Bertie Ahern had sat down with a mug of tea and a small plate of chocolate digestives, just as “Murder, she wrote” was starting, when his mobile rang. It was lashing down outside, real cats and dogs with extra dogs weather.
He frowned at the number. He didn’t recognise it, and had problems in the past with smart alecs getting his number and giving him abuse over the phone. The gas thing was that every one of them thought he was the first fella to do it. Bertie rarely hung up, just put the phone in the breadbin in the kitchen and went about his business, letting them tire themselves out. He’d occasionally pick up the phone to see if they were still there, catch a “Galway tent” or the like, and just carry on. They’d normally hang up in frustration, although one got quite distressed at the fact that Bertie had neither replied not hung up, and started asking was he OK. The former Taoiseach had ended up talking to that one, and they spent twenty minutes talking about the upcoming Premiership season. Your man hung up with a cheerful goodbye, having completely forgotten why he’d rung in the first place.
Bertie answered the phone.
“Mr Ahern? This is the Federal Chancellor’s office: can you take a call from Chancellor Merkel?”
Half of his chocolate digestive fell into his tea with the shock. He hadn’t spoken to her in a few years.
“Oh, eh, yeah. Of course.” His brain was racing. Could this be some smartarse radio DJ?
When the voice came on it sure sounded like her. Her English was better than people thought, but she didn’t really feel at ease using it. She always struggled to sound happy to be talking to someone, even when she was.
The weapon, later identified as a 10 mega-ton former Soviet warhead, detonated just as the new Knesset began proceedings. In a flash, Israel’s administrative capital, political leadership and just under three quarters of a million Israelis died, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The news was greeted in different ways. In the US, the president was rushed to the emergency national airborne command post, whilst the vice president and others were sent to the alternate national command centre in Mount Weather. US forces were ordered to def con 2.
In Cairo, Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh, spontaneous crowds gathered in grotesque displays of euphoria.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more cynical show about American politics than the two seasons and then cancelled series “Boss”, starring Kelsey Grammar. Grammar plays a Richard Daley style mayor of Chicago, and plays it very convincingly. Many say they struggle to watch Grammar without seeing Frasier Crane, but I find him a very watchable dramatic actor, and he certainly puts his acting chops on display here. He manages to be charming, impressive, cold, neurotic and terrifying in the role of Mayor Tom Kane.
I’m not surprised that it was cancelled as a show, because it lacks charm. if there is one word to describe it, it’s bleak. The style’s similar to Glenn Close’s “Damage”, which was another great drama but was just so full of morally bankrupt or compromised people and completely devoid of humour. This is the problem with “Boss”. Having known as many politicians as I have known in my life, I just can’t believe that everyone in public office is an amoral, self-serving, unsmiling prick. Is US politics, and Chicago politics in particular different? Possibly, but I doubt it. The show lacked a genuine human angle.
Like “House of Cards” that came after it, “Boss” works on the assumption that almost everybody in politics is on the make, including Kane’s icy wife played by Connie Nielsen in a proto-Claire Underwood. It also assumes that voters are very easily manipulated by pretty speeches and handsome candidates and soundbites. Indeed, it’s a very fashionable view in media circles (outside of political correspondents, who actually know better) and indeed with growing numbers of voters, but it just ain’t true.
Kane as a mayor is convincing as the corrupt bastard who makes the buses run on time and keeps the streets clean, and I can buy voters holding their noses and voting for that. But the other candidates seem like stuffed shirts talking in soundbites, doing that thing non-politicians think is possible: moving votes by really subtle actions. You know the sort of thing: “Don’t forget to mention that your cousin was Polish. That’ll get the Polish vote on board.”
“Boss” is a watchable show, but does nothing to dispel the feeling that democracy is warping into something very very ugly.
Repost: Some years ago, a number of Irish politicians knowingly sentenced some their constituents to death. A report by experts pointed out that small local hospitals did not have the experience, capacity and technology to provide specialist care in the case of heart attacks. In effect, the report said that a person who had a heart attack on the steps of the local hospital stood a better chance of survival if they were flown by air ambulance to a regional hospital with a dedicated experienced unit who dealt with heart attacks every day.
A rational analysis of the report would have led to a debate about how to ensure that such an efficient air ambulance unit could be provided. Instead, in Ireland, the local deputies argued that every small local hospital should have such a cardiac unit, a proposal that was not only impractical but if attempted to be implemented would suck resources from other parts of the health service, thus resulting in unnecessary deaths from non-cardiac related illness.
Why did they do it? Why did these elected representatives knowingly campaign for a policy they knew would actually kill some of their constituents? Primarily, one would suggest, because their constituents demanded it, and in a democracy, the voter is always right. Even when he or she doesn’t read the report or just plain refuses to accept its findings because he or she simply don’t like them. The voter rules.
When the voter is then standing over the grave of his or her wife or husband who died on an operating table from a heart attack, in the local hospital, it’s not their fault. It’s the health service’s fault for not providing a world class cardiac unit in a tiny town. The local deputy will attend the funeral and agree that the wife or husband has been let down, despite having known this would happen from the expert report. And so on it goes.
In a democracy, the pointed finger beats rational fact every time.
Francois Hollande ran for the Presidency of France promising to reverse Sarkozy’s very modest pension reforms. How could any intelligent rational man looking at the demographic and life expectancy statistics conclude that people should be permitted to retire earlier? Pensions and increasing care for the elderly cost money, and so more people must work longer and pay taxes to fund those services. Is Hollande a fool, in the real sense? Probably not. But he knew that the voters didn’t care about the statistics. They stamped their foot in the Free Stuff From The Government aisle and had a tantrum, and would only leave with him if he promised them a young pension. Even though he must have known that it was the wrong thing for France’s long-term viability as a self sustaining nation.
It’s an issue we don’t want to confront: modern life, with modern expectations, is incredibly complicated. If you want to build a world class cardiac capacity, it takes years of planning, to bring and train the right people together, in the right place, with the right equipment. It takes long term planning. But democratic politics is becoming less and less tolerant of long term planning. It’s attracting candidates who are thinking more and more short term, sometimes just to Friday afternoon or the following days newspapers, candidates who aren’t interested in anything that they can’t wave at their voters before the next election.
That’s not to say we should scrap democracy, of course. China does long term planning very well, but it also uses tanks against its own people. Democracy is still the most effective bulwark against tyranny and for that alone must be maintained. But as a guarantee of good, rational government it is becoming less and less effective.
This is the first part of a documentary series about the political revolution brought about in New Zealand in the 1980s, when a new Labour government led by David Lange, faced with economic ruin caused by its conservative neo-Gaullist predecessor, brought about some of the most radical Thatcherite reforms (nicknamed first “Rogernomics” after its architect, radical finance minister Roger Douglas, and then “Ruthanasia” after his successor Ruth Richardson!) ever attempted in a western economy. Absolutely fascinating, expecially as it led to radical changes in New Zealand politics itself. Ironically, by the end of the series, the biggest critic of the policies the party pursued seems to be Lange himself.
It starts with a drunk prime minister of the time, Rob Muldoon of the National Party calling a snap election. Fascinating stuff.
Much and all as we agree that ISIS is a threat not just to global security but actual global sanity, we have to admit a problem. Iraq and Afghanistan have completely wiped the willingness of the west to get into boots-on-the-ground operations.
Is it time to look to our history, to the days when nation states privatised war? England, for example, used to issue letters of marque to privateers, allowing them to legally commit acts of piracy against England’s specific enemies. Letters of marque are specifically mentioned under the US Congress’s enumerated powers.
If a private military contractor (what we used to call mercenaries) announced that it was seeking crowdfunding to put a force into Iraq to fight ISIS, hands up who’d be willing to kick in their €100?
As a general rule, there’s something pretty obnoxious about setting out to insult someone else’s religious beliefs. In a free society, one has a right to do it. But good manners sometimes dictates that you keep your opinion to yourself. We all have to live here, after all, and the mark of a civilised society is that we all tolerate and respect each other, even those we disagree with.
Having said that, the right to offend has to be pretty much inviolate, because like democracy itself, mankind has yet to devise a better system. Surrender the right to offend with your opinions, surrender it to the state or some other authority, and you chip away at freedom itself.
Too much freedom of speech is always less of a risk than too little, and those who advocate restricting freedom of speech are nearly always talking about other people, not themselves.
But using violence to define the borders as to what opinion is acceptable? That has no place in the free world. Believe in that, and there is no place for you here. Go to one of those lesser nations who believe in the approved opinion, the ones whose people are always fleeing to live in Europe or North America or Australia or New Zealand.
This is not negotiable, if you are born here or came here. Freedom of speech, democratic elections, the rule of law, religious freedom, equality between men and women are not some a la carte menu to be chosen from when it suits. This is our society, and it works. The United States and the countries of the European Union could give away a million free passports in a day if we wished, with no doubt that there’ll be no shortage of takers. These are the fundamentals, and we may tinker with them, but they aren’t going away. If you can’t bear to live in a society where people can tweet cartoons you don’t like, then you should go away.
If you choose to take up arms against that society, then we will take up arms against you, and there are literally millions of us ready to fight to defend what we have built here.
Our society, for all its flaws, is the pinnacle of Human progress. It separated church and state, ended slavery, defends the rights of minorities and believes in individual freedom.
It is not up for negotiation, and as the millions on the streets of France and across Europe tonight have shown, it will be defended.
Folks: I’m hoping, in 2015, to start a podcast called “Right, Left & Centre”. The idea will be to have three guests and myself discussing a big political or social idea of Irish, European or international interest. Each guest will be asked to designate themselves as right, left or centre and I hope to have one of each on each panel.
The big questions will be something like “Is Ireland about to get its first left wing government?” or “Is it time to scrap the European Union?” or “Fianna Fail/Fine Gael: is it time?” or “Are the robots going to take all our jobs?”. I’m hoping to avoid the usual Irish “The Week In Politics” party political bunfight, and have no interest in having guests who can’t see beyond the party political, if only because it’s tediously boring.
We’ll be recording over a two hour period on weekday evening or on a weekend as scheduling permits. Assuming the thing works: the first thing could end up a disaster or in the high court.
So, if you’re interested, get in touch on Twitter or on the site here, and yet me know. And don’t forget to class yourself as right, left or centre. And please: there’s a tendency of every Irish person to call themselves centrist, so bear in mind that I only want one per show, unless we have a show where it’s unavoidable!
Most importantly: I want this to be fun and to prove the point that you can disagree with people politically but like them personally.
One more thing: if you’re interested in libelling people or espousing corruption theories about certain millionaires, feck off and do it on your own podcast. I haven’t got the pockets.