Modern Irish nationalism, which we might place in the time after Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement and before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, was a weaving together of three, sometimes conflicting ideological strands: socialist politics, Gaelic linguistic revival, and Catholic identity. These three strands were exemplified by the passions of three of the most important figures in modern Irish nationalism, each of whom had strong personal connections to nations beyond Ireland and who, therefore, helped to imagine an Irish nation (as was often the case among postcolonial nationalisms). There was James Connolly, a Scotsman by birth, who injected continental socialism into Irish nationalism; Patrick Pearse, both the son of an English father and an Irish language teacher who endeavored to take the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) into the vanguard of militant, revolutionary politics; and Eamon de Valera–American born and of Spanish-Irish descent–who, as both Taoiseach and President of the Republic, ensured that Ireland’s political and educational infrastructure would be unwaveringly Catholic for generations to come. Both Connolly and Pearse were executed by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. De Valera was a dominant presence in Irish government until his death in 1975. The socialist strand was effectively crushed in the civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces, though republican militants in the North would remain nominally faithful to it through the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement era. And there are signs that the other two strands of nationalism in Ireland are weakening in contemporary Ireland. A 2016 census, for instance, showed that the numbers of people who identify as religious and who speak Irish and a daily basis have dropped since the 2006 census. An old fashioned nationalist might say that Ireland is once again becoming West Britain, and that most people in the Republic wouldn’t feel the difference if they were being governed from London instead of Dublin. And indeed, despite their Gaelic names, the two dominant political parties in the Republic–Fine Fail and (especially) Fine Gael–have melded into two species of Tory. It would, however, be more difficult to make that case since the Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-American order. Despite what sometimes feels like the suffocating influence of British and American media culture, Ireland is clearly hitching its political wagon to Europe, which is what a figure such as Connolly would have envisioned all along (minus, of course, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fine Gael). So, assuming that we are not hurling rapidly into a post-nationalist era (and it sure doesn’t look that way at the moment), what will nationalism in Ireland look like in coming decades? What might that tell us about the future of other nationalisms in the wake of the Anglo-American order’s decline?
It’s been reported that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed the day after Kellyanne Conway’s instantly infamous “alternative facts” blunder. So the cloud of lies, acrimony, ignorance, and intolerance that was this week may have a silver lining. I hope as many people get a chance to read Orwell’s masterpiece as possible.
But I fear that if they’re simply looking for allegory (in the mode of what I call correspondence similarity), they’ll be missing out on what makes the book a masterpiece in the first place. If you simply want some insight on the authoritarian mindset and the ease with which a populace can go from civil and critical to cruel and cretinous, I’d point you to Orwell’s essays and memoirs. And anyway, Trump is really more of a Berkshire boar (Napoleon, Animal Farm) than a Big Brother. 1984, I submit, is a novel about beauty.
I’m not often drawn to the Lacanian reading of things. There are a few reasons for this, none of which approach anything like a refutation of Lacan. I always feel that I’m not particularly interested at present, but that some day I will be. Anyway, for someone who does Lacan well, I’d refer you to Levi Bryant, who, in terms of raw IQ, is pretty much unrivaled in his field.
Still, I can’t help but think there’s something Lacanny about the current national debate around facts, which, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting and the CIA’s findings about Russian mischief, appears poised to upend the sustaining illusion of our nationhood. What follows is not a Lacanian reading, but Lacanny conjecture.
It begins, perhaps, with the argument over climate change. That was the first major clash between basic science and politics. Religion and science had of course clashed before that, and those clashes inevitably spilled over onto politics; but if there is religious opposition to the science of climate change, it is because the politics of climate change denial has spill out onto religion, not the other way around. In any case, climate change denial is not an article of faith for most sects.
Well now you’ve gone and endorsed Trump. Forty whacks with a wet noodle, you lil’ rascal.
Slavoj Žižek’s recent thoughts on the U.S. presidential race have made him some new friends at Breitbart, outraged others, and made the rest of us do the Lucille Bluth eye roll (see “Martha Stewart Needs to Get Somewhere…“). It has also revived the old discussion about the decline of the public intellectual.
Quartz‘s Olivia Goldhill has offered a particularly thoughtful piece on the subject, arguing that Žižek’s recent pronouncement is the latest sign that philosophy has become so decadent and insular that it has lost sight of its purpose entirely. As we re-adjudicate the matter of the public intellectual in contemporary culture, we are likely to, as Goldhill does, invoke past greats like Sartre, Camus, Arendt, and Foucault. And it’s true that when it comes to public intellectuals, they don’t make ’em like they used to.
But I would urge caution before laying the problem entirely at academic philosophy’s feet. To do so is to misunderstand the relationship between the philosopher and the public intellectual. When the likes of Arendt and Foucault were asked to talk in a public forum about social issues, they were not being asked to ‘do philosophy’ in a public forum. Rather, they were asked to give their opinions on social issues because they had done important philosophical work elsewhere. Their importance as philosophers translated into credibility as public thinkers. This is not the same thing as doing philosophy in public. You can see this division most clearly in the work of Noam Chomsky, who is the last living public intellectual of that previous era (although I think Chomsky has always adhered to the division too strictly).
Part of Žižek’s problem is that he has built his brand on philosophical readings of pop culture so that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether he is philosophizing, publicly opining, or just performing. Actually, I don’t think that’s a problem in and of itself because he has made some really significant philosophical contributions that way. The point is that Žižek is a difficult figure not because of the philosophy he actually does in the public but because he does philosophy in the public at all. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the mold of the public intellectual.
As for his stupidity and naive nihilism regarding a President Trump, I chalk that up to the perils of academic superstardom. He’s been surrounded by sycophants for so long (and academics can be champion sycophants) telling him that everything he says is brilliant and revolutionary that he sometimes believes it himself. It’s precisely why Jerry Seinfeld is no longer funny.
So yes, philosophy has become decadent and insular. There are some really good philosophers out there working on that problem as we speak. But the decline of the public intellectual also has to be an indictment of the public itself. At best, people with advanced degrees in Philosophy (or any of the Humanities for that matter) are considered vestigial organs, and and worst, they are the First Estate circa 1789…or perhaps the last druids hold up on Anglesey.
We seem much more content listening to the public opinions of people who only make opinions for a living. That’s the real death of the public intellectual.
I’m writing this about an hour before the third and final debate of this sordid presidential campaign, and it is resoundingly clear that no matter how well Trump does to clear the decumbent bar the country has set for him, the republicans are thinking past him. The watch-phrase of this final month is “checks and balances,” as in checking what might be a sizable mandate for Hilary Clinton. Translation: Ramp up the obstruction.
Democrats, on the other hand, are allowing themselves to hope for the first time in a while. There were at first whispers of a Senate win, and now they’re speaking quite loudly about taking the House. But I wonder how much it will matter even if they do get what they want. This is not me furthering that obnoxious American habit of equivocating everything in politics, dismissing both parties as corrupt and useless (I always suspect those people just end up voting republican in secret). Democrats are disappointing, but republicans are worse. What I worry about is the possibility that the institution of congress has grown so moribund that no change in leadership will be able save it.
When I hear the recent talk of “checks and balances,” I get taken back to October 2010, when republicans were poised for a massive win in the House. Conservatives at that time talked about checks and balances against Obama, but even centerists and liberals were capable of seeing a silver lining. The prevailing argument in those camps was that if the republicans did take the House, then they could no longer continue to act as petulant children. They would have to take some responsibility for governing the nation. But we know what happened. The dysfunction didn’t just get worse; it got fully institutionalized.
Congress has always been a favorite punching bag for Americans. It’s the branch of the federal government which comes closest to direct democracy, and it’s inherently messy. But it’s never been this close to not functioning at all. We know the reasons why: the persistent, racist denial of Obama’s legitimacy; intensive post-2010 gerrymandering; turning voter suppression into a science; the emergence of the automatic filibuster. In fact, I think the first sign of total collapse will be when a piece of legislation hits the Senate floor without being filibustered–the filibuster being so automatic that everyone forgets to actually invoke it. These measures were introduced as a virus, meant to crash the Obama program. But it is looking like this bug has now become the distinguishing feature of whole operating system.
My concern is that a shift in party control, even if accompanied by wave of good natured bipartisanship sweeping across the aisles, may not matter much. Even if the democrats take control of congress, the right may still be the most active force in government. This is because the post-Obama right wing agenda is nihilism, and the method is entropy. If your goal is the annihilation of public institutions, then all you have to do to win is let them disintegrate. To do this, you needn’t negotiate and persuade; just obstruct. And if the operating system is already programmed to self-obstruct, you need only sit back and watch it happen.
The consequences of this virus in the operating system are already visible. The burden of legislation is falling on the executive and judicial branches. But the virus is now crashing the judicial OS, meaning that power is becoming ever more concentrated in the executive branch. We already have an oligarchy, but we are slouching towards autocracy. Checks and balances indeed.
What to do about this? I’m not sure. Move to a parliamentary system? Learn to stop worrying and love the virus?
Republicans spent the first few nights of their convention warming the cockles of their Republican hearts: Obama wants to take away your guns and give them to ‘illegal aliens’ so they can shoot your children. Obama is trying to atone for America’s greatness by giving Iran nuclear weapons so they can destroy Israel. Hillary personally issued a ‘stand down’ order at Benghazi because she wanted to respect the cultural sensitivities of the terrorists.
I’m of course making stuff up. But so were they.
Still, none of what was said in those first nights was new. And it’s not as if that stuff was only introduced with the Trump campaign. Republican leaders have been dealing that ideological cocaine for decades. The only difference now is how many of them are actually high on their own supply. The really new and surprising stuff came on the last night of the convention. Before the man himself got up on stage to bring us all back to a comfortable level of fear and acrimony, the night’s speeches read like a progressive’s wish list: paid maternity leave, equal pay for women, holding corporations accountable for bad behavior. The list goes on.
People have been decrying the fascistic tendencies of the Trump campaign since its golden escalator rollout a year ago. But I’m not sure it truly hit me until I heard last night’s progressive themes. It’s quite possible that those speeches were just a cynical play for the Bernie Sanders vote. On the other hand, it might be that the Trump crowd actually wants those things. And, strangely enough, that thought scares me even more. It scares me because those are all things that are nearly impossible to get outside the workings of a civil society…or, variously, a big government. Sure you could expand the police state to root out undocumented workers and other undesirables, but you need regulations and bureaucracy to ensure something like paid family leave–you know, like the kind they have in that post-apocalyptic hellscape, Sweden.
But these people have lost all faith in the ability of civil society to make life better for them. It is not just that civil society is corrupt and ineffective at the moment; civil society is, for them, inherently rotten and weak. I’m happy to discuss radical alternatives like Autonomist Marxism, but I get the feeling the Trump crowd is not at present considering those alternatives. The only other alternative within the limits of their imagination is to get the things they want through the will of an individual.
In other words, we might have finally come to our Hobbes vs. Rousseau moment, and it goes way beyond the ballots people punch in this November’s election. It’s about a decision on our national ethos: YES WE CAN vs. YES YOU WILL. I know what I heard last night.