Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Establishment Won

One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny. 
Bertrand Russell

Sometimes history is just 'one damned thing after another', and sometimes something historic happens. Last week's referendum result on same-sex marriage certainly falls into the latter category. While it's a little early to tell precisely just how historic the result was - from the vantage point of one week later - I think we can begin to discern some interesting consequences.

History is written by the victors, and even at this early stage the story of what happened is taking on a discernible, even predictable narrative. As with most rights-based political campaigns - from Civil Rights in the United States to ending Apartheid in South Africa, and even to divorce and abortion here in Ireland - the Narrative usually follows an arc from hostile, even violent rejection by the Establishment to ultimate triumph by a group of passionate and brave idealists in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It's an appealing narrative because, much of the time, it's actually true.

Which brings us back to last Friday's referendum. It would appear from the re-telling that the Yes campaign began facing seemingly insurmountable odds, with little in the way of support (beyond the entire political system, the mass media, both the multinational and public sectors and a few dollars more) while taking on the combined might of the Iona Institute and, er, John Waters. It was a close run thing, but the Yes campaign finally prevailed and the Establishment lost.

Except that the Establishment won. The purpose of all politics is power - for good or ill - and if we apply the 'power test' to last week's referendum then we can safely say that the result strengthened the Establishment rather than weakened it. Yes, but 'who' is the Establishment you are asking? Let's say who it isn't first. It isn't the Catholic Church, though they were certainly once part of the Establishment. But the Narrative demands a Loser and obviously it suits many to portray the Catholic Church as the biggest loser last week. Even a lot of Catholics (both inside and outside Ireland) think that. However, anyone who thinks the Catholic Church is still part of the Establishment in Ireland must have recently arrived in a time capsule from the 1970s: things have changed a bit since then.

The Establishment in Ireland today comprises - in no particular order - the main political parties, state organisations (national and local), representative bodies, the Gardai, large corporations, various supra-national institutions such as the EU, the Social Partners etc.  In a word, all those calling for a Yes vote in the referendum. The Establishment won: congratulations.

Brendan O'Neill - once again - has a particularly interesting perspective on how the politics of same-sex marriage actually strengthens the state:
What we have here is not the politics of autonomy, but the politics of identity. Where the politics of autonomy was about ejecting the state from gay people’s lives — whether it was Stonewall rioters kicking the cops out of their bars or Peter Tatchell demanding the dismantling of all laws forbidding homosexual acts — the politics of identity calls upon the state to intervene in gay people’s lives, and offer them its recognition, its approval. For much of the past 50 years, radical gay-rights activism was in essence about saying ‘We do not need the approval of the state to live how we choose’; now, in the explicit words of The Politics of Same-Sex Marriage, it’s about seeking ‘the sanction of the state for our intimate relationships’. The rise of gay marriage over the past 10 years speaks, profoundly, to the diminution of the culture of autonomy, and its replacement by a far more nervous, insecure cultural outlook that continually requires lifestyle validation from external bodies. And the state is only too happy to play this authoritative role of approver of lifestyles, as evidenced in Enda Kenny’s patronising (yet widely celebrated) comment about Irish gays finally having their ‘fragile and deeply personal hopes realised’.
As a small aside, the Establishment also 'won' the other referendum too: no point letting inexperienced youths get hold of the Presidency (power again), better to leave these things to their elders and betters don't you think?

They say about referenda, and not just in Ireland, that often voters 'answer the wrong question'. So when the No side won the first Lisbon referendum, the explanation was they were answering the question 'Is the Government doing a good job' rather than 'should the Treaty of Lisbon be ratified?' We got the answer 'right' second time round of course. But sometimes people also say Yes to a different question than the one they're being asked. A lot of people voted Yes last week to the question 'Would Ireland be a better place if we didn't discriminate against gay people the way they were often cruelly discriminated against in the past'? Naturally most people answered Yes; so would I to such a question. But that wasn't the question.

The remarkable thing in hindsight is that the No campaign got 38% of the vote: 734,300 in total. All the opinion polls prior to the vote - and I mean ALL - were wrong about the size of the No share. Not just out by a bit, but out by more than double the error in the recent UK election polling debacle. So while there has been understandable speculation about the newly awakened political activism of the young generation, I'm not so sure. What nobody seems to be pointing out is that they went and did what the Establishment was urging them to do by voting Yes. I thought the young were supposed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, not do its bidding? And then there was the result of that other referendum: so much for a newly awakened generation of political activists seizing the reigns of power.

That nearly 4 in 10 voted against the Establishment is quite remarkable and in most democracies would be seen by one opposition party or another as a golden opportunity to rally a significant number of voters to an alternative platform. But not in Ireland apparently, even (or especially) if you are Fianna Fáil. There's Renua of course (strap-line: 'The Same, Only Nicer'), then again, maybe not.

But back to history and its making. What is truly historic about the times we live in is the speed with which Irish culture and social values are changing. Some of it is about virtue signalling, but the speed and nature of change goes much further. The introduction of same-sex marriage won't change much on its own. As I said about the introduction of civil partnerships nearly six years ago, the number of gay couples availing of their new-won rights will be trivially small in the scheme of things (both numerically and as a share of all marriages/civil partnerships). Though I don't doubt its importance to the happiness of those gay couples who will avail of marriage.

Rather it is the wider impact of change that matters in the long run. Ireland is progressing rapidly (perhaps more than others) from what Charles Taylor describes as a 'Secular 2' society (the modern concept of the secular as 'areligious') to a 'Secular 3' society (a post-modern age which sees an explosive 'supernova' of contested beliefs: religious, irreligious and anti-religious).  As James KA Smith describes it, the secular is haunted. Ireland is no exception.

In a way, last week's referendum result marked the moment Ireland became 'just like everywhere else': apparently no longer weighed down by a heritage of sexual, religious and cultural repression. Witnessing the celebrations of the Yes campaign, James Matthew Wilson wrote about the Irish:
But, finally, they take joy in becoming what, it seems, they were always meant to become. An unexceptional country floating somewhere in the waters off a continent that has long since entered into cultural decline, demographic winter, and the petty and perpetual discontents that come free of charge to every people that lives for nothing much in particular.
I'm not so gloomy, but I see some of what he portends. Though there is a more immediate problem: we may be losing the shared vocabulary of political discourse necessary to sustain a healthy democracy (secular or otherwise). Assuming we can find any politicians willing to join in the discourse. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, surveying the same contested political landscape in the United States, notes that:
The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. 
We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.
Back to politics and power again. The Establishment always wins.

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