In a fit of whimsy tonight, I fell to pondering on the origins of terms like ambition and candidate, two words that are very much to the front of our minds in recent years.
Naturally, of course, we can’t help thinking about the current clown show that we in Ireland laughingly refer to as a presidential contest, but let’s not forget the procession of dangerous buffoons cavorting in the Big Top of the world’s circus these days. Compared to these mountebanks, our own transitory pretenders might seem like nothing but shabby court jesters, fit for little but to free a blackbird from a pie or to wring a grudging scowl from some trouser-patched monarch of piss-stinking back alley, some lord of mangy scrapyard hounds, some king of half-wit drunkards.
Forget them, you might snort, and it would be hard not to disagree with you.
After all, we have genuinely evil clowns to fear and with good reason, but I don’t need to tell anyone that. Even without the orange buffoon in Washington and his collection of fawning sycophants, there’s plenty left to go around, from Boris the Tousled to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the sort of clown who files his teeth and lurks in rainwater gulleys under streets. We have AfD in Germany, we had actual Nazis in Sweden running for government and we have another real-life Nazi as Austria’s prime minister. Besides that, let us not forget Kaczynski’s puppet government in Poland. The Law and Justice party — a bunch of populists who have completely forgotten the lessons of history, or perhaps learned them too well.
They’re everywhere and they’re all trading on a seductive cocktail of fear, lies and populism. Everywhere except here, isn’t that right? Everywhere except the sainted isle of Ireland.
Sainted? Didn’t we legalise same-sex marriage in the face of bigotry from the likes of the Iona Institute?
We did indeed, fair play to us.
And didn’t we get rid of that pernicious constitutional ban on abortion, foisted on us thirty-five years ago by a sanctimonious bunch of statue-nibblers?
We sure did, to the great surprise of many, including myself. I thought we’d be another half century defeating these god-botherers.
What’s more, aren’t we about to eliminate the crime of blasphemy, thereby exorcising the malevolent ghosts of John Charles McQuaid and his satanic master, Paul Cullen?
Correct. It’s true. We are, and just before Hallowe’en at that. McQuaid’s chains must be rattling in whatever foul cave his shade inhabits.
Why then the word sainted?
Well, you see, it seems to me that in ridding ourselves of the old shackles, we’re in danger of clamping new ones on our wrists and ankles. Indeed, it seems to me that we’re busy introducing the New Blasphemy, a prohibition on thought and expression that will be policed just as ardently by our tolerant, liberal, well-meaning friends and colleagues as the old blasphemy ever was by angry young thugs in clerical cassocks or by grumpy old Civil War fossils in the Dáil. And yes, I know nobody has been prosecuted for the Old Blasphemy, but it’s also true that Ireland has only recently emerged from a cultural blockade as severe as anything Hoxha imposed on Albania. And it’s true that anyone who failed to conform to the old authoritarian Ireland was ground down and silenced.
It’s inevitable that the pendulum will swing the other way, but we need to be on our guard unless we inadvertently open the door to demagogues, hate-mongers and right-wing opportunists waiting for a toe-hold in this country, just as they have done everywhere else. Let’s not clap ourselves on the back just yet. Instead, take a look at what has happened to reasonable, tolerant Denmark before telling ourselves it couldn’t happen here.
We have made a mistake by rendering some issues taboo and in doing so we have left the door off the latch for those who lurk in the bushes.
It was plain stupidity to call Peter Casey a racist for articulating what a lot of perplexed people in Ireland were asking: is a stable for your horses really a human right? Casey should never have been given the space to present himself as a victim, but that’s what the New Blasphemy achieved, by shutting down reasonable voices who were reluctant to draw condemnation on themselves or risk being branded racists. That’s what happens when a subject is off-limits: the field is left open to fear-mongers who care nothing about being branded as bigots.
This has always been the modus operandi of extreme intolerance. Begin with a proposition that many people are in tune with to some extent and escalate from that point to the outrageous in gradual, incremental steps, each time pushing the limits of outrage until decent people become accustomed to something they would have found abhorrent not so long ago.
That’s what Trump is doing right now and who can say where he’ll finish?
I mentioned at the start that I was thinking about the origins of terms like ambition and candidate.
In ancient Rome, ambitus, from which we get the word ambition, was a crime. It meant trying to influence the results of an election, either through plain bribery or by other means, and was severely frowned upon. It was his ambition that led to Julius Caesar’s murder by Brutus and his co-conspirators if my hazy memory of the great play is correct. In truth, it meant nothing more than ward-heeling, clientelism and cute-hoorism. If Caesar was in Irish politics today, he’d be having a quiet word with the Council about your over-sized extension, promising to get that bathroom for your uncle and tipping you off about the new by-pass in case you were planning to sell that parcel of land too soon.
Who would that remind you of?
Of course, on a larger scale, it meant Gallic wars, Rhine-crossing, invasions of Britain and eventually, Rubicon-crossing. Not to mention becoming dictator for life. Who does that remind you of?
Now, a candidate was an ambitious fellow who went around his ambit, perambulating, so to speak while wearing a candida, or white robe, signifying purity. Somebody with nothing to hide. A perfectly candid candidate who wouldn’t dream of lying or manipulating anyone.
Not much changes over the centuries, and so, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, we arrive back at Peter Casey.
Peter is not a fool, whatever else you might think of him and therefore the first word that jumps to mind is Why?
Why does a man who has only 2% approval in the polls insist that he will win the Presidency?
Why would he agonise about pulling out of the race over the hurtful accusations of racism thrown at him but then relent, having consulted his advisers (whoever they might be)?
Why would someone who claims to be a man of action, a doer, a decision-maker, wish to occupy a role that is largely ceremonial, with no executive power and little enough hard responsibility?
I can think of no logical answer unless Peter Casey’s ambition exceeds his candour. Unless he is simply testing the political temperature of Ireland, calibrating the right-wing gauge by seeing how much bounce he can achieve in the approval ratings as a result of mud-slinging and fear-mongering.
It’s hard to see what purpose this ludicrous campaign could serve other than to act as a feeler for the sinister authoritarian movements currently flexing their muscles all over Europe.
Why would Ireland be any different?