The Politics of Debate
Occasionally, popular music leaves behind a song that defines its time as nothing else does. One is ‘My Way’, which catches that post-war mood of selfish optimism, a kind of hymn to individualism that provides an apologia for a life lived in narcissism. Another is ‘Pretty Vacant’, the Sex Pistols’ anthem of contempt for values. You might say that such songs are the collective equivalent of poems, providing a society with names and shapes for phenomena previously unnoticed, or only half-recognised at the collective level, the way a poem speaks to the individual about something hitherto thought private. Perhaps this is the most enduring influence of popular music.
Between these two came perhaps the most influential of all such unconscious mantras: the Bob Dylan song, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, which briefly seemed to speak of a revolution that would never curdle. That song still says something to stir the blood, as well as articulating something about the age through which we have lived since the world imagined itself to have woken from some kind of long sleep. As with all such songs, there is a tendency to become confused as to whether the song created the feeling or simply reflected what was there. But, either way, it is interesting to listen to Dylan’s song now and reflect on the precision with which it articulates the cocksuredness of the sixties generation about the redundancy of the past. It is an anthem to the idea that ‘we’ – because we have rock ‘n’ roll, universal education and mass media – are somehow smarter than anyone who came before us. ‘Come mothers and father throughout the land/And don’t criticise what you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agein’’. Giving voice to the idea that there now existed a unique new experience of change and a vision to go with it, the song seemed to summarise the hubris unleashed by the sixties in a way no other did.
And yet, this is only half the story. Because Dylan was arguably smarter than the rest, the song’s meaning has not remained static, though the lyric remains essentially unchanged. Four decades on, with the price-tag for sixties individualism being presented in manifold ways, the song, at least as delivered by its author, reads not as an anthem of assertiveness but as an ironic commentary on the very condition it seemed to represent and incite. Nowadays, when Dylan sings the song, as he did when he appeared on MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ series, he delivers it with a weary irony that brings out an entirely different aspect of the words. The refrain, as well as its previous sense of the assertiveness of the rebel calling on the older generation to stand aside and let him by, are dulled and laconic. Somehow there emerges from the same lyric an emphasis on something previously unnoticed: ‘The line it is drawn/And the curse it is cast/The slow one now/Will later be fast/As the present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now/Will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’’.
Listening to more recent recordings of Dylan singing his own song, one hears a much older man singing not about youthful rebellion but of the cyclical nature of life and human ambition. Today the song reads not as a warning to the post-war parents and political leaders who tried to stand firm against the sixties libertarian flood, but as an ironic reminder to the sixties generation itself that its turn has now come and the certainties which it assumed to be eternal are now in question. The first have become last. But the slow have also (again?) become fast. What is remarkable is that a song which seemed to be an in-your-face anthem of one-off revolution has the subtlety to become, without alteration, a timeless commentary on the human condition of constant change.
But the superficial meaning of the song is the one that is retained in the consciousness of the world: the anthem of youthful protest that causes it to stir still the blood of those who were young enough at the time to feel that its call was made to them. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ remains the anthem of the Peter Pan generation, for whom the sixties never ended and the revolution was never won, a rallying-call of self-centred grievance that continues to summarise the perspective of a generation which has not grown up.
The Peter Pan Ideology
Every generation, as George Orwell observed, imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. But this is different. The sixties generation, though now ensconced in power throughout Western society, continues to act as though it were the catalyst of seething revolt, promoting its liberal-libertarian ideology as though it were a beleaguered opposition languishing in the rain outside City Hall, soggy placard in hand. The establishment it fights is six foot under, and the only power-centre visible to objective observers is the sixties generation itself.
One of the distinguishing marks of the Peter Pan ideology is a certainty that its virtues are self-evident and that, consequently, it has no requirement to justify or explain itself. To fail to see that it represents the summit of human enlightenment and progressiveness is, by the edict of its sponsors, symptomatic of only one condition; and since that condition is precisely what the progressives have set themselves against, any resistance they meet is merely the to-be-anticipated recalcitrance of the vanquished conservatives. The language of these self-proclaimed ‘modernists’ contains a kind of self-fulfilling paradigm which eschews all else in the way oil recoils from integration with water. The word ‘modern’ for example, belongs to them in they way a beached banana box might belong to a beachcomber. Not only does this word contain the prescription of all that is virtuous and progressive – but it is owned by them in a way that means it can henceforth be claimed by no one else. Moreover, the word ‘modern’ is no longer merely an adjective denoting some aesthetic or technocratic recency: it is clearly a moral description. And since they use it all the time, thus laying exclusive claim to its virtue, how can others have a right to it, especially if these others are, ipso facto, not of their ranks? Their logic, too, is hermetically sealed: if they are the modern ones, then not only does someone who fundamentally disagrees with their outlook necessarily, at best, seem to be some kind of sub-modern obscurantist, but the very condition of another’s claim to modernity is measured by the extent of its agreement or disagreement with them. The issue is not that one might have a different opinion, which might be thought interesting or challenging or provocative or whatever: the issue is that one is clearly wrong, to a greater or lesser extent, and the extent of this wrongness is a measure of one’s moral health. To be constantly at odds with them, can be evidence only of congenital conservatism, reactionism and probably profound ignorance. To be occasionally at difference, or in dispute over details, is not necessarily so serious, but it is, nonetheless, a measure of a failure to qualify as truly modern and therefore truly moral. This is not a debate: it is the modern equivalent of a religion.
In Ireland, this situation is at least as acute as it is elsewhere. The dominant idea across the mainstream media is that a marginalised bunch of ageing radicals, left-leaning and liberal, are still seeking to overthrow an establishment dominated by Catholic thinking, nationalist politics, traditional conservatism and patriarchal supremacism. Of course, because of the way things have been going, there are hardly any Catholics, nationalists, traditionalists, conservatives or patriarchs left, and even fewer who are prepared to stick their heads up to be used as targets to enable the self-styled modernists, revisionists, liberals and progressives show off how clever and modern they are. But this is a minor inconvenience which does not in any way dilute the determination of this plucky band of radicals to free itself from tyranny and oppression. The technique of the Peter Pan generation in power has been to pretend that it never won power at all, but is still fighting a rearguard action against the forces of darkness from the past. Thus, the Catholic Church, de Valera’s Ireland and any form of nationalistic expression became the straw men whose demise would mark the onward march of the revolution of Modern Ireland. The Peter Pan ideology is protected by its own self-evident morality and by the promulgation of the idea that it and its adherents remain under grave threat. Such is its correctness about everything that no dissent is possible other than that promoted by itself, and anything not falling into this category is ipso facto part of an ‘establishment’ backlash, a counter-revolution designed to frustrate its plucky assault on the citadels of power.
I believe that the influence of this generation – the way it has assumed office and uses power, the disingenuous way it presents itself, the way it stifles debate and demonises its critics, the way it hogs both the centres of power and the platforms of protest – is causing a massive cultural dislocation in the evolution of Irish society. It is refusing to take responsibility for its own beliefs and their consequences when put into practice. It is confusing the young by usurping their natural right to protest. It is turning the mass of citizens away from any kind of inter-action with their society. And it is obscuring the true nature of oppression in modern society.
The One True Journey
A couple of years ago, Michael Ross wrote a most interesting article in the Sunday Times about the failure of the Irish media to create new forms of debate with which to propel the society in a different direction. He wrote: ‘The comment pages have become places where the consensus – economically liberal, politically revisionist – is almost entirely unchallenged. Even when it is challenged, as by John Waters, the result is rhetoric less postmodern than antediluvian’.
I didn’t take this insult too personally, mainly because I was most intrigued by the logic at the back of it. Mr Ross’s view is interesting because it is not precisely the view of the new liberal establishment. It is, rather, a view from outside, perplexed by the absence of alternatives viewpoints and yet conditioned by the liberal-libertarian idea that anything not in tune with its logic is ipso facto reactionary. Mr Ross came close to articulating a certain semi-focused viewpoint among a lot of younger media people, and indeed in the younger generations generally. It is held by people who are bored and discontented with much public discussion, but are not quite sure what alternatives may exist. They are unhappy with the way society is evolving, but are at a loss to say what they feel is wrong with it. Such citizens have broadly accepted the model of modernisation with which they have been presented, but have also encountered an imaginative blockage concerning what should happen next. They do not want to go back, but cannot conceive a space into which to move forward. The notion that there is some ‘postmodern’ way of re-ringing the changes is one that attracts them, but nobody has the faintest idea, other than via a retreat into ‘irony’, what this might actually mean.
The search for some radical way of tweaking everything into a whole new way of living and perceiving is related to the present inability of the younger generations to become engaged with society, and this in turn is related to the stranglehold on discussion maintained by the ageing pseudo-revolutionaries who grew up thinking themselves at the End of History, Politics and Culture. Many young people have accepted at face value the rhetoric of the present generation in power, which holds that the journey begun in the 1960s is, whatever its passing imperfections, the One True Journey, the only possible route towards enlightenment and contentment. By this analysis, we are now at the moment in our building project when everything is ready to be fully lived in. And yet, there is this ineluctable suspicion that the edifice may be the product of accidental and arbitrary choices, that, despite the architects’ insistence that everything is fine, we have painted ourselves into all the wrong corners.
Pádraig Pearse, in his celebrated essay ‘The Murder Machine’, observed that human society travels in circles rather than straight lines. It is an idea on which he might have been surprised to find himself at one with Bob Dylan. ‘We are too fond,’ he wrote, ‘of clapping ourselves upon the back because we live in modern times, and we preen ourselves quite ridiculously (and unnecessarily) on our modern progress. There is, of course, such a thing as modern progress, but it has been won at how great a cost! How many precious things have we flung from us to lighten ourselves for that race! ‘And in some directions we have progressed not at all, or we have progressed in a circle; perhaps, indeed, all progress on this planet, and on every planet, is in a circle, just as every line you draw on a globe is a circle or part of one. Modern speculation is often a mere groping where ancient men saw clearly. All the problems with which we strive (I mean all the really important problems) were long ago solved by our ancestors, only their solutions have been forgotten.’
Of course, in quoting Pádraig Pearse, even in the same paragraph as I mention Bob Dylan, I confirm the charge of antediluvianism against me. It may be worth it to point out that perhaps postmodernism and antediluvianism are the same thing.
Cornering a rat
We have reached an interesting moment, however, and one whose nature has struck me reading some of the debates in this magazine in recent times. I have been observing the pattern of discussion between various viewpoints and factions, and have remarked upon the way they exaggerate, and therefore show up more clearly, the pattern of debate in society generally. I have noticed that the best debates seem to occur between people whose opinions, though subtly different, seem to move in the same general direction (for example, the debate on sean-nós singing between Bob Quinn, Jean-Yves Bériou and Lillis Ó Laoire). Such debates can be extremely interesting and constructive. But when there is a great disparity of viewpoint (say, for example, between Patrick Zuk and Harry White) – a condition, one might expect, conducive to vibrant debate – the opposite happens: the debate closes down, usually because the other side will not respond at all or because the response takes the form of moral censure, personal attack, or a combination of both in the form of accusing the other side of having engaged in a personal attack when no such thing has occurred.
This happens also in the society generally. But, in the course of making a fair few unpopular arguments in my time, I have noticed another thing also. It is interesting that, if you persist in making an argument which is deemed to be untenable, then that argument is almost bound to fail, or be dragged down under the weight of pejorative associations which have been heaped upon its sponsor/s. But, I have noted too, that if such a sponsor, having established the central points of a coherent argument, can then divest himself of his armour and step out of the arena, an interesting thing begins to happen. Slowly, tentatively, those who have been attacking both argument and its sponsors, sneak in and begin to don the armour of the departed advocate. Almost invariably, they will come out with a slightly modified version of the argument they have been rubbishing up until now. If nobody pretends to notice, they will gain courage and begin promoting the idea as if they had themselves just dreamt it up. If anybody points out that, of course, this is the same argument that X has been making for years and which they have been assiduously rubbishing, they will say, No, of course we never objected to the argument, it was the manner in which he made/the extreme nature of his language/the tone of his delivery that concerned us. Essentially, what we are dealing with here is an establishment which, believing itself right about everything, and believing that its mission was not merely irrefutable but complete in itself, could never bring itself to publicly admit to imperfections or mistakes. Seeking to force a good argument upon such people is like cornering a rat: if you persist, they will go for your throat. The most sensible thing is to construct the argument and leave it lying around for them to steal. Then you can go home and have your tea.
What’s all this ‘modernity’ nonsence?
I will outline in some detail a rather classic example of the way thought control is exercised in Irish society, and how it functions to marginalise anything that might be remotely threatening to the Peter Pan agenda. At the start of the summer, a minor debate erupted in the pages of the Irish Times which threatened for a moment or two to bring this syndrome out into the open. The debate was initiated by Desmond Fennell (the noted sub-modern reactionary conservative who wants to drag Ireland kicking and screaming to the Dark Ages). For the avoidance of doubt, I should stress that the description in parenthesis is intended to be an ironic representation of the silent description which the ‘modernists’ have succeeded in having attached to Fennell’s name and reputation, and which now accompanies his every public pronouncement, to an extent that it relieves the ‘modernists’ of any requirement to engage seriously with what he says. This is unfortunate for Dr Fennell, and tragic for the rest of us. Dr Fennell has tried, with some success, to rescue the many important matters he has championed over the years from the pejorative aspects of his imposed reputation by retreating to Italy, from where he fires occasional salvoes to keep the temperature up. Otherwise, he lets them at it. And such is the irrefutability of much of what he has been saying that, sure enough, his ideas are being adopted in his absence.
Dr Fennell wrote a most interesting piece for the Irish Times, published on 28 May, under the headline, ‘Wiping out the past and creating a cultural blank-slate’, and sub-headlined: ‘What is all this “modernity” nonsense?’. His main point was to question the use of the word ‘modernisation’ in the titles of a number of recent academic works, pointing out that the books in question related only to Ireland in the 1990s, and noting that Ireland’s relationship with modernity had long predated this period. He quoted the blurb of one of these books, Engaging Modernity (Veritas): ‘Engaging Modernity provides a new appraisal of Ireland’s engagement with the phenomenon of modernity. The path we have travelled from being a rural-based, religious, traditional, insular country, to a secular, highly-prosperous economic hi-tech centre, has brought in its wake both problems and advantages.’
Fennell argued that this use of the word ‘modernity’ represented an abuse of language: ‘I don’t need any book to tell me that the Irish engaged with the French Revolution when that was the modern thing around and before that with the Protestant Reformation when that was, and centuries earlier encountered and adopted Norman stone castles, body armour and courtly love, and much further back Christianity, the latest thing from Rome, and a very long time ago, when the novelties first arrived from the Continent, iron swords and ploughs and pots and pans, to replace the bronze ones.’
Modernisation, he asserted, ‘has been happening in Ireland since prehistory. Far from its being a case, now or ever, of “modernity versus tradition”, the Irish have a long tradition of modernisation; it is part of our traditional way of life.’
It was a most eloquent and witty piece, deftly summarising a couple of quite complex concepts in a few paragraphs. Dr Fennell went on to ask: what happens next, challenging the self-styled modernists to outline what their prescription was for a future direction for Irish society, now that their allegedly moral programme had been achieved. OK, he agreed, Ireland had now been liberated from being, indeed, a ‘rural-based, religious, traditional, insular country’, but what next? Was the purpose of shaking off our past merely that we become rich? If so, what if we again become poor?
We do not need, he asserted, ‘to be told and told again, in self-congratulatory tones, that is has been accomplished and how free it makes us. Free for what?’
He then went on to outline a glimmer of a vision of his own, suggesting that this moment in Irish cultural development may proffer an opportunity. ‘Have we a project in mind for our post-national future?’ he asked. He answered himself thus: ‘Alone among the nations, we Irish have sufficient self-hatred and sufficient daring to transform our nation into a tabula rasa and post-Irish space on which something culturally quite new and post-European can be built. But only if we stop hating the notion of being different. Anthropologically speaking, we are an experiment.’
It was a challenging and provocative piece. For someone genuinely interested in the possibilities for progress in Irish society, it provided much food for thought and argument. The questions were all but limitless: Have we truly arrived at the post-Irish moment? Is he saying that it is possible to build a new Ireland in the vacuum left by the old? Is he saying that it is possible to create something exhilarating out of the remnants of a period of revolution about which he himself was at best quite dubious? Isn’t it interesting that he puts the matter in such a neutral way, refusing to cling to notions of nationhood as virtuous in themselves?
The response, if such there came, was bound, one thought, to be interesting. Well, it was.
On 9 June, the Irish Times published a piece, allegedly in response, from Dr Eamon Maher, co-editor with Michael Boss, of Engaging Modernity. The headline was: ‘Role of tradition in contemporary Ireland’. There was nothing in the overt presentation of the piece that suggested it was a response to Dr Fennell, but both the opening and concluding paragraphs implied that it was.
Dr Maher began: ‘Desmond Fennell (28 May) asks why there is so much talk about modernity in contemporary Ireland. In his view, “modernity‚ is just the latest label to describe what has been happening in ireland for centuries.”’
So far, so good. But then: ‘But the view that sees modernity and tradition as diametrical opposites is not the best way of understanding the concept.’
Eh? In the first place, was not the alleged opposition of tradition and modernity – the ‘major paradigm shift’, according to the book’s cover blurb –- not precisely the thesis of the book Engaging Modernity, published under Dr Maher’s joint-editorship just a couple of months before? In the second, was not the idea that seeing modernity and tradition as diametrical opposites is not the best way of understanding the concept not precisely the point of Desmond Fennell’s article, to which Dr Maher purported to be responding?
So, Dr Maher now agreed with Dr Fennell? Apparently not. He then went on to outline what seemed a somewhat convoluted argument about Ireland, tradition and modernity, involving John McGahern, William Trevor and John Charles McQuaid. Dr Maher argued that tradition and modernity are part of the same continuum, quoting the American sociologist David Gross: ‘Many traditions continue in the nooks and crannies of modern life. They exist privately even when they have been eroded publicly.’ Dr Maher expressed the view that this has occurred in Ireland. Then, citing John McGahern’s latest novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, as an example of modern Irish writing set in a ‘traditional’ setting, Dr Maher seemed to be suggesting that McGahern’s evocation of a dying rural sense of community was ‘not one of lament’, but of ‘celebration’. Whether Dr Maher considered McGahern to be celebrating the life or the death of this community is unclear.
In one context, he seemed to be saying that what is dying is more valuable than what is being born. Comparing the rustic tranquillity evoked by McGahern – apparently favourably – with the ‘frenetic noise of the city traffic and Temple Bar revelry, symbols of late modernity’, Dr Maher seemed to be implying that the Celtic Tiger is not an unambiguously virtuous phenomenon. But in the next sentence, he wrote: ‘McGahern told me in an interview that he thinks that Ireland’s new-found prosperity is a great thing. His experience of friends and neighbours having to emigrate to find work reflects the reality that there are positive as well as negative sides to the Celtic Tiger.’
I am unclear about a number of things here. Is Dr Maher saying that the Celtic Tiger represents something better or something not as good as what it has supplanted, or is he saying that the outcome is mixed? He appears not to be arguing that it is either better or worse, since he appears anxious to allow his pro- and anti- arguments to cancel one another out. If he is saying that the result is ambiguous, it is hardly an earth-shattering insight, certainly not one for which he needs to adduce evidence from a leading Irish novelist.
Dr Maher then went on to reprise the story of how Archbishop John McQuaid had John McGahern fired from his teaching post for writing a ‘dirty book’. The Catholic Church, Dr Maher reminded Irish Times readers (who clearly might be liable to forget such details) ‘enforced a negative attitude to sexuality and ruled with an iron hand’.
But soft. The picture is far from stark. Now, he continued, the Church had become one in a line ‘of many victims of “progress” or “modernity”. (Significantly, McGahern is grateful to the Catholic Church for introducing him to ritual and a sense of the sacred. He thinks the mad rush away from religion at the moment is a sad development).’ So, we now know that Dr Maher contends that everything associated with ‘tradition’ is not all bad; that everything associated with ‘modernity’ is not all good; that everything associated with ‘tradition’ is not all good; and that everything associated with ‘modernity’ is not all bad. We also know that he has obtained the agreement of a leading Irish novelist, who sets his fiction in ‘traditional’ Irish settings for these startling conclusions.
Now, some people may find all this very interesting. But what it has to do with answering Dr Fennell’s extremely provocative article is utterly unclear. Not to worry, Dr Maher has not yet finished his ‘rebuttal’ of Dr Fennell.
Dr Maher’s concluding points are as follows:
(1) Things are changing rapidly in Ireland.
(2) Consequently, many people feel demoralised and downtrodden. ‘If everything is so good, why is it that so few feel elated? Why are so many young males taking their own lives? Why is drink a precursor to blind violence? It’s as if alcohol is now fuelling a pent-up frustration that finds an outlet in gratuitous brutality. The carnage on our roads seems a corollary of the same blind quest for excitement.
(3) Discussion of the conflicting features of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ seems ‘a futile exercise in intellectual posturing when one consider the problems “on the ground”.’
(4) Commentators have a role to play in highlighting problems and suggesting remedies, ‘although the latter is far more difficult than the former’.
(5) There needs to be ‘a shift away from acquiring wealth (not in itself a bad thing) at all costs and a reflection on what constitutes “community”.’
(6) There is ‘an urgent need for more serious cultural debate of the kind recommended by Desmond Fennell where all sides have their say.’
It was an article extraordinary for both the nondescript nature of its observations and its ultimate non-statement of a position, but even more so for its failure to address even one of the arguments Dr Fennell had made. And yet it gave the strong impression to at least the casual reader that it had in some way given Dr Fennell a sound thrashing for his blinkered views. It suggested that he was the one engaging in the futile exercise of intellectual posturing about the conflicting features of ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, and hinted that people like Dr Fennell might be better off proposing solutions rather than simply highlighting problems.
Dr Maher’s article was, in truth, incoherent and completely unremarkable in its alleged insights. He did not address Dr Fennell’s argument in the slightest, but just assumed he didn’t have to. He implied that Desmond Fennell had suggested a duality between modernity and tradition, and then continued as if his life’s work was in disproving this contention. Hence the McGahern farrago. McGahern, as a modernist who has no blocks about sticking to what might be seen as traditional themes, is probably closer to the Fennell corner. It’s just that his books are so good, and moreover have been recognised as such abroad, that the supposed modernists have surrendered to the idea that his work must in some way ‘transcend’ tradition, which of course it does, as does Desmond Fennell’s. The interesting question is why no other novelist has succeeded in remaining within this territory and creating useful fiction which survives the critical onslaught of the self-styled modernists. Could it be because McGahern managed to get on the bus before the backlash worked up enough steam, and is now in an unassailable position, whereas other writers attempting to write in this way nowadays would immediately be dismissed as nostalgic reactionaries? In fact, McGahern is far more interesting than any of this suggests – in both his use of the so-called traditional landscape to set forth a universal narrative of progress and death, and in the way he covers up his intentions with blather about how great we are to be as good as we are, to keep the modernists off his back. It is astounding that advocates of so called modern/ist perspectives seem to feel that they can continue to trade off the notion that there exists some bulwark of reactionary traditional opinion which, by its very presence in the marketplace, justifies and excuses their lack of rigour and responsibility and makes their flaccid arguments interesting, or even necessary. Regardless of the subtlety of any given deconstruction of what they say, they can come back with a response that ignores the content of what has just been contributed, assuming that no one will notice or object as they blithely continue to count on the existence of a prejudice about the author’s lack of modernising credentials. It is as though Dr Maher believed that nobody would have read what Dr Fennell wrote; or if they had, would not have understood it; or if they had, would have been sufficiently prejudiced about Fennell to give him no credit for what he was actually saying.
This extraordinary farrago of illogic and dishonesty is typical of the responses of the self-styled ‘modernisers’ when cornered. The reason is that, because modernity has become such a virtuous idea, the virtue resides only in being the most modern. There is therefore no such thing as nuanced modernity, or relative modernity, or cautious modernity, or reserved modernity. To be less than totally ‘modern’ in one’s thinking, it seems, is to be less than clever, less than moral and less than interesting. The core of this extraordinary process is the inability of the dominant strain in modernist thinking to get away from the idea that they are smarter than everyone else, a belief supported only by the idea that they have grown up with a contempt for anything that was not new. Firstly, they rely on the prejudices they have assiduously manufactured in relation to all those who may disagree with them, so as to dispose of most challenges with a word or two. When a determined challenge makes it through this net, the next tactic is to impute to the challenger the very myopia of which they themselves are guilty: usually an obsession with the duality of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, which has now, it emerges, ceased to be the point. This is followed by a lecture about the duty of those with a role in public debate to remember that, beyond the debate, there are real people with real problems. Frequently there is to be found a denunciation of the unhelpful language employed by the challenger, which by inciting rancour and seeking to exploit any latent discontent, may unwittingly or otherwise be contributing to the potentially explosive nature of possible resentments. The challenger is therefore ‘not only wrong, but dangerously wrong’. Thus, while avoiding entirely the substance of an argument, the moderniser has managed to claim the high moral ground, implying that they alone have the interests of progress, harmony and real people at heart. But most of the time, this kind of exposed gymnastic are unnecessary, as the modernists will have ensured that the prejudice about any potential challenger is maintained with sufficient potency to be invoked by the mere insertion of a pejorative word or two. Readers of the Irish Times, any more than would readers of JMI, would have had no way of knowing that there was an offstage prequel to this exchange of articles in the summer.
Dr Fennell is, in fact, given a mention in the foreword to Engaging Modernity, as follows: ‘Traditionalism was heard elsewhere in the public debate, however. A peculiar, but not unrepresentative, voice was that of the columnist John Waters.’ The footnote assures the reader: ‘Waters’s social critique is clearly related to that of Desmond Fennell’.
This is an extraordinary statement to appear in a Foreword co-written by someone who believes that the view that sees modernity and tradition as diametrical opposites is not the best way of understanding the concept.
In other words, this entire discussion began as an attack on me, on the basis that I am the advocate of traditionalist views. Now, I don’t for a moment believe that there should be any stigma in being a traditionalist. Traditionalists are, in my view, the valued custodians of what has endured. The most dynamic of societies, as much as they depend for the integrity of their cultural development on the determination of the modernisers, depend also on the strength of the hand at the traditional end of the rope. It is from this tension that cultural integrity emerges. If I believe, as sometimes I do, that traditionalism can be misinterpreted by its advocates in a manner that seems to demand adherence to a redundant iconography for its own sake, it is merely in the assertion of a contrary viewpoint which seeks to challenge the traditionalist to justify itself or yield. I believe in building on something solid, and tradition is the foundations of the house of culture and progress.
But I have a pain in my fingers from typing these words: I am not now and never have been a traditionalist.
The tenor of the references to me in the Introduction to Engaging Modernity is to suggest that tradition is, ipso facto, demonstrably dubious, and its adherents intellectually if not morally questionably.
‘Peculiar but not unrepresentative’? This is an interesting phrase. What does it tell me about the authors and their mission, and in particular about what use they seek to put my own work to? The word ‘peculiar’ could quite easily be taken as a gratuitous insult – a most unacademic term without any parallel in their treatment of other sources. It is offensive, of course, but more pertinently is obviously a signal to other academics that they are not about to stray off the approved road and extend John Waters any credit for intelligence or originality. It is code for ‘eccentric’ or ‘a bit daft’ which is the agreed prejudice about John Waters in quarters where his arguments have met with no answers but a great deal of discomfited bluster and personal invective.
In his Irish Times article, Dr Maher made specific mention of a couple of issues, including male suicide and alcoholic dependency in Modern Ireland – which he believes to be worth careful study. I find it odd that these are two issues which I have written about in my Irish Times column for the past decade, while other dismissed or tried to silence me. But I think one of the reasons such people cannot extend me any credit for such things is that they are imprisoned within the very boundaries of tradition/modernity which they claim to be deconstructing. It’s a response I get from a lot of non-academic would-be disparagers of my work: ‘One minute you’re writing about the politician Seán Doherty, the next about U2. Can you not make up your mind? Do you not know who you are?’ My answer, always, is: ‘Seán Doherty and U2 inhabit the same culture, but speak different languages. My job is to interpret those languages, one to the other. And no, I don’t know who I am. How could I? That’s what I’m trying to discover. Who are you? My bet is you’re not who you think you are.’
Whenever I have the opportunity to speak with young people, I am astonished – being conditioned on a daily basis by the cynicism and hostility of my peers – by the openness they display towards the things I think and say. It seems to me that their teachers are working hard to destroy such openness. And if the process was confined to me and my work, and one or two other heretics like Desmond Fennell, this might not be such a tragedy. My belief, however, is that if they are doing it in public to me and Fennell, they are, behind the closed doors of our publicly-funded colleges and universities, doing it to everything that challenges or undermines their approved version of reality. The ultimate victims of this process, therefore, are not people like me and Desmond Fennell, but future generations and their capacity to think coherently in a manner helpful to their ability to live.
Published on 1 September 2003
John Waters is a journalist and editor and for the past twelve years has been a columnist with the Irish Times. He is the author of four books – Jiving at the Crossroads, Every Day Like Sunday?, Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2 and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Ireland. He has also written several plays for stage and radio, including Long Black Coat, Easter Dues and Holy Secrets.