September 22, 2014

We are deluding and damaging society if we cannot speak freely of the public dead

Cartoon of Paisley with Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, Thatcher, Major and then Blair and Ahern. By Ian Knox.
[UPDATE* - Ed Moloney spoke about the passing of Paisley on New York radio here, and said among several rich comments that "Although Brian Faulkner was brought down by a broad coalition of Loyalists, the scene was set years before that by Paisley’s agitation."]
[UPDATE II - Clifford Smyth wrote on Ed Moloney's blog that when Paisley began his political career in the 1960s Northern Ireland was a stable and peaceful society and Irish Republicans were reflecting on why the IRA campaign waged between 1956 and ’62, had failed, and how a reshaped strategy might succeed.]

Compulsory praise, homage and adulation. The scurrilous sanctimony of it. I've written about it three time before, the death eiquette (here, here and here), and will go one more time. When Paisley passed, there was as expected, and on schedule, a mass outbreak of moist and dewey eyed encomium and panegyrics. A bombardment of hagiography and neuteured, one-sided reqiuems. Pure, leader-reverent propaganda. Total distortion. Total self-delusion of the worst most self-harming kind. If the man was a thundering bigot, incubator and mobiliser of hatred for over half a century that needs ruthless examination and full public acknowledgement.

Yet death in Ireland is a time for seeing only good and burrying the bad. Fintan O'Toole wrote about it and said:
"Death is one of the things we do well in Ireland. There is a decency, a kindness, a communal instinct to try to lessen a family’s grief by taking a little bit of it onto ourselves...
As so often in Irish culture, however, good instincts have evil twins. The lovely intimacy of Irish life has its dark side in cronyism. The passionate sense of place has its less attractive obverse in parish pump politics. And the decency that surrounds death becomes, when that death is a public event, a sharp implication that everyone must join in compulsory acts of homage. Within that compulsion there is a typical narrative: the lost leader was supremely right and anyone who criticised him was somewhere on a spectrum from fool to snob, from pseudo-intellectual to traitor.
Death becomes an opportunity for instant revisionism. The general desire not to speak ill of a dead public figure is opportunistically parlayed into a suggestion that it was wrong to speak ill of the same figure when he was alive and in power. A soft authoritarianism creeps in under the veil of mourning."
And continued:
"The natural desire to emphasise the positive achievements of the dead man becomes an airbrushing of any and all negative aspects of his career.
And then:
"RTÉ, which does so much to set the tone in these matters, switches modes, ceasing all of a sudden to be a public broadcaster and becoming a State broadcaster, hailing the dead man as a Dear Leader of almost North Korean proportions."
Fintan O'Toole asks if uncritical deification is good:
"The instant Pantheon of Irish political memorialisation is a way of making the judgment of history redundant. It declares the result of the trial by instant acclamation. Qualifications or complications are redefined as carping – irrelevant, marginal, offensive. Does any of this do actual harm? I think it does. It injects new blood every so often into the anti-democratic politics of chieftainship. And the irony is that this attempt to elevate real, messy, ambiguous figures to saintly greatness actually increases cynicism about public life. Most people know only too well that they’re not living in a society or under a system forged by moral, intellectual and political heroes. Orgies of praise just make it harder to equate everyday realities to official stories."
The former deputy editor of the Irish Times Dennis Kennedy wrote loudly against the death etiquette and convention with a piece, 'Rose-tinted view of Paisley needs to be answered'.

Lord Alderdice and Austin Currie spoke freely and objectively and without sentiment on Sunday Politics, Northern Ireland. You can listen to them below, they are required listening - impassioned and informative. From these we can learn from and make the now and the current better.

Further, Sarah McKay, Michael O'Regan, Liam Clarke and Tom McGurk all wrote strongly against Paisley and each stand as necessary readings.

The sleep of reason produced a monster. We cannot allow more sleep of reason. We cannot allow such a transparent monster who did a volte-face to enter the Pantheon of good men.

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