Monday, November 12, 2018

Reality TV Insurgency

“Local Man Suddenly an Expert on US Midterm Elections”
 —Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, November 8
Did the results of the U.S. midterm elections brighten your day and put a spring in your step? Or did they make you shake your head and wonder what is wrong with the country? If it’s any consolation, every country has its quirks and strangeness that seem to be brought out and put into high relief during political campaigns.

The Irish media paid a lot of attention to the U.S. midterms and, as usual, since the media here are pretty much dominated by the state broadcaster, the coverage was pretty much from the same kind of perspective as, say, PBS or NPR in the States. In other words, Democrats were treated as distant relatives and Republicans were regarded as alien creatures. For me personally, the coverage provided more opportunities to field questions from acquaintances and in-laws, like “How is it again that Hillary Clinton could get the most votes and still not become president?”

Ireland went through its own election a few weeks ago, although, unlike the U.S., it was not to fill seats in the national legislature. It was for the presidency plus a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment. In an email to a friend in Seattle, I joked that Ireland is going to hell in a hand-basket because, after recently legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion, Irish voters have now decriminalized blasphemy.

That’s right. Up to now blasphemy has been a crime in Ireland. It is the kind of thing that is easy to joke about but, as we know from recent reports of a Christian woman spending years on death row in Pakistan, it is not always a laughing matter. Three years ago, Britain’s multi-talented Stephen Fry made some unflattering about the Christian God on an Irish television program and, because someone filed a formal complaint, the Irish police were obliged to go through the motions of an investigation. He was not charged.

The proposed constitutional amendment was not particularly controversial, and it passed with a 65-percent majority. There were, however, voices suggesting that maybe a law banning speech offensive to religious practitioners may not necessarily be a bad thing. I suspect these were thinking as much—or perhaps even more—about religions other than Christianity. Some would be nervous about those willing to take blasphemy enforcement into their own hands. Multiple attempted murders of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who mocked the prophet Mohammad, come to mind. It was striking at the time how many Europeans were actually ready to blame the artist himself for his own near-demise.

As for the Irish presidency, there was no surprise that the incumbent Michael D. Higgins received 56 percent the vote—and that was in a field of six. Because the post is largely ceremonial, it draws no seriously ambitious politicians but rather a quirky collection of individuals, each with his or her own idiosyncratic reasons for running. The only political party to nominate a candidate was Sinn Féin, the political remnant of the Provisional IRA. Higgins, a longtime Labour officeholder, nominated himself. The others had to get endorsements from various local authorities to get on the ballot. By a weird coincidence, three of the candidates were entrepreneurs who had all appeared on a reality TV program called Dragons’ Den. (Could they possibly have been encouraged by the 2016 U.S. election?) Of all the candidates, the one who created the most buzz was 61-year-old Derry-born businessman Peter Casey. His support shot up from 2 percent to 23 percent, earning him a strong second place finish in the election, after he was roundly criticized for comments he made about the Traveller community.

The Traveller thing is one of those subjects that is hard to explain to someone who has not lived in Ireland, and I am by no means an expert. My best understanding, however, is that they are essentially a subculture within the Irish culture. That is, DNA-wise they are no different than other indigenous Irish people, but as a group they have lived separately with their own customs and a nomadic lifestyle for as long as four centuries. Some Travellers are “settled” in public housing. Others camp at “halting sites” provided by local authorities. Others simply park their caravans wherever they find an open space, in other words squatting. They make up less than one percent of the Irish population and generally have lower education and quality-of-life statistics. Last year they were granted official recognition as their own ethnic group.

Casey’s comments were in response to a group of Travellers’ refusal to move into brand-new social housing offered to them in County Tipperary because there were no stables for their horses. Casey asserted that Travellers are not really an ethnic minority and that they are “basically people camping on someone else’s land” who are “not paying their fair share of taxes in society.” The latter point is arguable, while the former point seems technically accurate to me, albeit insensitively stated. Given the condemnation and charges of racism that were rained on him, one might understand if Casey felt he was running afoul of some kind of latter-day, politically-correct blasphemy prohibition.

Inevitably, Casey was immediately compared to Donald Trump. While Casey is much more pleasant and amiable than the U.S. president, he does share a knack for provoking powerful reactions from modern liberals while others think he is only stating the obvious.

With the election over, Casey amazed people by expressing his intention to become Taoiseach, i.e prime minister, which would be a much more consequential job than the mere presidency. That goal seems fanciful given his lack of party support and the resistance of Ireland’s entrenched and close-knit political establishment. On the other hand, Trump’s quest for the presidency two and a half years ago seemed pretty fanciful too.

If he refuses to go away, as the parties and main media want him to, Casey will join a number of other would-be so-called populist leaders agitating just out of reach of power in countries all across Europe. They are thus ready alternatives to entrenched and comfortably smug political establishments. Rather than attacking these figures, politicians and the media would serve a more useful purpose if they began at least treating seriously legitimate concerns of citizens drawn to such firebrands.