When the language of politics fails, it speaks for the meanest impulse

When the language of politics fails, it speaks for the meanest impulse
Fianna Fáil senator Lorraine Clifford Lee, left, and by-election candidate Verona Murphy.

In an unexpected twist to the confidence and supply arrangement, Fianna Fáil’s by-election candidate in Dublin-Fingal, Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, provided cover for Fine Gael’s Wexford candidate Verona Murphy. It’s the reverse of the domino effect.

If Micheál Martin had pulled the plug on Clifford-Lee, Murphy would be gone. They are different examples of the same phenomenon.

The first is years old, the second only days. But we are a country where public conversation no longer fits public standards.

What has spilled over is merely mild expression of what is routinely heard in private. Social media is especially putrid. But it is not unmoored to a darker reality.

There is intense phobia and prejudice among some. What is more concerning is a milder, but not inoculated variation of the same virus among a greater swathe of the population.

The latter is the ether from which what is deemed appalling arrives. There may only be a small cohort of avowedly prejudiced people. It is more numerous fellow travellers who provide permission.

Those of us who smile weakly at prejudiced innuendo and then rush to be offended by the most gratuitous examples are part of the problem. What both main parties must address in the aftermath of those by-elections is the issue of standards.

These are standards they conspicuously failed to demonstrate in these campaigns. In the ready-mix of elections, it is inevitable that what is beneath the surface will break through. Indeed, it already had. Only a few weeks ago on this page I wrote that something dark was about to burst out. It has been quicker and more intense than I thought.

Johnathan Swift’s essay Polite Conversation might be required reading for politicians and candidates. It is comedy and caricature of course, but it about negotiating power in public. Then the only ones to overhear were household servants. But it was essential to communicate both clearly and in code.

What politics, that most wordy of occupations, has failed to do is find a language that speaks of the people, to the people, and for the people. Instead when it fails, as it has, it speaks only for the meanest impulse. There is a way of addressing new complexities as Michelle Obama said, so that “when they go low, we go high”.

As I write, our public conversation is trending down. Words matter, and this must be addressed.

Of relevance, given Murphy’s concern about Islamic State IS in Wexford, might be a revisit to The Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhála). First the Parthalon, then the Nemed, followed by the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and finally the Milesians invaded.

It framed a view of history that anticipated that specifically Wexford event on the beach of Baginbun. We have, it seems, in some accounts, been invaded ever since.

There was something of it too in de Valera’s great reply to Churchill after the Second World War. He spoke of “ a small nation ... that endured spoliations, famines, massacres in endless succession; that was clubbed many times into insensibility, but that each time on returning consciousness took up the fight anew”.

On the fringes of right-wing Irish nationalism, this is all deeply alive and fermenting. We are a small race.

The new invasion is despoiling us. It is in specifically racist language wiping us out genetically. To hold on, we must hold out —fortress-like.

That may be the fantasy of a lunatic fringe, but it is both the summary and the point of departure for the milder but much wider version of the same virus that organises protests against direct provision centres.

There is a dotted line between the two, and politics that huddles for votes around the edges of it gives permission and confers respectability. It may also reap profit if we do not stand up to be counted.

The issue of toxic language in our elections is not unique. In Britain, the Conservative Party under three successive prime ministers, in three successive elections and one referendum is either driving an agenda, or desperately trying to catch up with one of exploiting immigration as the defining political issue.

If Boris Johnson returns to power, and gets Brexit done, then effectively it is job done for Enoch Powell. He is the politician with a career ended in failure, but who will posthumously bestride the Britain of the 21st century.

The alternative is a Labour Party mired in antisemitism, and determined to look past it. It has a manifesto that grandiosely promises to look at the wrongs of British colonialism, but won’t face up to what it, or the faction that currently controls it, has unleashed.

Not just Britain, but much of Europe is a cold house again for Jews. The British election, thought amidst focus on what passes for issues this is missed, is about choosing the least objectionable prejudice.

It is about choosing the least objectionable prejudice. It is an absolute collapse in what until very recently was apparently normal.

One of the earliest horror movies was the German Nosferatu. It was such a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that the family sued. The silent film did, however, have some originality and the film is generally considered a masterpiece.

It was also a menace. Count Orlok — the protagonist — is a prototype of Nazi antisemitism.

Julius Streicher, a leading propagandist of the early Nazi movement, immediately adopted the bloodsucking monster as a Jewish figure.

And the adaptation is not coincidence. When Stoker was writing a generation earlier, London was teeming with immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many were Jewish.

The original Dracula deliberately played on prejudice against the huddled masses of foreigners in the East End. So it was and so it continues. Words matter.

The fear of foreigners is an old phobia. It is renewed here now in unique circumstances. There is a degree — limited I hope — of hate. It subsists in a wider environment of prejudice that permits and enables it.

There is a new and very important international context. Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, not to mention Poland and Hungary have coarsened politics, and belittled the meaning of language.

Then there is social media, profiting vast corporations unconnected to responsibility, which magnifies what would have sat sullenly in the corner of a pub, out into the world, polluting it.

Out in that world, in small places, there are gatherings of the discontented in search of articulation, most are too cute to go on camera with themselves.

At their head arrive would-be leaders looking for a following. With the microphone, comes amplification. With amplification comes attention.

With attention comes authority. But with this authority, no responsibility is attached.

It is the extension in reality, of the miasma of social media.It assumes the anonymity of cyberspace, and demands the rights of free speech. Decency is collateral damage.

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