The Context of “Morality”
It’s worth kicking off with a question for our times. What exactly is Declan Ganley for?
- The People Of Ireland do not include many multi-millionaire contractors to the U.S. military, thereby hobbling his Real Voice status;
- He has no mandate to speak about anything, in spite of having spent a fair chunk of time, money, and TV exposure trying to get himself one;
- He has never given even a sliver of evidence that he’s particularly knowledgeable on any of the subjects about which he speaks.
The result is someone who somehow continues to get media coverage he doesn’t deserve, even though his greatest contribution to public discourse has been to reveal to a stunned nation that he’s the poor man’s Constantin Gurdgiev – a role most people had previously assumed to be filled by, well, Constantin Gurdgiev.
This week, Declan Ganley has taken great exception to Galway City Council’s plan to erect a monument to Che Guevara. On the surface of it this seems the usual run-of-the-mill filler, best summarised as “Rich Guffbag Has Opinion About A Thing.” Guevara’s links with Galway are quite real, the monument itself looks inoffensive if tacky (although it may be more impressive than the piss-poor image suggests), it’s not costing any public money, and all-in-all this is one of those stories about which no sensible person should really care all that much. Nonetheless, since the “outcry” of about four Important People, Galway’s mayor has withdrawn support for the idea.
Ganley’s response told you everything you would ever have wanted to know about the mindset of the typical media reactionary. This is evidenced by the lumbering voices who have weighed into the argument; Kevin Myers has stuck his oar in (this time, he’s revealed Hitler to be a socialist – yes, yes, I know), and on Twitter, Marc Coleman has cemented his status as The Newstalk Boor Who’s Even Worse Than Hook by outing Guevara as a “foreign killer.” Not just a killer, but a foreign killer. It’s not even worth engaging with that level of idiocy.
The language Ganley (and all his ilk) used to describe Guevara was revealingly absolutist. The monument is dreamed up by “extremists.” Che Guevara was a “mass murderer” who “tortured, kidnapped, maimed and killed.” Ganley repeatedly described Guevara as having set up a “Cuban dictatorship.”
Let’s be clear; Che Guevara did some fairly appalling things. He was responsible for numerous cold-blooded executions, he killed many people, and of those people many were executed without trial. What’s more, he appears to have held unpleasant views about homosexuals, and wrote things about women and various races which now seem distasteful. Besides, Cuba is a dictatorship, by any measurement that matters. These are not things that anyone in polite society could possibly defend, surely?
Ah, there’s the rub. Guevara didn’t exist in polite society, and it’s cockeyed revisionism to pretend otherwise. His views were shaped by the frightening poverty, suffering and discrimination that he saw up and down the continent on which he was born, a place as good as destroyed and left to rot by neo-colonialism. He had already aided a peaceful reforming government in Guatemala, and then seen its head overthrown by the CIA. When Guevara met Castro and turned his attentions to Cuba, the country was in the grip of a wholly brutal, repressive, and entirely indefensible U.S.-backed dictator: this regime had open relations with U.S. organised crime, it had policies which resulted in over half of Cuba’s wealthy being owned by American companies, and had a well-funded, ruthless militia that killed thousands of Cubans every year. Castro and Guevara had to fight a bloody two-year guerrilla war to overthrow this regime, and anyone who thinks that “Good Guys” don’t do terrible things in such conditions has never read anything about Dresden.
In much the same way, let’s look at this Cuban dictatorship. It’s fashionable amongst the voices of middle-class rectitude to denounce Cuba as an evil nation, a tinpot state visiting repression on all its people. And yet… since Castro overthrew Batista, the island has been constantly threatened by a huge neighbour that makes very little secret of its desire to overthrow government, tear down the country, and then sell off the bits to the highest bidder. There’s very little you can say about the repressiveness of Cuba that doesn’t apply to Britain during the Second World War, a period the country now thinks of as its finest hour*. Yet on a near war-footing, blockaded and starved, Cuba has poured huge amounts of its money into agrarian reform, literacy programmes, free universal education, and a healthcare system that surpasses many in the developed world.
Even under peaceful conditions, it takes decades or even centuries for a country to evolve into a democracy. When faced with external threat it’s even more difficult, and that’s something of which anyone aware of Irish history should not need reminding.
None of this is to say that Cuba isn’t, on balance, a deeply unpleasant place to live. But one of the most powerful tools of the reactionary is to dismiss ‘context’ as a myth that can be exploded by the mere words “freedom of choice.” The now-common sight of Western democracies wagging their finger at Cuba for failing to achieve their own enlightened state, even as they persist to deny Cuba the things it needs to reach that mode of being, is more than a little pathetic. As, indeed, is the sight of a multi-millionaire describing a man as a “mass-murderer” for fighting a bloody guerrilla war – in which his men were napalmed – against a dictator who visited conditions on his people unknown in Ireland since the famine. You might as well criticise victims of the Haitian disaster for failing to form an orderly queue when the food parcels are handed out.
(Ganley’s characterisation of that struggle as being an inconvenient detail about which respectable businessmen should not have to think, meanwhile, just cements his status as an elitist bore. If some businesses really are in danger of making their decisions based on the local statues – rather than, oh, corporation tax and labour costs and accessibility and potential profit margins – then Galway wouldn’t miss them, because they’re run by morons.)
The disturbing truth is that many of the moral lines we so happily draw are those we have the luxury of drawing. It’s easy not to steal if you aren’t starving, just as it’s easy to embrace positivity if you aren’t in danger of losing your home. The reactionary mindset simply parrots “rule of law” and sees no difference between the two. In short, it despises those with the temerity to have nothing.
As with the macro, so with the micro. In the last five years, a vocal and reactionary element of the Irish media has repeatedly tried to characterise the country’s major problems as being down to the duplicity or moral turpitude of the powerless. Most recently, the Irish Times (which has lurched badly downhill since its change of editor) described the politicians who oppose the EU’s fiscal compact as “inveterate naysayers” who are trying to “redefine the issue as ‘austerity.’” The contempt that this displays, both for those representatives and – more importantly – the people who voted for them, would be breathtaking were it not so common. The Irish Times would prefer that we should take a high-minded approach to this, accept the difficulties the compact will cause, but accept the need for fiscal union for the sake of the euro; anything else is simply opportunism. Even if this were an empirically correct viewpoint (it isn’t) it willfully ignores the fact that, for many of the people voting, the euro is a remote abstraction while joblessness and social cuts are not. It isn’t opportunism, it’s desperation.
One could produce any amount of examples at this point: the shorthand characterisation of public servants as lazy, self-serving and overpaid, followed by outrage when morale in these services plummet and relations break down; the unending frustration that the lazy, useless spongers on social welfare aren’t willing to get a job; the shock at the scumbags from Dublin’s poorest areas persisting to behave as though society despises them; the patient explanation that shock-doctrine budget after shock-doctrine budget is necessary, even as the top rate of tax remains untouched. The destruction of context, of basic empathy and understanding, is part of how ruling classes retain their power.
This weekend, the RDS hosted a Working Abroad expo, charging the jobless 10 euro to find out what countries will have them. Low-paid, desperate people wandered around a fair that looked to profit from people whose only option is to leave, while men in suits offered to sort out their visas for just a few thousand euro. Ann Cronin’s description of “hollowed-out people” captured that sense of those with hardly anywhere left to turn.
It’s worth remembering that those people went home to joblessness that evening, and can look forward to yet more comment in which they are described – at best – as a ‘problem’, and at worst as lazy fraudsters robbing the country blind. They will again be “spongers,” a word that gleefully removes the reality of their day-to-day lives. It’s as if those bandying those insults don’t want to be reminded of those details. Almost as if that’s what such words are really for.*That point, and some others in those paragraphs, is taken from an excellent piece by Lawrence Miles on Cuba from some years ago, now sadly no longer online.