Thursday 27 October 2016

Great courage in Baltimore but cowardice in Athens

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Aristotle is a rock of wisdom and a refuge in grief. Last week, he cast light on two tragedies: that of the Davis Ryan family of Baltimore, and that of Greece.

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Let us begin with the devastating drownings in Baltimore. A line in the Irish Independent report leaped to the eye.

"Barry Ryan Sr heroically dived into the sea in a doomed bid to save his son and the young man's girlfriend, while shouting at his teenage daughter to run and raise the alarm."

Consider how Barry Sr took a moment in all that terror and trauma to send his daughter Charlotte from the scene. Had he not done so, she might have followed him in too.

Aristotle would call that true courage. He says the courageous person must know what he is doing, and choose to do it from a permanent disposition of character.

Father and son were men of character. From which, it followed, they were men of courage.

And by going to the scene to thank the searchers, Ann Davis and Charlotte Davis Ryan showed the same character and courage.

* * * * *

Aristotle says man is a political animal. For him, that means acting with prudence, with moral courage and with good authority.

Acting with good authority means doing what the people need, not just what they want. It means being willing to look bad so as to do good.

The Greek people are suffering. The first moral imperative for Greek leaders is to find a way to end that suffering. Even if it means an end to their egos.

But the shapers of Syriza lack all the Aristotelian attributes of good leadership. They are a grim example of what he called 'hubris'.

Hubris is when a person of power or wealth develops grandiose delusions that he is equal to the gods. And it always ends badly.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis suffer from a form of hubris that prevents them from making pragmatic concessions.

Aristides Hatzis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens, once hoped Tsipras would make a decent deal that would stablise social democracy.

But Hatzis has now lost hope. "Tspiras has allowed his ideologue, Bolshevik side to take over."

Hatzis goes further: "It is as if he wants to transform this country into Venezuela." And adds acidly: "But it would become a Venezuela without the oil."

Brendan Simms, the Dublin-born historian and author of the much-praised Europe, shares these dark premonitions.

Simms, writing in Standpoint magazine, says Syriza activists have "profound ideological objections not merely to the capitalist system but the euro and the European project generally".

Simms argues that Syriza's problem was that the Greek people did not share its anti-European agenda. So how to change that to suit Syriza's project?

As Simms sees it, Syriza set out to "engineer a constructive ejection from the common currency, which could then be blamed on Brussels and the other eurozone capitals, especially Berlin".

And he concludes sombrely: "This was the real game that Syriza was playing and they have played it brilliantly."

We shall see. Greek mythology depicts hubris as a great crime which calls for severe punishment.

Let's hope the Greek people reject Syriza's Sinn Fein-style agenda. Putting it out of office is the first step to ending Greek suffering.

Syriza made the suffering worse through incompetence. Syriza made the suffering worse for ideological reasons. Time these trendy Trots went into the rubbish bin of history.

* * * * *

Apart from Baltimore and Greece, the week was dominated by political retrospectives on our own recession.

Pat Leahy's lively RTE film Independents' Day did nothing to dispel my scepticism about stand- alone politicians.

By and large, I follow Jody Corcoran in believing the Independents have peaked and that most will go down on the day.

Shane Ross can charm everybody except bankers. But I doubt he convinced either Enda Kenny or Micheal Martin they could risk four years in government with such a sprawling alliance.

Many Independents are personable characters. Michael Fitzmaurice brings back warm memories of Patricia Lynch's two children's classics, The Turf-Cutter's Donkey and Brogeen Follows the Magic Tune.

So I know who the turf-cutter is. But who is the donkey? And will the Brogeens still follow the tune when the going gets tough?

* * * * *

Brian Cowen gave a bravura performance at the Banking Inquiry. The bit I enjoyed most was when Ciaran Lynch indulged in Labour's obsession with the Sunday Independent.

Lynch asked Cowen whether he was privy to Bertie Ahern's statement to the Sunday Independent on stamp duty. Cowen blandly told him "of course, we were close".

Cowen showed courage. But given the committee's lack of economic expertise, he got a relatively soft ride.

True, David Davin-Power swooned on the News at One. But women reporters like Ailish O'Hora and Miriam Lord kept their cool.

So far, the Banking Inquiry has failed to lay a glove on the big beasts. So they will vent their pent-up frustration on the battered body of Bertie Ahern.

But whether the public share the media passion for kicking someone who is down is moot. As Alastair Campbell - who admires Ahern's role in the peace process - recently remarked, the public is always ahead of the media.

* * * * *

Liam O Murchu, who died last week, was a gentle soul. But he had a quiet courage, bordering on obstinacy, about the things in which he believed.

Back in the 1960s, as head of Irish-language programmes in RTE, Liam pioneered the teaching of Irish on RTE television.

A devout Roman Catholic, he picked mini-skirted presenters to front Buntus Cainte, causing many a bachelor farmer to pore over the modh direach.

But Liam was also ahead of his time in facing the limitations of learning a difficult language like Irish on television.

He came to believe that bilingualism could be an attractive halfway house for those who could not carry on a full conversation in Irish.

Purists mocked his persuasive techniques but they had nothing to boast about since, after 50 years, most people loathed compulsory Irish.

True, Trom agus Eadrom could make me clench my teeth from time to time. But it kept the lamp alight for another generation.

Liam was always looking out for new talent, no matter how troublesome. Having read a revisionist republican essay by me, called Mariodh Sean South in 1922, he recruited me to RTE.

He seldom saw eye to eye with the radical Feach team. But when we got into trouble, he dourly defended us. What more can you ask of an editor?

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Sunday Independent

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