Indulgence, frivolity and ignorance: A reply to Stephen Collins

Below is the text of a reply I made on the website of the Irish Times to its political correspondent’s piece titled ‘Wallace affair exposes shallow nature of Opposition‘. I might have added something else: Collins’s ‘no true Scotsman‘ treatment of socialist opposition to payment of the property tax, which relies, fallaciously, on the idea that support for a property tax is a defining characteristic of a true socialist, whereas paying attention to the particular context in which a given tax is imposed is not.

‘Inside Politics’ – it’s worth considering the name given to these weekly pieces by Stephen Collins.

The idea that one can be ‘inside’ politics implies that one can also be *outside* politics. For this to make any sense, the underlying concept of politics in use has to be one that excludes some people (citizens; other people who don’t hold the formal status of citizen) and includes others (parliamentarians, party operatives, political correspondents),

This is interesting, because the author goes on about ‘testing Irish democracy to its limit’, and by doing so he implies that there is indeed such a thing as Irish democracy.

But how can one talk with meaningful concern about a democracy, if one relies upon the idea that the citizens should remain outside politics and that it is only those who are on the inside who count?

The real name for such a system is not democracy at all but oligarchy and the people we habitually refer to as citizens should really be called subjects.

Now to be fair to Stephen Collins he doesn’t mention citizens at all; he talks about ‘voters’ instead. That is helpful, because it shows to us that the only time the subjects are supposed to have any part in politics is when they cast their vote, once every couple of years. And these subjects are not supposed to deliberate amongst themselves, as citizens in a democracy do. No: they are supposed to be ‘persuaded’ and ‘educated’ by means of a ‘determined effort’ (in the case of the Fiscal Treaty referendum campaign that he cites, this amounted to scaring the bejaysus out of people). They are ‘outside politics’, after all.

This inside/outside way of thinking about politics, i.e. the treatment of politics as a professional activity undertaken by a political caste, and the people who fall outside that caste as malleable subjects, is by no means the sole preserve of Stephen Collins or the Irish Times; it is common to the Irish political and media establishment on the whole. And it has some interesting consequences.

One consequence is that it creates resignation in the population since they are invited to believe that politics has nothing really to do with them, beyond voting every now and again.

But for those on the inside, it can lead to some pretty heady illusions. Among these is a belief that the population is stupid and frivolous and needs educated and must be led by an enlightened political caste (this has nothing to do with democracy at all, of course).

We can see it on display here. In a reprise of the finger-wagging tone that appeared in a recent Irish Times editorial which conflated attitudes of people who voted for Dustin the Turkey in the Eurovision Song Contest with public attitudes to European institutions, Collins, in the manner of a high imperial official, considers the unrealistic expectations of football supporters and discerns something inherent ‘in the Irish character’, that prevents the population from steering clear of indulgence, frivolity, and ignorance.

A moment’s reflection will reveal Collins’s discovery as a ludicrous cod-sociological contortion, but for all that, does it not convey something truthful about the Irish Times? Prior to the publication of this column, the Irish Times devoted an entire section of its news reporting to l’Affaire Wallace, as though the tax evasion of a single TD* were some kind of political bombshell in a State where weakening the ability of other jurisdictions to collect taxes to fund public services is a cross-party badge of national pride. But I can’t recall any entire section getting devoted to the diversion of billions of euro in public funds that could have gone on schools, hospitals and other institutions that ensure basic democratic rights are honoured, instead of going to unguaranteed bondholders, which is undoubtedly a far greater scandal for anyone who professes an interest in Irish democracy. Do Stephen Collins or the Irish Times ever plan on considering how this, and the fact that it has received scant media attention- might affect the standards in public life that worry them so?

Indulgence, frivolity and ignorance indeed.

*I have corrected the original, which read ‘tax’ instead of ‘TD’ here.

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One response to “Indulgence, frivolity and ignorance: A reply to Stephen Collins

  1. "This inside/outside way of thinking about politics, i.e. the treatment of politics as a professional activity undertaken by a political caste, and the people who fall outside that caste as malleable subjects, is by no means the sole preserve of Stephen Collins or the Irish Times; it is common to the Irish political and media establishment "This is what the Irish Times is there for, and why wealthy people are prepared to pour millions, at times, into loss making newspapers. The same goes for journallism, which is an adjunct to politics.

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