23 February 2016

Why vote Fianna Fáil?

The second meltdown

So, here we are a couple of days before the election and it looks very much like the current government is going to get a drubbing the like of which we haven't seen since, emmm, well, since the last election. The latest MRBI poll has Fine Gael down at 28% and Labour in the basement with six percent of the popular vote.

The two parties seem set to get a stark message from an electorate pissed off at unrealistic broken promises made in 2011, an anger they foolishly hoped to assuage by making new irresponsible promises in 2016. In short they are trying to sell the same bonham in a poke they sold the last time out, thus neatly undermining their own credibility and their ability to impugn the credibility of a set of opposition parties selling equally unrealistic promises.

There is, of course, more to it than that: a component of the meltdown is the singular lack of charisma of the leaders of both government parties combined with a media establishment that, while almost universally hostile to one of the government's opponents, Sinn Féin, seems, in RTÉ's case, sympathetic to, and in Independent News and Media's case, almost bought and paid for by a Fianna Fáil that now looks — weirdly — poised to retake up to half the ground it lost in their richly deserved trouncing in 2011.

Why should it be thought weird though that the largest opposition party in the country should profit from the discombobulation of a government that has simply made a mess of its reelection strategy? Well, the first thing is that they are offering effectively nothing different to the two government parties. Even their opposition to water charges is both half-hearted and lacking in credibility. Water charges were their idea in the first place and their promise is limited to suspending charges for a few years. They are essentially selling themselves as a new safe pair of hands after the five years of government mishandling. And that you'll realise if you are reading attentively, is where things get really weird.

Yes indeed, Fianna Fáil are selling themselves as new safe pair of hands in which to put the economy! Seriously!

Brass neck

One of the great ironies of this campaign so far is that the expression "brass neck" has been used more frequently by the leader of Fianna Fáil than any other politician in the public eye. Because his essential case is based on pointing at the government for situations that they were handed by his own party in 2011. Take the homeless issue, for example: While the government did indeed have five years to deal with the problem, and have only recently been getting a handle on it, and ought to be criticised strongly for their delay, it should be realised (and this is never mentioned on any medium whatsoever) that almost every single family now living in emergency accommodation is there because of mortgages entered into before the 2008 Fianna Fáil generated crash and that went bad due to that Fianna Fáil generated crash. In short, Fianna Fáil largely caused the homeless crisis that thy are blaming the present government for.

And Michéal of the brass neck does indeed wax passionate about homeless. He's not stupid. He knows whose fault the homeless crisis ultimately is. He simply doesn't care. Whatever suits his party. He also knows that political commentators don't like the often well justified claim made by Fine Gael and Labour that the government's principal problems can all be traced back to Fianna Fáil past mismanagement. They're not too fond of that view, partially because that is an obvious truth that doesn't provide much room for complex political commentary and partially because Fianna Fáil sympathisers seem are heavily overrepresented in the Irish political pundit class.

Indeed almost as soon as the 2011 election was over, several of RTÉ's favourite pundits were talking about how much of the victors' success was down to excoriating the Fianna Fáil-led government that preceded them and that sooner or later they would have to provide some other discourse. I remember thinking at the time that the kindest possible interpretation of such comments was that they were engaging in creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. A more cynical interpretation would be that some of them at least were marking the new government's cards in bold print.

Then there came the fatal government miscalculation of setting up the Dáil's own banking inquiry and then immediately destroying its credibility by cackhandedly being caught ensuring that it had a government majority in the hope that they could get something like an official declaration that it was all Fianna Fáil's fault. The project was doomed from the start, because it was inevitably either going to have to reach a compromise with its Fianna Fáil members or have them walk out on it as a set-up. Not only was the project doomed, it was also unnecessary: blame for the disaster was a political matter, and blame had already been allocated by the electorate without any need to have quasi-judicial confirmation from the houses of the Oireachtas.

So, perhaps naively, the present government has not put much emphasis during this campaign on the twin truths that homelessness, reduced public service pay, an employment situation that has still not completely recovered and much much more was almost exclusively the fault of the previous government and that it was unreasonable to expect a government to cure a broken Ireland in the course of just one term in government. Enda is shouting it now on every platform available to him, but his new dependency on this simple discourse is seen for what it is: an act of desperation. It's just too late.

Vote anyone but Fianna Fáil

The result is that Fianna Fáil now look set to paint themselves as the winners of Friday's election over the weekend. They intend to use it as a springboard for their recovery and eventual return to the position of default party of power in the country. If the electorate does decide to allow them to take that first step towards recovery, it'll be a missed opportunity. Because voters now have the opportunity of removing the larger of a brace thick old dying trees in the Irish landscape whose historical dominance of the political scene prevents them from getting a clear view of the woods. To fail to take that opportunity would be a tragedy.

To those who can't stomach the idea of voting for a government party I have a plea: vote for anyone — literally anyone — other than your local Fianna Fáil candidate. You kicked them out last time. It would be a big mistake to leave the door open for them to come in again.

02 February 2010

Snake oil at the RTÉ

Prominent religious, sports and popular psychology writer and ex-RTÉ producer, Colm Keane (here he is at a book signing), appeared on Tubridy a couple of weeks ago, selling his new book tapping into the religious bereaved market, Going Home: Irish Stories from the Edge of Death. RTÉ are apparently so proud of the interview that the piece appeared on Playback for the week that was in it and can still be heard as a podcast to be downloaded from RTÉ's website.

I apologise for the delay in posting this blog on said interview (it happened on 20 January), but I should say I did post a few lines on the day itself on the subject on Ireland's premier politics chatboard, politics.ie. However, the thread I started on the subject was understandably locked by the site owner at the behest of Mr. Keane, who issued the most blood-curdling threats of libel action if it was left up. Accordingly, I decided myself to have a little chat with some legal advisors. The present post has been given the all clear by said advisors and omits nothing that was said in my original posts to politics.ie.

Not personal

I should make clear that my reasons for posting this here have nothing to do with any personal animus against Mr Keane. I know the man only by his work (his soccer book, Ireland's Soccer Top 20, for example, is both useful and entertaining: his exclusions from the top 20 are pleasingly controversial). My reasons are twofold: that the interview very neatly illustrates a large number of the peculiar habits of broadcasting rampant in the station that prevent it from providing a public service to the Irish viewer and listener; and because the juxtaposition of the two parts of the interview were simply breathtaking in their irresponsibility and unprofessionalism (but more of the latter issue later).

The first of my reasons for objecting is the willingness of the station to treat with chamois leather any old snake oil that has a religious hue to it, as long as its sheen is respectable (i.e. is not what Ireland's standard religions regard as 'cultish'). In my view, the habit is partially the result of a strong religious lobby within the station and partially due to RTÉ's view that its task of providing space and respect for the 'voices' of Ireland (and not to offend such 'voices', no matter how sensitive) trumps their responsibility to provide wide-ranging and balanced information on matters of controversy. It is not unconnected also to their absurd implicit (and occasionally explicitly expressed) view that if they're getting roughly the same amount of stick from all sides, they're getting it about right (forgetting the old adage about empty barrels and decibels).

Thus, while such international luminaries as Prof. Richard Dawkins are automatically roasted over the airwaves (most recently by Marion Finnucane and Ryan Tubridy), independently produced hagiographies of Pio are bought and broadcast, programmes are made in-house in praise the founder of Opus Dei (by their news and current affairs people, no less) and obvious snake oil merchants (especially those who still have good contacts amongst senior RTÉ staff) with nothing new to sell are given free publicity.

Now the particular variety of snake oil this book is dealing with (near death experiences as evidence for an afterlife) was briefly in vogue amongst conservative publishers such as Reader's Digest in the 1970's, but went out of fashion by the end of that decade in the developed world. Keane adds nothing new to the subject, except perhaps to give an Irish angle to this dead, dead, dead topic.

And yet his book, not even newly published (it came out during the middle of last year), is given a large and very friendly slot on national radio at a time of high listenership and is repeated at the weekend. The airing of the subject on a public service channel is utterly inexplicable from any professional point of view.

Supernormal coincidences

Anyone who doubts my opinion on the low and unoriginal quality of Keane's religious wares is respectfully referred to his previous effort: Padre Pio: The Irish Connection. The blurb on the back cover will give you a taste of it: "... this remarkable collection if stories is crammed full of miracles and cures attributed to Padre Pio's intercession. There are accounts of scientifically inexplicable recoveries from cancer, heart disears and brain damage, along with revivals from blood clots, strokes, multiple sclerosis and life-threatening viral infections. Also featured are visions, apparitions and supernormal coincidences."

Is he or isn't he?

Keane tantalisingly suggests he's not a catholic on this particular promotional appearance, no doubt to keep up with his changing market. At the very start of the interview, he declares himself to have been a skeptic when he started. And later, he speaks approvingly of people who actually stopped attending religious services on having a near death experience. Tellingly, Tubridy makes no comment on his authorship of the Pio book, which would have automatically rubbished any claim of the interviewee to skepticism in the face of the supernatural.

Indeed it's soft soap for his book all the way. Atheists are mentioned as possible objectors to Keane's ideas on the subject and not further mentioned. It is admitted that alternative scientific explanations exist and such theories are left undiscussed. Nothing searching or critical or even probing is suggested or asked.

Now the percentage of religious broadcasting as a proportion of general output on RTÉ is down near the European average. I'm reminded of this every time I send a complaint to RTÉ about their excess of religious broadcasting. But of course, the Keane interview does not count as religious broadcasting. Any public service broadcaster in Europe, in the unlikely event they were willing to broadcast such material, would have consigned it to their religious programming. Not at RTÉ. At the national broadcaster, like at Ireland's national schools, religion is not confined to religion class; rather, it permeates the whole school day.


Of course it's not all about RTÉ's penchant for promoting religion, in Colm Keane's as in many other cases, historical associations with RTÉ probably have quite a lot to do with it. Keane is an old friend of RTÉ's. He was a producer and broadcaster there for many years. And this is another of RTÉ's anti-public service vices. I believe this is the main reason the interview was arranged. Tubridy knows Keane personally and says so on air. Much is also made of the school both Tubridy and his late son (more of him later) shared (it was Blackrock College -- which, incidentally, is also where I went to school, much earlier). Nobody seems ashamed to admit that the man is getting a hearing because he's a pal. Whether this is a comment about attitudes in RTÉ or in Ireland is a moot point.

The shock

But the most shocking aspect of the interview (almost 30 minutes long in total) were that more than two thirds of it did not discuss the book at all. The last 20 minutes of the piece discussed in very emotive terms the tragic death two years ago of Keane's young son of cancer.

Of course, in itself, a story picked at random of the death of a loved one can produce good, bracing and informative radio, and even if there was nothing particularly notable about the death amongst thousands of other similar tragic deaths of young (or indeed old) people without celebrity status, there may be a professional justification for broadcasting such a story. This is especially so where the storyteller is someone as articulate and radio-literate as Keane. But there is no such justification in this case.

The first point against this particular 19 minutes is that there is already too much of this sort of emotive broadcasting on RTÉ. Indeed invitations to emote seem to form as much part of the ethic of public service broadcasting on RTÉ as religion, and seem to trump any requirement for mature debate on the political issues always lurking in the background of such situations. RTÉ should be trying to reduce such broadcasting moments, no matter how much it provides occasions for tearful empathy for its listeners: its responsibility to inform is often compromised by the hysteria such stories produce (just as the BBC's ability to inform its public was compromised by the broadcast emotional breakdown that followed the death of Diana in 1997).

The second reason for objecting to the second part of the interview is more dissonant, more unpleasant (indeed it is probably the reason that Keane wanted to sue politics.ie for hosting my first remarks on the interview), and it is more damning.

It is an occasional practice in broadcasting to tell such tragic stories as that of Keane's late son in juxtaposition with some charitable appeal in aid of some cause connected with the death being discussed. But in this case the cause being promoted was simply the sales of a book whose subject had only a very tenuous link to the tragic story. The book, as far as I know, is not being sold for charity.

To spell it out, on cynical me (and on a few less cynical people I know) the overall impression given by the half hour interview was roughly the following: "À propos of nothing: buy our pal's book. Go on do, ah shure don't you know his son died fairly recently. Please."


The best you can say about Keane allowing himself to become involved in this embarrassing stuff is that it was unbelievably naive. (He's a long-time broadcaster and ex-head of communications at NUI Maynooth.) Whatever about that, RTÉ's use of the material in this tasteless manner was quite literally unforgivable for the total lack of public service broadcasting values it displayed.

The fact that RTÉ is apparently still proud of this ugly piece of radio is just astonishing.

17 June 2009

A surrender in Dublin?

So the good* Archbishop Martin has admitted that the current position where the Catholic Church controls 92% of the schools in the country "is no longer tenable".

As reported in the Irish Times today, he seems to have accepted that the Church is going to have to let go of its control some of the schools it controls.

Labour's Ruairi Quinn, for one, professes himself happy with the admission. Most of us secularists are ready to congratulate the good* prelate. Another, very different, Quinn (I am of course referring to David) has long been an advocate of a strategic retreat by the Irish Church in education. Even most of the foaming at the mouth catholic integralists at politics.ie (not that they represent anyone) seem to accept that some clawback seems necessary. All in all, one could be forgiven for thinking that peace has broken out.

I'm doubtful, though. The clue as to why is in how the good* Archbishop expresses himself: he reckons Catholic control of 92% of schools in the republic where only 87% of the people are catholic is untenable.

Now there are a couple of observations that can be made about that statement:

The first is that he's using census figures for his percentage of catholics (which are badly skewed, out of date and irrelevant anyway);

The second is that he'd have got closer to the scale of the problem presenting itself to the Irish education system if his sentence had read that Catholic control of 92% of schools is untenable in a state more than 50% of the people would prefer them not to.

In March last year, David Quinn's own Iona Institute published the least embarrassing bits of a Red C Poll they had recently commissioned. I've commented on it before, but suffice it to say that its figures (at least those that David and his friends have chosen not to keep under wraps) have 48% of respondents preferring something either non or multidenominational education for their children! And you can easily imagine what effect the publication of the Ryan Report has had on such figures since the survey was made.

Martin's contrast of 92% as against 87% makes it look like all that needs to be done is that say a BNS in Booterstown and a GNS in Mulhuddart need to be handed over to new patrons and religious harmony will once more bloom in Dublin.

All the relevant figures tell us, however, that currently more like half of catholic schools will need to be handed over before anything like a supply and demand balance is achieved. Whether the Church has the stomach to deal with such a huge loss of control is very doubtful.

Even assuming the Church can swallow losing 240 odd national schools in Dublin, which is very conservatively what demand would seem to indicate is required at primary level (never mind secondary level), there is another factor in the mix. The church's neo-cons have long been opposed to the 'catholic lite' way schools have been run over the last few years (an approach exemplified by the Alive-O programme of religious education), at least partially to prevent a flight of parents from church run schools.

One of the conservative's main motivations for supporting a radical withdrawal of the Church from education is the prospect of being in a better position to concentrate orthodox catholic teaching in their remaining schools, thus ending the 'catholic lite' philosophy. I can only speculate, but if half of nominal catholics don't want catholic lite education for the kids, how many fewer will want the real, unsweetened deal?

Now it may be that the good* Dr. Martin is just flying a kite, or that he feels he's saying something far less radical than Ruairi Quinn (and people like me) are reading into his words, and it may even be that in the end there'll be a roll back and attempt at reconsolidation by the church once a couple of Dublin schools now in the hands of the church have been safely handed over to Educate Together. But assuming the good* Archbishop is serious in his intent, and assuming he has the authority to convert words into action, how far can he and his church stomach going? And could other dioceses follow Dublin's lead?

It needs to be remembered that the reports on Dublin and Cloyne abuse and cover-up are looming, that further scandals will surely emerge and that hopefully there will be a number of prosecutions of abusers and (even more hopefully) some of their prominent protectors in the pages of our newspapers in the nearish future. In the light of all this, one wonders what the level of demand for catholic education will there be at the end of this decade, and what arrangements can be made between school owners and patrons to square this with the extraordinary oversupply of same, especially as compared to the appalling undersupply of other models.

In the Indo article linked above, David Quinn picked what I assume was doomsday figure of having to give up 70% of Irish schools to be left with a truly catholic 30%. It may turn out that the figures he picked will look optimistic (from the church's point of view) in ten years time.

In short, there may yet be an educational revolution underway in Ireland.

I certainly hope so.

*There's no sarcasm in the use of the word 'good'. The man's very, very good. Outside of their vast acreages in Irish suburbia, he's by far the best asset the catholic church have at the moment in Ireland.

16 June 2009

What is Patsy McGarry thinking?

Today's Rite and Reason article in the Irish Times, a regular Tuesday slot edited by that paper's Religious Affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, is quite jaw-dropping.

Rite and Reason, 16 June 2009

Some student who lives in Paris in an all-catholic hall of residence (anyone smell the signature aroma of the followers of Escrivá?) confidently tells us that Ireland and not the Catholic Church is responsible for the litany of abuse described in the Ryan Report . His basis for this view is that his breakfast companion at said hall of residence told him that 'I heard about Ireland on the news' referring to the publication of the report (presumably as opposed to 'I heard about the Catholic Church on the news").

This we are apparently to regard as proof that the French see the whole foul business as a peculiarly Irish rather than a Catholic problem.

Such incisive analysis is immediately succeeded by the sort of self-pitying craw thumping we have become used to from conservative catholic circles, which in turn is followed with a short recruitment advertisement for the priesthood ("In this climate, one wonders could God be calling some out there to serve in an experience of the church that has utterly failed to live the Gospel? Yes, God is calling and now more than ever we need young men to say 'Yes'" etc. etc.). I wonder if the repeated "Yes" is a reference to Bloomsday, the day on which day this excuse for a newspaper article was published. If so, then there we have the piece's only merit.

Eventually the writer reaches a conclusion. His formula for a better catholic church in the light of Ryan:
A simple return to Holiness
And his fervent hope:
we will have the courage to change
Are we to imagine that this the best that the collected imaginations of conservative Irish catholicism can come up with to respond to the report (I'm intentionally avoiding adjectives like "shocking" and nouns like "enormity" in relation to said report)? There is not a word about how a simple return to holiness is going to be of help to victims of abuse. Nor is there anything on what "we" need to have the courage to change into.

How in the name of all that's rational, reasonable, responsible and compassionate was this pap accepted for publication in the pages of the Irish national paper of record? It would (or, at least, should) have difficulty being printed in the Irish Catholic. After all, it's in the same category of unimaginative flailing about as the Mass Father Ted and his pals said when Dougal was trapped on a milkfloat with a bomb under it.

Patsy is a man who has done been good to me in his time and, more importantly, is an honourable and responsible journalist who has done more than most to help the victims of the abuse that Ryan reports on. But there's a series of related questions I'd like to ask him (apart from "What the hell were your thinking?"):

Would it be right for columns like Rite and Reason to retain their current format, style and content unaltered in the aftermath of Ryan? Was the publication of this article good for the column in the light of its revelations? Was it good for the Irish Times? Was it good for healthy, open discussion of religious matters in Ireland?

Lastly, was it good for the victims and for the healing of wounds among the innocent?

16 December 2008

The Truth about Veritas and the BCI

Of all the ridiculous media-created bull fests stirred up by the Irish religious brigade, the latest one on the banning of an ad by Veritas has got to be the most unlikely. It is also by far its most successful shock-and-awe PR exercises the same brigade have undertaken in many years.

Rarely have our religious co-citizens achieved such a level of unanimity. Everyone, but everyone, now knows that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland are a bunch of secularist fundamentalists who are overinterpreting a very reasonable law in a politically correct attempt to banish religion from the public sphere in Ireland.

Nobody, but nobody, disagrees with this take on events. ...

Well ... except me (and maybe a couple of other mad anti-religious militants).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to defend the BCI. In fact, they made a right unholy mess of it. Where they went wrong, however, was not their decision to ban the ad, but in how they attempted to communicate their view. Because for all the talk about how the BCI interpreted the law in some ludicrously strict way, it is hard to see how they could have read the applicable legislation any other way. The act of banning the ad was legally justified, logical and perhaps even inevitable. The BCI made a pig's dinner of it, but at least they dealt with the issue honestly -- which is more than can be said of RTÉ.

A bit of history might help illustrate the BCI's problem:

The relevant legislation (i.e. The Broadcasting Authority Act of 1960) was drafted and passed at a time when the power of the Catholic Church was at its very peak in Ireland. Even the most radically pro-church commentator would have to admit that no law directly affecting religious matters could have been passed at that time that did not have the consent of the main Church in the country. And yet the law, as passed, seems clearly and baldly anti-religious:

20.4 The Authority shall not accept any advertisement which is directed
towards any religious or political end or has any relation to any industrial

A bit of a mystery, isn't it, how such a provision could have got onto the Statutes Book at such a time? There's absolutely nothing elsewhere in the act or anywhere else in contemporary legislation that softens the provision. Ads intended to serve religious ends are simply banned. All of them. How could the Church have allowed that? Did they take their eye off the ball in some triumphalist act of negligence?

The fog of incomprehension rises when you remember that the Church at the time couldn't even imagine having to stoop to advertising their wares. They had an automatic audience of more than 95% of the population of the country every week, and could rely on free publicity from all public and private media. The purpose of the legislation was clear: to stop anyone else from advertising religious wares; that is to say to protect their monopoly position.

The same provision was quietly confirmed unamended in the 1988 Radio and Television Act (as Section 10 paragraph 3), which would suggest that even in the late 1980's there was no opposition to the advertising ban.

An amendment was made to allow the Irish Catholic (amongst other publications) to be advertised in 2001, but the provision is largely intact.

Have a look at the provision again. What do you think it means by "directed towards a religious end"?

Now Veritas sells religious goods (primarily religious books) is wholly owned by the Catholic Church and states on its foundational documents that its main purpose is to spread the word of the Catholic faith.

Upon my soul, I can't see any wriggle room. How could an ad produced by Veritas for Veritas be directed at anything other than a religious end? I swivel on my chair a bit looking up at the landlord's halo over my desk, pick up my litter bin and walk, pray for vision but I still can't come up with a way of getting any Veritas ad through the eye of that particular needle.

If you can do better, please feel free to post below.

Understandably, RTÉ don't see anything wrong with ad. I say 'understandably' because (a) they will get money for it and (b) nobody else sees much wrong with the ad either (including me). Understandably too, they wish to absolve themselves of the blame for the non-broadcast of the ad, which they can only do by referring the thing to the BCI.

That's when things seem to have gone seriously wrong. The BCI seems to have fumbled the ball very, very badly. Understandably embarrassed by their duty of enforcing very clearly unpopular legislation, they seemed to pretend that the ad could somehow be altered to put it within the law.

The BCI seems to have based their willingness to negotiate on the decision made by their sister organisation, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, a couple of months ago. That decision mentions the script of the ad, perhaps giving a casual observer the impression that if the ad hadn't mentioned its website and hadn't made an allusion to "what Holy Communion and Confirmation are really about" then it may have got through the loop.

A little careful reading of the decision would have clarified that, even according to the BCC (not known for their anti-religious rantings) the main problem was the nature and purpose of the advertiser and of what it was selling, and that the bits of the script merely reinforced their decision. And rightly so.

The BCI made two mistakes. Firstly, they were not strong enough in their interpretation of the law, suggesting only that the ad may have violated the law (allowing the biased observer to infer that they could have decided otherwise, but instead bloodymindedly decided on the strictest possible interpretation). The second thing they did wrong was to suggest that negotiation was possible (their offer was not taken up by a presumably delighted Veritas). They may have done this to make themselves look reasonable and amenable, but the opposite was the effect. They looked like they were in the business of censorship, removing "offensive" material. When people (including the vast majority of the non-religious people in Ireland) saw nothing offensive in the text used the immediate assumption was that mad politically correct oversensitivity was at work in the decision.

One thing is clear: RTÉ's behaviour during the course of the controversy was utterly appalling. They acted as the first stone-throwers. With what was almost salacious pleasure, they repeated over and over "what the advert would have sounded like" on radio and television, ostentatiously disowning responsibility for its banning and laying the blame at the door of the BCI. Yet RTÉ knew of the previous BCC decisions on these matters, knew the law (and its utter clarity) and yet abdicated their public service broadcasting responsibility by accepting the ad, forcing the BCI to intervene and then lampooning the decision they should have known was inevitable. They thus also provided very valuable free publicity to Veritas, encouraging others to ignore the law and attempt similar publicity stunts.

If I were on the BCI right now (its membership includes religious conservative luminary, John Waters) I'd be waiting in the long grass for the Montrosers responsible.

Meanwhile, for at least the third time, Veritas are laughing at the public purse paying for their advertising, and the upcoming Bill is due to change the law to allow such (catholic-friendly) advertising but continue to ban explicitly evangelical stuff. After the Veritas scandal, there's not a politician in the country that would have the nerve to reverse the draft change.

Whether this now almost inevitable change in the law is fair to the same evangelicals I'll leave to themselves to judge, but one thing is certain, given that the current legal framework already allows broadcasters to provide free one-sided publicity for the major and minor religious faiths in Ireland, and to do nothing for those either opposed to religion or simply advocating other world views, the provision of fair and equal coverage of perfectly legitimate non and anti-religious views is a very long way off.

18 May 2008

Gray calling the kettle black

The following article is slight adaptation of something I put together and did the rounds with a few weeks ago (namely during Easter Week), when ace philosophical poseur, John Gray, was commissioned not one but two full-length opinion pieces in the Irish Times. It wasn't published in The Irish Times or anywhere else.

Now it may be that I can't write (please let me know if this is the case), but since no other article was later published to rebutt the poisonous tripe contained in the two Gray efforts, I feel the whole episode illustrates my previously expressed contention that people are allowed write any calumny they like in the Irish print media (and particularly in the Irish Times) without having to concede right of reply to those they insult, just as long as the lie is written for the benefit of 'belief'.

Philosophical poseur, Gray is best known for bad-mouthing the EnlightenmentThe flurry of anti-secular aggression written under the cover of Easter week in the Irish Times is illustrative of the level of absurdity that the debate on the role of religion in society has reached in Ireland. In holy week British celebrity philosopher, John Gray, had not one but two opinion articles hostile to atheism in the Irish paper of record (as usual, you may need to pay your dues to Geraldine to get these links to work). As well as his efforts, our own home-grown scourge of the secular, John Waters, put his oar in, as did Roman Catholic Orthodoxy’s defender of the faith, Breda O’Brien. And what was there in reply for the non-religious? Not a column inch outside of a single rather mild letter to the editor on Easter Saturday.

Blood libel
In his book-length rant against the Enlightenment, “Straw Dogs”, Gray rolled out the old blood libel that has become a weapon of choice for anti-secularists everywhere: i.e. that atheism was at least partially responsible for Nazism. He repeats this ridiculous accusation in the first of his IT articles. (Incidentally, this nasty piece of propaganda was since repeated without a squeak from the media by the Benedict during his visit to the US.) No argument does Gray present apart from the earth-shattering insight that the Nazis foully perverted the discoveries of Darwin to justify their extraordinary savagery.

Gray (and, shamefully, Benedict too) seems to know very little about the history of Nazism, which owed as much to pagan and Christian religious traditions as it did to atheism. Indeed National Socialism’s ideology was informed more by nostalgic anti-enlightenment romanticism than ever it was by any great enlightenment philosophers, as any study of proto-Nazi movements in 19th and early 20th Century will clarify. Indeed it seems it was mainly this Nazi yearning for a non-existent past that attracted the philosopher Heidegger to the ranks of the Hitler’s party (though ambition also surely played a role). It’s ironic now that the same Heidegger is one of the two or three world philosophers most cited by the Irish religious intelligentsia as leaving open a space for religion in a post-enlightenment world.

Schoolyard taunts
Gray’s case against memetics is even worse. Memetics is Richard Dawkins' exploration of the relatively modest and thought-provoking idea that genes may not be the only information storage systems in the world that both affect human behaviour and are capable of reproduction and variation, and are therefore also subject to their own evolutionary pressures. Cultural change, suggests Dawkins, may also be fruitfully be analysed in a similar way, where the concept of genes is replaced by what he calls "memes", which we are to interpret as ideas, opinions, beliefs and other mental artefacts that may be more or less effective in reproducing themselves via communication between human minds. Gray doesn’t even bother to argue with him. Indeed his attack is little more than a series of schoolyard taunts.

In fairness, maybe Gray is responding to Dawkins’ unfortunate metaphor for “memeplexes” (including religious memeplexes) as “viruses of the mind” (this expression has indeed led to much misunderstanding – especially when some of Dawkins’ other undiplomatic pronouncements are added to the mix). However, in neither his books nor his newspaper articles does Gray let us in on his reasoning on the merits of the theory. He limits himself to thumbing his nose at it.

Religions don't make factual claims - Gray
Gray also informs us (amid a diversionary swirl of intellectual-sounding verbiage) that religions do not make any claims about how things are in the world (apparently only “some western Christian traditions under the influence of Greek philosophy” do that), and accuses his scientific opponents of refusing to acknowledge this factoid. He doesn’t mention the oft-repeated assertion by Dawkins that any religion that avoids making such supernatural metaphysical claims is ok with him.

Self-confessed Gray fan John Waters, in his Good Friday article, accidentally illustrates the absurdity of Gray’s position, at least in an Irish context. In time-hallowed, Greek-influenced, Christian tradition, Waters makes the claim that the Resurrection of Jesus was an historical fact. (“… Jesus became, once again, as alive as we are. … This, too, is history”.) ... Well, ahem, on the contrary, a newly released book – “The Resurrection” by biblical scholar and historian Geza Vermes – eloquently argues the already obvious fact that the story in St. John’s Gospel was nothing more than a myth.

Geza Vermes, who has illustrated that the resurrection myth is just that, a myth.Whether or not Vermes is right (and he clearly is), Waters is repeating a (perhaps the) central factual claim of the most influential religion in Ireland. The assertion (to adapt some of Gray’s phraseology) is obviously a proposition struggling to be accepted as a fact. Like any other historical assertion, it must therefore stand or fall on the basis of evidence. In short, nobody has a problem with the Resurrection story as an allegory, but as an historical claim it requires evidence (and, being an extraordinary claim, it needs extraordinary evidence at that).

So, does Gray support Waters’ assertion? He should be forced to answer the question clearly. Does he support the legitimacy of such claims as that Resurrection actually occurred? If his answer is yes, then his argument falls apart immediately, as this is almost the prototypical example of a religion making claims about objective historical fact. If it is no, then Dawkins and others have no beef with him. And there simply isn’t room for a maybe. Either it happened or it didn't.

The myth of anti-religious bias
RTE and the Irish Times are often accused of having an anti-religious bias. Yet the Irish Times provides a pro-religious opinion piece every week (Rite & Reason) which rarely or never invites non-religious contributors. The paper also routinely provides regular space for predictably pro-religious commentators (such as O’Brien and Waters) and yet provides effectively no counterbalancing space for opposing views. In this context, the Holy Week articles were fairly typical of the Irish Times editorial approach. Of course and as usual, RTE provided full coverage of a variety of religious events during the week, reported uncritically on the religious pronouncements of a variety of religious and political leaders. Both organisations clearly have a de facto policy of ensuring that non-religious writers refrain from articulating views critical to people’s religious beliefs (this policy is possibly especially strongly enforced in the time leading up to Easter and Christmas, but clearly applies all year round).

Prof Geraldine Kennedy has defended the indefensible views of Kevin Myers and John Waters in the past on the basis of freedom of expression, but obviously doesn't give a hoot about fair play to Irelands irreligiousThe bias in the Irish media that religious commentators never tire of complaining of on religious matters is obvious to anyone who makes the effort of looking. However, the articles printed in Holy Week 2008 in the Irish Times neatly illustrate the point that this bias is by no means against religious world views. On the contrary, the imbalance is very much against non and anti-religious views, and is largely based on a fear of offending religious sensibilities. Sensitive as the print media are to the feelings of the religious-minded, they seem completely indifferent to the devastating effect their self-censorship has on the freedom of expression of what John Gray calls “proselytising secularists” – i.e. people critical of religion who are unwilling to be shut up.

For an excellent critique of Gray's nonsense, have a look at A.C. Grayling's article on the New Humanist Website.

13 May 2008

The bishops haven't said enough

The long-overdue admission by the Catholic Bishops' Conference yesterday that there are too many catholic schools in the country to meet demand for this model of education has been the source of much optimism. Yesterday's pastoral letter even included plans to cede control of some of their schools to "wholly or partly to lay people". It would seem petty not to praise them for making this admission and responding by announcing these plans. And indeed John Walshe of the indo is almost breathless about them.

However, we need to be very careful about what they said -- and what they didn't say, for indeed they didn't say very much about the Irish education system's present that wasn't already obvious, and they didn't say very much about their plans for Irish education's future that wasn't already inevitable.

That there is an oversupply of catholic schools has been clear at least since 2004, with the publication of the Educational Research Centre's survey, Views of the Irish public on education in 2004. Very mysteriously it didn't receive wide publicity at the time, but its raw results showed that between 49.6 and 61% of Irish people favoured a non or interdenominational approach to education in the Republic of Ireland. Just 44.7% were willing to even grant parents the right to choose denominational education for their children. See Table 20 on page 34.

In March of this year, David Quinn's IONA Institute received the result of a Red C poll they commissioned on the same subject (for more on this survey and IONA's dishonest interpretation of it, see my previous post here). The results were slightly different, as the subject is very sensitive to how questions are put on the questionnaire (I've asked for, but still haven't got, the IONA wording), but even with the IONA-commissioned survey, only 49% of parents favoured catholic denominational education. Compare this against the figure of 92% of schools in the country being catholic and denominational, a figure which understates the real position, as catholic schools tend to be larger than schools of other denominations and of none.

Another unpleasant surprise was the survey commissioned by the bishops' conference itself, which, despite a wording that could be expected to heavily bias results in favour of pro-denominational views, and despite the fact that the survey was conducted only in catholic schools, support for catholic denominational education came out even lower: 52%, given the choice, would not opt for a denominational school. The survey was made over the whole island, north and south. (A couple of other things about the survey need to be borne in mind: it was clearly marked as having been commissioned by an organ of the Catholic Church and was collected personally, both of which factors could also be expected to influence the results.)

So it's hardly rocket science that there are too many catholic schools in the country.

As for handing over schools to lay management, we're not talking about anything that hasn't already started to happen. Last year, for example, the Christian Brothers, largely due to the fact that they haven't got the personnel to do the work (there hasn't been a single new Christian Brother created in a good few years now), ceded control of many of their schools to the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, made up of "the laity". It should be noted though, that this does not necessarily mean such schools become automatically non or interdenominational (The charter of the CBS trust expressly specifies that schools under its care remain catholic, and trustees were all appointed by the order). In fact, no catholic school has yet declared itself no longer catholic and/or no longer denominational in the history of the state. The bishops' pastoral letter doesn't say anything about plans to do so either.

The Christian Brothers are not the only ones having trouble finding manpower. There is not a single organisation of the religious that's bucking the trend of generalised recruitment meltdown. Nobody wants to be a priest or a nun anymore. The immediate future of the catholic church does indeed seem therefore to be in the hands of the laity. But the laity includes, for example, most of the membership of Opus Dei, very few of whom are likely to be well disposed towards multi or non-denominationalism.

Personally, your blogger is not expecting any catholic schools to become multi-denominational overnight. It is, of course, possible that the new trusts running the schools will be eventually controlled by the parents of children attending them, which would probably over time lead to the school slowly converting to a multi or non-denominational model as new parents become involved in school management. It's not yet clear what models of trusteeship will be chosen. The catholic heirarchy is not renowned for its commitment to democracy in bodies under its tutelage.

John Walshe obviously ran with a tactical leak of the pastoral letter in his article yesterday. For some reason or other, he mentions casually a rough figure of 10-20% of schools that he suggests may be removed from direct church control. I wonder whether he picked the ballpark figure out of the air, or has a reason for quoting it. To be clear, given the results of the three surveys outlined above, the appropriate percentage of schools for removal from church control would seem to be about 50%. The maths is easy: actual percentage of schools controlled by church: at least 92%, percentage of parents requiring catholic denominational education: 45% or so (and falling).

The bishops have declared their strong support for the "primacy of parents' rights in the education of their children." It seems possible that their pastoral letter is a sign that they take their position on the issue seriously. I hope so.

But after looking at the numbers and at what the Bishops say and fail to say, what emerges could still be interpreted by an aggressive secularist like me as a damage limitation exercise. I hope I'm wrong.

The bishops have indicated that their letter should be interpreted as an invitation to dialogue. They are not clear, however, on who they want to participate in this dialogue. I hope aggressive secularists are invited.