“In newspaper work you have to learn to forget every day what happened the day before. Newspaper work is valuable up to the point it begins to destroy your memory.” – Hemingway
As my engineer friend Hugh puts it, for much of my time on Slugger, I’ve tried only to share what I feel is important, perhaps not obvious but nevertheless true. That’s increasingly important in a world abundant in information.
If you can (and you haven’t already), I thoroughly recommend watching the six part biography of Ernest Hemingway. He bust out his first words on newspapers, but later developed his bare modern prose that made his novels famous.
How to retain memory as a resource is an especially important question in the digital age. Large corporates spend good money on archiving material so they can draw on it in future, raiding it for guidance and clues for brand renewal.
Eamon Phoenix’s excellent daily On This Day archive column in the Irish News is a classic example of how the past can be used to inform or even correct perspectives of the present. Something there’s too little of in this digital age.
Archivist Wolfgang Wild has described how we treat the past as disposable, no longer needed as we progress down the road of time. He sees the past as rich resource for re-learning vital lessons, so avoiding reinventions of the wheel.
When I set Slugger up 2002 it was so I could lay a trail of valuable material relevant to what began as a focused inquiry into the inner workings of unionism (the politics least available to me). I still reference those early records to this day.
Fintan O’Toole recently raised a very useful question about memory, in particular why a story about abuse of children in the Bon Secours home in Tuam (which closed in 1961) could invoke wide sympathy, whilst IRA abuse does not.
That institution in Tuam closed down 60 years ago, in 1961. The Provisional IRA shut up shop by decommissioning its weapons just 16 years ago, in 2005. Yet the second story is somehow much more distant than the first.
The same people can see what the nuns did in Tuam as a moral outrage that must never be forgotten and the IRA’s dumping of bodies in secret graves as an unfortunate episode that should stay in the past.
He plays with this theme for a while, and then ultimately frames it thus:
This crazy dance of remembering and forgetting is, however, a means to an end. Recalling the church’s evils serves the same purpose as choosing not to know about the IRA’s. Both help to create a hopeful narrative of a new Ireland escaping from a dark history.
That’s a noble aspiration, but it comes up against one big problem: accountability. A democracy simply cannot work if the people who exercise power do not have to answer for what they do and have done.The church accumulated vast temporal power in Ireland. It must account for how it used it.
Sinn Féin seeks to exercise power on both sides of the Border. It is vital that it accepts – as it has so far failed to do – that it, too, must account for how it uses power. Part of that process has to be a clear and final acknowledgment of the disaster it helped inflict on the Irish people.
Hard to disagree with this. The Catholic Church as, one of our Catholic RE teachers once said (in our Catholic school) flips between being a lamb where it possess no secular power (in our protestant town) and a lion where it had it all.
The Boston scandal set a hare running all through an administration that had previously imagined it would always remain invulnerable to secular investigation. That lack of accountability become the foul seed of its near destruction.
Accountability though requires good records. States have records (even if there are attempts to lose some of them on specific occasions), as do churches. Indeed a thorough examination of both will show much that’s been positive too.
Sinn Féin does not. The party’s initial investigation of Gerry Adams over allegations that he knew about his brother Liam’s abuse of his own daughter (timeline) and did not tell the party took less than a morning to give him clearance.
When the Mairia Cahill case came to light through questions raised by Micheál Martin, the Irish Times leader column noted that Adams’ claim that there had been no cover up by his party was “worthy of the most cynical bishop”.
For her part, Mary Lou McDonald, then the party’s Vice President and therefore officially the most senior figure in the party denied any knowledge in spite of admitting she had in an RTÉ interview with Pat Kenny three years previously.
Quite a piece of work over something that had a clear potential to adversely affect children rights into the present day. And that’s where I think Fintan’s critical point about accountability could and should be enlarged beyond the troubles.
This loss of accountability in politics (and its reporting) is partly because it has become more performative and much less informational and communicative. Autocratic politicians always do performance much better than pure democrats.
It’s key to their appeal. But in doing so they fuel a flight from the world as it is (with all its impossible and inconsumable complexity). Infinitude scares us, tires us, wears us down making us vulnerable to performative demagogic charlatans.
The dominance of polling in political reporting doesn’t help either. If popularity has become the new single currency why are we surprised that those who front load that quality come to dominate political debate.
Populism is a rational response to how we structure and prioritise our political debates. It’s part of a wider retreat into political abstraction that’s in fact led by members of a cultural elite, while few of its promises are ever fulfilled.
By these lights privately educated Mary Lou can dismiss Micheál Martin (the busman’s son from Turner’s Cross) as a posh boy and few note the jarring clash with reality. Mary Lou is not a member of the class she sees herself leading.
We all need to slow down and notice what otherwise can’t been seen when we allow ourselves to be shepherded through bunch of pre-set enclosures at digital lightening pace that have been pre-set set for us by political actors.
As Gilles Deleuze has noted:
We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication.
Slowing down… is about giving a chance to the event, to the encounters which have you feeling and thinking … we must utterly disentangle [progress] from mobilisation, when you quietly destroy what you define as an obstacle to progress. And this is the test for everybody.
If I’m sceptical about recent Sinn Féin attacks on the southern government’s housing plan to bring large institutions into the rental sector, it is only because I know this has not been a problem for an NI Executive jointly led by, Sinn Féin.
The legacy of the PIRA’s long campaign of violence is most intensely felt in those areas where they were operational. More people (5000 plus) have died by their own hand since 1998 than were killed in 30 years of troubles.
According to an excellent new book on post GFA Northern Ireland, intergenerational trauma may be a feature for as many as one in five kids whose parents were either a victim or an agent of violence.
And there’s been 4000 punishment beatings since, most of which are largely deemed by the media as taboo so can’t be examined in public for reasons more profoundly dealt by Fintan, as he concludes with the towering irony of all:
Contrary to Ernest Renan’s dictum, Ireland cannot in fact create a new nation out of selective forgetfulness – or out of its conjoined twin, selective memory. Indeed, one of the things that has prevented the emergence of a single nation on this island is precisely the existence of competing and deeply partial versions of the past.
We can’t escape the past by continuing to explore some of its horrors while ignoring others. If there were to be a genuinely new Ireland, it would be one in which that game of instrumental oblivion is itself consigned to history.
Populism is a collapse of the future into an eternal and (with Twitter’s help) tumultuous “now”, as seen in Sammy Wilson’s convenient self distancing from a protocol agreement that as an DUP MP he was majorly responsible for.
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” – Ernest Hemingway
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty