Universality as Robbery


During her speech from the stage of the Abbey, Panti says: “A jumped-up queer like me should know that the word “homophobia” is no longer available to gay people.”

When she says this, she is ventriloquising the sentiments of who think she should be hit with the full force of the law for daring to name things as they are. The real sting in this sentence comes from “jumped-up queer”: it isn’t just access to the word “homophobia” that is being revoked, but the word “queer”. As if they were saying: “you gay people -should we still call you that? Now there’s a thought…- have had your fun playing with the word “queer”, but it’s time the word got restored to its proper meaning in the proper order.”

To call yourself “queer” is a refusal to be the object of abuse and stigma in a social order where your sexuality -and by extension your very existence- are treated as abnormal and unnatural. But it is also a conscious appropriation of the power to name things as you see fit, to break with the classifications and delineations that would put you in your place.

What Panti shows, and what those taking legal action against Rory O’Neill’s words show, is that putting a name on things is a matter of power, and it’s also a matter of politics. We rule through words, but words also rule through us. What words mean is not some elusive extra-human evolutionary process but the outcome of conscious action – and struggle. Dispossession can be a matter of words: if you deprive someone of the words to articulate their predicament, you deprive them of their possibilities of acting politically.

The Fine Gael-Labour government plans to implement a health system based on what it describes as ‘universal health insurance’. On Tuesday 18th of February, the Irish Times published an article by the Health Minister, James Reilly, with the title ‘Universal health care will be cheaper and better‘. But universal health insurance isn’t universal health care. Universal health care sounds good, doesn’t it? It suggests that everyone will be treated when they get sick, and their treatment won’t depend on their ability to pay. It suggests they will be cared for because they will be recognised as human beings with equal dignity. It suggests a break with what has gone on in Ireland up till now, when you had hospitals developed under Church supervision that bore signs that read things like ‘Mount Carmel Private Hospital’ and ‘Mater Private’, and you had GPs who ran their surgeries as a business where you had to pony up €50-60 you didn’t have. Some GPs ran their affairs so successfully that they wound up living in stately homes.


‘Universal health care’ calls to mind the major achievements of the labour movement in the post-war democratic settlement. Indeed, James Reilly summons forth the memory of the establishment of the British NHS in his Irish Times article. The problem is, the ‘universal’ aspect of the universal health insurance scheme represents the polar opposite of what the ‘universal’ in universal health care actually meant in societies where social democracy exerted a decisive influence. As Michael Taft notes in Irish Left Review, the flat-rated payment proposed by the Irish government is regressive. The ‘universal’ aspect is only in terms of the individual obligation to pay. The less money you have, the more the health system will cost you. What is more, as Taft notes, there will be no obligation for employers to contribute. So what we are facing is, beneath the suggestions of a more equitable society couched in the word ‘universal’, a universal obligation to pay for health care in order to maximise profitability: healthy profits before healthy bodies.

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