- 24 Feb 05
Kevin Myers' use of the word bastard may have been pernicious – but it was not the most offensive aspect of his attack on unmarried mothers. Plus: the death of the great Hunter S. Thompson.
"That’s why I live out here in the mountains with a flag on my porch and loud Wagner music blaring out of my speakers. I feel lucky, and I have plenty of ammunition. That is God’s will, they say, and that is also why I shoot into the darkness at anything that moves. Sooner or later, I will hit something Evil, and feel no Guilt. It might be Osama Bin Laden. Who knows?” – Hunter S Thompson
Turned out it was his own good self. Hunter S Thompson, the great Gonzo journalist, the original of the species, took up his gun and shot himself in the head last weekend, bringing his life, his career and his work to an end. It was a grisly exit, but maybe not an inappropriate one. Hunter Thompson was never squeamish.
With the emergence of recreational drugs and the breakdown in social consensus that flowed from the student revolts of the late ‘60s, a bunch of young gunslingers, first in the US and later elsewhere, began to forge a new kind of journalism in which the writer became a protagonist, part of the story. No one did this with greater or more lasting impact than Thompson.
Beginning with The Hell’s Angels – A Strange And Terrible Saga, published in 1966, he found a truly distinctive voice that would oft be imitated over the next thirty-plus years, but never surpassed.
For anyone who came into writing in the 70s, and who experienced the first adrenaline surge of the new journalism, as it was dubbed at the time, Thompson was an iconic figure. His work for Rolling Stone magazine in particular was both brilliant and hugely influential. He defined the potential of what people talk about as rock journalism, though in fact Thompson wrote very little about music.
He wrote instead with savage power about politics and about popular culture. He looked at the world through a warped prism, allowing the ferment of the sub-conscious – and the drink and the drugs he used copiously to fuel it – to drive the work.
The result was a unique and often hilariously funny take on the bad craziness at the heart of even the most apparently ordinary events. The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, originally a Scanlan’s Magazine commission that turned into a sprawling meisterwork, was one of his greatest hits. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, published by Rolling Stone in 1971, was another. Both demonstrate that Thompson was a master stylist, who was also a great entertainer – a demonic weaver of teeming, raucous, mediocrity-bating, life affirming, skewed prose of the first water.
Behind the furiously warped worldview, there was, of course, a genuine patriotism and a sense that part of the Gonzo mission was to make the world, and more specifically the United States, a better and a freer place, where the right to individual self-expression and fulfilment would not be trampled on by the kind of corrupt, right wing, power crazed, militaristic establishment that held sway in the US at the time.
Some of Hunter S Thompson’s greatest work was done on the campaign trail. He reported with fierce wit, style and insight on the 1972 Presidential race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. About Richard Nixon, he was at times monstrously foul and abusive, after the election depicting the man in the oval office, the President of the United States of America, as a gangster, liar, thief and nazi. In an interview later, he called him an evil bastard and didn’t think twice about it.
If mere decorum had been allowed to decide, Hunter S Thompson would never have been in a position to put any of his best work into print. Someone would have cried foul and claimed offence and the presses would have ground to a halt. In the current climate in Ireland, it’s a point worth remembering. The last thing we need is a Government-appointed bunch of worthies deciding what should and what shouldn’t be published.
A point worth pondering.
Hotpress is coming late to the Kevin Myers controversy – but maybe there’s an advantage in that. It’s been possible to observe the shifting positions adopted by the different protagonists since the shit hit the fan, to watch the debate unfold, and to draw relatively measured conclusions.
Unfortunately, the passage of time has done nothing to diminish the initial sense of revulsion from what was written: a little over two weeks on, Myers’ attack on unmarried mothers looks as spiteful and vindictive as ever. The interesting thing is that, to a large extent, people seem to have missed the point, that the use of the word ‘bastard’ was not the ugliest or most offensive aspect of what he had to say, not by a long shot.
But, before getting into that argument, let’s go back to the beginning…
The controversy was begat when Dr Ed Walsh, the former President of the University of Limerick, gave a talk, in which he set out to demonstrate that the social welfare supports provided by the State to unmarried mothers are themselves specifically a cause of the increase in the number of children being born outside wedlock in Ireland.
Inevitably there was a reaction to what is a highly contentious view – though nothing that went beyond the normal cut and thrust of robust debate on a matter of public interest.
When Walsh’s argument came under fire, Myers decided that it was time to weigh in on his side. The resulting piece in his regular Irishman’s Diary slot in the Irish Times was a sustained exercise in the vilification of a particular class of people, of a kind that no Irish newspaper has published in years.
In many ways, the piece was typical of Myers. An attempt to get up the noses of those he repeatedly caricatures as being politically correct, it had a particularly smug, elitist tone. The column featured the ritual jeering that has become his stock in trade, including a direct invitation to readers of a sensitive disposition to be insulted. But on this occasion, in his desire to goad people as thoroughly as possible, he went even further than usual.
He described children born to unmarried parents as bastards – a deliberate and calculated insult that would backfire spectacularly. He was not to know that, and so, the word having been used, he pressed the point. “You didn’t like the term bastard?” he asked, with a rhetorical flourish. “No, I didn’t think you would.”
The following day’s paper carried a small number of letters in response, but by the second day, the floodgates had opened, and the Irish Times was swamped with letters of condemnation. The debate had, in the interim, been taken up by other media, with one of the paper’s own columnists, John Waters, insisting on the Eamon Dunphy Show, on Newstalk, that the use of the word ‘bastard’ was a resigning offence – not for Myers, but for the newspaper’s editor, Geraldine Kennedy.
On one count, Waters was merely giving voice to what was a widely felt view. In newspaper parlance, the column should have been spiked – or so the argument ran. What’s more, it emerged that, alerted to its poisonous contents, Geraldine Kennedy had herself made the decision to publish and be damned, deciding personally neither to soften the tone, nor to edit the vicious language, in which Myers’ views were expressed.
It was a decision that she would come to bitterly regret.
On Thursday, February 10, two days after the column appeared, the entire letters page of the Times was taken up with missives expressing their condemnation of the views ventilated with such relish in An Irishman’s Diary. Myers himself was pictured on the front page of the same day’s paper, alongside the headline “I am very, very sorry…”
Inside, there was what the man at the centre of the controversy apparently considered a properly contrite apology. In truth, it was anything but. There was also an editorial, again clearly either written or approved by Geraldine Kennedy, which expressed regret for the publication of the column, but which did not deign to apologise for it.
At an initial glance, Myers’ apology seemed to open well. “Here follows an unconditional apology for my remarks the other day on the issue of unmarried mothers. So many readers have been made extremely angry by what I said that it is clearly not merely an issue of political correctness or social conformism,” he offered.
But before long, the real meat of what he now had to say became clearer.
“Their feelings are real, passionate and heartfelt,” he wrote of the complaining readers, before making a mid-sentence pirhouette, “and I bitterly regret clouding an issue of major importance in Irish life by using provocative, ill-thought out and confrontational language.”
In other words, he had no real regret for the insults he had heaped on unmarried mothers, in themselves. What he regretted was that he might have damaged the case he set out to make against unmarried mothers and their children.
From there on, the ‘apology’ went rapidly downhill.
“I was trying to insult nobody,” he claimed, in a curious grammatical connstruction at the beginning of the second paragraph, and he repeated himself at the beginning of the third. “I intended to hurt no one,” he wrote. Which was all very well, but even a cursory look at his original article confirmed that this was not indeed the case: Myers clearly had set out to insult, and in the most provocative manner he could hazard.
And a little later, in what was an increasingly self-deluding exercise, he was back onto his original hobby horse. “For this issue is not about individuals but a serious social phenomenon which must be addressed by the State. We cannot tolerate a situation in which large numbers of women are drawn into the perils of early and unmarried motherhood by the allure of the apparent protection offered to them by the State.”
Note the ‘must’. Note the ‘we cannot tolerate’ – an appeal for support in his hour of need to fellow-travellers of the Thatcherite, welfare-cutting variety.
So, in effect, under the guise of a heartfelt apology, Myers was treating those he had insulted to a rehash of the same, deeply insulting argument.
And there was more. “Other societies have pioneered the mass experiment in fatherless families, and they have found them to be way stations to male delinquency, gang membership and criminality,” he said – an almost comically blundering and insensitive note, you’d have thought, to strike in an apology to unmarried mothers.
But the most hypocritical line was held till close to the end of what was by this stage manifestly an apologia rather than an apology. “I wrote my column because of my concern for those who have already been lured into this trap, or are about to be drawn into the career of benefit-dependent single-motherhood.”
At which stage, the only logical response could be, “Well, fuck off, Kevin with your grossly insincere apology. And with your disgusting, self satisfied, condescending concern as well.”
This was not an apology, to those people who had been the target of his attack, at all. To a far greater extent it was an apology to the people whose side he was on, to those, including Ed Walsh, whose campaign he had at least temporarily derailed. To describe it as self-pitying, self-justifying, disingenuous and downright ignorant would not be unkind.
It also failed utterly to address the most poisonous and damaging aspect of his original piece – which had nothing at all to do with the use of the word bastard…
Rewind again. The original article was laced throughout with unconcealed contempt for anyone who has had a child outside marriage – but especially for women, and more especially working class or underprivileged women.
It betrayed an undercurrent at least of the underlying philosophy of nazism – that is the belief that there are people who are genetically inferior, who have little or no chance of becoming citizens worthy of equal consideration, and whose very existence is sufficient cause for upstanding folk – like Myers – to ring the alarm bells. And yet, as far as I could see from reading the reactions, most of Myers’ critics failed to identify this.
So let’s return to what he did say, in the second paragraph of his original attack on what are clearly a vulnerable group.
“Even as things stand,” he wrote, “we are bribing the unmotivated, the confused, the backward, the lazy into making the worst career decision of their young lives and becoming professional unmarried mothers, living off the State until the grave takes over. Our welfare system is creating benefit-addicted, fatherless families who will be raised in a culture of personal and economic apathy – and from such warped timber, true masts are seldom hewn.”
Read it again. To begin with, that short passage of vitriolic prose is breath-taking in its arrogance, its absolute, unqualified, presumption of superiority. Children born to unmarried mothers are inferior – to children born to married parents, as well as, of course, to Kevin Myers himself. But they are not only inferior – they are all-but-irredeemably so. They are not our equals. They are warped timber. Try turning those twisted things into upright citizens! Into true masts…
“And how do MOBs (Mothers of Bastards, in Myers-ese) cope,” he went on, “when their male bastards (in a literal sense) become metaphorical bastards in adolescence?” So, there is just one possible, pre-determined outcome when a boy-child is born to an unmarried mother. The child will become a metaphorical as well as a real bastard. Kevin Myers stops short of suggesting that we should lock them up or shoot them before they start shooting us – but only just.
It is, whatever way you look at it, a disgracefully prejudiced position that is thoroughly anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic in its implications.
In the Questions and Answers debate on the issue, there was one terribly poignant moment when a member of the audience, an unmarried mother, quoted the section that mentions warped timber, and seemed to be about to cry. John Bowman reacted abruptly, clearly concerned about the potential for embarrassment and the moment was lost. But the point she was making was the crucial one.
Perversely, however, it may be preferable that Myers said what he had to say in An Irishman’s Diary and that the Irish Times printed it verbatim. I know, it’s easy for me to say that, not having directly experienced the distress which the column caused to so many single mothers and their children.
But what Kevin Myers did, more effectively I suspect than any opponent of Ed Walsh’s original argument could have done, was to get to the heart of the thinking behind the campaign against welfare for single mothers and their children.
No matter how they dress it up in euphemisms or evasions and by reference to poverty traps, as Liz O’Donnell did on the same Questions And Answers on RTE, this is what the argument is about. To paraphrase: “These women are a burden on the State. And their children are a menace. And what’s more, we resent the idea that any of our precious taxes are being spent on providing them with support.”
In getting to the nub of this noxious argument so exactly, the hope is that Myers may just have stopped it in its tracks.
If we’re lucky.
A number of different debates have criss-crossed in the aftermath of the publication of Myers’ hostile views on unmarried mothers by the Irish Times. The most important of these is about the issue of lone parent families and the fact that there are far more than ever in Ireland.
However, this is only part of the story. The number as measured by the most recent census includes people whose husbands or wives have died and people who are separated or divorced, as well as those who are unmarried parents, so the current scare-mongering on the topic is based to a degree at least, on a deliberate misuse of the facts.
That said, there has certainly also been a significant increase in the number of mothers giving birth to children outside marriage. But is that necessarily a bad thing? There was a time when, if the male could be identified or was willing to own up, a shotgun marriage was the inevitable response to a woman becoming pregnant outside marriage (if he happened to be married or a priest, well, that was very problematic indeed, but that’s a different story, isn’t it?).
Undoubtedly, of course, this still happens where young couples are concerned, with an unwilling husband-to-be, and usually an equally unwilling female partner, being frog-marched up the aisle by their respective families in order to conform to the ‘ideal’ of the nuclear family. Does Kevin Myers think that this approach should be more widepread? Perhaps we need a set-up like Guantanamo Bay to debrief the ones who try to get away without tying the knot? Nothing wrong with a bit of coercion, where the situation demends it, eh?
And what about the teenage mothers, who Kevin Myers so movingly indicated were the primary object of his deep concern? Has there been a huge upsurge in the numbers of girls making the “worst career decision of their lives?” Has there been any at all? The answer is no. The number of children being born to young women in their teens in Ireland between 1974 and 2004 has remained more or less static.
Or to put it another way, the increases in social welfare support which have been afforded to unmarried mothers in the interim, have had absolutely no effect, in terms of encouraging teenagers to have children outside marriage.
In the past, before the most basic supports the State now provides were introduced, the fate of the children of unmarried mothers was often very different. To begin with, many women were forced into homes to have their children, and left there to moulder in suffrage in what we have come to know as Magdalen Laundries. Perhaps a return to that era is what Kevin Myers – and Ed Walsh, while we’re at it – would like?
Very many women were forced by a combination of poverty and social unacceptability to give up their children for adoption. Perhaps a return to that policy is what Myers – and while we’re at it, again, Ed Walsh – would wish?
Or there is another possible solution that would mean that unmarried mothers and their children would not become such a bothersome drain on the public purse. In fact there are two.
(1) Perhaps they should be persuaded that it would be better for the State and for all of the upstanding ‘masts’ who pay taxes, if they were to have abortions. After all, everyone – including the would-be mothers themselves (who, let’s not forget, are the real objects of the beneficent Mr Myers’ concern in all of this) – would be protected from the delinquents and gang-members into which their bastards (if they had them) would inevitably turn.
(2) Failing this perfectly reasonable proposition, if the unmotivated, confused, backward, lazy and now it has to be said thoroughly unco-operative mothers of these prospective criminals do not agree to have an abortion, well, let them otherwise do the kind of thing that unmarried mothers were on occasion forced to do to support themselves and their progeny in the past – for example, there is always work to be had as prostitutes, a role which would doubtless suit the Jezebels well and which pays handsomely.
Yes, surely that is a solution that would appeal to all reasonable – I mean legitimate – human beings…
The column sparked another debate, about whether or not the Irish Times should have published the column. It became a wider debate about Freedom of Speech and the limits thereto that can reasonably be applied by an editor of a newspaper (or magazine).
I wondered would hotpress have printed the offensive views expressed by Kevin Myers and in the language in which they were couched. The answer is that I certainly would have published them, in the context of an interview with Kevin Myers. In fact, as an editor, I would have taken a certain pleasure in the sense that we had persuaded him to reveal the fundamental prejudice behind that neo-conservative, anti-welfare, anti-liberal view of the world so precisely.
So to publish or not to publish isn’t a purely black and white issue.
For the record, I find the use of the term ‘bastard’, in the way that it was applied by Kevin Myers, genuinely offensive. Language is capable of being used as a a weapon, as any writer knows – and that’s the way Kevin Myers used it. In the spirit of the article, it was intended to re-ignite the stigma that once – not so long ago, either – applied to children born outside marriage. What was and is most despicable in this is that Kevin Myers was targeting already vulnerable children with a specific call to prejudice against them – prejudice, that is, in the real meaning of the term, that of being prejudged as inferior, tainted, useless and maybe even dangerous.
And what of ‘political correctness’? As a by-product of the campaigns being waged by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement, people began to look afresh at the way in which language can be used as a means of oppression. The aim was to free people of the effects of stereotyping implicit in the use of epithets like niggers, kikes, sluts, fags and so on and generally to get people to be a bit more sensitive to the feelings of others when they speak.
No one who is interested in civilised discourse could have a problem with this. As a professional writer, however, there is an added responsibility to consider the sensitivities involved where the use of a particular pejorative is concerned, and to err on the side of avoiding playing to, and potentially reinforcing, irrational prejudices.
But that does not mean that newspapers shouldn’t print controversial views, strongly expressed, or that they should remove particular words simply on the basis that they might offend a certain quota of readers.
It is, of course, a question of context. There is a difference between a magazine or a newpaper quoting the prejudiced opinions of an interviewee and a newspaper allowing a columnist the run of the paper to say the same thing. The first implies no editorial endorsement; the second does, in a way that no editorial disclaimer can negate.
I wouldn’t want a columnist who holds those views on the hotpress editorial team. If by some freak, one of our existing columnists delivered material of that kind, the likelihood is that I would insist that it couldn’t and wouldn’t run. I abhor the views expressed and wouldn’t want the magazine to be associated with them. The editor of the Irish Times had the opportunity to take a similar stance. She didn’t do it and unless her idea of the Irish Times’ editorial remit specifically extends to providing a platform for that kind of hateful polemic, you could argue that she made a mistake. But, in fairness, the lines are not always clear when it comes to the day to day decision making; final calls are made on the run and anyone can slip-up. And besides, the Irish Times is a very different animal to hotpress. Maybe its board and its editor want it to publish extreme right wing views of this kind.
Bearing this in mind, there is a real danger to freedom of speech, and freedom in the exchange of ideas, in the proposed Press Council. Where bodies of this kind function, they generally err, often ludicrously, on the side of caution. Try getting an ad that has any bit of an edge to it past the advertising standards committee in RTE and you’ll understand.
It’s easy to make the claim that something is in bad taste. It’s easy to find an article offensive. But is that sufficient cause to say that it should not be published? Hunter S Thompson certainly wouldn’t have thought so…
The best response, of course, is open debate of the kind that took place in the wake of Myers’ article. In the context of which, it was more than a little instructive to see how quickly he too donned the mask of victim.
In a follow-up piece in the Sunday Tribune, he was quoted as saying that the week during which the controversy ran had been the worst of his life. It broke his heart, he told reporter Aine Coffey, that people think he is against unmarried mothers.
It sounded bizarrely like the kind of reaction he had lampooned in his original article. “We just know that’s not going to happen in Ireland while debate remains mired in the schoolgirl swamp of what is ‘hurtful’ and ‘offensive’,” he wrote (and he might have added ‘heartbreaking’ to the list): “Why thith howwid talk makes one want to cwy.”
And – as before – there was more. The furore had been stirred up by RTE, who had behaved appallingly, he claimed. “I should not have been on the nine o’clock bulletin with my photo. This is crazy. I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I am a mere columnist, not the Taoiseach, not the President. I am just an unimportant person who most people wouldn’t know, just a newspaper journalist. I had no idea these forces were waiting in the long grass.”
Yes, everybody was out to get him. By the following Thursday, he was using the death of Arthur Miller to suggest in An Irishman’s Diary that he had indeed been the victim of a witch hunt. Which only goes to show that those who most enjoy dishing it out hate more than anything else to be on the receiving end.
His line about being a mere journalist is, in any event, disingenuous. He wouldn’t write an opinion column like An Irishman’s Diary if he didn’t believe that it had the potential to influence people’s thinking on the one hand, and public policy on the other. The objective of any serious opinion writer is to exercise as much power as possible, to have an influence and to be a catalyst for change – and I wouldn’t believe anyone who says otherwise even for a second.
This is a perfectly legitimate aspiration. In an Irish context, the most influential journalists may well wield as much clout as the average backbench TD, and more. That, as is his right, has to be what Kevin Myers wants. Demure disavowals sound like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to deceive.
But there is a more important contradiction at the heart of Kevin Myers’ stance on the entire episode. In his column, he rails against political correctness and social conformity. Yet what he argued for in his original column was social conformity of a particularly stifling variety.
For what else is the nuclear family – the mammy, the daddy and the children all together under the one roof – but the most basic form of social conformism? I wouldn’t knock it – I am part of one, and it has been one of the great joys of my own life. But I do not believe and cannot accept for one minute that there is anything inferior about those who choose to live, or who as a result of circumstances find themselves living, their lives differently.
Nor do I accept that those who have different domestic arrangements cannot do just as good a job of bringing their children to maturity, full of the joys of life and love, and as capable of contributing to society as any children I have been lucky enough to have.
These issues are far too complex to be reduced to the mad combination of genetic Darwinism and behaviouralist fundamentalism which Kevin Myers seems to expound. We have lived through an era in which the nuclear family in Ireland was far too often a prison for those who were part of it. The record of domestic violence, of sexual abuse, of dysfunctional families is there. It is stupidly simplistic to now advance this as a model to which everyone must aspire, irrespective of the circumstances of their relationships.
So much of this is entwined with notions of culture, of what is the norm – and of what is acceptable or good. The view and indeed the experience of this in China is as different to ours as ours is to America or America’s is to Iran.
One of the great democratic victories of the past fifty years in this part of the world, however, has been the erosion of the idea that there is a straight and narrow to which we all have to conform, that there is one true way in which people should be expected to organise their lives, their sexuality and their breeding. As far as Irish people of common decency and compassion are concerned, the stigma that had attached to being the child of a lone parent, or being part of a family in which the parents have separated or divorced is gone.
However, the thrust of Kevin Myers article was to try to push us all back towards the particular form of social conformism that was involved in the assumption that you had to be part of a nuclear familial set-up to be considered a truly upstanding, worthwhile citizen – whether as a mother, a father, or a child.
In the end, what emerged from what he wrote was a complete ignorance of the circumstances in which unmarried mothers live. A complete ignorance of the crippling wait that is usually involved for acommodation, if they look for it. A complete ignorance of the sacrifices they make and the work they put in. A complete ignorance of the variety of domestic arrangements which they fashion and make work for themselves and their children. And a complete ignorance of the love, tenderness and affection that exists between the vast majority of them – mothers and fathers – and their children.
The State should be doing more to assist them, not less.