Monday, November 7, 2016

Centenary Values

Below is the unedited text of my recent article in the Irish Times, part of their Centenary Conversations feature:

They say politics is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of values. Politics changes on a daily basis; culture sometimes in a generation; while values change more slowly, if at all. In this centenary year we can observe these different patterns and pace of change in Irish society, and so reflect on where the stream of change might carry us in the future.

The commemorations and celebrations we have shared in 2016 have, as their touchstone, the 1916 Proclamation. Why? Its language is quite arcane and its subject matter somewhat dated: surely less than relevant to Ireland in 2016? Yet its words, and the wider discourse about 1916, has compelled us to think anew about our values and our culture, and even about our politics. Witness the enthusiasm with which thousands of children throughout the country composed their own proclamations on Proclamation Day earlier this year.

The power of this centenary year is ‘hidden in plain sight’ so to speak: it is a reminder of an extraordinary moment in time – ‘this supreme hour’ – which fused the past with the future, the dead generations with generations yet unborn. A moment when the course of history and the fate of destiny pivoted and took a different direction to that expected one hundred years ago in April 1916.

The ancient Greeks knew all about this. They had two concepts of time: chronos and kairos. The former – chronos – is what we usually mean by time, a single dimension linking the past to the present to the future. But kairos is different, it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment; a time in between, a moment in time when something special, something unexpected happens.

The 1916 Rising took place in kairos time – ‘she now seizes that moment’ – a fleeting intersection of opportunity and action. Yeats recognized kairos too in his immortal line ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. Right now, in this centenary year, some also sense a ‘moment’ to step back from the constant flow of chronos to once again adjust our course if we are unhappy with our future destiny as a nation. A chance to reconnect with kairos, even with beauty.

The centenary has captured our imagination in ways that were perhaps unexpected. There is a saying that ‘politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. Certainly the Rising was more poetry than prose – which is why the Proclamation still resonates with us a century later invoking, as it does, ‘the dead generations’, ‘cherishing all the children’, while calling us to our ‘august destiny’. Poetic indeed.

Yet much of contemporary politics appears ‘trapped’ in the present, and not just in Ireland. We had a general election at the beginning of this year in which 1916 barely featured beyond the usual bromides in speeches and press releases. It’s as if our politicians lack the capacity to reimage Ireland and the future by drawing inspiration from the past.

But, but… politics is downstream of culture, so it’s not surprising if our politicians are pre-occupied with the stuff of headlines, not proclamations. In a democracy we get the politicians we deserve. We have created a culture that values novelty over tradition and fashion over virtue, so we too are trapped in the present. We have become customers of the state, not citizens charged with our own sovereign destiny. We have forgotten, at least until now, our past and our duty to ‘give a vote’ to our ancestors, in G.K. Chesterton’s memorable phrase, to ‘the democracy of the dead’.

It comes back to values; it always does. Culture is downstream of values and one hundred years is enough time for values to change. But what are our values and how have they changed? Jonathan Haidt uses ‘moral foundation theory’ to distinguish between six distinct clusters of moral beliefs that shape our political and cultural values. To briefly summarize a substantial body of work, moral values can be said to cluster around: empathy, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Haidt finds that political liberals and progressives emphasize the first three clusters (empathy, fairness and liberty) almost exclusively; while social conservatives and traditionalists emphasize all six clusters, including loyalty, authority and sanctity. However, it is the moral virtues of loyalty, authority and sanctity that have been and remain the deepest sources of identity, purpose and meaning in societies and civilizations. Through them we ‘create’ tradition.

This leads to a genuine tension in a country like Ireland. Contemporary Irish politics – like the rest of Europe – is almost exclusively caste in the progressive mould, driving the current debate on issues such as inequality (fairness), repeal of the 8th amendment (liberty) and housing (empathy). But the centenary has also strengthened our sense of Irishness (loyalty), our connection with the men and women who founded the nation (authority), and our gratitude for their sacrifices (sanctity).

Post-2016 will we enter another general election with a different set of values and with different expectations? As always it depends: on events, on the economy and on the choice of policies and parties available to us. Look at what’s happening elsewhere: Brexit is all about values, not policies. Europe is entering kairos time: the confluence of Brexit, the fragmentation of the Eurozone and the refugee crisis are forcing a wider conversation about values, culture and destiny.

Richard Kearney recently observed in the pages of this paper that:

History is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.

There is something appealing, reassuring even about the idea of ‘potential futures’ waiting to be unearthed as we respond to the challenges of the present in preparation for the future. It suggests we don’t have to do it all on our own: our ancestors have our back. And we’ll need all the help we can get as we navigate our small nation through the turbulent times ahead.

The question, of course, is: who are ‘we’? As I stood with tens of thousands of others on the streets of Dublin on Easter Sunday, watching Capt Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation outside the GPO, there was a palpable sense of our nation coming together in a way we hadn’t for a very long time. Maybe this is our moment of kairos? Time will tell.

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