GUEST COLUMNIST: Old brands of priests, processions and political parties let us down

THERE is a real tremor of delight in subsuming ones intelligence to the blatant nonsense that a particular washing powder will wash whiter than white.

From supermarket aisle, to shopping trolley, and home to the loving care of our dirty laundry, there is a sensual and an irrational fantasy at play. By investing in that brand of superior soap powder, distinct from the inferior alternatives, we are wrapping ourselves in the cloth of angels. Well maybe not quite, but we certainly feel a little superior. Our whites, are well, whiter. Surely something is rubbing off?

We repeatedly indulge our fantasies in everything from washing powder to tooth paste. In associating ourselves with better brands we become better people. We feel better about ourselves. We know its codswallop when we think about it, but we don’t think. Life is too short and its pleasures, especially its delusional ones are too few.

Marketing is not delusional and it’s not new. It’s an intensively researched and ruthlessly efficient exploitation of our ego. Of course there is no compulsion. The point is that when prompted we enter willingly into the state of suspended belief required, to become through anything from skinny jeans to fast cars, the better, sexy and more admired people we want to be.

Occasionally we are assaulted by an unplanned reflection in the mirror and realise it isn’t working. We may have invested in the brand, but the brand has not invested in us. The delusion is shattered. We feel conned. We switch brands. But usually we don’t give up. We go on, more brands, more delusion, periodic anger, regret and another broken dream.

The age of advertising is a sequel to the age of belief. Because there is nothing left to believe in we invest our hopes, if not our prayers, in new fantasies. The old brands of priests, processions and political parties have all let us down. We invested in them. But apparently they did not invest in us. We expected a reciprocal relationship and a mutual benefit. Instead they took us for a ride. Looking now, what we see looking back is not nice. They have made us look ugly, look stupid. Our illusions are shattered and our anger is ripe.

The reflux of our shattered delusion is like a tsunami across our society. Its power is undermining once towering institutions and causing them to crumble. It is catching up and sweeping away once unassailable people from the great heights we placed them on. The aspiration, which we projected onto them, has become rancorous envy intent on ruin. Of course there was never much difference between our aspiration and our envy. It was the toxic mix of the delusion we foisted, usually warmly invited, on the power hungry. The malice that appals us the most is the realisation of our own complicity. Greed and hunger are the dancer and the dance. We were excited by it; we sought to benefit by it. Our anger is so great because it is the twisted expression of our shame.

For most of our history, respectability was the only wealth we had. This was the nexus of why the newly landed small holders of the 1890s turned so viciously on Charles Stewart Parnell. Landless peasants turned upright farmers they now had a stake in society. They were not going to be compromised by a fornicator. Deposed democratically if brutally in a series of bye elections and prematurely dead at forty five. That was the onward march of the nation.

Parnell was spared the aftermath. His wife Mrs Parnell, formerly Mrs O’Shea, was not. Addressing a public meeting in Longford Parnell’s nemesis Timothy Healy called the newly widowed Mrs Parnell ‘a proved British prostitute.’ A brilliant, vicious patriot Timothy Healy thrived and survived like no other. Parnell’s lieutenant, Parnell’s arch enemy, Home Ruler and Free Stater, he ended up in the Vice Regal Lodge as Ireland’s first Governor General. Healy was a better judge of the Irish character than Parnell and a shrewder politician. His was a brand that successfully refreshed itself. Embodying the cankerous envy embedded in the Irish soul, he mastered the art of exploiting it utterly. A compelling and appalling man he was the conjurer who was never caught out.

Cardinal Brady is no Timothy Healy. With less skill and no luck he was trapped last week by the incoming tide of history. Full of fury, we fell tooth and claw on the High Priest. It was a moment of ultimate revenge and exorcism of what we did not like about ourselves.

What was religion if not the scaffolding for power and property; our ultimate aspirations? For generations we conscripted our brightest sons and most compliant daughters into the regiments of God. Their beatific status was intended to reflect on their family. If no priest in the family was a disappointment, a spoiled priest was a calamity. These familial bonds were institutionalised by a society that policed its respectability relentlessly.

Our clergy, and they were truly ours, were not honorific dignitaries. They were expected to provide a social focus for the narrow ambitions of an insular community. They provided ceremony in a republic, and arbitrated what was acceptable in a democracy. It was that way because we wanted it so. Orphanages, industrial schools and Magdalene laundries were openly organised on an industrial scale. A collective sense of the clandestine afforded all the public discretion required. Because everybody was in on it, nobody needed to be told. It was that same suspended belief we employ when casually choosing our soap powder now. Religion was our whiter than white. It was all about us. If it weren’t for those outcasts, the dirty laundry of our society, how could we have been sure of our own standing and success? And be clear, success was the salvation we sought.

People become very vengeful when disturbed from delusion. Adulating the powerful and admiring the beautiful confers reflected self-regard and insight on the disciple. Having agreed to be deceived we are appalled at the uncovering of our gullibility. Of course we only attack power when it is vulnerable. But when the attack is launched it is appalling, a blood lust. It is the moment of self justification required for a disturbed world to be rebalanced and then to continue as it was before, except different, of course.

Now the churches are no longer full on Sundays but the traffic jam of shopping trolleys makes up for it. The seamless transfer of devotion from high altar to high street tells us nothing about the death of God, only the death of ourselves. ‘I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you’ said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. And so it is with us. The treadmill of enslavement to false gods continues. We always knew we were being lied to, or rather lying to ourselves. But we won’t admit our complicity in the delusion. We can’t. If we did we would have to change and we have no intention of that.

The notion of bringing closure is a new great truth of our time. I am sure it will eventually acquire the same standing we have conferred on all the other truths that we have adhered to. But for now it is the latest orthodoxy. In the hindsight of history I suspect that continuity and not closure will be the theme of our time.


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