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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

What are politicians and philosophers for if they don’t mean what they say?

My mates mean what they say

When I was much younger and beginning to take a real interest in political protest and calls for social change, I attended a meeting in the centre of Manchester about the fight against a resurgent fascism and the need for socialism. But I made the unfortunate mistake of bringing along my best mates who, understandably as it transpired, swore that they would never go to a socialist meeting with me ever again. Now these were lads I grew up with, fought street battles alongside and would trust with my life. They only went to the meeting because they knew I wanted them to go. Still today, if I rang any of them and said I was in trouble they would drop everything and come. They are ordinary/extraordinary people. I will return to this word “ordinary”.

Celebration comes naturally to us. - Artist Phil Kelly (RIP)

I have wrestled with this political and philosophical moment ever since and, after decades of thought about the matter, I have come to the firm conclusion that my mates were right. Put simply, they realised that the people speaking at that meeting did not mean what they said. The speakers, my mates said, were “taking the piss” (having a laugh we say nowadays), “liked the sound of their own voices”, “fancied that bird in the front row”, didn’t “really believe what they were saying”.

It was this last line – “didn’t really believe what they were saying” - that has dominated my thoughts in the intervening quarter of a century or so, because I have found this to be broadly true of all the professional and middle class types I have encountered since the day I got very lucky for a Manchester Irish lad (in the right place at the right time) and got a job in the BBC.

Weary middle class cynicism

What I encountered everywhere was a world-weary cynicism and scepticism that runs through all the professions like rind through bacon. My mates mean what they say; even their brilliant wit, humour and turns of phrase has a fierce sense of commitment – a sense of right and wrong, even when they are making fun of it. But in the “posh” world anyone who is passionate and has a clear set of values, particularly if they have radical views, is viewed with cynicism and suspicion, sometimes outright contempt. The knowing journalist will tap his nose with his pointer-finger and say there is another story there; the therapist will say that this is a clear case of the divided self with dark and subconscious urges that only he can interpret if we would only step into his ever revolving door of therapy; and the philosopher and poet will say that the world does not really exist so why be so “dogmatic and didactic” about it. My mates meanwhile continue to mean what they say.

Where did all this cynicism and scepticism come from? It seems to me that what has happened, probably over centuries, is a middle class flight away from the ordinary – or perhaps a refusal to recognise the extraordinary in the ordinary. It is not that our social and intellectual “betters” are inherently bad people, but they form part of a culture that seems to have decided that our finite senses are inadequate to explain, dare I say enjoy and celebrate, the world around us. The best of their thinkers tied themselves in knots over how our intellect could “prove” reality – is that table really there?, they asked. Whereas workers and peasants broke bread together and this, for them, was the proof of the table.

It seems to me that If that table and all the other physical things that we share are not really there, except in some pure, imagined, metaphysical state, and if our shared empathy and beliefs are continually doubted, the logical conclusion is depression and suicide – the very route down which the intellectual classes have pushed us. Now we are all supposed to have “issues”. Even young children refer to their parents in this way. Thankfully, a lot of people have simply ignored this wallowing in neurosis and just got on with things. Like my mates.

Empathy and human solidarity - the happy author with shipmate

Here is the irony then, and the source of hope - If we believe in a shared future and a future for our children in the generations to come, politicians and philosophers have to step up to our level – to the level of our extraordinary ordinariness. Step up to a place where life and culture is celebrated, where empathy and solidarity are natural and do not have to be endlessly analysed as being abnormal. Dionysus was always our man, as Nietzsche and Emerson have always said. It is natural to be thankful to be alive and joyous in life- no one political party or philosophical system can explain or “rule” everything but they can join with us in our desire to reflect, work and celebrate.

I think politicians like Pearse Doherty here at home and Tom Watson in England, philosophers like Stanley Cavell, writers like Michael Ondaatje, artists and thinkers like John Berger, theologians and historians like Sister Margaret MacCurtain already show the way to a new broad-based social wisdom and hopeful new dawn of human solidarity - politicians and thinkers need to get with the new programme.

The days of “cynical gravitas” are numbered. We have no choice if we are to survive as a species.

@Paul Larkin
Deireadh Fómhair 2012
Gaoth Dobhair
Tír Chonaill

(This article is dedicated to my daughter Sadhbh, whose birthday was yesterday)
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Title: What are politicians and philosophers for if they don’t mean what they say?
Date posted: 07 Oct '12 - 13:53
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