January 19, 2014

Fintan O'Toole - "A parody of culture"

In an article in The Irish Times from August 29 2000, 'When bigotry takes on a life form of its own,' Fintan O'Toole questioned loyalist culture and it's definition. Calling some loyalist "cultural events" as a "parody of culture". He wrote of Johnny Adair and elements of loyalism:
"For the peace process to work it was necessary to sustain certain myths about Northern Ireland. The most potent, and potentially the most dangerous, was the idea that NI was divided between two "cultures" or "traditions", one catholic, the other Protestant. 
This notion was useful and perhaps indispensable, for how can you show "parity of esteem" to two different cultures if you don't recognise their clear existence? Yet it is also a lie. For one thing, it ignores the fact that surveys of attitudes in NI have consistently shown that something like 40% of the population does not identify with either the unionist or the nationalist (i.e. politically Protestant and politically Catholic) "traditions". For another, the most dangerous mindsets in NI don't belong in any real sense to a "culture" or "tradition".
A culture is a more or less coherent set of values and assumptions. A tradition is an array of skills, images, or beliefs handed down more or less intact from history. In the kind of analysis that tends to be applied to the NI conflict, people like Johnny Adair are regarded as stuck within a particular Protestant culture and their the tendency to violence is seen as an expression of their need to defend that culture. Johnny Adair probably believes this and indeed the current phase of the feud between his faction of the UDA and UVF started at the "cultural festival" he organised on the Shankhill road a fortnight ago. Yet what is most obvious to anyone looking at the symbols in which Adair has wrapped himself in is that culture and tradition are somewhat beside the point. What you see in Johnny Adair is an extraordinary mush mash of confusion and amnesia. 
One of the things many people may have known about Johnny Adair before he was released from prison under the Good Friday agreement and became notorious for a second time is that he had a poster in his cell in the maze that carried out the words "kill 'em all. Let God sort them out". The basic message of these words is clear enough: kill all Catholics and let God sort out the good souls from the bad. But where does this phrase come from? From what historic tradition does it emerge?
Johnny Adair might be disturbed the know that it is not a Protestant sanction for the massacre of Catholics but almost the opposite. The phrase is a slightly altered version of the words used by the bishop of Citeaux, Arnold Amalaricus in the 14th century to justify the massacre of Proto-Protestant heretics in Beziers in southern France.
When the city had been stormed the bishop was asked how faithful should me seperated from the heretics, so that the latter could be punished. His infamous reply was "kill them all, God will recognise his own." An indiscriminate massacre followed.
In anything that can be called a culture or a tradition this phrase can only be heard as a warning about the consequences of a religious intolerance that generates insane violence. Even in a narrow and specifically Protestant culture, Amalaricus's injunction could only be taken as an example of the perfidy of the old pre-Reformation church in its dealings with dissidence.
That it can end up as a slogan on the wall of a self-styled defender of Protestant culture is a sign, not of the persistence of a historic tradition, but of the idiocy that comes with a fragmented culture that has lost both memory and meaning.
What you get with Johnny Adair, then, is not a man steeped in history, but a mind shaken free of any real connection to any coherent set of cultural connections. Adair doesn't match his storm troopers down the shankhill road to the tune of God save the Queen or Rule Britannia, but to the sound of Tina Turner.
The slogan on their t-shirts isn't "For God and Ulster" but "Simply the Best", the title of Tina's gooey pop hymn to some standard-issue fantasy man. Over this T-shirt, Johnny's sweatshirt proclaims, not the dignity of Protestant Britain but the virtues of Nike Athletic. The tattoo on his arm isn't of Carson or Paisley, but of Mickey Mouse.
The main cultural influences at work, in other words, are not Britishness and Protestantism but Hollywood, Top of the Pops and the Sun. This is a makey-up mentality in which flotsam and jetsam of movies, pop songs, brand names and tabloid TV get washed up on the shores of a narrow little mind.
The one genuine thread of culture discernible in this weird weave is, of-course, anti-Catholic sectarianism. Anti-Catholicism, alas, really is a cultural tradition. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with actual Catholics or their church. 
In the last years of the 18th century, for example, there were, according to William Marshall's history of Orangeism in Scotland, the Billy Boys, 43 anti-Catholic societies in Glasgow.
At the same time however the city had precisely 39 Catholic residents. Having more anti-Catholic societies than Catholics is an extreme, but eloquent, example of the way a tradition of bigotry takes on a life of its own.
Instead of blaming history or culture, then, the real task is to revive them both. Histories and cultures are made up of knowledge, not the kind of ignorance paraded by the likes of Johnny Adair and his equivalents on the Catholic side."
And here's the absolutely key observation, and a call to the moderate - calling some loyalist marches as a "parody of culture":
"The respect for different traditions enshrined in the Belfast Agreement will only mean something when those who profess to belong to those traditions are willing to defend them, not just against external enemies, but against those within their own ranks who parade a grotesque parody of culture and call it a culture festival.
If they don't they'll be left amid the ruins and the blood not with the pure remnants of an old tradition but with a jumble of commercial cliches and meaningless slogans."
Newton Emerson delivered one of his usual smack-downs when he said:
"Northern Ireland makes a lot more sense if you replace the word 'culture' with 'hobby'." 
Read my earlier blog post here where I asked, What is culture? See here also for a blog post on Johnny Adair joining the BNP. Also here's a list of some of the blog posts I've written which have included Fintan O'Toole. On Ireland's dark history here. On Arthur Griffiths, founder of Sinn Fein, here. On the Good Friday Agreement here. On the hyper-inflation of language and emotion, here. On the "folly of sectarian solutions", click here. On the impropriety of the Mandela-McGuiness/Adams comparison, see here. On incinerating Ireland's censorship board, see here. His brief note on Conor Cruise O'Brien here. On Irish identity as not being about being not-British, see here. More on Irish identity here. On Fintan O'Toole at work in the Irish Times office here.

Images of the original article by Fintan O'Toole can be seen below:

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