Monday 21 January 2019

The young, the old, the lies and the truth

In this time of deceit, it is good to have young idealists, and an elder statesman, who speak out on what matters, writes Gene Kerrigan

There were dozens of young people on the steps of the Mansion House, in Dublin, one morning last week. Inside, there were more than 300, from a range of schools.

Eventually, as the Young Social Innovators tour traverses the country, about 7,000 young people will speak out on the issues that matter to them.

At the Mansion House, they presented pieces on a range of social issues, some familiar from the headlines, some less so: poverty, gender, consent, homelessness; the way that education can be stunted by the cost of books and uniforms. And they said what they want done about it.

And they questioned the mental pressures that increasingly afflict their generation - Mercy College in Coolock performed a vigorous piece, Worriers to Warriors, on girls being pulled every which way by anxiety.

It was impossible not to envy their energy and their idealism.

And it was impossible not to recognise that forces they never thought existed lie in wait to steal from them much of that energy and to kill off that idealism.

Waiting for the event to start, I remembered a speech by President Higgins that I meant to check out. It had, apparently, received a warm welcome in Greece last month.

I got the speech on my phone, and while the young idealists prepared to make their presentations I read the thoughts of one of Ireland's oldest public figures.

The speech ranged across culture and history, the things that bind Ireland and Greece. And Higgins mentioned the recent events that have sought to set peoples against one another - "negative invocations of fear, including fear of the stranger".

That fear of the stranger has acted against countless men, women, children and babies who fled war and oppression, seeking the refuge of our relative calm. And who were left to drown in the Mediterranean.

To discourage those who might follow.

Our navy worked hard to rescue people, to the credit of our sailors. And yet that same urge to discourage those who might follow led our government to set up "direct provision" camps, where we humiliate and disrespect those who seek our help.

One line in Higgins's speech pointed to a central fact in the world those young people are preparing to confront.

"Nine billionaires - all men - control the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity - 3.6bn people."

It was not the unfairness of this obscene wealth and immense poverty that Higgins stressed.

Those statistics, he said, point to "the location of the power to determine outcomes".

He spoke of "powerful speculative forces", with "the capacity to dislodge governments".

He spoke of the "unaccountable" policies that flow from "an insatiable search for profit for their investors". And he asked if this did not challenge democracy.

In other words, those nine men don't just sit there, drooling on their money. They, and their vast army of executives, professionals, strategists, marketeers, compliant media, bankers, strong-arm thugs and subsidised politicians are constantly at work, protecting that fortune and expanding it.

Those statistics, and that army of servants of wealth, determine how we live. They affect the state of the public service, the cost of a roof over our head and the length of the hospital queues.

They affect the depth of the anxiety being forced onto the young who are about to inherit our questionable legacy.

We have allowed sickening work practices to become the norm - where poorly paid workers, many of them barely older than some of those in the Mansion House last week, are bullied and deliberately kept on edge. As the trade union movement withers, the young and the poor have few protections against the whims of employers.

Our politicians are careful to construct employment protection law; and even more careful to ensure it's weakly enforced.

Bogus "self-employment" is forced onto workers, so that employers can evade tax.

We have accommodated to this kiss-up, kick-down way of life. When Greece was on its knees, six or seven years ago, our then Minister for Finance threatened to print T-shirts with the legend, "Ireland is Not Greece", to emphasise our superiority. He mocked their paltry exports: "Apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?"

The grinding humiliation of Greece helped create the alienation from the EU now widely felt across Europe.

And that alienation received a boost on the two occasions on which our referendum vote was rejected by the EU, and by our own political parties, who insisted we vote again, as instructed.

Brexit, the dead end solution, is one of the consequences.

The rise of neo-fascist parties across Europe is another.

The energy and idealism last week in the Round Room of the Mansion House, where the first Dail of the new State assembled in 1919, was encouraging. My generation largely failed, winning the occasional advance, watching some of the gains of the past pushed back. A new generation steps up.

Many will find their idealism sidelined by the business of living; of jobs and rent and ambition, getting their hearts broken and getting over it, doubting themselves and getting over that, too.

They face more deceptive codswallop than any earlier generation. There are whole regiments of highly paid people whose 24/7 job is to distort reality.

Much of what we see - in politics, in business, in international affairs - is the acceptable cover story, a sanitised version of the reality it conceals.

Some young idealists will be drawn into contrived "policy disagreements" between Tweedle Fail and Tweedle Gael. Some of us regard with sympathy the journalists who spent decades getting "exclusives" on the "inside story" of things that never mattered - and then were genuinely startled when one supposed hero or another was accidentally found to have hidden bundles of money.

As someone once said (it sounds like Orwell, but it wasn't) "in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act". And one of the benefits of having Michael D Higgins in the Aras is that his experience and scepticism have shown him how things really work.

This is indeed a time of deceit. The spin doctors have spin doctors; the people employed to fool us have "special advisers"; the politicians don't care how many people can see through the play-acting - they know their followers want to believe, so they give them stuff to believe in, and that pumps up the figures. And those who aren't paying attention see the puffed-up figures and say, Hey, that guy looks like he knows what he's doing.

In such circumstances, it's good to have a President who's aware of the machinery grinding away under the surface.

Scrupulously avoiding party politics, he speaks of the business of living in a society where much of what affects our lives is unacknowledged.

I didn't vote for him in 2011. I voted for David Norris, despite having reservations about his politics. For decades Norris stood for human rights, when it took real guts, and that deserved a vote.

I hope Michael D Higgins runs again, and I hope someone runs against him, so I get to vote for him this time.

Sunday Independent

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