- 22 Jan 20
Over the past ten years, Ireland has made huge advances towards being a mature, liberal, open society. Elsewhere across the globe, however, there has been a drift towards authoritarianism and aggression, fuelled by the naked greed and megalomania of the social media and internet companies. The question remains: is there any way back?
The Terrible Teens come to a close. Here come the 20s. You might observe that we’ve come back from a kind of oblivion and had some great craic along the way in doing so. But that’d be to simplify things greatly for a huge number of people. Over the past ten years, we’ve been through the masher too, in so many different ways. Deluges and infernos, disasters and massacres, keening mothers everywhere; lives, loves and hopes crushed by “smart” bombs, drone strikes, terror attacks, hunger, thirst, misadventure, murder, trafficking, people washing up on Europe’s shores. And Fukuyama.
Here at home, the upheaval in Ireland’s political order was itself hugely dramatic. The financial levees crumbled, and the IMF came to town. There was bad news on the stock exchanges and contagion in the markets: music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. Some of us at least found ourselves reliant on the kindness of strangers. Emigration, always a default option for the Irish, rose sharply as jobs disappeared.
Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama’s jubilation at winning his second term in 2012 was muted. He and his supporters realised the limits of victory: they knew that they weren’t out of the woods, that terrors lurked both within and without, and that what they’d earned, really, was just four more years of turmoil and struggle. And so it proved.
Long sleeping monsters stirred. BAM: ISIS from the Syrian dust, Trump, populism, fascism, racism, Brexit, new wars, new movements, regression and repression. Reason seemed to die, and there we were in a black hole that swallowed hope and light and laughter, a place of meanness and prejudice where truth is subordinate to opinion and the individual trumps society: a circus tent full of PT Barnum bluff and buffoonery peopled by clowns and fanatics. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Not for the first time ever, mind you…
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING
Rewind. When World War 1 ended a century ago it was followed by a poorly thought-out settlement with territorial expansion, land seizures, deregulation, US isolationism. What happened after the impact of the first Great Recession of the 21st Century began to ebb – and it’s still not done, folks – was a repeat of the dose. The rich got richer, the poor were plunged in the opposite direction. At least partly in response – though there were other, older, darker forces to do with religion and race in play as well – increasing numbers abandoned what were perceived as elites and instead embraced authoritarians and demagogues, especially in Eastern Europe and South America, but elsewhere too. This, we thought, is how it must have felt in Europe in the 1930s.
Historians like to pin broad titles on eras like the Age of Enlightenment, the Imperial Age, the American Century. Well, when they look at the last decade, they style it the ‘Age of Rage’. What are people mad at? As Marlon Brando answered in The Wild One, ‘Whaddya got?’ Depending on your perspective, the list is different. For Hot Press, there’s this much, just for starters: homelessness; the greed of the rich and those at the head of the global corporate ladder; violence against women; the denial of abortion rights and the repression of the LGBTQ community in so many jurisdictions; the handling of the economic crisis; ditto the climate crisis, the social crisis and the various crises that underscore migration. What, you might ask, is not to enrage?
The media, and social media in particular, have played a major part in degrading news and debate. Now it’s about clicks, shouting, confrontation, a roiling Roman Coliseum right there on your handheld screen. But, as we noted last month in Hot Press, the real poison in the apple has been the facilitation of false news and vexatious, lying propaganda, online bullying and thuggery. It is an arena which favours the unscrupulous and the mendacious: thus far-right trolls and hackers target almost every imaginable field where disorder and dysfunction can be sown. And the social media companies facilitate it, without a hint of concern for ethics. Only profit counts.
Life has grown much faster and less structured over the past decade. Things happen and are disseminated so quickly that they outstrip our capacity to work out timely, accurate and appropriate answers. A new world is taking shape – or being shaped – largely without the kind of debate that might enable us to apply the necessary checks and balances.
How we live and work has changed utterly. Likewise how we play: there’s blogs, vlogs, selfies, Twitter, Instagram dysmorphia, an abundance of porn, and people walking under trucks and onto train tracks because they’re so absorbed in their phones…
Technology makes it easy to track and monitor every single thing that you do. Over the past decade we have come to understand the shocking scale of this, and the threat it represents to citizens and their rights.
A succession of whistleblower leaks revealed breath-taking levels of official surveillance by CIA and British GCHQ listening posts. They even spied on the EU and on friendly Governments – including, incredibly, tapping Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Then we heard how Russians do it too, and Chinese and Koreans.
And so too, in their own equally insidious way, do internet and social media companies and platforms. Everything is logged and stored. We ourselves are being mined and herded. Orwell’s dystopia of 1984 has come to pass, but Big Brother isn’t just about intrusion by Government: social media and internet providers are at it too, day and night, night and day. A new term has evolved in recent times to cover what has been going on: surveillance capitalism. And now we’re poised for more – or we should be – this time with robotics, artificial intelligence and the internet of things.
THE DRUGS QUESTION
And so it goes. A new global order is taking shape, dominated by authoritarianism, viciousness and fear. China will soon be Number One. Despots are back. So too is stupidity and shallowness. Some countries, like Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland have bucked the trend, but freedom is in retreat and science is under siege. Oligarchs have moved centre stage. Western electoral systems and processes are under sustained – and often very effective – attack from further east. The EU is under attack from Russia. From the US. And now from Britain too…
Ten years ago we were petrified about the economy. Now we’re afeared of almost everything, perhaps too much so. Unsurprisingly, we’ve had a revival of dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re all the better for being a bit out of step in Ireland. We spent a lot of time over the last generation unearthing, sometimes literally, the crimes and misdemeanours visited on the weak in mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, schools, clubs and sporting organisations, where paedophile priests (and sometimes their lay equivalents) had the run of the place, buoyed by the authority of their calling and sheltered by a Church that protected itself rather than the weak and innocent. There were other exposures, for example in the health services, where women have often been treated with contempt. One such was Savita Halappanavar, her lost radiance lingering in photos from happy times. “Horrendous, barbaric, inhumane,” these were the words used by her husband to describe how she had been treated in University Hospital Galway, after a jury delivered a unanimous verdict of medical misadventure in 2013.
The road to greater enlightenment has been a corkscrew one. Turning point followed turning point, to the referendum on marriage equality and the epoch-defining referendum decision to delete the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. Now, globally, we are saluted by many as a beacon of enlightenment and progressive thought in a world that’s slipping into darkness. Who’d have thought?
But there’s no room for complacency. Look at our health system. Look at our housing crisis. Look at homelessness. And recent months have seen more unsettling developments. The first is the intrusion of outright racism into Irish politics. One suspects that this is as much a case of individual local politicians playing to a specific gallery. Some of these neanderthals don’t understand that one racist troll can pose as hundreds of people and generate thousands of posts.
They also forget that millions of Irish people have plied their trades and professions in far-flung foreign fields and have sent back a vast treasury. It continues still. If some immigrants do as the Irish have always done, what of it? What’s sauce for the goose…
Another nasty development has been the revelation this month that Irish gangsters are distributing drugs as far away as Australia. The local market is saturated. You can buy cannabis, cocaine and a range of other drugs anywhere in Ireland, even in remote rural areas. It’s completely normal. We’ve known of the scale of their operations here. Now we have a glimpse at the reach. It’s global.
As most sensible people realise, the only logical response is legalisation. Over the past ten years, there have been moves in that direction in parts of the U.S., in Canada and in Portugal, and the results have been very positive. There is no reason why Ireland cannot play a lead role in promoting a more pragmatic, sensible and safer approach to drug policies. Where financial dividends depend on breaking the law, criminality will flourish. Following the discovery of the bodies of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a refrigerated trailer in England, it emerged that the driver was from Armagh. He has pleaded guilty to charges of trafficking and others have been arraigned as well. That those involved were or are part of a world-wide trafficking network is clear. Meanwhile, the border area refuses to accept ordinary democratic norms. Extortion, intimidation and violence seem endemic and to set an asterisk against the undoubted achievements of the Good Friday Agreement. A beacon we may be in some regards – but most certainly not all.
IT’S HOPE WE NEED
All that said, and notwithstanding Churchill’s ancient swipe that “as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again” we have continued to enjoy peace on this island. The high profile stuff gets the publicity, but the great achievement of this peace is quiet, local and everyday.
That’s what makes the prospect of a hard border in Ireland, as a result of Brexit, so troubling. In turn, that’s why some people study the demographics and call for a border poll. There’s even talk of Scotland seceding from the UK, in which case all bets are off.
- That, and Brexit’s wider impact, will be a core issue over the coming decade. We’ll have other priorities too, like the further development of digital tech and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. Yes, as some wags have it, so far natural stupidity has proven a greater threat to humanity. But the two combined could be terminal. It’s a shame that we have to think this way first, because there are many brilliant AI developments in train. We need to take the best and leave the rest.
- Another priority is to massively reduce our carbon footprint, tackle pollution and rebalance the world’s economic model. Call it sustainability. On this, many thinkers in sociology and economics now argue that the EU should renew itself by focusing on society rather than the economy, promoting a social contract and building social solidarity. If we can make it stick, this kind of thinking will represent a positive legacy of the last decade.
- The EU wants Europe to be climate-neutral by 2050. The European Green Deal, which has just been announced by the new EU Commission as its flagship initiative, is intended to help get us there. It will include a large-scale investment plan, involving yearly commitments of between 175 and 290 billion euro to energy systems and infrastructure.
- We have to reduce greenhouse gases four times as fast as we have over the past two decades. The changes and adjustments will affect jobs, livelihoods, working conditions, skills and employment prospects. The change has to be accomplished in a fair and transparent way, hence the idea of a “just transition”.
- Inescapably, another key issue is migration. Climate-driven catastrophes are a key driver and achieving climate neutrality will reduce the pressure. But, of course, poverty, war and disease drive migration too, so these also must be addressed.
It’s all going to involve major challenges and momentous changes, especially in transport, food production and energy. To one degree or another, each of us will have to face the facts – and the music.
Great, we’re cycling more, we’re making sustainable choices in food, microbrew beer, natural wine and fair-trade coffee and so on. But now it’s crunch time. Pointing the finger at others who should change won’t cut the mustard any more.
Is there any bright side, you might ask? And the answer is, of course – but we need to keep it out there. Many good things were done over the past decade, even in terribly straitened circumstances – like, for example our commemoration of the Easter Rising which was carried off in fine style.
Fittingly, we leave the last words to Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland through most of the past decade. In his thoughtful inaugural speech he reviewed where we had been, what was ailing us now and how we might imagine ourselves into a new future, exhorting us as follows: “Ní díomas ach dóchas a bheidh ag teastáil uainn ins na blianta dúshlánacha atá amach romhainn” – It’s not despair, it’s hope that’ll be needed in the challenging years that are before us.
In his terms of office to date, Michael D. has more than done his bit in building that necessary feeling of hope. Now we all have to do ours.