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.

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Dana and the Crisis of Irish Politics

I love the Eurovision. Love it. To what many people consider an obsessive extent. I exhaustively watch playbacks of Ireland’s entries on youtube. Every year, I feel like I’ve been kicked in the stomach at the moment I realise our entry can’t catch up with Estonia or Montenegro, or whatever questionably existent country is at the top of the leader board. So, obviously I love Dana and her Eurovision story. I never tire of the cliches about the gap-toothed Irish girl in the Boneen dress winning over Europe. And I feel a happy little glow of patriotism whenever I hear ‘All Kinds of Everything’. If I didn’t disagree with Dana’s politics in practically every way, I’d consider voting for her in the upcoming Presidential election.

However, even though I wouldn’t dream of voting for Dana, I have a huge amount of respect for her. The Irish Presidency is, or at least should be, about taking stock every seven years. Assessing the progress of the nation and voting for a leader who represents the national zeitgeist. Mary McAleese caught the spirit of the nation as a Northern Irish leader deeply committed to peace and growth. Mary Robinson’s election, of course, represented an overwhelming victory for so many people who previously felt trapped and without voice in a sexist, anti-liberal, religiously dominated Ireland. David Norris’s campaign, for so many of us, represented an opportunity to really welcome the gay community into the national community.

Dana is an equivalent candidate. In 1997, my great-uncle who was well into his eighties was committed to voting for her because she stepped forward as Catholic, and in doing so tried to represent the core element of his national identity. She’s pro-life, yes. So were a majority of people in the last referendum. She represents Catholic ideals. Despite everything, a majority of Irish people still identify as Catholic and for many it’s a crucially important part of their lives. Irish Catholicism is in crisis, but that only makes it a more important part of our national conversation. And when her the religion she has devoted herself to is torn apart by scandal it takes a vast amount of courage to step forward as a voice for people who share her faith. In the same way it requires courage to stand by David Norris in the face of the slurs of the last few days. In 1997 she broke down the nominations system designed to shut out independent candidates. She is kind, she is deeply concerned with what it is to be Irish, she has a gift with people and she cares about Ireland. Ultimately, I think she is an ideal Presidential candidate, except that I completely disagree with the fundamentals of her politics. For that reason, I won’t vote for her and will caution everyone else against it. But I respect her and I want to hear what she has to say.

Irish-Fem-Net, a group I normally have a huge amount of respect for, observed yesterday that “from actively pro-choice Mary Robinson to vehemently anti-choice Dana. The question of whether any woman is better than no woman rears it’s head again…” A stream of cruel and abusive comments followed, calling Dana “plain idiotic”, a harpie, “sweet Jesus save us”.  I looked on boards.ie and she was referred to as “thick as two planks”, an egotist and opportunist and worst of all “Dana Nomination = Ethnic Cleansing Required.”

These are the same people who have spent the last few months trenchantly defending David Norris against unfair and prejudiced attacks. The same people who rose up in arms when comments were made on Mary Robinson’s hair rather than her political standing. The same people who, by identifying as feminists and progressive liberals, claim to be tolerant and open-minded. Except when someone disagrees with them. At which point they will stoop at least as low as their opponents in throwing the lowest possible blows. I can handle it when people are racist, sexist, homophobic or actively discriminate. Those are political views I can take on in debate. I can’t handle it when the people who believe what I believe pay lip service to tolerance while degrading it with their behaviour.

I have been deeply saddened by the nation I’ve seen reflected in the last week. On every side of the aisle the discussion is dominated by anger, blame and abuse. People are targeted for attack, not their ideals. There is no conversation, no empathy, no compassion, no respect. In that atmosphere, growth and change are impossible.

As I said at the beginning, I think presidential elections represent an opportunity to take stock of the nation every seven years. We have been shown a nation in very deep distress indeed.