The Ego and John Waters

I watched ‘The Help’ last night, in which the main character, an aspiring journalist, is told to write about what shocks her. In contrast, in the last week, established Irish journalists have clearly been instructed to just write what shocks.

I had started to breathe normally again after my Delaney-induced rage, when this afternoon I read John Waters in the Irish Times. It’s always a blow when the Times runs these things too; it’s worse if your best friend talks about you behind your back than if the girl/guy you hated anyway does it.

However, if anything can be said for Delaney, it’s that he made no effort to hide his ignorance. Waters, on the other hand, falls into the old trap of believing that intelligence is measured by word length. It’s ironic really. The premise of his argument is that “our public discussions are remarkably restricted where it comes to pursuing comprehension of political events” and yet in most sentences he uses more syllables than I’ve eaten hot dinners. Take the following:

Political correctness and other unwritten strictures debar the possibility of deeper understandings concerning the state of the collective psyche and the archetypal yearnings that impinge on collective representation of individual democratic choices.

What Waters wants us to believe is that the point he’s making here is too esoteric and obscure for our feeble minds to handle. In reality, his sentence means nothing. He’s trying to disguise that like every other jaded and unimaginative hack he’s writing about political correctness gone MAD!

You know what? I like political correctness. If that’s the term you want to use for my not being told in the national newspapers that all of my life goals are invalid. Because it’s not about being an exceptional woman, Waters tells us. Rather, we should learn to be good at “being women in a public world ordered to male responses.” We have to lower the tone of our voices, to take the colour out of our wardrobes and the emotion out of our responses. Otherwise, as with Mary Davis and Dana, people will know within ten seconds that we lack the basic “masculine” qualities essential to leadership.

What are those qualities? According to Waters, what we want is that our patres patriae “be wise yet genial, dependable and restrained, strongly empathetic but frank, prudent but unafraid, stoical but unfanatical, tough yet patient, thoughtful but not incontinent of speech…we feel safer with leaders who quietly require that we postpone gratification and commit ourselves to sacrifice for our own long-term good. These are the father values erased from our surface culture by 40 years of aggressive feminist agitation.”

Call me crazy, but over the last 40 years (and particularly the Celtic Tiger/Fianna Fáil years) our political fathers have been seriously short of dependability, restraint, empathy, and prudence. They were particularly poor at delaying any kind of gratification at all. Hence the corruption, the abuse, the cover-ups, the discrimination and the economic collapse.

In fact, throughout the political shambles of the last 21 years, our two Presidents unfalteringly upheld the dignity of their office, placing Ireland among the great nations of the world with their devotion to Human Rights and tolerance. In doing so they transformed the presidency from a old-folks home for the doddery grandfathers of Irish politics, to a dynamic institution, capable of shaping the ideals and morals of the nation.

Consider Mary Robinson’s visit to Somalia in 1992, when she so memorably cried during a press conference.  The overwhelming power of that moment came precisely from her emotion, her lack of restraint, her femininity. To suggest that as a people we have abandoned the values they upheld is an affront to their legacy. To suggest, as Waters does, that they aren’t exceptional women is laughable. What’s more, it paints a pretty hopeless picture for the rest of us.

Still, as restrictive and offensive it is to cast women as shrill, flighty and unceasingly maternal, Waters also does a great disservice to men. He points out that emotional restraint “is among the male qualities feminism has most energetically sought to disparage.” That’s because repression is as damaging for men as it is for women.

Men shouldn’t be forced in roles like hunter-gather, wrestler and firm, distant father. We shouldn’t insist that they be stoic, uncompromisingly masculine and look like they’re good in a scrum. Sometimes, as Mary Robinson shows us, the only appropriate reaction to a situation is to cry. Sometimes it’s to laugh hysterically, or to dance (Hugh Grant in Love Actually, anyone?), or to otherwise express the strongest sadness, joy, or love. That’s what humans do. It’s what our leaders, sometimes, should do. And it’s certainly something that men should be free to do.

So, Mr. Waters, in the interests of facilitating deeper individual understandings, liberated from the repressive collective super-structures of gender expectation, please desist from condensing the conscience of leadership into restrictive orthodoxies.

In simpler terms, since you’re so keen to comprehend, get some manners and some sense.