Posts By Bryan Wall

The Rationalist’s Defence of Injustice

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Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, supposedly replied that he thought it might be a good idea. Taken at face value, we can presume that he was both contemptuous and cynical of the idea of civilisation of any kind existing in the West. Being on the receiving end of Western civilisational endeavours such as the one he experienced in India during his life, he would have been well aware of hollowness of the idea that actions and ideas emanating from the West were inherently virtuous. Indeed, very few people, especially in Ireland, need to be reminded of the great altruism with which the British Empire undertook the task of civilising the world. Although Great Britain is no longer the empire it once was, it continues to play the civilising game along with its master, the United States. Meanwhile, the notion that great powers undertake certain actions for the benefit of the “uncivilised” of the world continues to hold sway, along with the concomitant idea that such actions are inherently virtuous. They are inherently virtuous simply because said actions are being carried out by the U.S. and its allies. Nothing more needs to be said in their defence according to the reigning orthodoxy. Said orthodoxy resides not only in and around the centres of power, and not only emerges from the mouths of the most devoted nationalists and neoconservatives but can also be found in those who are considered to be sceptics and rationalists.

Two of the most vocal types of this are Sam Harris and his former colleague, Christopher Hitchens. Both men had become two of the four faces most associated with rationalism, specifically atheism, and the so-called New Atheism, that emerged more or less immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. In the case of Hitchens, advocating for a non-religious world due to the fact that he deemed religion a threat to humanity became one part of his public persona. The other part was as a cheerleader for the neoconservative movement. Counting amongst his friends Paul Wolfowitz, the former U.S. Deputy Director of Defence in the Bush II administration, Hitchens could be relied upon to decry the evils of religion in the same breath as declaring British and U.S. intentions in the Middle East as righteous. His views did not in any way evolve before his death in 2012 from oesophageal cancer. One year before his death, when asked if he thought the invasion of Iraq along with the subsequent chaos it unleashed was worth the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, he responded in the positive; the fracturing and destruction of a country, from which it may never recover, was deemed a price worth paying for the regional interests of his acquaintances in the White House.

Although claiming to take a more nuanced view of things, Harris is arguably worse than Hitchens in his support for the British and U.S. interests around the word. Although Hitchens was outlandishly crude in some of his pronunciations, Harris on the other hand relies on the veneer of calm and respectable discourse in order to promote views that are far from respectable. Harris’ position is essentially that Islam in particular represents an existential and ongoing threat to superior Western civilisation and ideals. Therefore, it must be dealt with accordingly by those who have the power to do so. Being unmentionable is that it just happens that the balance of power resides by far in the hands of the U.S. and its closest allies, yet the threat apparently remains. This is half of the premise of Harris’ main point of contention with Noam Chomsky, the other half being that that our intentions are good regardless of the outcomes. In this view, because collateral damage is not intentional on the part of leaders, what we do that causes civilian deaths in the first place is therefore not judged by the supposedly unexpected outcome of collateral damage. The act is judged simply by its intentions. If the intention was to destroy a terrorist training camp via a Hellfire missile, and civilians were accidentally killed in the process, the civilians do not enter into any moral calculation. The initial act was carried out for the correct reasons, at least according to those in power and their supporters, therefore the unintentional deaths of civilians do not enter into any moral calculation of the hypothetical missile strike.

This is Harris’ stance on the nature of U.S. foreign policy, at least as he laid it out in recent correspondence with Chomsky, arguing that the U.S. is “in many respects, just… a ‘well-intentioned giant.’” The Clinton Administration’s bombing in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which resulted in the destruction of roughly half of the country’s medicines, including its entire supply of anti-malaria drugs, was a legitimate act according to Harris. The apparent intention, which Harris takes for granted, was to destroy a chemical weapons factory, with the resulting suffering unleashed on the country being of no concern. What matters are intentions, nothing else. Harris simply takes it for granted that what we do is right and proper simply by virtue of the fact that it is being done by us. Harris presumes, with no evidence, that “Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily.” The more likely reason, which Harris fails to mention or perhaps even realise, is that the plant’s destruction was in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier. Although a terrorist attack on civilians in the Middle East or somewhere in the West may have the same outcome as the al-Shifa bombing and other similar acts by Western states, the two cases cannot be compared according to Harris conception of intentions. By logically extending his notion of intentionality, our crimes are not really crimes, and deaths caused by us are not really caused by us, a logic that would impress the most committed totalitarian ideologue.

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Education Versus Neo-Liberalism

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The ongoing events in the National College of Art and Design (N.C.A.D.) speak to a larger and slowly emerging crisis in the Irish educational system. Having endured increases in fees, an escalating dearth of studio space, and an ever more obstinate college bureaucracy and leadership, the students took it upon themselves to offer a list to demands to the college management. The college ignored the requests of the students, even going so far as to pull out of a meeting with the students where their concerns and objections would be voiced in person. The students responded by occupying a room in the college on Tuesday, March 24th, with further similar actions, including public lectures, having taken place in the last few days, and with more actions planned. A petition has also been circulated and signed by a number of Irish academics and graduate students, declaring solidarity with the students and the need for “another model of what higher education might be — one guided by the pursuit of learning rather than the pursuit of profit, driven by radical enquiry rather than bogus metrics”. Events in the N.C.A.D. are a microcosm of what the education system in Ireland is currently enduring. 

Although having to meet certain economic and financial requirements have always been part and parcel of the lives of academics and students, such requirements were not as threatening and all-encompassing as they are now. An obvious starting point for the current attack that the education system is under is the sinking of the economy due to financial malfeasance on the part of banks, civil servants, and governments. In fact, and to my knowledge something that has never been reported on, the education system, particularly third level, was always going to be one of the first areas that would come under attack in order to save the banking system. Reading the transcripts of the MacGill Summer School of 2009, in which over forty Irish intellectuals, government ministers, and elites gathered together to discuss what needed to be done to fix the economy, demonstrates this. Of particular note was the speech given by Dermot Gleeson, the then Chairman of Allied Irish Bank (A.I.B.), and who also happened to have a meeting with the Taoiseach and Minister of Finance on the evening before and night of the bank guarantee. Gleeson, blaming the public as much as the banks for the economy collapsing, pointed out that something needed to be done in order to increase government revenue. He laid out the corrective plan as follows: 

“We need to broaden the tax base by cutting out reliefs which are no longer justified; this is very much preferable to raising tax rates. Property taxes need to be less dependent on transactions and a property tax of some sort, needs to replace stamp duty, at least in part. There may be need for more user charges to fund high quality infrastructure in the form of road tolls, water charges and university fees. A carbon tax needs to balance the demands of climate change and competitiveness. In relation to expenditure we need more difficult decisions while maintaining investment in research and infrastructure. The cost of public services needs to be brought into line with costs in the rest of the economy. Excessive regulation and outdated work practices need to be eliminated. We need to reduce the long term inflation expectation back to the Euro average and we are well advanced on that project…. We need to implement public sector reform with real urgency” [emphasis added].

 University fees are far from the only thing we have to worry about, however. Third level has not only had fees reintroduced in all but name, as per Gleeson’s suggestion, but cutbacks have been made across the system as a whole. In spite of such cutbacks, student numbers have increased, putting the system under even more pressure. An obvious result of such pressure is that it makes universities and colleges more pliable. They simply need the funding and will do what they can to attract such funding.

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The Crisis of Irish Democracy

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The current crisis of Irish democracy is not the one currently being given space in the nation’s mainstream media outlets. Ungovernability is supposedly just around the corner according to some. A “sinister fringe” is engaging in acts of violence. “Marxist-Leninists” are standing in the way of the government and its wishes. Michael Noonan is on record as saying that he and his government “govern for the reasonable people,” and not the sinister fringe of ungovernable Marxist-Leninists in our midst. Reading this, one would imagine that the Red Army of old is engaging in ideological, and very physical, warfare on Ireland. Of course this is sheer nonsense, but the ghost of the “Dreaded Red” is well risen from its grave, courtesy of the necromancers currently inhabiting Dáil Éireann. Such propaganda is a reaction to the citizens of Ireland having had enough of years of austerity measures.

They have taken to the streets, engaged in peaceful protest, and civil disobedience, in order to show their contempt for their treatment by the government. Compared to other European countries over the last few years, Ireland has been relatively quiet on the protest front. The planned introduction of water charges has changed all that. And now, the government and the Irish media, are panicking. A citizenry of a Western and ostensibly democratic state is not supposed to be actively engaged in the democratic process. To do so is to cause a “crisis of democracy”. This is nothing remotely new. During the 1960s and 1970s, people on both sides of the Atlantic demanded equal rights, an end to war, and generally demanded social change from their leaders whom they considered to have failed in their duty to create an equal society in the post-war years. To that end, they engaged in massive demonstrations and civil disobedience in order to achieve their aims. Such activity on the part of the wider citizenry frightened the leaders of the Western world, so much so that it became the basis of a report by the Trilateral Commission.

Published in 1975, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, examined in some detail the causes and effects of the active citizenry that emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Written by three leading academics for the NGO, it is premised on the idea that a previously apathetic citizenry became more active and therefore undermined the credibility and functioning of democracy. Although the introduction states that the report is “designed to make democracy stronger”, the definition of democracy being worked off is a top-down approach to governance in which the population is preferably apathetic, passive, and stratified. All three authors wondered how to make democracy not more democratic or effective in the popular understanding of the term, but how to enable a return to the previous state of affairs of an apathetic, passive, and stratified citizenry.

A “crisis of democracy” was “a breakdown of traditional means of social control, a delegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.” An “increase of social interaction” resulted in the breakdown of the means of “traditional social control imposed upon the individual by collective authorities, especially the state, and by hierarchical religious institutions.” In turn, this meant that citizens “resist any kind of social control that is associated with the hierarchical values they have learned to discard and reject.” Individuality was seen to have usurped traditional civic values and stratification, and therefore people were more free than ever to choose their jobs, friends, partners, and general future, as they saw fit. At the very least, the wider population had decided that they could make those decisions for themselves without government interference.

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The Garda Inspectorate Report is Just One Small Part of More to Come

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In April of last year, former Irish Independent journalist, Gemma O’Doherty did something that no journalist appropriately indoctrinated is supposed to do: She dared to question the received orthodoxy. The dogma in question related to prominent figures in Irish society having penalty points and Fixed Charge Notices (FCNs) cancelled. O’Doherty discovered that the Garda Commissioner, Martin Callinan, had penalty points of his own cancelled and dared to approach him about it. Not long afterwards she was brought in front of an internal committee of Independent News & Media (INM), the company which owns the Irish Independent, and reprimanded for her approaching the Commissioner. By August she was made compulsorily redundant. Her former boss, Stephen Rae, also happened to have penalty points cancelled and was the former editor of Garda Review magazine, “the professional voice of the Garda” according to its website. This is just one part of the larger story surrounding the penalty points scandal which has been slowly coming to a boil over the last two years. The only reason that the cancellation of penalty points has been thrust into the public sphere is because of the actions of two whistleblowers; retired Garda John Wilson and Sgt. Maurice McCabe.

There has been much obfuscation on the part of certain elements of the media and amongst the political echelon. The two gardaí have been labelled as “uncooperative” and “disgusting”. Character assassinations of this kind are nothing new and neither are the reasons for their characters being attacked. They, like O’Doherty, also dared to tell the truth and challenge the status quo. Wilson related that he first became aware of the level of the cancellation of penalty points in 2012 when one of his colleagues was transferred to a particular district in order to “clean it up”. There were numerous problems there relating to discipline, lack of proper investigatory procedures, and in general “shoddy practices”. Wilson’s colleague contacted him and informed him that he felt isolated and unsupported by his superiors. It was this colleague of Wilson’s who informed him of “strange patterns in the penalty points system”, with “clusters” of cancellations being found. What this meant was that the same people were having penalty points cancelled on multiple occasions. Wilson decided to do his own investigating and began “mooching around” the PULSE system in order to “garner full knowledge” of what was taking place. He soon discovered that the cancellation of penalty points was widespread, i.e., countrywide. What’s more is that the same type of “clusters” described above were also discovered around the country.

Wilson then decided to make a complaint to the garda Confidental Recipient regarding a small number of the penalty point cancellations. The person in question contacted the offices of various government ministers, including the Taoiseach’s, in which he made it clear that there were serious allegations being made regarding corruption in the gardaí. Concurrent to this, Sgt. McCabe wrote to the Taoiseach in July, August, and September outlining his concerns with reference to the cancellation of penalty points. From here the Taoiseach passed the issue on to Alan Shatter who in turn contacted Garda Commissioner Callinan about the issue. Not long afterwards, Callinan appointed Assistant Commissioner John O’Mahoney to head-up a report on the subject. This report was apparently preliminarily completed within one month, in November 2012. In the meantime, months had gone by and neither Wilson nor McCabe were contacted. Wilson, fed up waiting, then approached TD Clare Daly with his findings. One month later in December of 2012, Sgt. McCabe was visited by Chief Superintendent Mark Curran who had arrived at McCabe’s station in order to issue him a directive from the Commissioner. Callinan claimed that McCabe was a directed to cooperate with the investigation being carried out by O’Mahoney. The transcript of the conversation, which was surreptitiously recorded by McCabe, says otherwise. McCabe was ordered to “desist searching PULSE” and from handing over information regarding the penalty points issue to a third party. This interdiction also included handing over the relevant information to the garda Confidential Recipient and the Taoiseach. It was mere weeks later when Daly was arrested on suspicion of drink driving, a suspicion which turned out to be completely unfounded. By the time Assistant Commissioner O’Mahoney’s report was finalised in March of 2013 neither Wilson or McCabe had been contacted by the report’s author.

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Lies and Obfuscation Have Been the Name of the Game in the GSOC Bugging Scandal

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Lying is ingrained into Irish politics. There is nothing new in politicians lying but in the case of Ireland, it has become so commonplace that instead of anger there is only apathy or indifference to it. In Ireland, both politicians and the average person consider it so par for the course that Pat Rabbitte is able to go on national television and declare that lying in the lead up to a general election is something that you “tend to do”. The case of the bugging of the headquarters of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) is no different in this regard. We have seen government ministers, high-ranking members of the Gardaí, and journalists, lie and obfuscate. The facts are clear and are uncontroversial. The reaction to the revelations have been anything but uncontroversial, however.

First off, Alan Shatter and Enda Kenny were more concerned with the fact that they weren’t informed about GSOC carrying out an investigation into suspicions that their HQ was bugged than the fact that bugging had potentially, and likely, taken place. The government claimed that under Section 80 subsection 5 of the Garda Síochána Act, GSOC were obligated to inform the office of the Minister of Justice of their investigation. Shatter was still claiming this last night in the Dáil. The problem is that no such obligation exists, with the supposed obligation of GSOC to have informed the minister’s office of their investigation being purely discretionary. This position was backed by former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness on the February 18th edition of Tonight With Vincent Browne. This particular claim continues to do the rounds, no doubt to the government’s advantage, in order to beat the GSOC around the head and inevitably sully their public image.

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Drones Come From the Sky, But Leave the Heavy Footprint of War on the Communities that they Target

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Barack Obama was seen by many of the liberals of the world as the only hope for a just and ethical American government. He was seen as the archetypal liberal; educated, young, and more importantly, not a Republican. Not long after his election however, we quickly came to learn that it would be business as usual for the White House, and more. Under the Obama administration we have seen a disastrous foreign policy in which any person deemed a terrorist or a threat to the national security of the United States, or their interests, can be summarily and extrajudically assassinated. One of the predominant methods of carrying out these assassinations is via drone strike. With what has been essentially an onslaught of drone strikes, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, the UN has begun to investigate the legality of these strikes. This investigation has thus far been part of the basis of two reports which were issued in September of last year.

The first report, Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, dealt with the issue of drone strikes within the framework of international law. The Special Rapporteur noted that, “drones are here to stay”, and that they are not necessarily illegal weapons. However, the Rapporteur also took note of the fact that drones make it far easier to kill a suspect as opposed to trying to capture them. He also noted that the sheer proliferation of the use of armed drones “may lower social barriers in society against the deployment of lethal force and result in attempts to weaken the relevant legal standards”. Added to this is the lack of transparency regarding the legal framework being used by the White House to target suspects for assassination. When combined with the relative safety with which a drone can be operated, the report states that domestic or political constraints on their use can easily be “reduce[d] or eliminated”. This is precisely how the Obama administration has promoted the use of drones; that they are surgical in their precision, clean, and more importantly, keep American lives out of harm’s way. When we dig a little deeper, the truth is much more frightful and perilous.

The exact determination of the criteria needed to target someone for assassination is not shared with the public. Nonetheless, certain details are known. According to Jeremy Scahill, in the closing days of the Bush administration, the CIA began targeting suspects for assassination on the basis of “patterns of life rather than specific intelligence”. If a person adhered to a certain list of “signatures” that the agency had devised, this was enough to make them a target. One of these “signatures” could be as little as being a military aged male in a particular region of the globe. Being an imminent threat or being involved in plotting against the United States was also not a prerequisite for being targeted. The mere potential to commit acts of terrorism against the United States or its interests became enough to warrant death. The Obama administration embraced this method of warmongering with gusto. In the first 10 months of taking office, Obama launched more drone strikes than Bush Jr. had in the previous 8 years. Obama personally signs off on each assassination on what is called “Terror Tuesdays”, where he and his advisors go over a list of suspects and decide who is to live and who is to die.

In spite of what the White House and the Pentagon may think about the effectiveness of drone strikes, it is clear that they do two things: They violate international law and they encourage terrorism. That both of these statements are truisms is unimportant. It is important though to examine them in greater detail.  As to the latter, in an interview with the journal Foreign Affairs early last year, General Stanley McChrystal made the same point that is made above; that drones strikes seem to carry little risk with maximum benefits. But this does not give the wider view of the larger consequences of such actions, pointing out that, “at the receiving end, it feels like war”.  He further stated that if drones were “used carelessly”, which he believes isn’t the case, “then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with”. Similarly, in an appearance in front of a United States Senate committee in April of last year, Yemeni native Farea Al-Muslimi related the story of how six days previous to his appearance in front of the committee, his village had been the victim of a drone strike. Ominously, but not unsurprisingly, he stated that, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America”. The UN report already mentioned also makes this point. The Special Rapporteur writes that, “drones come from the sky, but leave the heavy footprint of war on the communities that they target”.

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Callinan’s Attitude is Simply a Reflection of Irish Politics

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The saga of the cancellation of penalty points and garda whistleblowing continues to be played out in the Irish public sphere. The latest chapters have been the appearance of Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and his subsequent behaviour there to questioning from the various public representatives in the committee. His answers and their tone in front of the committee has since come under much scrutiny, along with his opposition to one of the whistleblowers appearing in front of the same committee in the following week. Said whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, did appear before the committee earlier this week, but in a private session behind closed doors. He has since stated that he hopes that the transcript of his appearance before the committee is made public, but the PAC has “received legal opinion strongly advising against publishing the transcript”. Most of the media coverage has focused on the above two incidents; both Commissioner Callinan’s and Sgt McCabe’s appearance in front of the PAC. Even though there has been some comment on Callinan’s attitude towards the PAC, none of it has linked this attitude to Irish politics more generally. His behaviour is simply a reflection of the decades of contemptuousness amongst the powerful in Irish society towards any accountability. We don’t need to dig too far into Irish history to in order to uncover such examples. In fact, another of the whistleblowers, Garda John Wilson, made this very point recently.

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Five Years On – The Media’s Role in Ireland’s Financial Fall

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With the five-year anniversary of the nationalising of the Irish banks having just passed us, one would think that at this stage we would have some answers. One would be wrong. Of course, much has been written about the topic in the years since. However, as much as we and the media enjoy blaming the elites of the world for what happened, the media also had a large role to play in the inflating the property bubble which has since burst and the consequences of which have hobbled the country. They toed the party line regarding property prices, and as a result, played an important propagandising role in the country. Whilst over the previous week there have been numerous articles written about the bank guarantee and the resulting economic downfall, as far as I am aware, nothing has been said about the media’s culpability. This is an important omission, but not entirely unsurprising.

Nevertheless, one Irish-based academic has looked at this particular issue. In April of this year, Julien Mercille, of the School of Geography, Planning & Environmental Policy in University College Dublin (UCD), published a paper entitled “The Role of the Media in Sustaining Ireland’s Housing Bubble”. The paper, which got a very limited amount of publicity at the time of its publication, goes into great detail regarding the functioning of the economy prior to the bank guarantee and the media’s role in helping to inflate and sustain the property bubble. As early as 1998, economist David McWilliams was writing about the dangers of a property bubble emerging in Ireland as all of the signs pointed to one. He wrote that, “general credit in the economy is up more than 20 per cent in 1997 alone. A quick glance at property prices suggests that we are definitely entering asset-price bubble territory”. However, such viewpoints were rarely heard in the national media and reasons for this are simple: The centralisation of power, overlapping interests, and clientelism/cronyism. We can see this when we look at the composition of those at the top of the various private and state-owned media in Ireland.

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Atheism in Ireland and the Decline of the Catholic Church

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It is generally considered a truism these days to state that from the foundation of the Republic, the Catholic Church has had a large part to play in the running of the country. Legislation was passed or defeated on the whims of Catholic interests, social norms and conventions were passed down from the pulpit to the worshippers in the pews, and most shamefully, thousands of women and children were forced into what was essentially slave labour in the country’s Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries. However, the attitude of many towards the Church has changed dramatically over the last twenty or so years, no doubt caused by the revelations of what went on in the Industrial Schools, Magdalene Laundries, along with the revelations of a vast conspiracy to cover up allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children being carried out by members of the clergy. The Church as an institution, for all its posturing statements over the last number of years, will have to do something drastic if it is to recover from the various scandals that have hit it and continue to do so. One can clearly chart its decline in some of the latest figures regarding religious worship in Ireland.

In the 2011 census, a total of 3,861,335 people, 81.4 per cent of the population, declared themselves as Catholic, a 4.9 per cent increase since the 2006 census, when 3,681,446 people identified themselves as such. Yet, regarding this increase, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) stated, “that while the number of Catholics overall increased by 179,889, or 4.9 per cent, since 2006 much of this increase came from the non-Irish (mostly European) national community.” On the other hand, those identifying as having no religion increased by 45 per cent, up from 186,318 in 2006, to 269,811 in 2011. When broken down further in a separate CSO document, 72,914 did not state their religion, or lack of, with another 3,905 and 3,521 people stating Atheist and Agnostic respectively as their religion. As anyone remotely familiar with the religious demographics of Ireland will tell you though, the number of “true Catholics” is likely to be far smaller than the 81.4 per cent noted in the 2011 census. This can be seen in a range of areas.

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