Friday 19 June 2015

Black pots and white kettles

We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British
public in one of its periodical fits of morality.
Tom Macaulay
On Moore’s Life of Lord Byron
Shortly after midnight last Tuesday a balcony in Berkeley CA filled with students, most of them Irish, snapped off its moorings and pitched its human freight into the street below. Six died immediately and 7 are in hospital, 2 of them in very poor shape. It's the sort of story from which the press make a lot of hay and sells more copies. And, friends, we buy those newspapers or listen to the radio and shake our heads at the tragedy of it, and are sure to tell anybody who missed the news. It was the first topic of conversation at the Wexford Science Cafe that evening. This is a strong argument that utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number as if all men were created equal) will fail because we care a lot more about people with whom we can develop a sense of empathy. What has engaged the conscience of the Irish media this week: six dead J1-visa students, or a million black babies dying this year from diarrhoea, TB or malaria?

On Wednesday, the NYT continued its coverage with second-day reporting trying to put the tragedy into a wider context.  What is a J1 visa? for starters. Why do so many Irish youngsters avail of this opportunity to work in the USA?  What sort of people are they?  In the course of saying that J1 is generally seen as a great thing to do and a great opportunity to grow up and experience a different culture, the NYT piece quoted an article by Cahir O'Doherty in from last September.  Mr O'Doherty suggested that some of the 8,000 2014 J1 students from Ireland had behaved badly and used the phrase shamed the nation in his headline. It's not super-sensitive of the NYT to dig this up at a time when flags were flying at half-mast and Enda Kenny our Taoiseach [Prime Minister] was offering condolences and receiving them from other heads of state. Joan Burton, leader of the Labour Party and Tanaiste [Deputy Prime Minister] on the other hand preferred a bit of retroactive censorship by calling for the removal of the offending article from the internet. Me I'd rather allow people, including the press, freedom to express ideas, even tactless and unpalatable ideas. It is just believable that the head of our government might have locus standi to express our collective grief but it was wearing yesterday to hear Chris Donoghue from Newstalk FM hectoring a spokesperson for the NYT to apologise for calling into question the innocence of all the dead and injured students.  I have read the actual words of the NYT article and I can't see the connection implied by the indignant Donoghue, but then I do have a blunted affect. If anyone is to be blamed for using the word shame in the context of J1-visas it is Cahir O'Doherty last year at Irish Central.  He could certainly have analysed some data a bit before trotting out one and a half anecdotes to blacken the names of all the Irish J1s who ever went to America.  Bad timing the NYT, though.

Mary McAleese, our last President, who probably shouldn't have been taking a public stance on the marriage equality referendum last month [but did], decided to write a letter to the NYT from her position as a) a former President of Ireland and b) a former holder of a J1-visa.  She invited the NYT to hang its head in shame for "reaching for a lazy tabloid stereotype". What is it with all this shame, though?  Isn't shame-calling all too stereotypical for Irish Catholics?

You'd hope for a little more empathy from McAleese because ten years ago she was at the receiving end of a tirade of self-righteous indignation and had to issue a grovelling retraction for comparing the position of Catholics in North Ireland to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. She later called her remarks 'clumsy and hurtful'; and a 'dreadful assertion', and also admitted that sectarian stereotyping cut both ways when she was growing up in Ardoyne, N. Belfast. Ian Paisley Jnr, giving a roll on his Lambeg drum, said "Her comments are completely irrational and are designed to insult the integrity of the Protestant community".  What she could have said is that her comments were substantively, or at the least qualitatively, true. Of course, there were no death camps in Northern Ireland but there was institutional sectarian prejudice: no matter what your skills there were jobs that couldn't seriously apply for, places where you couldn't safely live, schools where you couldn't enroll your children and flags that you couldn't raise in your front garden. There are many cases that have the whiff of Kristallnacht and McAleese's own family were forced to move from their home in 1972, so she knows, and still feels, what she is talking about. Do you think, after 30 years of The Troubles between the civil rights marches of the late 1960s and 1998's Good Friday Agreement, that nobody now knows or cares what school you went to when you apply for a job in Northern Ireland?  Acknowledging our own faults is an important step in making us better people but it is also important to say it like we see it rather than try to pretend we are all singing from the same hymn-sheet.

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