Putting lipstick on a pig

The Irish citizenry remains silent as we are ritually humiliated and degraded. Ireland is a nation that can no longer meet its own gaze. By David Johnson.

Back in the deep dark mists of time when I worked for a giant internet multinational I had a boss who, although Irish, had spent most of his working career in the US and was more attuned to an American corporate culture than an Irish one. A good man, nonetheless he never met a buzzword or a tortured metaphor that he didn't like. Meetings "went off track" and "down rat holes" until we "parked" issues temporarily, sensitive topics were discussed under a "code of Omerta" and we had to be careful not to "open the kimono" too soon. By far and away his favourite expression, and one that took us many weeks to finally understand, was when he compared something to the futility of putting "lipstick on a pig".

An updated take on the silk purse/sow's ear scenario, the idea behind this is that you can put as much lipstick on a pig as you like, but it's still a pig, and presumably you wouldn't want to kiss it.

But what happens when you know it’s a pig, and you are still forced to kiss it?

In the first episode of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror trilogy, a fictional British Prime Minister is literally faced with that exact dilemma. A popular Royal is kidnapped and the sole ransom demand, uploaded onto YouTube, is that he perform an act of gross indecency with a pig on live television. The programme follows the rapid disintegration of a man faced by an inescapable outcome and all the lipstick in the world cannot mask the fact that it is a pig that he will be, um, kissing.

Black Mirror is an examination of the dehumanising and alter-humanising effects of new media on society. In this first episode the Government reacts immediately by banning traditional print, radio and television companies from mentioning either the kidnap or the terms of the ransom, a futile move in the age of social networks - the ransom video goes viral in a matter of hours. Once viral the international media picks up the story, thus the rest of the world and anyone with a smartphone can see the horror for themselves while terrestrial television reports nothing but bland celebrity gossip.

Last night Greece burned. Tens of thousands of ordinary Greek citizens took to the streets to protest at the EU-mandated austerity measures being debated in Parliament, and as night fell and the families had been replaced in the squares by more hardened activists, the night erupted in tear-gas and flames as the police moved in. Live on screen Lukas Papademos, the Goldman Sachs technocrat hand-picked by the EU as the Greek Prime Minister, stood in Parliament and followed the EU's demands to the letter, pushing through further austerity measures that threaten to rip apart the fabric of a Greek society already teetering on a knife-edge, battered and bleeding from existing measures already imposed at the behest of their fiscal masters. Papademos talked about recovery, he talked about national solidarity, but all the lipstick in the world couldn't mask the fact that it was a pig he was being forced to kiss.

Live on television for all the world to watch, a Prime Minister was being forced to kiss a pig, and RTÉ News led with the death of a faded American diva.

While Black Mirror also examined the all-too-close relationship between Government advisors and their friends in old media, what interested me more was the exploration of the public's role in this fictional tragedy. At first they are disgusted by the proposition, and public opinion urges the Prime Minister to resist; but then their Princess is threatened further and they turn against him, demanding that he pucker up. As the appointed hour arrives and he prepares to do the deed the entire nation tunes in, at first in locker-room bravado and car-crash voyeurism, but as the act commences it slowly dawns on them that the humiliation is not the Prime Minister's alone, but theirs as well for being willing participants through this act of silent watching. They try to look away, but guilt and shame hold them transfixed, and when the ordeal has ended they all shuffle away, a nation unable to meet its own gaze, and try to forget it ever happened.

There is something so quintessentially English about it all, a 21st Century stiff upper lip, a quiet acceptance of their awful fate and an unspoken agreement to never speak of it again - for discussing it would be to admit that it happened, and to admit that it happened would be to acknowledge that they all stood passively by and let it happen. Shame and guilt are the twin axes on which the English world revolves and, if our own recent history is anything to go by, they are yet another gift of our colonial legacy.

We have had our own lipsticked pig moments, televised on national television. We saw the bank guarantee be issued at the behest of the ECB, demanding that no bank be allowed to fail, forever welding our fate to that of the cancerous Anglo Irish Bank. We saw our Taoiseach come before the nation and publicly hand over our economic sovereignty to the ECB/EU/IMF Troika to cover the cost of that ECB-mandated bank guarantee. We watched as the talk of "It’s Frankfurt’s way or our way" was quickly replaced by "Frankfurt's way, or the highway", and the next in a series of austerity measures was forced upon the Irish people. We saw our new Taoiseach patted on the head by everyone from Der Spiegel to Sarkozy for being such a good boy, for taking one for the team, for lipsticking up that pig and planting a big one firmly on its snout.

We watched. Silently. At first in locker-room bravado and car-crash voyeurism, but then as the act commenced it slowly dawned on us that the humiliation was not An Taoiseach's alone, but ours as well for being willing participants through this act of silent watching. And now we all shuffle away, a nation unable to meet its own gaze, trying to forget that it ever happened.

In Greece the citizenry are not ruled by shame and guilt; when they as a nation are ritually humiliated and publicly degraded they rise up and forcibly resist it. “We are not the Irish," they say.

In Ireland the citizenry watch as successive leaders are forced to kiss a pig, remaining silent as we, as a nation, are once again ritually humiliated and publicly degraded. "We are not the Greeks," our leaders proudly say, as they reach for fresh lipstick.

If we are not the Greeks, then who are we?



Image top: Trompoukis.