Thursday 17 January 2019

Brendan O'Connor: They were as pious as us back in the 'dark chapters'

Revelations, that are not even new, around adoption make Zappone look good, says Brendan O'Connor, but let's hope it works for everyone else

SIGNAL: Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photo: Gareth Chaney
SIGNAL: Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

When Philip Roth was living in London, the playwright David Hare used to meet him for lunch, latterly in fast food baked potato joint Spudulike. "He kept trying to persuade me to go to the Middle East," Hare wrote recently. "He thought the fanatical Jewish settlers were hilarious. When I protested that religious zealotry was his subject matter, not mine, he replied: 'I promise you, David, these people are so crazy there's room enough for all of us.'"

Hare relates this on the way to making the point that Roth's true theme was hypocrisy, and that Roth had come to hate the hypocrisy of what we now call virtue signalling.

Hare says Roth told him that, "In life, I could pretend to be nice if I wanted, that was my business, but it was a useless position from which to write. Men and women were good and evil, devious and kind, fine and flawed. You could only write well if you stopped pretending to be virtuous."

Hare relates how Roth paid his local newsagent 25c extra to remove the culture section from his New York Times because it enraged him so much. Roth recognised, Hare says, that, "we were entering a pious era in which, in public, people were going to claim to be without stain, working as hard on their impeccable ethical positions as they did on their abs and their pecs. But Philip, in our lifetime, was the supreme anatomist of the difference between who we claim to be and how we behave."

Margaret Atwood made a similar point about the role of the writer recently in her infamous Am I a Bad Feminist? essay. Speaking of the new virtue signallers, she writes that, "their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity."

You wonder what Roth would make of the current frenzy of virtue signalling around these parts. The adoption scandal, which has of course been known about for years, is a perfect example of safe virtue signalling. In order to safely virtue signal, you need to take an issue that all right-thinking people could not but agree on. And of course we all agree on the horror and the tragic stories of the history of Irish adoption.

For a politician, re-opening these "dark chapters" seems like a perfect safe virtue signalling issue where there is no downside, where you're not going to piss anyone off. It is safely not in the present era, so that there's no danger of any contagion to any current politician. The culprits are mainly safely dead and buried or shuffled off the scene, so you can feel free to say what you want about how awful they are. And it makes everyone feel good about the new Ireland we live in now, where this kind of thing couldn't possibly happen. A safe round of tut tutting all around. With the reassurance that we are the good guys. And, of course, while everyone is focussed on a dark chapter from our past, no one is thinking about the dark chapters of the present. Leo and Katherine Zappone are cleaning up the mess left for them by that bad old Ireland. Never mind that successive ministers, including Fine Gael ones, including one or two current ones, were apparently lobbied extensively about this and did nothing up to now. Never mind either that Katherine Zappone herself, after two years as Minister for Children, has not enacted into law either the 2014 Identity & Information Adoption Bill sponsored by Averil Power, Jillian van Turnhout and Fidelma Healy Eames, which Zappone supported at the time, or indeed the Government's own similar bill which is around since 2016.

We are fixing it all now, and we have in our hands the sword of truth and justice. We are the antidote to the dark past. We are the shiny new virtuous Ireland.

And, of course, the adoption scandal fits in with another virtuous trope right now. This country has for too long been an awful place for women and babies, and we, the warriors of virtue, are fixing that one issue at a time.

So the same State that has for years stopped people from finding out who their birth parents are, is now going to start forcing that information on many people whether they want it or not. There is no doubt that this will be welcome information for many people, and that a sense of identity, as we have heard all week, is a core issue for people. You just hope, for the sake of everyone involved, that the State knows what they are doing here and that they have a good plan around this. Is there a foolproof plan for how they will approach elderly parents who are still alive to tell them that they are about to tell their children they are not really their children? Is there a plan for how they will call up the ''children'' and tell them, whether they want to know or not, that their parents are not really their parents, that their whole life was a lie and that their loved ones were lying to them? Social workers have been assigned to the 126 cases discovered so far. Do we trust that this will be enough support to deal with the devastation this will cause within many families? Are people to be given any choice about having this information? Or is this flurry of activity mainly about making Katherine Zappone look virtuous? Will the details be worked out later?

The irony and hypocrisy of the current spate of virtue signalling is perhaps best exemplified in Mary Lou McDonald, whose party has a history of bloodshed and terror, much of which it still refuses to face up to, or to give victims and their families closure on. Mary Lou, having taken credit for bringing the whole country over the line on the Eighth when she couldn't bring her own party over the line on it, is central to the virtuous outrage on the adoption scandal. She believes that every one of over 100,000 adoption records needs to be reopened and examined. Because people deserve closure and deserve the truth about the State's dark past and its treatment of women. Which is fair enough, I suppose, as long as she applies the same virtuous attitude to her own party's dark past and treatment of women. But then, are Sinn Fein not the ones always telling the rest of us we need to move on from their past, that things happened that are regrettable, but they should be left in the past?

But of course, as always, Leo is the chief virtue signaller. Our previously pro-life-and-ambivalent-on-gay-marriage leader has proved adept at jumping on a virtuous bandwagon once the polls have told him which way the wind is blowing. And he's all over the adoption scandal. Easier than dealing with that messy business with Emma Mhic Mhathuna, whom it is now apparently necessary to drag through the courts, despite the early virtue-signalling promise that she and others like her would not be. And the messy business of the CervicalCheck scandal women who have yet to get the supports promised. Easier too to focus on dark chapters from the past rather than on how many of the children in this State we continue to let down so badly - homeless children, disabled ones.

Let's just hope for all their sakes, but more especially for the sake of the people directly affected by illegal adoptions or registrations or whatever we are calling what happened, that this situation is as cut and dried and black and white as they think it is. Let's hope the messiness of the ambiguity of humanity doesn't get in the way of the ideology here. Let's hope that for Leo, working as hard on his impeccable ethical positions as he does on his abs and his pecs, doesn't come a cropper.

We live in Roth's new pious age yes, but don't forget, the people who lived back in those dark chapters thought they were living in a pious age too. And let's not forget either Atwood's warning about the dangers of eliminating the ambiguity of life through the certainty of ideology, in this case the ideology of the new virtue, the new church.

Sunday Independent

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