Wednesday 20 November 2019

Consensus and amnesia are no friends of free speech

THE steady revival in the fortunes of Fianna Fail has shocked the political pundits who predicted it would take the party years to recover.

As a result they have collectively reached the consensus that the Irish people suffer from a defective memory. Actually, it's the other way around.

It's the pundits who suffer from defective memory. In the past two days, no fewer than four major columnists have been fulminating about the sins of Fianna Fail. Significantly, not one of them mentioned the Moriarty Tribunal – which leads back by way of Michael Lowry to Fine Gael.

Last November, Micheal Martin reminded Vincent Browne that the Moriarty Tribunal had more important political implications than the Mahon Tribunal because it concerned not an individual politician but a government: the Fine Gael-led government of 1994-7.

Because the pundits cannot contradict Martin, they keep a stony silence on his claim that Fianna Fail has clean hands in the context of the Moriarty Tribunal: "I've been a member of a government for 14 years and no decision of that government was subjected to the same cloud, or subject to the same allegations or assertions."

Victoria White in the Irish Examiner was the only commentator in recent months to challenge the consensus of silence on the part of the pundits concerning the Moriarty Tribunal.

"Fine Gael clientelism doesn't matter as much to the commentariat, because they are among its clients."

Referring to Lowry, she rightly remarked: "If he had been a Fianna Fail minister, the entire tribe would be sent into exile.

"But because it's Fine Gael, it's considered an isolated incident in the past and the Government will ride it out."

* * *

Consensus is what passes for thinking in a small country. To dissent is to be denounced. This is particularly true in the fields of politics, religion and popular culture. Consensus is the enemy of free speech and a fully functioning democracy.

Consensus is facilitated by forgetfulness. As in Orwell's 1984 the recent past can be instantly revised to allow for retrospective denunciations. Ironically, the most conformist pundits are those who pride themselves on having an open mind.

Paradoxically, the biggest consensus is among the liberal-left commentators who dominate RTE and Newstalk panels and the columns of the Irish Times. I say paradoxically because these pundits are purportedly picked for their independent views. Yet they never cross another member of the club on any major matter.

This is not good for democracy. Without disagreement a demos soon turns into a mindless mob. But increasingly, a lock-down liberal consensus – what an American critic called "the herd of independent minds" – is crippling coverage of politics, religion and culture.

Take politics. For years, the media couldn't say a good word about Enda Kenny or a bad word about Bertie Ahern.

Now it can't say a bad word about Kenny or a good word about Ahern – although the latter did earn some portion of his big pension by doing some service to two states in the peace process.

But the biggest example of false memory syndrome can be found in Fine Gael and Labour's flawed recall of their pre-recession record. Michael O'Regan in his Dail sketch last Friday gave us a good picture of a familiar ritual.

As soon as Fianna Fail acts as an aggressive opposition, Fine Gael and Labour start shouting that Fianna Fail "bankrupted the country".

Actually, the bankers and speculators bankrupted the country. Fianna Fail was in office, but politicians are not soothsayers. Like any government – and it would have been the same if Fine Gael was in power – Fianna Fail depended on financial regulators and Central Bank mandarins to shout stop.

Furthermore, Fianna Fail was not running a dictatorship. So we are entitled to ask the Fine Gael and Labour opposition of the time: what did you do to stop the war, daddy?

The public is well aware that the answer to that question is: sweet Fanny Adams. Far from trying to prick the property bubble, Fine Gael and Labour wanted it blown bigger. Far from attacking Ahern's ATM approach to public sector pay, Labour looked for more.

Far from calling for cuts in tax relief, Labour wanted tax cuts – and made them part of the last general election campaign.

Fianna Fail bears the most responsibility for the bubble. In the past year Micheal Martin has shone a lantern on its failures.

But the same light falls on the opposition. And it shows that Fine Gael and Labour were also active agents in promoting the boom and bubble that brought the country to ruin.

The public has factored all this into its recent poll responses.

In a small country most people know perfectly well that Fine Gael and Labour are no strangers to stroke politics. And if the Government's media cheerleaders continue to pretend otherwise, they will lose whatever little credibility they have left.

* * *

Religion is another area of consensus and collective amnesia. Until RTE crashed into the concrete wall of the Fr Reynold's affair, few presenters or panels took religion seriously. Recently, in panic-stricken reaction, they treat religion with fulsome reverence. But they still don't treat it seriously.

Like Marx, I am not a believer. But like Marx – who is continually misquoted on the subject – I too believe that religion is "the sigh of the oppressed and the heart of a heartless world". And only a barbarian would not bow the head to the Roman Catholic Church's central contribution to civilisation.

Pope Benedict XVI is a reminder of that civilising role. Cardinal Ratzinger, as he will soon be again, is one of Europe's great public intellectuals. As a Pope he rejected consensus. As a German he rejected historical amnesia. And what I wrote about him when he became Pope still holds true.

"Unlike John Paul II, Ratzinger has not made sex the touchstone for his radical views. He is not personally Puritan about sexual matters.

"He is also against the dangerous self-doubt, which has darkened the energy of the European intelligentsia."

Ratzinger is rightly preoccupied by the problem of moral relativism. He believes that European secular intellectuals express that relativism in historical terms too. Hence they short-sightedly see Europe's Christian and humanist heritage as no better than any other religion or ideology, including Islamic fundamentalism.

So while Ratzinger may be old in body, radical ideas still burn brightly in his brain. We must hope his successor is as thoughtful, and as holy.

* * *

Consensus also squeezes like a python when it comes to popular culture. Any fool can watch a screen. That means any fool can be a television or film critic. Maybe that explains why so many fools find themselves following each other in excessive blame or excessive praise.

Take Mrs Brown's Boys. Its Irish critics have only fallen silent because of the BAFTA, which they found baffling. But why did no critic break ranks to tell us that the show is part of a thousand-year theatrical tradition that stretches back to bawdy Roman satirists? Or that broad humour is a boon to those bearing the burden of this recession?

Irish Independent

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