Monthly Archives: December 2016

Notes on last night’s Claire Byrne Live

"Public opinion, c'est moi!"

“Public opinion, c’est moi!”

On last night’s show a debate on Europe’s refugee crisis was preceded by a standing ovation from the studio audience for members of the Irish Navy, who stood in line in full uniform.

The panellists for the debate were actor Liam Cunningham, government minister Paul Kehoe, and Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty. I had started watching the programme out of curiosity after seeing tweets objecting to Ian O’Doherty’s presence on the show.

Ian O’Doherty -a dull-minded figure who poses as a Christopher Hitchens-style contrarian but without the allure of the turncoat, the ostentatious learning, or the mental dexterity that Hitchens had on offer – served up a farrago of racist talking points that originate with the far right. It was O’Doherty’s views that were allowed to frame the discussion, and Cunningham, and to a lesser extent Kehoe, were called upon to respond.

Of those who spoke from the studio audience, only the member of the far right National Party and the member of Christians Concerned for Ireland (who voiced the concern that hundreds of refugees had been arrested in Britain for crimes of “rape, etc”) were, as far as I can recall, afforded an on-screen caption detailing who they were.

If you were to press the programme-makers on their decision to afford Ian O’Doherty a platform, I suggest they would respond that they had sought to achieve a ‘balance’, that other contributors from the audience included a member of an organisation opposed to racism, a person with experience in aid work in Syria, and a woman living under Ireland’s Direct Provision regime. Pressed further, they might admit that controversy generates excitement and therefore viewing figures whereas informed debate is sterile. One imagines, moreover, that they would likely reject any suggestion that their editorial decisions produce racist effects.

In this regard it is interesting to consider not what O’Doherty had to say but what the presenter said. She repeatedly voiced the concern that resources devoted to assisting homeless people in Ireland might be jeopardised if the country took in more refugees.

Such proposed trade-offs arise with dreary regularity. It is always those most at risk, we are told, who are put at greatest risk when we wish to extend solidarity to others.

But even if we impose an arbitrary scarcity of resources in this way, the fortunes of the affluent are rarely, if ever, cited as the first port of call: it always falls, as if by nature, to those most at risk, who are supposedly now expected to take on even greater risk.

These economic trade-offs, of course, find a more vulgar expression in the notion that ‘we have to take care of our own first’. What all this hides from view is the fact of certain groups who will always already be taken care of.

It is not a question of racist cranks simply being given a platform. We should also ask: what kind of platform? In the case of the Claire Byrne Live show, we might best describe it as a pseudo-scientific wrapper.

Following the initial discussion, Claire Byrne said:

“We wanted to find out how people felt about this, so we asked our Claire Byrne Live – Amárach panel ‘Can Ireland cope with the planned intake of 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017?’”

Liam Cunningham, called on to respond to the results of the survey that showed a majority responding No, rightly pointed out that this was mere opinion. But Byrne insisted on how demographically representative the survey was. As if this could be detached from the actual question posed.

What does it mean, anyway, to ask “Can Ireland cope” with anything? Are we referring to Irish people on the whole? The State? The government? Are we speaking in terms of logistical assessments or mental resilience?

Since different people respond to such questions in different ways, the meaning of the question is ultimately established by the person who interprets the data.

In this case, Byrne was clear, or rather, clearly unclear:

“It’s about sentiment. Irish people saying “we can’t cope with this problem”.”

Well, how would she know? Where did the “we” come from?

Byrne, in her own mind, and likely at one with the producers of the programme, identified “Ireland” as “Irish people”. Hence it did not mean people in Ireland who are not Irish -a sizeable proportion of the population- and thus beyond the supposedly rigorous demographic scope of the survey.

But not only did “Ireland” mean “Irish people” here, but no distinction was drawn between the institutions of the state and people -strictly speaking, Irish people- at large. It’s doubtful that any such distinction could ever be drawn in a situation where the audience has just applauded members of the Navy in full uniform for making us all proud.

The overall effect of this concoction was to lend empirical weight -bogus, but weight nonetheless- to what O’Doherty was arguing.

If you want to trace the origins of the idea that “we have to look after our own”, with all the racist logic that emanates from it, it is best not to start with the likes of Ian O’Doherty or the National Party, but rather with those convinced they should be given a voice, in the supposed interests of ‘balance’.


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Between True and False


I will not lie, when I saw the article with the photos suggesting that Justin Trudeau was the secret son of Fidel Castro, I laughed. The photos showed a striking resemblance between the two, in contrast to the apparent absence of family resemblance between Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau. I thought it was funny because of the hero-worship of Trudeau on the part of liberals who see him as the shimmering saviour of West Wing-style politics, and the horror I imagined them contemplating the possibility that he was the immediate descendent of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary to whom they had dedicated so much time reviling in recent days. (It was nothing against Canada, even if it does need to rein in its ambassadors)

Then I realised the whole thing was not so funny. To be clear, I could not care less if Trudeau is the son of Trudeau (which he probably is), or Fidel Castro, or if he was raised by wolves in the tundra. The first thing that made it feel a bit off was the reference, in the article I read and shared, to Castro ‘committing genocide against his own people’: a false claim, albeit not unusual, given comparisons made between Fidel Castro and Hitler, or Fidel Castro and Mussolini, that were commonplace in recent days. For examples of these beyond the usual Miami sources, consult recent copies of the Irish Examiner.

Following this I saw a similar piece getting shared, through my Facebook news feed, from Milo Yiannopolous. The themes in this piece, and the accompanying commentary, were altogether racist and fascist. The way of understanding the story, along these lines, was as follows: Canada is not a proper white nation. This is because its head of government was cuckolded by a Latino beast from the south. Therefore Canada as a nation is racially impure and deficient in white masculine vigour. The nation’s figurehead is a mongrel, and is likely incubating (no pun intended) Bolshevik ideology so as to unleash it at some point upon an unsuspecting, naïve and weak populace. The appeal here for Nazis who believe that such attributes as political views and even language are genetic should be fairly obvious.

What bothers me here is not the fact that I shared the piece initially, but rather how I perceived the matter of whether it was true or not. Some things are so plainly untrue, so ridiculous, that it is obvious that by sharing them you are not endorsing the truth of the claim. But this is different since, in fact, there is indeed a striking resemblance between Fidel Castro and Justin Trudeau, and the matter of whether it is true or not is also, albeit for different motives, a matter lent weight by Nazis.

To elaborate: the British writer and Owen Jones wrote a piece yesterday in which he outlined his thoughts on Cuba. For him, Fidel Castro was a dictator and Cuba should not be seen as a model to follow. He prefaced his piece with a reference to a ‘revolutionary leftist in Spain’ who had called him ‘spokesman for Soros’ bitch mother’. I found this disturbing. Not Jones’s views, but the claim that he had been apparently referred to as such by a revolutionary leftist in Spain. I have spent some time in the company of leftists in Spain who see themselves as part of revolutionary traditions. Nothing I have ever encountered suggested a leaning towards antisemitic conspiracy theorising of this nature. So, I did some searches – things like ‘Owen Jones Soros puta madre’ and indeed, on Twitter, he had received abuse of this nature. I could not find any instances of people identifying as being part of the revolutionary left, but I’m prepared to believe Jones that it did.

This raised a couple of questions for me. First, why would someone maintain Owen Jones was in the pay of George Soros -who is the subject of conspiracy theories both overtly and covertly antisemitic? As I remarked to people, this seems a long way from theorising about Rothschild Central Banks. I then realised that it was not: earlier in the day I had seen tweets circulating that the reason Castro’s death was being celebrated, the reason Cuba was being subjected to such hostility from mainstream news sources and politicians, was that Cuba was one of the few countries in the world left that does not have a Rothschild Central Bank (a recurring theme in neo-Nazi propaganda). It is no great leap from this to concluding that prominent critics of Cuba, perhaps especially prominent critics of the left-wing variety, were being funded by George Soros.


The second question was whether it was true that a revolutionary leftist made this claim about Owen Jones. There is, of course, no absolute definition of what a revolutionary leftist is. I can only propose a working definition. A revolutionary leftist is someone whose ultimate goal is the abolition of class society. Within this definition, people may differ on the ways and means of achieving this. But antisemitic conspiracy theories are not concerned with the abolition of class society. Rather, they are concerned with how the old world is being corrupted and undermined by shadowy tentacular forces who, to cite a common motif, seek the imposition of a ‘New World Order’.

In the figure of George Soros, and previously in figures like the Rockefellers and Bernard Baruch, the problem is never capitalist class society as such, or even the accumulation of vast wealth, but rather the particular purposes to which this wealth is devoted, or imagined to be devoted. These are schemes imagined as undermining existing society to the detriment of ‘the people’: basically, in Europe and North America in particular, white people whose rights are a function of their whiteness. In this light we can see the appeal of Donald Trump to Nazis and antisemites: he is a white billionaire, he accumulates vast wealth, but he is clearly on our side, rather than the side of the degenerates, terrorists and subspecies.

By this working definition, it is not possible to act as a revolutionary leftist and uphold conspiracy theories of this character. Not least because one would expect a revolutionary leftist to have sufficient consciousness of the fact that the first people to be liquidated under fascist regimes would be people like them. It is of course possible, however, for someone to act contrary to how they present themselves. Most people do this – including Nazis posing as revolutionary leftists (cf. Trump advisor Steve Bannon presenting himself as a ‘Leninist’), and so we need to be careful.

Whatever the media conniptions about ‘post-truth politics’, whatever the vogue for ‘fact-checking’ as a substitute for actual political debate, being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false matters. If revolutionary leftists in Spain are calling Owen Jones a Soros puppet that indicates the revolutionary left has a problem. If Owen Jones or anyone else, however, is not able to tell the difference between a revolutionary leftist and a Nazi, I suggest that is a bigger problem.

The bigger problem is also expressed in variants of so-called ‘horseshoe theory’, which, ironically, emanate from precisely the same sources that denounce ‘post-truth politics’. The smirking self-contradiction of a Donald Trump, who thrives on the feeling that it does not matter one way or the other, can be mapped onto would-be political scientists and avowed experts who cannot distinguish between someone who campaigns to close down migrant detention centres on the one hand with someone who wants to fill them up on the other, between someone who wants to expand women’s rights and someone who wants to eliminate them, between someone who seeks the democratisation of politics and someone who wants all decisions over what matters to be in the gift of those with the greatest financial power.

As far as conspiracy theories are concerned: for any particular claim about Soros that springs up, not only does the truth not matter, but there is a release of excitement that comes from making these connections, a feeling that it’s all being pieced together now, that the reality of the conspiracy is making its shape known. We need to get beyond the idea that such theorising is merely the work of isolated and paranoid individuals -though they are a necessary condition for them to spread. They are actively promoted by people who may know very well that the particular claim has no basis in fact, but no matter: they create an ambience of confusion and paranoia and the release of vindictive inclinations. In this process the annihilation of being able to make any political distinction between true and false is all to the good. If we are deprived, or we deprive ourselves, of the means of making these distinctions, the consequences are quite clear: the Nazis win.

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