Talking Movies

March 21, 2016

Politik: Part IV

It has been, mercifully, nearly two years since this blog last strayed in the direction of politics; and yet now, very regrettably, it’s happening again.

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“What’s his angle?”

JK Galbraith once memorably quipped that every time an Old Guard Republican leaned over to nudge a compadre and muttered “What’s his angle?” while they listened to some liberal do-gooder proposing something fiscally irresponsible if not downright treasonous, there, in the heart of McCarthyland, you could justifiably claim spoke a true red Marxist, rummaging through fine words for the base economic motive. Whenever I hear someone from Fine Gael’s caretaker Cabinet proclaiming “We will not cling to power at any price” I hear “We will not cling to ministerial salaries, ministerial pensions, ministerial cars and drivers, ministerial prestige, patronage to reward our friends, the apparatus of the state to harass our enemies, and free travel to far-flung destinations on St Patrick’s Day power at any price.” And it sort of changes how seriously I take their sentiment.

 

50+1+3+7+2+6+5+…

Hunter S Thompson once mischievously wrote that Ted Kennedy was not President because he never learned to drive properly. One might say we are still without a government because a deplorable number of TDs never learned to add properly. The magic number is 79. There is a party with 50 and a party with 44. This is not that hard. But instead the country is being cast in the role of an increasingly exasperated parent trying not to step in and solve the problem while its child tries to mash all the small numbers together first to come up with less than 79 over and over again before looking at the actual obvious solution of putting two big numbers together. But it gets worse.

 

Shunning S(h)inners

The magic number, 79, is actually quite easily reached. Fine Gael (50) + Labour (7) + Sinn Fein (22) = 79. Hey! How about that? Only Fine Gael have decided that Sinn Fein cannot be in government. But then across the aisle Fianna Fail are letting I dare not wait upon I would for the ‘end of Civil War grand coalition’ because they have decided that Sinn Fein cannot be in opposition. Surely this is approaching insanity. Are we seriously to have another election because Sinn Fein cannot be allowed in government or in opposition? Perhaps the simplest solution at this point is to simply proscribe Sinn Fein. If people will insist on voting for them then surely it’s moot whether it’s more anti-democratic to not allow them vote for Sinn Fein than to disregard their votes afterwards.

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February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

DG declan conlon and Catherine Walker

A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

December 31, 2015

1916 without 1916

By now we’ve all seen the Government’s video about the 1916 Rising that somehow forgets the Rising. I’m not sure I’ve seen something so straight-facedly absurd since Brad Dourif preached “The Church of Christ … without Christ” in Wise Blood.

Enda-Kenny

From the suggestively chosen imagery it’s tempting to conclude (apropos of Interstellar) that we’re commemorating when David Cameron, Ian Paisley, and Queen Elizabeth II travelled back via a handily placed wormhole to Dublin 1916 in order to ensure a docklands fit for Google and Facebook to live in. Sadly the truth is less imaginative, and depressing; because this fiasco was entirely predictable. The Proclamation being rendered as Gaeilge via Google Translate was a perfect statement of intent. Nobody cared enough to flag that it ought to be double-checked before it went live. It is unthinkable that in 2004 a Polish text could have been given such haphazard treatment while our government was hosting the EU’s big expansion into Eastern Europe; Bertie Ahern cared deeply about that Farmleigh event. It is unthinkable that a German would text would not be excruciatingly parsed if Angela Merkel were to visit next week; because Enda Kenny would care deeply about such a visit. But for the literal genesis of our political consciousness as a modern state? To appropriate the current Rabobank ad’s stylings: “Any translation” “Any translation?” “Any translation…” That attitude expresses a political weltanschauung: Labour gives the distinct impression of being embarrassed by our Constitution; which Eamon Gilmore liked to dub outdated (ignore the awkward fact the Americans are still using their 1780s constitutional settlement); and Fine Gael, despite their self-definition (as Pat Leahy has put it) as the party of “Law and Order. Law’n’Order and the Foundation of the State!”, are ashamed of 1916 – which is to primarily be remembered, whereas they celebrated the 75th anniversary of winning the Civil War…

Labour’s Aodhán O’Ríordáin, while insisting that the video was a preview of what the entirety of 2016 would be like (apparently a never-ending bacchanalia of Macnas and BOD coming out of retirement to score tries), offered a non-apology apology: “If we got it wrong, we got it wrong and we should look at something else.” (If? If?? IF?! Yes, ye got it wrong. This has been made abundantly clear by now, so lose the “if”.) He went on to offer the official version of the mindset behind the video: “The point is that we’re trying not to present a very stiff and stale and unimaginative and cold depiction of what happened 100 years ago, which can almost turn some people off immediately.” Maybe he sincerely believes this, maybe not; to my mind this defeatist insistence that marking the events of 100 years ago is impossible because it’s all deathly dull so let’s just talk about the Queen’s visit in 2011 is a disingenuous cover for the fact that it is the government itself who are the people turned off immediately by the idea of celebrating 1916. The BBC spent 2014 producing radio and television documentaries and fictional serials about WWI. If you could watch 37 Days’ dramatisation of the failed diplomacy of July 1914 and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold, then the problem lies not with history or its recreation but with you. If you could watch Niall Ferguson’s provocative arguing for WWI being a mistake and the hostile reaction of his academic audience and find it very stiff, stale, unimaginative, and cold then presumably you find newspapers insupportable because they’re about events from distant yesterday. It is telling that the video’s themes; Remember, Reconcile, Imagine, Present, Celebrate; visually remove ‘celebration’ from the revolutionary past…

The video’s visual cues for ‘remember’, ‘reconcile’, and ‘imagine’ taken together imply sorrow for having had the bad taste to rebel against Britain, and a desire to plot how to go forward together. As approaches to celebrating a country’s independence from its colonial masters go it’s got the merit of originality. But it cannot go uncontested. How does marking 1916 by mentioning Ian Paisley and not Padraig Pearse make sense? How is it even acceptable to prioritise, over a man who gave up his life as a blood sacrifice (of the type Rupert Brooke valorised) to start a fire whose flame would burn a hole in the map of the British Empire, a man who became a big avuncular bear once he’d made it to the top of the greasy pole having first done considerable damage in his life-long climb to the top in his capacity as venomous firebrand? (When Seamus Mallon dubbed the Good Friday Agreement ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ who did he have in mind?) I have walked some of the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front, where Irish and British soldiers died together in 1914, and remembered them. It does not preclude me from celebrating 1916.

French historian Francois Furet rescued 1789 from the grasp of communists who wanted to make it a proto-1917, by instead inflecting 1917 as the culmination of 1793’s Terror; and the Terror as the betrayal of the Revolution. Terence Brown has argued that Kevin Whelan’s The Tree of Liberty was vital in allowing 1798 to be celebrated here as a good thing, instead of mumbling embarrassedly about it. We need something of the same now. It doesn’t matter that we’re an indebted country who’ve signed away our sovereignty to the Troika. America in 1976 was hardly in a wonderful state. Vietnam, Inflation, Watergate, Roe V Wade: if ever a country was having a crisis of confidence and identity it was America then. And they still pulled off a celebratory bicentennial instead of sitting around bemoaning lost opportunities and how the Brits would have given them parliamentary representation if they’d just waited longer…

The government’s video suggests that we celebrate the future, and take inspiration from … whatever. That’s completely wrong, but completely in character. We should celebrate the past, and be inspired by it. We should not look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by it, we should look back at 1916 and be embarrassed by ourselves. We need to mark 2016 as a combination of July the 4th and Gettysburg. It is both a cause for celebration, and a time for serious discussion. And if there’s anything in our national poet’s complicated canon that best sums up conflicted Irish identities in a triumphal way it’s this watchword for the coming centenary year:

“Sing the peasantry, and then

Hard-riding country gentlemen,

The holiness of monks, and after

Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;

Sing the lords and ladies gay

That were beaten into the clay

Through seven heroic centuries;

Cast your mind on other days

That we in coming days may be

Still the indomitable Irishry.”

April 5, 2011

Politik

“Gil! Learn to be more politic…” – CSI: LV.

The hysteria of the general election caused me to write a few political tweets, satirical and serious, so here’s a brief excursion by the blog proper into the political realm.

The Vision Thing

I said that Fianna Fail had a vision of society, switched it for a vision of an economy, and now were left bereft of any vision at all. DeValera undoubtedly had a vision of the society he wanted to created, and tried to bend the world to fit it, as the presence of a Gaeltacht in Meath will attest. Whether you agreed with that vision or not, you could hardly deny its sincerity, and after all Fine Gael’s precursors had introduced censorship so their vision was hardly dissimilar. Lemass took the bold, almost insane step, of disavowing all he’d worked for over thirty years and starting again by replacing Dev’s vision of an ideal society with a more pragmatic vision of a functioning economy. This vision worked for a while, fell apart because of two oil-crises and the inability of politicians, of all parties, to figure out that spending cannot be infinite, and taxes cannot be raised to 58% on the average punter before he just leaves. Savage treatment got it working again and Fianna Fail took the credit, but after having become the natural party of government because of their economic credentials they then encouraged a bubble whose bursting blew out the tyres on the entire country rather than just the building sector. Having comprehensively set fire to their trump card, they’re now bereft of any vision. What exactly does Fianna Fail stand for? Who knows? Admittedly Fine Gael had the same problem not so long ago but it’s always a more pressing question when in opposition. Vision is a rarity in Irish politics. Fine Gael had a vision in the 1960s (quickly discarded) and in the 1980s (doggedly attempted) but right now their vision is not entirely clear. Fianna Fail are in the same position the Republicans found themselves in from 1932-1952, nobody will put them in charge again. But, unlike the Republicans, they don’t still have muscle at a lower level, they have been obliterated. And unlike the Republicans they don’t have the luxury of a two-party system allowing them the time and space to find some way to rebuild their credibility; as the Republicans decided to invoke socialism at home and communism abroad to paint the Democrats as elitist and unpatriotic before finally in the 1980s speciously managing to regain the mantle of being the economically ‘responsible’ party. Task: Vision, Time: Five Years…

Balanced Government

A man who has three lemons in one pocket and two in the other and throws away one lemon to have two in each pocket is balanced; if asked what he plans to do with all these lemons, he’ll answer ‘lemonade, obviously…’ The idea promulgated by Labour in their absolute panic during the last weeks of the election that one should vote for them in order to ensure a balanced government is much like saying a man with five lemons in one pocket and two oranges in the other should throw away three lemons in order to be balanced; ask him what he plans to do with this odd assortment of fruits, he’ll answer ‘God only knows, but it sure won’t taste nice…’ Incoherence in government is incoherence, not balance, and a government that apparently has no idea exactly what its second Finance minister is actually going to do doesn’t appear to have got off to a particularly cogent start. A Fine Gael majority government supported by the Fianna Fail rump would not only have been a delicious re-run of the Tallaght Strategy with the blame for screwing things up reversed, but might have given us all a chance to finally have a coherent left/right divide in this country. Not that two-party systems are particularly brilliant, but because the lack of first past the post and the inanity of our constituency and voting systems makes anything with a degree of clarity preferable. But then perhaps Irish politicians fear that precisely because then clarity would be demanded of them. HCG Matthew’s reading of Gladstone’s political genius is that he was able to find causes that managed to unite warring Radicals, Peelites, Whigs, and Liberals into something approaching a purposeful Liberal party – which then usually collapsed at the end of its governing term until the next cause was found to pull it together. Can any one party really sum up all the varied attitudes that make up a single individual’s response to the world? No, absolutely not. All parties are a poor substitute for the sort of direct democracy that a combination of Australia’s compulsory voting and direct secure internet referendums could produce. But short of such a space-age Athenian democracy in action it would be nice to have some sort of coherent oppositional ideological divide between two dominant parties rather than have to mumble embarrassedly about a civil war.

Club Med/The Piigs

As with the credit crunch and the housing crash anybody with an eye in their head could have foreseen the current difficulties of the Eurozone. Back in 1999 UCD Economics Professor Rodney Thom was heavily critical of the admission of what were then dubbed the Club Med countries; Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain; into the European Monetary Union. They were countries that had great difficulty in balancing budgets and maintaining fiscal restraint or stable currencies, and guess what, they’re, with the addition of Ireland, the countries now monikered The Piigs. In other words they were pegged as troublemakers before the Euro was even physically introduced and they’ve proven to be troublemakers. The reasons the markets are relentlessly targeting the Piigs is because the markets are working out the inexorable logic of economics not politics. The Piigs should never have been part of the Eurozone in the first place. Gordon Brown created economic tests for joining the Euro which he knew would never be fulfilled but in a very real way all he did was expose the stupidity at the heart of the project; which was privileging political aspirations over economic reality. A common currency area will work if each region’s trade is predominantly with the others involved, and if their economic cycles are synched, otherwise it will be ruinous. It was always obvious that France, Germany and the Benelux countries were admirably suited economically, but that no one else should join for economic reasons; and they didn’t, they joined for political reasons – the insane need to be seen as ‘good Europeans’. Ireland is now ruined largely because it gave away the power to set its own interest rates. The ECB kept interest rates farcically low compared to what a responsible Irish central bank would have hiked them to in order to cripple the housing bubble long before it got to its ultimate supernova status, and in imploding the property sector has taken down everything else. We joined an economic system for political reasons, and were happy to have a round economy ineptly hammered into a square political hole, because we thought it made us look like good troupers in the grand European project. The best thing the Piigs could do now is en masse to impose bank-debt-for-equity-swaps, belatedly leave the ill-suited Eurozone, and loudly point out that economies are too important to be sacrificed to theoretical political models.

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