A serious man for a serious job

Speaking on RTÉ radio's Dialogue a number of years ago writer John Moriarty, quoting Philip Larkin's Church Going, said: 'There's that last wonderful stanza:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Where the Central Bank is built, that isn't a serious house, and it has made the earth that it is sitting on unserious. We will always need a serious house on serious earth, because in our depths, however much we co-operate with the silliness of the modern world, or with any world, there is huge serious life in us.' In common with most things that bear with them some small bag of cultural or social value, 'seriousness' has been hollowed out and remade; in this instance in the form of a natty business suit. In an image-led culture obsessed with rationalism and which has an astonishing capacity to cope with cognitive dissonance, don't sweat the details if you want to get your mitts on some power: just get down to Suitable Company and pick up a three piece, writes Nyder O'Leary

“It’s took me a long time to get young and now I consider myself young. And I’m proud of it. I’m proud that I’m young. And I only wish that all you people who are sitting out here today or tonight weren’t here and I could see all kinds of faces with hair on their head – and everything like that, everything leading to youngness, celebrating the anniversary when we overthrew the House of Un-American Activities just yesterday… it is not an old people’s world. It is not an old people’s world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people, when their hair grows out, they should get out. And I look down to see the people governing me and making my rules, and they haven’t got any hair on their head…”

Bob Dylan, 1963, acceptance speech for the Tom Paine award at the NECLC 

Bob Dylan was always a splendidly cantankerous old gyet, even when he was young. Fun as the above rant is – it received what is often referred to as a mixed reception, apparently – it’s interesting how common the sentiment was then, and how uncommon it is now. It’s not wise to ascribe any single mood to an entire decade, but if “the sixties” were about anything – that’s The Sixties as media phantasmagoria, not the actual 1960s, natch – it was about the glorification of youth. It was the point when age and position were no longer automatic guarantors of respect, where the notion of ‘elders and betters’ came under sustained attack.

If this seems incredibly obvious, then it’s worth bearing in mind how little traction the notion of due respect, as opposed to respect for someone’s position, has actually gained since then. One of the most celebrated meeja-clips of last year was Pat Rabbitte’s explosion of anger at Pat Carey on Prime Time, but the most telling section was Carey’s reaction; he seemed genuinely affronted that anyone would dream of addressing him in such a manner, and responded by lecturing Rabbitte on his political career. If he’d responded ‘Don’t you know who I am,’ it couldn’t be any clearer that he felt no-one had the right to speak to him in such a way, whatever he and his colleagues had done to the livelihoods of millions of people. He was important, for pete’s sake.

It’s not a stretch to think that men in closed, privileged positions might wind up thinking they automatically deserve privilege; certainly it isn’t a surprise, even if it is desperately unhealthy. What’s really strange, and worrying, is how widespread this view is. We’re now living in a culture where politicians fetishise the punishment of the poor, as if it is an indicator of their serious intentions and courage; where any civil action is habitually described as being a potential riot by dangerous subversives at best, or just feckless wasters at worst; where any questioning of a financial ‘bailout’ based on self-imposed penury is dismissed as ‘populism’. All of this is underpinned by the general attitude that ‘anyone disagreeing with us is an idiot.’ True, only a relatively small number of obnoxious blockheads think this way, but unfortunately they’re the people in charge.

I’m thinking specifically of Stephen Collins here, the Irish Times political editor and establishment cheerleader-in-chief, who recently described the decrying of the EU-IMF it-really-isn’t-a-bailout by public officials as ‘populist rabble-rousing’. Even the headline of the piece – ‘Public must be told’ – bespeaks a low-level contempt for anyone who isn’t Important. Those who defend the solid granite lifebelt being thrown by the EU-IMF are fond of saying that it’s The Only Game In Town, and that’s the most indicative phrase. We’ve got no other ideas, so don’t start saying this one doesn’t work - it makes us look bad; it damages our reputation; it’s scurrilous and irresponsible. The irony is that even these people can tell, for all their desperate parroting of the party line, that The Only Game In Town isn’t much use if it charges 30 grand a head as an entrance fee. If Collins wasn’t so thoroughly obnoxious in his dismissal of any counter-arguments as populism, it would be easy to feel sorry for him. The poor man is trying to hold on to his faith as his entire belief-system, a faith that the people in power Know What They’re Doing, collapses. One can imagine him in a Coen Brothers film, shaking as he earnestly tells his rabbi ‘I’ve always tried to be a serious man…’

Ah, “serious.” Many people use neoliberalism as a dirty word, an abstract monster to be fought, but they’re a bit late; neoliberalism is the default setting for more or less any Western political system, and one of the key tenets of this sort of consumer-led anti-politics is that any form of political aspiration or idealism – except for the pre-approved beliefs in materialism, self-interest and orthodoxy – is the rhetoric of dangerous revolutionaries who want to tear down society. There’s no reason to doubt that this change was entirely deliberate, and a campaign to move influence away from all those unhelpful thinkers and academics and artists who didn’t think business was the most important thing in the world and occasionally asked awkward questions. In a culture that’s based on image, a key part of that marginalisation of real debate is the notion of a Serious Man: that man is suited, has a business background, understands the concerns of ‘ordinary people’ but knows better than to listen to them, and can use words like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘restructuring’ without laughing.

There are scores of examples I can give at this point; there’s the trivial (look at how Peter Jones will dismiss anyone on Dragon’s Den who isn’t dressed in a suit), the political (many web onlookers ridicule Mick Wallace when he appears on Vincent Browne, and this ridicule is more often than not based on the fact that he’s got long hair and doesn’t iron his clothes), and the literally monumental (the scarring of a once-glorious civic square with a fence around the Central Bank, specifically so that proper important people didn’t have to suffer the indignity of sharing their steps with skateboarders and/or young or other unsuitable types). You could cite the grand betrayals of the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom were praised in some quarters for engaging in ‘grown-up’ politics when they swallowed their respective emetics of NAMA and tuition fees. And yet its clearest manifestation is in the Collins-style despising of populism. This, he might as well say, is grown-up business: the public is entitled to be angry, but they should really let the proper people get on with all the incredibly complex business of wearing suits and talking to each other in rooms. Or, to put it more plainly: you’ve all had your fun, children, but go to bed now. The men (because it’s almost always men, and patriarchy is a key part of being serious) need to talk now.

It’s a touch unfair to single out Stephen Collins for what is an entirely nationwide default setting (which is largely why I did it). Exhibit A is the general media portrayal of Brian Lenihan. It’s only now, after detailed stress-testing of the Irish banks has revealed the gaping holes that have been present for many years, that Lenihan’s general lack of competence in the role has been even slightly accepted; prior to this, it was generally agreed by all that Lenihan was by far the most intelligent and talented minister in the government, or indeed the Dáil. Hell, even the normally-sceptical Vincent Browne once declared Lenihan had more talent in his little finger than the rest of the government put together. And yet, truth be told, Brian Lenihan never gave anyone any reason at all to believe anything of the kind. His record prior to being Minister for Finance is not conspicuously brilliant; his talents within Finance appear to be the ability to lie and look ‘statesmanlike’ while he did it. In short, he just looked right. Brian Cowen had a culchie accent, looked like he’d dressed up to go to a wedding, and was easy to describe with words like ‘gombeen’; the media were happy to round on him. Lenihan was different: he spoke like a businessman, talked emptily about proper-sounding things like capital and restructuring, and didn’t look uncomfortable in a suit. He even has a proper, Belvedere-instilled accent. Lenihan was a serious man, and as a result – for the three years he operated as Minister for Finance – his competence was never seriously questioned by any major section of the media. The results of this wilful blindness were – well, you can get there yourself.

This is the great triumph of image-led neoliberalism: it has managed to convince those that matter that they should only listen to the opinions of proper people. Those who cry populism are doing so without having any arguments on their side, but that’s immaterial; if you’re the only people that matter, you don’t have to make any arguments. All you have to do is engage in image-based discrediting of the opposition. They can have all the facts they want, but if they can be dismissed as Extremists / Populists / Pinkos / Art Snobs / Naive Intellectuals / Academics Who Don’t Live In The Real World, it doesn’t matter. In the Collins article cited above, you’ll notice the absolute security with which he dismisses all the economists who disagree with him as ‘celebrities’, but happily cites the opinion of Colm McCarthy as holy writ.

The all-powerful bond markets, of course, aren’t fooled by any of this orthodoxy. It just has to be said anyway. You might ask how we got here, where the definition of a serious politician has become one who can lie convincingly, who is prepared to abandon any principles if they become inexpedient, who can stand on a rostrum and recite bland nothings to a roomful of disbelieving acolytes who nonetheless politely go along with the charade. This blanding-out of government into corporatespeak has been horrendously damaging, not just economically but culturally, which is why it’s genuinely wonderful to see people like Mick Wallace and Luke Flanagan – people with silly haircuts – actually taking a Dáil seat. And, y’know, making some proper points. If you want to talk about hope for the future, it isn’t anything to do with restructuring or enterprise or jobs. It’s a bloke in a pink shirt, with funny hair, actually having his opinion treated as if it matters. It’s people with Northside accents and no tie having their arguments listened to, and judged on their merits, and being treated with the same weight as someone from IBEC.

So all I’ll say, to anyone reading this who might one day be in a position of power, or appear on Tonight With Vincent Browne or Prime Time or have an opportunity to influence things in a public arena: talk sense, tell jokes, and don’t brush your hair. Oh, and wear jeans. Just to show it can be done.


Image top BBluesman on Flickr.