Life After Life by Paddy Armstrong

My review of Life After Life: A Guildford Four Memoir by Paddy Armstrong (Gill Books) can be found in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine and also here (behind the Iron Paywall). Here’s an excerpt:

On the night of October 5th, 1974, two pubs were bombed in Guildford. The pubs – the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars – were popular with British Army personnel stationed at a nearby barracks. Five people were killed. At the same time, in Kilburn, a Belfast native named Paddy Armstrong was getting stoned in the squat he shared with his teenage girlfriend, Carole Richardson. Seven weeks later, Paddy was arrested and charged with involvement in the bombings. He had never even been to Guildford.

“We know you didn’t do it,” the cops told Paddy, “but we’re gonna do you for it anyway… because we need bodies.” Over several days in police custody – with no solicitor present – Paddy was beaten, spat upon, abused, and threatened with dogs. “After seven days,” he writes in his gripping new memoir, “I barely know my own name.” Eventually, he cracked, and offered a false confession, implicating two more innocent men, Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill, in the plot to bomb the pubs. Richardson was also charged. When the cops showed Armstrong his statement, “I sign. Don’t bother to re-read it. All rubbish anyway.”

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Reasons I Will Not See Your Play

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It’s set in a kitchen.

It’s set in a pub.

It’s a monologue.

The dialogue features internal rhymes.

It’s a “devised piece.”

It’s written in Dubbalin slang.

Audience participation is involved.

You have cast white actors as black or vice versa.

An interpretative dance occurs.

Adult characters act out childhood games.

The actors pretend to be drunk.

A lighting change indicates that we are now in the past.

The plot hinges on the outcome of a game of cards.

It’s about a crabby old person dying.

It’s about being trapped in a small town.

A major character has a terrible secret.

A priest appears.

One character says to another, “You know what your problem is?”

It’s Shakespeare, but all the characters are gay.

It’s about a group of miners/factory workers/unemployed men who discover the joys of art.

At some point, someone has clearly said, “I think we should take this in a sort of commedia dell’arte direction?”

An actor pretends to be shot or stabbed onstage.

It’s set in a vague conceptual nonspace and the characters are called A, B and C.

There is no interval.

Your play is Rent.

(Any of the above will result in me not seeing your play. See also this.)

We Are Not Narcissists

It’s become a commonplace to say that the widespread use of social media has inaugurated an age of narcissism. Forbes has weighed in. So has Psychology Today. So have The AtlanticWired, and just about every other think-piece site going. Google Scholar turns up over 50,000 results for “social media narcissism.” Last year, Kristin Dombek published a book called The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (FSG). Dombek is interested less in narcissism as a cultural-diagnostic tool than in our current use of the phrase as an anathema – as in the articles linked above.

The story of Narcissus first appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Narcissus is a beautiful young man. Out hunting one day, he stops to drink from a pool. Catching sight of his reflection, he falls in love with his own image, and wastes away, until all that remains of him is a flower.

It seems to me that “narcissism” is not a useful way to think about how people behave on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are not reflecting pools or mirrors. They are not designed to allow us to admire ourselves, but rather to persuade others to admire us and the lives we seem to be leading. More pertinently, Facebook, Twitter etc. are not neutral media. Every social media site is owned and run by an enormously wealthy corporation. Anything we post on social media immediately becomes the legal property of that corporation. When you type a search into Google, or send an email, or a Whatsapp message, or post a picture on Instagram, or a photograph to Facebook, powerful algorithms convert these activities into information that is sold to advertisers. In his book The Googlization of Everything (2011), Siva Vaidhyanathan spells out what this means. “We are not Google’s customers,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “We are its product.”

When we post pictures or accounts of ourselves or our amazing lives to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, we are not being narcissists. We are being commodities.

One of the first people to understand the implications of all this was a research analyst named Carmen Hermosillo. Hermosillo was an early and avid user of chat rooms and message boards. She posted long essays about her experiences, sharing private information with friends online (you can read about Hermosillo’s life and death here). Eventually, however, Hermosillo came to feel that by disclosing intimate details about her life on message boards run by corporations like AOL-Time Warner, she was transforming herself into a commodity. In 1994, she published an essay entitled “Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace” (available here), in which she wrote:

i have seen many people spill their guts on–line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money–value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called ‘the means of production.’ capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.

as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups. furthermore, i was paying two bucks an hour for the privilege of commodifying and exposing myself. worse still, i was subjecting myself to the possibility of scrutiny by such friendly folks as the FBI: they can, and have, downloaded pretty much whatever they damn well please. 

Hermosillo’s analysis of online discourse was published 23 years ago. We have not heeded its message. Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying have proved Hermosillo correct about “such friendly folks as the FBI” examining what we post online. Nor have we fully grasped the fact that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have turned us all into commodities, and that we have no control over how our freely-shared information is sold, analysed, or stored. Busily fashioning polished versions of ourselves online, we fail to notice that in the process, we are selling our souls.

In other words, we are not narcissists. We are suckers.

Why Everybody Hates Liberals

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In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews three books that seek to explain the current state of the world. One of these is Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, which I liked a lot. Gopnik is skeptical of thinkers who run around shouting “The sky is falling!” Change, Gopnik reminds us, is the only constant, and while things may look bleak just now, “whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place.” Instead of hysteria, Gopnik counsels a middle way. He writes:

We live, certainly, in societies that are in many ways inequitable, unfair, capriciously oppressive, occasionally murderous, frequently imperial—but, by historical standards, much less so than any other societies known in the history of mankind. We may angrily debate the threat to transgender bathroom access, but no other society in our long, sad history has ever attempted to enshrine the civil rights of the gender nonconforming. 

Gopnik also says:

The middle way is not the way of melodrama. (That’s why long novels are the classic liberal medium, and why the best one is called “Middlemarch.”)

Gopnik’s defense of classical liberalism is smug and rather boring – just like classical liberalism itself. “Classical liberalism” is the name given to a set of ideas that burgeoned during and after the Enlightenment. Classical liberalism’s key thinkers include John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and – latterly – Friedrich Hayek and John Rawls. Classical liberalism is closely allied to the philosophy of the Whigs. It promotes representative democracy, free trade, cordial international relations, individual liberty, toleration, consensus, empiricism, and the right to own property. Slightly modified by socialist ideas (i.e. the welfare state), classical liberalism was the shaping philosophy of the post-World War II Western nation-states. Inside the political mainstream of the West after 1945, there was more or less total agreement about the value of classical liberalism as a governing philosophy. (This is why people used to complain that political parties in Western countries were indistinguishable from one another: no one disagreed about anything truly significant.)

During the postwar period, classical liberalism promoted itself in the form of large international collaborative projects. The United Nations is a classically liberal project. So is the European Union. Since borders impede free trade, classical liberalism believes in weak borders. At the heart of classical liberalism is economic liberalism: individual freedom is important not for moral reasons, but for economic ones. Classical liberalism in this sense is inseparable from capitalism – which is one of the reasons so many people dislike it.

Classical liberalism is also open to the charge that it is bourgeois and philistine – and that it leads naturally to the exploitation of the poor. This is part of the point that Marx and Engels were making in The Communist Manifesto – and that Marx made at much greater length in Das Kapital. For Marx and Engels – and for later radical thinkers – free trade results in inequality, which is not to be tolerated. For generations of radicals, classical liberalism is merely the ideological fig-leaf worn by a class of rapacious, destructive capitalists as they advance their own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else. Unless you understand this, it becomes impossible fully to grasp the thought of someone like, for instance, Michel Foucault, who devoted his career to exposing the systems of control that he believed were lurking behind the tolerant facade of classical liberalism.

Classical liberalism in practice has certainly resulted in massive inequality. The forces of “globalisation” have attempted to spread classical liberalism around the world (in this sense, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a classically liberal endeavour). To say the least, this has not been successful. Instead of prosperity sparked by weak borders, globalisation has created an underclass of poor, mobile workers who lack job security and often seek to express their anger through violence. (This is part of the point Mishra makes in Age of Anger.) Ironically, globalisation has also largely destroyed the very middle class who have historically benefited from the triumph of classical liberalism. All over the world, people can no longer see the benefits of a classically liberal approach. As a result, we have entered a period of illiberalism, in which people will vote, angrily, for obvious charlatans like Donald Trump, and in which classically liberal projects like the EU have come to be seen as high-handed, exploitative, and elitist.

Concurrently, radicals in the contemporary West have continued to wage their war against classical liberalism. The project of “Theory” – derived from anti-liberal critiques articulated by thinkers like Foucault – has moved from the academy into the public sphere, largely in the form of what we now think of as identity politics. People who espouse identity politics are often thought of as “liberal.” But identity politics is not a classically liberal idea. In fact it arose from the failure of classical liberalism to create a genuinely equitable society. In this sense, identity politics has the same origins as the politics of ressentiment that drives the people who voted for Brexit or Trump. White nationalism, for example, is a form of identity politics. Unwilling to recognise that their shared hatred of classical liberalism makes them more alike than not, White nationalists and millennial leftists clash over control of public discourse: who gets to say what, and how. In fact, identity politics – whether of the right or of the left – violates one of the key tenets of classical liberalism, which is that no one group should be afforded special rights: instead, all groups and individuals should be afforded the same rights, with no exceptions. In practice, of course, classical liberalism has consistently afforded special rights to the rich, while simultaneously denying that “the rich” constitute a minority. It is this hypocrisy – which may, in fact, be built into the very foundations of classical liberalism itself  – that has driven both right and left into a tumult of illiberal reaction.

Reasons I Will Not Read Your Novel

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It’s about childhood.

It’s written in the present tense.

Characters named “Ma” and “Da” appear.

It’s set on a farm.

It’s written in the second person.

The words “wizard” or “dragon” appear.

It’s written in a phonetically rendered local dialect.

There is a section break before two characters fuck and the next section begins with the word “Afterwards…”

It begins with a prologue.

It begins with a prologue in italics.

It retells the life of Jesus.

It retells the life of any other mythological figure.

It’s about the wacky adventures of a charming alcoholic.

It features characters who create imaginary worlds in order to escape from their real-world pain.

The moral of the story is that racism is bad.

It’s about a young girl or boy coming of age.

The main character looks in a mirror and thinks about his/her appearance (“She noted approvingly her strong cheekbones and rich brown hair”).

It’s about a family torn apart by the Great War.

The smell of chips or of a chip shop is described.

It tells the tragic stories of characters who never escaped from the stifling confines of their family or small town.

The main characters all live on the same street.

The main character’s dreams are described at length.

Swimming is used as a metaphor for something.

The main character is a painter or owns an art gallery.

The main character is a priest.

The main character is a precocious child.

It’s over 600 pages long.

It’s about people coming to terms with things.

The first sentence mentions the weather or what season it is.

You do not know the difference between “which” and “that.”

One character offers to make a cup of tea for another.

Pluperfect contractions (“he’d,” “she’d”) are regularly used.

The main character listens to his/her favourite album.

Memories of a wise grandparent feature heavily.

The grandparent’s hands are described as “papery.”

Ancillary characters respond to trauma in quirky ways.

The narrator is a paranormal creature (vampire, werewolf, witch, shapeshifter) who fights crime.

Cultish nonsense is endorsed (homeopathy, theosophy, Christianity, wicca, reincarnation, tarot, astrology).

Characters say or do things “quietly.”

A city is personified (“The city had taken everything from him”).

The central symbol is an animal, esp. a horse.

The central symbol is a tree.

It’s narrated by a ghost.

You are Colum McCann.

(Any one of the above will result in me not reading your novel. See also this.)

Plus ca change

Isaiah Berlin, in his book Russian Thinkers (1978), writes about the mid-to-late-19th century  – the period following the failed revolutions of 1848 – when liberals in the West grew very nervous about Russia:

Russia was to the democrats of this period very much what the fascist powers were in our own time: the arch-enemy of freedom and enlightenment, the reservoir of darkness, cruelty and oppression, the land most frequently, most violently denounced by its own exiled sons, the sinister power, served by innumerable spies and informers, whose hidden hand was discovered in every political development unfavorable to the growth of national or individual liberty in Europe.

Deep State

Where did the “Trump’s team are working with the Russians” story come from? Masha Gessen, writing for the New York Review of Books blog, says this:

The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials.

In other words, elements within the US intelligence community – made up, primarily, of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as sundry other groups and groupuscules – appear to have declared war on the Trump administration. These elements have been steadily leaking information – which may or may not be true – about Trump’s involvement with Russian business and spy networks. The most lurid of these leaks was, of course, the “kompromat dossier, with its unappetising descriptions of what Trump supposedly got up to in a Moscow hotel room.

Elsewhere in the public sphere, a narrative has developed about the American “deep state.” The phrase “deep state” – status in statu, state within a state – refers to the idea that there are elements within a given body politic that may act, when necessary, against an elected civilian government in defense of a country’s interests. The deep state might consist of the Army, or of the intelligence community, or of civil servants, or of some combination of all three.

On the left (or on what now passes for the left), certain thinkers have suggested that the American deep state might act as a check on Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts – that the deep state will do everything in its power to preserve the Republic against Trump’s assaults. On the right – i.e. within the Trump administration itself – the concept of a deep state has fuelled conspiratorial thinking, as the New York Times reports:

The concept of a “deep state” — a shadowy network of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy — is more often used to describe countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements band together to undercut democratically elected leaders. But inside the West Wing, Mr. Trump and his inner circle, particularly his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, see the influence of such forces at work within the United States, essentially arguing that their own government is being undermined from within.

Either way, we should not be reassured by the idea of an American deep state. The US intelligence agencies have, since 1945, frequently acted without accountability to destabilise democratically elected governments and assassinate foreign leaders (and that’s before we even mention waterboarding and “extraordinary rendition”). The idea that the CIA and others may be acting against the White House – even the Trump White House – is profoundly disquieting.

More broadly, this idea – that elements within the American state are now at war with one another – gets at something that seems to have become true about the contemporary world. This week, Wikileaks released a trove of secret documents relating to CIA surveillance techniques. Wikileaks – led by the rodentine antihero Julian Assange – has been conducting its own war against the American state for some time now. Wikileaks is the sworn enemy of American neoliberalism – this is why they leaked the DNC emails that helped to undermine Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Once seen as heroes by the left, Wikileaks has now revealed itself as yet another agent of global reaction.

Significantly, none of the groups involved in this latest bout of leaks, betrayals, and rumours is an old-fashioned nation state. They are all global actors in another sense – pursuing their own special interests as they compete against one another in a borderless world made possible by the internet and by an interdependent world economy. Absent from any consideration, in this high-stakes game of global conflict, are ordinary people – that is, you and me. Unable to act, we are forced to watch as secretive groups that we do not understand or trust behave in unpredictable ways, acting according to a logic we can only guess at. All over the world, old-fashioned representative democracy has been shoved aside. Instead, our world is now a lawless playground in which sinister agencies fight one another for power.

In a sense, interest-group politics has now gone global. The result is bellum omnia contra omnes – a war of all against all. We find ourselves living inside a paradox: a highly organised state of nature. Information can be disseminated worldwide in seconds but it can no longer be trusted. We are compelled to watch as myriad groups (old-fashioned elites, non-state actors, terrorist crusaders, hackers, oligarchs, banks, limited liability corporations, civil-rights organisations, nationalists, white supremacists, tyrants, oil companies, scientists, human-rights campaigners, gangsters) act upon each other, pursuing their special interests without regard to the well-being of the majority. Old narratives collide with new. Nothing adds up. We are in the middle of a housing boom, just as we were a decade ago; but we are also seeing food shortages as a result of climate change. Historians have compared Trump to Hitler, but the conditions under which Trump has taken power do not correspond to those in which Hitler rose to supremacy. People are using social media to organise protests and marches, but the information they exchange on social media is being sold by corporations to other elites, often for unknown purposes. News can no longer be trusted; we can no longer rely on our own sense of reality to help us judge what appears to be happening. A bewildering plurality of diagnoses and explanations is available online at all times of the day or night. But no matter how much we read or watch, we cannot shake the feeling that the old meaning of the world is broken. We can no longer make coherent sense of things. This is a very dangerous predicament. Robbed of meaning and purpose, people become angry. And angry people make poor decisions. Searching for the “right” side, individuals seek out interest-groups of their own. But in the Babel of competing narratives, nobody can grasp the truth. In such a whirlwind – Nietzsche called it nihilism – elite actors will seize every opportunity to consolidate their power. The war of all against all will continue.

Carnivalesque by Neil Jordan

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My review of Neil Jordan’s new novel appears in today’s Sunday Business Post Magazine. The Iron Paywall supervenes, I’m afraid, but here’s a brief excerpt:

Throughout Carnivalesque, Jordan’s instinct for the lushly Gothic consorts uneasily with a kitchen-sink lyricism more typical of his early fiction. Thus, amid the dark poetry, we get sentences like “She must have fallen asleep then, lulled by the gentle winds through the late spring foliage” (which is the sort of sentence you might find in any literary novel) and sentences like “Jim wasn’t one for swimming, she reflected, as she heated up the corn oil for the chips, and sliced the cellophane wrapper on the Denby’s sausages” (which is the sort of sentence you shouldn’t find in any novel).

All the Children of the Nation Equally

Almost the first thing the Irish Republic did was attempt to turn its back on a certain kind of cosmopolitan liberal modernity. In some ways, the 1937 Constitution was a document of its decade. All over the world, in the 1930s, large numbers of people turned away from what they saw as the “decadence” and “corruption” of liberal modernity and towards a “traditionalist” ethic of family, home, blood, and soil. Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s National Socialists codified these ideas into dangerous political movements. But Ireland, under DeValera, expressed its own kind of resistance to the “decadent” forces of liberal modernity.

The 1937 Constitution is in many ways a wonderful document. It guarantees a popularly elected President, a bicameral legislature, equality before the law, the right to assemble and to unionize, and it contains broad free speech protections. The Constitution can only be amended by referendum, which ensures that Ireland remains democratic in a true sense – the opinion of the majority is consulted before any changes to the Constitution are made. In these and other ways, the 1937 Constitution is remarkably modern.

But there are also certain well-known problems with the 1937 Constitution. The prohibition on abortion remains highly contentious, though it seems clear that if a referendum on this question were held today, a majority of the Irish electorate would vote to leave the prohibition unchanged.

The other major problem with the 1937 Constitution is the special place that it affords the family. Article 41 of the Constitution reads, in part, as follows:

1.1°: The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

1.2°: The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

By enshrining the family (or, as the Constitution would have it, “the Family”) as “antecedent and superior to all positive law,” the 1937 Constitution codified a deep distrust of cosmopolitanism, alternative lifestyles, and sexual liberation – forces associated, in the 1930s and after, with the “decadent” and “corrupt” side of liberal modernity. DeValera’s Constitution created a Republic along Enlightenment lines. But mixed in with this Enlightenment vision was a deep distrust of the liberalising forces of modernity, which were seen as disruptive, dangerous, and corrosive of moral values.

The practical result of this fetishisation of the family was to create a large class of outsiders in Irish life –chief among them gay people and single mothers. The state punished this class of  outsiders – which they had, of course, created – by imprisoning its members in workhouses, Magdalene laundries, orphanages, and industrial schools, most of them run by the Catholic Church – which also had a “special place” in the 1937 Constitution.

One of these was the mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, County Galway. Today the Irish Times reports as follows:

Human remains of a significant number of babies and infants up to three years of age have been found on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway, it has been confirmed.

This follows work by the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes which carried out planned excavations there.

Local research records 796 infants and children recorded as having died in the Tuam home run by the Bon Secours Sisters between 1925 and 1961. There is not as yet any indication of exactly how many bodies have been discovered at the site.

The Tuam babies are among the many casualties of the Irish state’s early and lasting refusal to come to proper terms with the forces of liberal modernity. This is the great and ongoing tragedy of the Irish Republic. The Easter Proclamation, read aloud by Padraig Pearse outside the GPO on the 24th of April 1916, promises that the Irish Republic will “cherish all the children of the nation equally.” We have not done this. We should be ashamed.