It's only a theory
The Irish Independent made an early Christmas gift to this column with its bizarre editorial (30 November) on “conspiracy theories”, wherein the newspaper intoned opaquely: “No fewer than three news reports today fall into that category.”
The confused editorial-writer employed the usually dismissive term “conspiracy theory”, but also paused twice to admit that the three conspiracies in question – security-force collusion in loyalist killings, CIA “rendition” flights through Europe, Russian state involvement in poisoning exiles – may be “more than mere theories”. Well, indeed.
The first of these “theories” is by now an established fact, though its extent is mysterious; the third awaits further information; and the second isn't a theory at all – it's a well-albeit-partially-documented set of acknowledged US operations. The EU committee investigating the CIA flights, the Indo said, “has its own conspiracy theory”. Really? Has it? What's that then?
To throw the rendition flights on to a pile of stories under such a sceptics' label is patently absurd.
I don't, as it happens, think this editorial was part of a clever Tony O'Reilly conspiracy to conceal politically-dangerous truths. Frankly, it was too dopey for that. It concluded: “Conspiracy theory can also provide an easy and quick outlet for anger directed at targets that seem otherwise invincible. That is the danger. Even when we suspect the worst, we must not allow conspiracy theory turn into scapegoat theory.” Huh?
With the warning against dangerous scapegoating of invincible targets ringing in my ears, another plausible conspiracy theory came to mind. Imagining myself as a horny 15-year-old (a surprisingly easy feat), I identified a media conspiracy to portray sex as an unparalleled source of pleasure, power, intimacy, mystery and mastery. But then the conspiracy goes on to insist that its inestimable gifts are available only to those who have reached a certain, apparently debatable age that falls some years after puberty. Before that, it's nothing but trouble, and should be illegal.
Now, my middle-aged self doesn't really think this widespread sex-mythology is a conspiracy. The negative side of it is mainly well-intentioned groupthink from people who are only very slightly motivated by envy of today's sexually-active teens. But it draws on such a deep well of denial, ignorance and nonsense, and makes such profoundly dubious claims, that I don't blame my 15-year-old-within for his cynicism.
It's no surprise that the Irish Mail, fresh from its ridiculous but steamy insertion of a reporter “undercover” into the open Shell to Sea campaign, and with its British parent's typical mix of prurience and prudery, should be the worst of a bad lot. It leapt denouncingly on the proposal that the age of consent should be standardised at 16, with a frontpage headline pointing out that you have to be 18 to smoke.
A dumb comparison? You decide. Just remember that it is not actually a criminal offence for under-18s to smoke. Also recall that smoking is an expensive, unnatural, unhealthy addiction, while sex, practised safely and consensually, has the potential, at least, to be precisely the opposite in every respect.
Of course that doesn't make it necessarily a good practice for any given young person in all circumstances. But when pundits line up – as some did on last Sunday's Marian Finucane programme on RTÉ Radio 1 – to warn direly about the horrible and historically unprecedented “early sexualisation” of today's young people, ask them to tell it to Romeo and Juliet.
There's nothing particularly normal in the history of our species about a gap of years during which sex is biologically desirable but socially taboo and legally forbidden. The fact that Ireland's age of consent remains among the world's highest says nothing about sexual behaviour here, and everything about the reality-averse pseudo-moralism of our political and media culture. The sleazy populist opportunism of the hysterical Mail-Fine-Gael axis, even in “post-Catholic” Ireland, is a reminder of how far we haven't come.