUMA supporters will spam the site or it might be something written casually about a subject a little further from the writers comfort zone (for which read actual working knowledge) that might come back to bite them.

It’s a fine art this process of making public thoughts, opinions and processes which in any other age would more than likely have been secret or only shared amongst close friends. And because writing on blog or posting is immediate with no real delay between thought and action the dangers of shooting ones mouth off are very real indeed. I’ve commented here and there on the net and wondered afterwards were my comments crossing a line of implicit tetchiness – or worse again appearing arrogant. I hope not, but I’m not sure – and if I’m not sure then I probably did. And because a blog is a work in process where new information and facts come to light, and others contribute opinions and insights there is an evolutionary aspect to opinion. Look back through the last two years posts on here and you’ll probably find shifts in emphasis if not necessarily in substance.

And let’s note that Bill Clinton last night did what the Gabfest on Slate suggested at the weekend and rose to the occasion. A very interesting piece of theater indeed, with more than a hint of chutzpah, not least when as Slate argues he implicitly suggested:

Vote for Obama – He’s Just Like Me!

But as John Dickerson noted, the dynamic shifted very subtly last night from the Clinton’s to the contenders. Sure, Bill gave it his all, and mighty effective it was too – the media is replete with how he went for unity. And why wouldn’t he? What choice does he have? His reputation took a hammering over the past year in a way which can hardly be to his satisfaction, and I’m betting that for some it was a revelation just how much of a political street fighter he was. So time to reburnish his credentials.

Yet look at Biden and how he was unleashed. First up he assuages doubts about Obama.

After Clinton, there wasn’t much oxygen in the room for Joe Biden. But he didn’t need to deliver the most beautiful speech. That’s not his job. His job is to use his quirky approachability to introduce Obama to voters who have been skeptical about him. A guy named Barack needs a guy named Joe as his running mate. (In political-speak, they call this being the validator.)

Then he goes folksy. Again to assuage doubts about Obama:

Biden’s best pitch came not on the issue of foreign affairs, Biden’s strong suit. It came shortly after he began, when he offered a little collage of kitchen-table conversations about families facing hard times. “Should Mom move in with us now that Dad is gone? Fifty dollars, $60, $70 to fill up the gas tank? How in God’s name, with winter coming, how are we going to heat the home?” Working-class and Catholic voters may identify with a guy who drops the expressions of their faith or tells gritty stories about how Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden taught him how to defend himself. (In case you didn’t notice, she’s Irish.) If they identify with Biden, they might listen to him—and that’s the first step in overcoming their doubts about the man at the top of the ticket.

And then he goes attack dog:

He was all over John McCain Wednesday night—and will be for the rest of the race. He has perfected the senatorial two-step of lathering his victim in friendship first (“John McCain is my friend”) before dismantling him repeatedly. That lends weight to the attacks, and Biden knows his brief when talking about foreign affairs.

It may work.

So, at least Clinton has nothing to regret today, and perhaps quite a bit to be cheerful about. And that holds true for Hillary as well.

All that said, the issue of writers/speakers regret came to mind because of a letter by Toby Joyce in yesterday about an article by Des Fennell from last week which I happened to miss. And it’s interesting how little has been made of this article because it’s quite fascinating in its own way. First up I have to admit to being a fan of Fennell’s writings although not his conclusions. I’ve always enjoyed his work and found him perceptive and interesting.

Now that said there’s been something of a shift in his work over the years, from insightful thinker and commentator on the pretensions of the Irish middle classes, and their supposed betters, to something a little more apocalyptic.

Go to his website and see how an undue concern with ‘white heterosexuals’ is part of his schtick where in his second but last book he writes about:

…the stimulation of compassion for a great variety of approved victims; the fomented assault on able-bodied, heterosexual, white-skinned men and the civilisation they created.

Hmmm… That can’t be good.

But really, his latest piece is the sort of thing that would – had I written it – have me slapping my head with my hand and muttering ‘Feck!’.

For under the heading Grim reality of why the West’s white race is now a dying breed [and although this hasn’t as far as I can tell been picked up by bloggers it has by Stormfront – oh yeah] he writes:

We will have to change societal rules devised in the 1960s and 1970s if we are to halt the steady decline in the western population

Now let’s stop there and reflect upon how every commentator or writer or blogger seems to have a bugbear. With me it’s fact checking. Just do it, okay? But with more exalted others, I think of Peter Hitchens and his horror of the 1960s, his brother and his adherence to ‘humanitarian’ intervention, Melanie Phillips and her horror of the 1960s, Seamus Milne and the fixed and constant star that is his ability to see the absolute worst in US actions and the absolute best in those of other great powers, Peregrine Worsthorne and his horror of the 1960s – oh yes, and his undying affection for the era of ‘great houses’ which ‘civilised’ the surrounding countryside and inhabitants therein. And so on. And so forth.

And with Fennell there’s more than a little of that ‘horror’ of the 1960s too. I can never decide whether it’s a horror at change itself, or a sense of mortality as time sweeps forward or the old thing of being unable to accept others having a bit of fun if one isn’t oneself. But either way it often seems to affect people in a near-pathological way.

Anyhow Fennell continues:

LAST WEEK the news came from the United States that white people will be in a minority there in 2042, eight years sooner than previously predicted, according to US government projections. The reason for this is that in North America, as in Europe, the white population is not reproducing itself.


It is likely that there is a similar reason for the flagging will of white westerners to reproduce their kind. Their historical background is in European or western civilisation which first took shape around a thousand years ago. That its core set of rules made sense is evidenced by its long endurance and by the mighty will to reproduce which it generated. Westerners overflowed from Europe to populate much of the world.

Alright. Not usually an argument one would expect from him. And certainly not one that was regarded as positive. And actually factually wrong.

Then, beginning at the end of the second World War, white westerners, first in the United States, then in America’s post-war European satellites, embarked on a great experiment. For the best of reasons – the pursuit of more justice, wealth and empowerment for all – they replaced many of the rules of European civilisation with new rules. Or rather, their democratic governments did this, employing left-liberals as their ethical guides, and enjoying enthusiastic support from the business corporations. The main rush of rule change took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Most white westerners, especially the younger generations, have made the new rules their own and have been living by them, or trying to.

Is that right? Is that an accurate summation of shift in social policy and society in the 1960s? Really?

The new collection of rules includes some of the old rules. It covers every sphere of behaviour: personal, interpersonal, male and female, parental and juvenile. It comprises, besides dos and don’ts, do-as-you-like rules.

Do they? But do go on.

It is unlikely, even if the explanation I am offering for the flagging fertility of white westerners is accepted as valid, that any serious corrective measures will be undertaken. Our post-European collection of rules is the basis on which our successful consumerist system has been built, and everyone in power wants that to continue.

But if the reality were different, and white westerners could act in their own long-term interest, they would institute an authoritative, critical examination of their prevailing rules system. And that would begin – but only begin – by scrutinising the prevailing, “politically correct” rules that bear on women’s lives, and particularly on motherhood.

There is a problem with this analysis. Actually there are many, but let’s start with one. It is near indistinguishable from one which clogs up Politics.ie and is echoed on numerous right wing blogs, about the inexorable ‘decline’ of the West and the rise of Islam. I find it no more convincing coming from Des Fennell than I do from those other sources. Societies change. They change radically. They may well be changing faster than ever before. And the thing is… there’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s going to continue like that. Forever. But change isn’t decline, it can be evolution. I could go on, but really, why bother?

Secondly it is a disturbingly close to a misogynistic thesis. The idea that there are ‘”politically correct” rules that bear on women’s lives, and particularly on motherhood’ is, at the least, an unpleasant charge and arguably insulting. I’ve always found it somewhat entertaining how men, and it often is men, pontificate about birth rates when they have the luxury of never having to experience the visceral reality of child-birth and all that it entails. This isn’t to in any sense decry child-birth, simply to say that many multiple births are easier said than done and there are reasons, good compelling reasons why a woman, any woman, might feel that a lower rather than a higher number suited her better. And more to the point, it is – to borrow a phrase – her choice, not that of Desmond Fennell and some vague – indeed nebulous – appeal to a ‘greater good’ or more pointedly, to this ‘white race’.

Who precisely is this ‘white race’ we’re talking about Des?

That is – in my opinion – in a piece replete with offensive insinuations the cream of the crop.

White women in western societies are producing on average fewer, sometimes much fewer, than 2.1 children per woman – the number of children required for the maintenance of a population. As things stand, therefore, the white race in the West is a dying breed.

There is no such thing as the ‘white race’. It is not a ‘breed’. This is a point made in the letter in the Irish Times in response to the piece.

If any achievement of Western peoples exists, it resides in cultural and legal norms which are universal. “Race” is an artificial, social-cultural construct. Ideals such as common citizenship, civil rights, gender equality, civil decency and universal humanity are birthrights of all mankind. It is nonsense to suppose that “civilisation” is exclusive to a certain combination of genes, and can be transferred selectively by sexual reproduction


Fourthly, and implicitly for he does not articulate it clearly but it is there nonetheless, is the implication that the supposed ‘white race’ must for some specific reason maintain its numbers. And that can only be in relation to others. Who could they be? He does not say. He will not tell us.

But I think we can guess. For if there are ‘white’ races, then clearly there must be ‘non-white’ races. And why must we ‘maintain our numbers’? What existential urge pushes us to procreate?

Ooops. Whatever way one interprets it that can’t be good either.

And as the letter writer notes:

His views are straightforward 19th-century Social Darwinism. He believes, apparently, in a “struggle for existence” among races which will be won by the race with superior fertility and virility.

Granted Fennell doesn’t use the phrase ‘struggle for existence’ but the language trips unpleasantly close to it. And for him to be making this argument is near-astounding. What happened to the man who talked about the local, about political structures which reflected all that was good about sustainability community and eschewed over-arching nationalisms, that sought a Europe (and if memory serves correct he had a nifty hand drawn diagram) and a world of communities?

But there’s also a contradiction at the heart of the thesis. Falling populations will actually assist in rising sustainability. They can in tandem with that result in a diminuition of consumer culture – a consumer culture that in part is fed by the residual memories of when times were bad. I’m not a population controller, at least not by instinct. But I can see the utility of overall global populations stabilising. And here’s the thing, that is more than likely as societies around the planet reach certain developmental stages, just as it happened here in Ireland and in a remarkably short period of time (in my class in national school and later in community school it was far from unusual for there to be people with multiple siblings – today, very much the exception than the rule. That’s under forty years). And what’s this I read also this week, that Ireland’s population in 2060 will reach 6.7 million? And the UK, France and Germany are also expected to have strong population growth. The picture in other countries is more mixed, and the trend is indeed for a certain degree of population decline:

Overall, the population of the EU is projected to increase to a high of around 520 million in 2035 before dropping to around 506 million by 2060.

Is this a disaster? Is this catastrophe? Or is it the ebb and flow of populations? Same as it ever was.

But that this should fuel fears about the ‘white race’… and that Des Fennell should trot out this reactionary screed is remarkable (although note how he and the IPR have become close to the point that his last book was published by Athol), but as noted it’s not the first time he’s expressed such thoughts. Then I wonder is he merely following Cruise O’Brien down the long travelled path of hyperbole to the temples of over-heated near-apocalyptic (or actually apocalyptic) nonsense. After all, not that far back CC O’B was telling all who would listen that Islam and Roman Catholicism would combine in an orgy of reaction. Problem was it was difficult to tell did he approve or disapprove. This isn’t that different. It really isn’t. Which leads to the glum conclusion that you can take the middle class lad out of Belvedere, but you can’t take Belvedere or residual middle class fears of otherness, out of the lad.

That the Irish Times should not tap him gently on the shoulder and say “Ahem… Desmond, think again would you?” is telling. That he himself does not see this for himself more than a pity.

I hope, but doubt, that he’s engaged in a lengthy bout of head-slapping. He should be.


1. Garibaldy - August 28, 2008

I saw reference to this elsewhere. I think in Slugger. Even more extreme than usual. See where you have to go when poor Catholic Ireland becomes richer secular Ireland


2. Hugh Green - August 28, 2008

If I may play devil’s advocate, for the craic, in an attempt to salvage something from what Fennell is saying. I have no acquaintance with any manifestation of Desmond Fennell other than what I’ve seen in the Times article and a couple of pieces on a similar theme, so I have no idea about what moved him to blathering about ‘the white race’. But the rules thing is sort of interesting. Is he saying in essence that the Ten Commandments has been replaced by the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and this has left people in a muddle because the former at least issued a series of prohibitions which, provided you followed them and pretty much regardless of how you interpreted them, served as a basis for getting on with the business of living, whereas the latter is more a means of allowing people to do whatever the hell they like, and given this, they end up enacting a series of unspoken prohibitions which are far more restrictive? If he is, I think it’s worth pondering at least. But you get the impression from the article, however, that the worst consequence of this for him is the fact that there are so many black people about these days, and that a woman’s place is no longer, as Dolly Parton said of her mother, with one in her and one on her.

That said, WbS, I don’t think you can discount the idea in itself that there are ‘”politically correct” rules that bear on women’s lives, and particularly on motherhood’ simply because it’s ‘an unpleasant charge and arguably insulting’. Maybe in the context of Desmond Fennell’s article it is unpleasant and insulting, but that doesn’t mean that there are no such rules. By which I am not arguing that such rules exist, just that the apparent unpleasantness of the charge does not make it so.

That is, when you say ‘there are reasons, good compelling reasons why a woman, any woman, might feel that a lower rather than a higher number suited her better’, might it not also be possible that in liberal democracies there are situations where a woman’s conclusion about ‘what suits her better’ is arrived at through the imposition of some sort of rules?


3. splinteredsunrise - August 28, 2008

Is Des turning into Oswald Spengler in his old age? Although his jokes are better than Spengler’s.

And is it possible that this might have some relation to Des’s long sojourn in Italy?


4. WorldbyStorm - August 28, 2008

Hugh, that’s an interesting point you make, but do you think that when compared to 10 explicit prohibitions from Judeo-Christianity (and more formerly, all the others that in Ireland Catholicism in particular implemented) and then certain unspoken prohibitions derived from social liberalism are truly equivalent? I mean, I’m not even sure what the unspoken prohibitions of liberalism are… or rather I am and they seem to be largely simple courtesy to me.

Then turning to motherhood and women’s lives. Which politically correct rules are there? Surely the contemporary situation, which is far from optimal is at least an advance on the situation our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers grew up in.

I think I understand what you mean about in liberal democracies where individual perception can be moulded by external forces, but that’s surely true of all societies to greater or lesser degree and arguably again is somewhat preferable to the pre-existing situation. Let’s put this in concrete terms. I can think back about how my classmates had in some instances more than four or five siblings and how that wasn’t unusual, and in fewer but still a fair number, ten or more. And one can see that as a hugely positive affirmation of family life – which in some cases it most certainly was – but one can also see that as the product of a society where even the most basic contraception was outlawed and women were forced by dint of domestic and societal pressure to have unprotected sex arguably at almost the whim of others with all the physical and mental consequences that that could result in. My own grandmother on my fathers side died in her early to mid fifties after seven near consecutive births and a number of miscarriages. Her children joked that she was near worn out. She probably was. That’s not untypical. And it’s a well of misery not least because it’s so avoidable. Now, I’m not arguing that Fennell stands over that sort of thing at all, but to ignore the evolutionary aspects of society – as he most certainly does – is to pretend that the past was preferable, which it wasn’t. Which actually now I think about it brings us back to your point.

splintered sunrise, a most excellent question.


5. Starkadder - August 28, 2008

Oswald Fennell….or maybe those other conservative
prophets of doom like James Burnham or
Jean-Francois Revel.


6. Hugh Green - August 28, 2008

when compared to 10 explicit prohibitions from Judeo-Christianity (and more formerly, all the others that in Ireland Catholicism in particular implemented) and then certain unspoken prohibitions derived from social liberalism are truly equivalent?

Well, I was really imagining the ten commandments and the UN declaration of human rights as shorthand for a more complex set of prohibitions. There is no equivalence, and maybe there are no unspoken prohibitions either: I am just wondering if Fennell sees things in these terms. I suppose I am thinking about Zizek’s observations on Lacan where he describes him as reversing Dostoevsky’s position of ‘if god is dead, everything is permitted’ to ‘if there is no god, everything is forbidden’:

How do we account for this paradox that the absence of Law universalizes prohibition? There is only one possible explanation: enjoyment itself, which we experience as ‘transgression,’ is in its innermost status something imposed, ordered–when we enjoy, we never do it ‘spontaneously,’ we always follow a certain injunction. The psychoanalytic name for this injunction, this imperative to ‘Enjoy!’ is Superego.

As for ‘politically correct’ rules determining what women ought to do with their bodies, in particular when it comes to having children, I don’t know. I don’t think there are any explicit rules governing this. But whereas in the past, in Catholic countries as you say, women were widely consigned to the position of having as many children as their body could stand, and where they basically had no choice, you now have a situation where women have the right to have as few or as many children as they wish, but -in the case of five, four, three or even two- this right is meaningless for many women because it’s simply not possible for basic financial reasons. Yet have a look at any newsagents and you see all these idealised images of maternity with celebrities showing off their bumps. So you have a situation where, yeah, you have a choice, and whatever you want to do with your body is fine by us and we celebrate it, but not really.

As for the evolution of society, yes, of course there is progress, but you can recognise that are gains and losses, I think, without having to propose that we were on the whole better off back then.


7. Pete - August 29, 2008

I think Fennell’s thesis is just biologicial. Its old age, the mind begins to fear looking to grab on to conservative realites that never exisited – Fennell when was this time of certianity – bizarre that an Irishman would ever harp back to the Victorian or some other time of civilisation values – anytime these were reigning for us it was past the rotten spud or waiting to have our arses civilised by our betters – as I see I don’t think there is much need to look beyond biology and psyhcology for Fennell’s spew. Bit like Rob Mugabe its another case of better to retire 10 years ago me thinks


8. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2008

Those are all good points Hugh, I know what you mean and I think that’s quite persuasive that that sort of thinking might have informed Fennells thoughts, but very briefly, when was it ever otherwise as regards financial constraints? That was the other side of multiple childbirths, families consigned into financial oblivion because – again – of a lack of contraception. And that was as true in 1969 when I started going to national school as it is now or was fifty years previously (and let’s not get into childcare, creches, etc, etc 😦 ). Again, I think that the reality today is that although there are aspects of maternity which are idealised, and always have been, there is thankfully a greater area for action for those who don’t want to go that route at all.

I entirely agree, re gains and losses. That’s absolutely true.

Starkadder, Burnham, that’s a good comparison. Got to think about it.

Pete, I’d go with that mostly. Only one small caveat, he’s been thinking smoething along these lines since his early to mid 60s. That’s not old.


9. Jim Monaghan - August 29, 2008

My friend Ranor Lysaght had a very jaundiced view of Fennell from way back.
His stuff is a melange. For me the preservation of Irish culture is about culture not race or ethnicity. I see no problem with the children of the new Irish playing hurling or dancing to Irish Music.
The Fennel nostalgia for a non exsitent Ireland of the 50s where a book called the disapearing Irish could be written is nonesense. This old Ireland failed. There are challenges in the future but Fennels has no answers.


10. clipper - August 29, 2008

This is a very interesting post. I always enjoy reading this blog but haven’t commented as the discussions are usually beyond my comfort zone! But I’ll trudge in here anyway.

Mr Fennell shares my husband’s surname. I’m a white woman who choose to have 3 children; hooray says Fennell! Except, my husband is a brown skinned Englishman and our children’s skin tone varies from light to dark.

So what? Does this man really consider the amount of melanin in their skin to be of any relevance to anything? That to me is a very foolish idea.

Also, he complains about “the fomented assault on able-bodied, heterosexual, white-skinned men and the civilisation they created.” It’s about time to make necessary changes to the civilisation they created and to allow those of us who don’t fit those criteria to demand decent treatment.


11. WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2008

Couldn’t agree more with both of you clipper and Jim. That’s it exactly clipper, the sense of homogeneity that Fennell implicitly, or pretty much explicitly, underwrites. And for what reason? It’s like you say Jim, the old Ireland failed.


12. Now this is just mischievous… Des Fennell Redux. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 30, 2008

[…] in Uncategorized. trackback From a fellow Irish Left Review contributor further thoughts on this topic …I have to admit I like the […]


13. Desmond Fennell - September 19, 2008

Late in the day I come on this discussion of my article in the Irish Times. I’d just like to point out to you bloggers that the newspaper always decides the heading of an article, and the Irish Times decided to put ‘Grim reality’ into the heading of my piece – which gave the piece a slant that was not of my making. If you read it again, ignoring that heading, you will see that I was just recounting facts without engaging in moral judgment or saying this is either good or bad- my usual way of writing – facts to ponder on and to react to as you wish. Most of this blogging tends to concentrate on judging me – and indeed others – rather than considering the facts presented.


14. Starkadder - September 19, 2008

Hello Mr. Fennell. Welcome to the Cedar Lounge blog.

I’d just like to take issue with one of your comments in
the Irish Times article:

“…they replaced many of the rules of European civilisation with new rules. Or rather, their democratic governments did this, employing left-liberals as their ethical guides, and enjoying enthusiastic support from the business corporations. The main rush of rule change took place in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Which corporations would that be? If you read books like
Will Hutton’s “The World We’re In” he described (pg.104) how
US corporations threw their weight behind the economic
and political conservatism of groups like the
American Enterpise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Both groups are devoted to the defence of the
traditional Victorian family,and hostile
to the ideas of the 1960s, as seem by their
championing of the conservative historian
Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Historians like Russ Bellant have also documented the
links between American conservatism in
the 1970s and its funding from
business corporations like the Coors Brewing Company.


15. WorldbyStorm - September 19, 2008

And let me welcome you too. It’s not a judgement of you, but a critique of what was written and the terminology utilised. It is possible to keep those two distinct, surely? After all, the term ‘white race’ is so loaded (even before we come to the criticisms of it above) in the first instance and so beyond ‘fact’ as to be near inapplicable in any discussion and thereby has no genuine utility and so on…


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