Austria’s Great Daughters, Ireland’s Disappointing Sons

I smiled yesterday when I read that Austria is planning to amend it’s national anthem. The anthem, written in 1947, currently includes the line “Home of great sons, you are.” From  January it will run “Home of great daughters, great sons.”

Fights against discrimination are usually brutal. The disadvantaged group suffers casualties; people get bruised running against the brick wall of majority opinion. And in the end successes are partial. Twenty years after a man battles heroically for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the same man can be shut out of political discourse by systemic homophobia.

So what made me smile is that Austrian politicians are simply being decent.  They have recognised that at no great cost they can do something to welcome women as equally valued citizens. Of course, the tough battles rage on in Austria and everywhere else. But so often it’s the continual stream of small failures, offhand insults and symbolic exclusions that wear us down. What breaks my faith in the political system is that so often it’s easy to do the right thing and yet it’s not done, whether because of tradition, hardheadedness or pure apathy.

The week in Irish politics has certainly not made me smile. It’s backed me even further into my corner of disillusionment and frustration. I haven’t collected my thoughts enough to comment on the deeply saddening progress of the Presidential nominations process. What I will talk about is the mess Shane Ross, Mick Wallace and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan have created for themselves. I’m angry about this incident and I’m even angrier about the way it was dealth with. Especially Flanagan’s refusal to apologise.

I’ve consistently met with the defence that we all joke about people behind their backs so we shouldn’t make such a fuss over it this time just because they were unfortunate enough to be overheard. That’s exactly why we should make a fuss about it. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, who knows what happens? On the other hand, if it falls and  crushes someone we should probably pay more attention. To the clearly endemic rot in the forest, for instance. The behaviour of these three deputies would have been unpleasant and cruel either way. But they got caught through their own carelessness and so they’re obliged to deal with the consequences.

They have to deal with the fact that because of their actions female TDs are once again undermined in their attempts to be good representatives. Once again, they have been faced with a glaring reality that while they try to engage in debate and discussion in good faith, the guys in the back row are quite possibly laughing at their appearances, at the way they choose to dress, or at their voices. As has been observed, this repulsive culture in Dáil Éireann pushes promising women away from politics. It also means that the women already there are less able to do their jobs and less able to represent us all  (and particularly women) effectively.

Sally Rooney channelled our collective fury more effectively than I feel able to:

…Incidents like this serve to remind them that they are not lads. You know, lads! Who can have the craic with other lads. While having the craic and taking a joke and learning to take jokes about having the craic with lads. And hey, some of the jokes are about men! Sometimes men get joked about! You know, men, the people who represent 141 of the Dáil’s 166 TDs. They can take a joke! Why can’t you, hugely under-represented minority? What’s your problem with our hilarious contempt for your clothing? You chose to dress like that!

We’re not laughing because the jokes aren’t funny. It upsets me that, unlike in Austria, Ireland never seems to do the decent thing. In myriad minor ways, Irish bigots (both male and female) continue to twist the knife. Not because they stand to gain anything. Just because it’s what they do because it’s what they do because it’s what they’ve always done. People don’t swallow the cruel, cynical comment that can only serve to upset and humiliate. Even in the face of an outcry Flanagan won’t apologise, out of sheer stubborn pride. And somehow, incomprehensibly, every time male politicians engage in some petty cruelty the blame falls on the woman who just won’t get off her high horse and laugh along.

So thanks, Austria. It’s reassuring that somewhere in the world boys can be something other than boys.

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