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John Waters on ethics and resignations… February 26, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

John Waters writes today about the events of the last few weeks. In doing so he links the recent resignations to the allegations of bullying by Gordon Brown. Now, as to the latter case I’m dubious about offering an opinion one way or another. How can one tell what the truth of it is? And therefore in that instance much of the subsidiary comment is superfluous. If that were Waters contention, that allegations of behaviour were not in themselves sufficient to justify the reams written about them I’d probably be happy to go more than some way along that road with him.

That said, who would genuinely be surprised if a culture of bullying exists at the heart of government, there, here everywhere. And having had some experience of that dynamic in commercial contexts I’m loath to diminish its importance. But I’m also aware that without more information it is difficult to take a position.

The problem with Waters is that having reached a plane of existence and contemplation us less exalted mortals can only dream of aspiring to he now has – and in a way this dovetails with thoughts expressed about the Green Party during the week, that by placing climate change front and centre all else takes too secondary a position – arrived at a point where everything else in this world is less important than whatever he has vaguely, inchoately and unclearly decided is significant. And if the latter part of that sentence is difficult to understand… read on.

OUR MOST serious moral problem may be that those responsible for imposing and policing moral principles have lost all sense of right and wrong. In the past week, we saw one Government minister resign on foot of a commonplace episode of badmouthing a rival that happened and was reported months ago, but was ignored until it suddenly became useful to his political opponents. When another minister resigned having made representations to the Garda on behalf of a constituent, the first question the media asked was “Who snitched him up?”


So, which is it? Defaming a rival is wrong or is wrong only when it proves convenient to the Opposition? Making representations to gardaí is wrong, but not as bad as blowing the whistle on someone who unlawfully makes representations to gardaí? I’ll save your brain getting into a knot: it’s all a game. Nobody gives a stuff one way or another except in as far as the facts become useful. For the media it’s about “stories”, about introducing new plotlines to the public narrative. For politicians – apart from those directly involved – it’s a form of warfare, an alternative to the boring stuff of policy and legislation.

It’s an interesting thesis. Not least in that it argues that the media seem to have become for Waters ‘those responsible for imposing and policing moral principles’. But think about that for a moment. Are the media really in that position? Some of those working there may, in their wilder moments, think so, but truth is that moral principles are set within a framework established and perpetuated by many different actors. To reify the media is a nonsense. Indeed it is counterintuitive. Without dismissing the notion of ‘entertainment’ as a factor within the media portrayal of events, their output is more variegated than that. And there is also the small matter that in many areas the media, take violent crime for example, while overblowing and exaggerating the incidence of it, clearly positions itself as antagonistic to such actions. That that leads to certain contradictions, as with the coverage of trials in salacious detail, doesn’t negate the underlying principle.

But… he further argues that…

We have arrived at a form of public discussion that constantly invokes moral and ethical questions, but is really the most cynical misappropriation of morality for commercial gain or political advantage.
At the centre of this insane culture, the public representative becomes a cartoon figure: either a po-faced literalist who insists on the letter of every regulation, or a two-faced cynic who publicly pays lip service to what are called ethical standards while secretly knowing that it is all humbug.
We, the people, enjoy the dramas but have little opportunity of seeing deeply into them. We witness the politician at the centre of the latest ethical whirlwind and either passively allow ourselves to be seduced by the moment of theatre or become outraged on one or other side of the catfight.
We collude in the construction of a culture in which everyone prates on about morality and ethics, but nobody has the faintest idea what such words might mean.

That would be fine, except except… a government Minister giving incorrect information under oath is relegated by Waters to the cut and thrust… another making representations unlawfully to a Garda is a minor quibble.

The problem here is that Waters himself is adding to the idea that this is all a game. By underplaying the importance of these events he diminishes their gravity. Trevor Sargent had to go. From the moment that news broke it was clear that he had acted in a manner inconsistent with the position he held. Willie O’Dea likewise.

To me it is inconceivable that after the nature of our polity across decades has been revealed, and a litany of corrupt, illegal and unethical behaviour has come to the surface both in relation to the state itself, our political class, the interactions with the Catholic Church and so on and so forth, that John Waters can seek to reduce the import of this, and furthermore should try to trivialise the actions of two politicians.

The point isn’t the media response… that’s a secondary issue. The primary issue is the one that led to the resignations. Just as the media circus that surrounds a trial, such as we saw recently with a high-profile murder case in Dublin earlier this year, isn’t relevant in the slightest to the act of murder.

None of us will disagree that the media acts in a silly and superficial way a lot of the time. Particularly in relation to political discourse. So much of the output on this site is directed at pointing this up. But however candy floss the media approach that doesn’t detract from the reality. Indeed one crucial aspect of writing about the media has been the goal of trying to point it towards the underlying reality of a discourse that – for example – references economic ‘pain’ glibly but then chooses to ignore how that ‘pain’ impacts on communities (and for evidence of that consider yet again how the attacks on CDPs have been all but entirely ignored in recent months by much of a media that was in no way shy about supporting rhetorically the most egregious policies by the government). But Waters is curiously indifferent to that, choosing to attack the softest of soft targets, media coverage of political events, while explaining away the events themselves. And here his thoughts on the allegations about Brown are entirely inapposite. The events that consumed O’Dea and Sargent weren’t focussed on allegations, but were documented instances of personal behaviour. There is literally no comparison.

What is also intriguing in that is that Waters doesn’t actually bother to detail what ‘real ethics’ are. Perhaps he doesn’t know… and this too I think this indicates a problem with Waters contemporary approach. Although ostensibly set within a framework of deep consideration in truth he doesn’t quite get it (Vincent Brown by contrast considers these relatively minor issues in contrast to the social and economic policies pursued by the government and to which they are a party to… a position that at least has the virtue of positioning them within a clear framework). Acts that are wrong are wrong. And the response by others to them doesn’t in the slightest bit alter that. And all the… well… to borrow a phrase… prating about ethics and morality leads us back to a place where there seems to be precious little of either.


1. ejh - February 26, 2010

The use in a column of the term “have lost all sense of right and wrong” ought to be accompanied by a gong.


2. splinteredsunrise - February 26, 2010

Ah, the minor quibble. A man as worldly wise as Waters should have learnt by now that everyone carries knives in Limerick.

I’m only half joking about bringing Willie north to be our new justice minister. He’d fit right in at Stormont, maybe even raise the tone.


WorldbyStorm - February 26, 2010

I saw that, and sort of liked it. He’d certainly appeal to some in the DUP.

I’d also say that ejh has a fair point.


ejh - February 27, 2010

One does not always need to multiparagraph to engage with the content of a piece.


3. steve white - February 28, 2010

vinb was just as wrong about this as well, saying o’dea should go because of the state of limerick not because of the quivalen story both are saying there are worse things out there… which there may be but doesn’t mean these issue aren’t resigning ones.

fecking columnists!


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