A Festival of Cruelty curated by as pure a curmudgeon as ever sprang from Eire’s grassy hills. Culturalfatwa looks beyond the haranguing to the true message of Tonight with Vincent Browne.
By any measure Tonight with Vincent Browne at the unearthly hour of 11pm on TV3 is a weird yet wonderful phenomenon. In fact, in a political landscape almost completely devoid of genuine debate, it might just be said to be unique.
Stranger still the fishies that swarm and nibble about in the associated twitter hashtag, #vinb. Here extreme lefty meets dedicated republican, hard core begrudger and random Twitter smartarse, and all on a roughly even footing. Within this tag swim small schools of wrigglers of the anti-bailout right (the Karl Wheelan/Paul Somerville shoal for want of a better term), and occasionally, even in these shallows, drifting thoughtlessly under a bridge you hear a faint shout, “TROLL!” Too late! A doughty rock lobster of the Fianna Fáil, Labour or (horror) Fine Gael variety has you held in its vice-like claws.
The #vinb tag, rightly described recently on Twitter by @soundmigration as a genuine social/sociological phenomenon, would repay study – maybe someone is already on it?
Moving out of ‘virtual pools’ for a moment what we have is simply a TV panel show presided over by the mighty Vincenzo. It’s extraordinarily hard to describe to the uninitiated this man of (apparently) lefty-liberal leanings. Of course his arsenal of ticks, shudders and eye-browy moves and gestures have been well mimicked, if not quite equalled, by the short-lived Mario Rosenstock sketches on the show. But beyond the baleful sighs and the eyes up to a heaven he doesn’t believe in, to a god that’s not taking calls, Vincenzo is as pure a curmudgeon as ever sprang from Eire’s grassy hills.
Besides a photographic memory stretching back eons there is his most dreadful weapon, the phrase “Just answer the question”. So strong is this stinger that it seems to have been the main reason that the Troika refused to meet either opposition or press on their last tour of inspection. It is deployed with limpet-like tenacity, the hapless victim (be they left, right or centre) is allowed to blather on at will for a brief period. Then “the question”.
“The question” is always of a “have you stopped beating your wife?” nature. It might be nice to think that a simple yes/no could be returned as an answer, but that would be far too easy! Rarely has the harried victim even the microseconds to draw breath, yet alone stretch to audible sound. “The question” is always completely ‘loaded’, entirely and intricately of arch Vincenzo design and almost never, ever, drawn from whatever has been the media pre-approved ‘argument’ or ‘side’ in any particular debate.
Some choice examples of this include asking Leo Varadkar, “Why did you put the ‘gun to head clause’ in the preamble to the Fiscal Compact Treaty?” (he also deployed this particular bludgeon during the first Compact Treaty debate with Micheál Martin and Simon Covney), asking Troika member Klaus Masuch, “did your taxi driver tell you how the Irish people are bewildered that we are required to pay unguaranteed bondholders billions of Euros for debts that the Irish people have no relation to or no bearing with, primarily to bail out or to ensure the solvency of European banks? And if the taxi driver had asked you that question, what would have been your response? That’s my first question”, or September’s evisceration of the hapless Kieran O’Donnell, “are you proud of what your party colleague, Phil Hogan, did in this instance – reassuring or assuring neighbours in this area that a Traveller family wouldn’t be housed in that area?”.
There are many other things that you are liable to see on Tonight with Vincent Browne that you will never see anywhere else on the Irish airways or, possibly, anywhere in the world.
There are the Festivals of Cruelty or bloodings, horrible rituals in which one of the major political parties supplies a young innocent for the specific purpose of a verbal savaging by Vincenzo. This seems to be based on the misguided notion that the victim will be steeled/tempered or toughened in some way. The repeat throwing of FG TD Paschal Donohoe into the metal box shows that particular theory up as a complete non-starter. The casual savaging of doe-eyed Paschal only seems to draw him back for more and at times even this seasoned anarchist antichrist feels like throwing a towel into the ring on his behalf. Seasoned ministers and party leaders generally will not be found even accidentally within a 50 mile radius of Vincenzo under any circumstances. In our lovely wee democracy in the year 2012 they are basically terrified of a ‘mere’ TV presenter. This is, obviously, hella cool.
There are times when an ‘ordinary head’, be they homemaker or community activist, is allowed to spout forth at and, occasionally, annihilate some stuffed shirt or other. There are times when an academic or expert is called out, though mind you one or two (Diarmuid Ferriter springs to mind) take to it like ducks to water. There are live embedded outside broadcasts from within protests ignored elsewhere on the airwaves. They have a presenter who reads viewers’ tweets, texts and comments out live, later reproducing them fully credited on a blog (politico.ie), responding in detail and often using that to generate debate in future shows.
This show never so much ends as fizzles out – usually in a bad-tempered, inconclusive and incoherent morass. Each ending is a tiny, beautiful example of another glib and easy closure (the sine non qua of most political broadcasts), deliberately and successfully elided. As a resigned Vicenzo stares directly into the void and mumbles something about the weather forecast the message is clear: if there is to be resolution or closure, indeed change of any stamp, it’s gonna have to come from out there beyond the TV screen, from you (yes, you!), the humble viewer.
The great success of societies that are as spectacularly unequal as the US is the indoctrination of the populace into believing that in so far as they are excluded from the wealth of such societies it is because of their own inadequacies. By Vincent Browne.
There is an impulse to dismiss political rhetoric as just so much blather, harmless blather.
But there is much more to it, for very often such rhetoric taps into and works to legitimise certain shared ideas, helping them to achieve the status of unassailable and obvious “truths” that generate power to persuade a populace of the “common sense” of ideas, that persuade people of the necessity to support policies that, manifestly, are against their interests. For instance, of the “necessity” for huge disparities of power, income and wealth.
That “common sense” allows elites to maintain their power not through force or coercion but through the active and willing consent of the majority of people.
There was much of this in the children’s referendum debate, such as children being heard as well as seen, and the stuff about every child matters, masking the reality in our society that every child does not matter and the voices of many children will never be heard, now and when they grow out of childhood.
A striking example of such rhetoric was the victory speech of Barack Obama in Chicago on 6 November and in one crucial regard particularly.
He spoke of the American spirit, “the spirit that has triumphed over war and depression, the spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope, the belief that while each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people”.
The top 1% of income “earners” get 24% of all income. In 1915, the year of the Rockefellers and Carnegies, the top 1% got just 18%. One nation, one people?
Obama spoke aspirationally about solidarity and Americans looking out for each other but then came the following towards the end of the speech: “I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
This is what is called “the American dream” and it is probably the strongest line Americans buy into, almost the ethos of the United States, the justificatory philosophy for US capitalism. It is what gives Americans the idea that the US is “the greatest nation on earth”.
Several studies have shown this “American dream” is a mirage.
For instance, one (Understanding Mobility in America, published by the Centre for American Progress) showed that the US and the UK had the lowest intergenerational vertical social mobility of nine developed countries (the others being France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark).
It showed that children from lowincome families have only a 1% chance of reaching the top 5% of income distribution, whereas children of the rich have a 22% chance. It also showed that African American children who are born in the bottom quartile of income distribution are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely than the top quartile.
And yet most Americans believe this is “common sense”, even though it is common nonsense.
How different would the US be if a majority of the population believed the American dream was just that: nonsense? Is it likely they would tolerate a system that resulted in such rigid inequalities or vote as president someone who celebrated that system and an opponent who exemplified it? And how is it that so many Americans believe this when the facts are demonstrably different, even their own experiences, in the vast preponderance of cases, are so demonstrably different?
There is a further insidious kick to what Obama said a week ago in Chicago and it is the last tag of that paragraph: “You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”
So does that mean that for 46.2 million Americans living in poverty (according to the US census) it’s simply because they were not “willing to try”? Does that mean that more and more Americans have not been “willing to try” over four consecutive years during which the numbers in poverty have risen (according to the US census)?
And how does this explain that one in five children was in poverty? Was it because they had not been “willing to try”? The great success of societies that are as spectacularly unequal as the US is not just the vast wealth that is accumulated by the rich, it is indoctrination of the populace into believing that this is the best of all possible worlds, and in so far as they are excluded from the wealth of such societies it is because of their own inadequacies.
The system is fine.
One of the more substantial achievements of this government has been to burnish the reputation of Fianna Fáil which, we had believed, had been consigned to well-deserved oblivion by the outcome of the 2011 election. By Vincent Browne.
As the coalition resolutely persists in its ineptitude, Fianna Fáil doesn’t seem that bad in retrospect.
A disapproval rating of 73% for the Government is fairly decisive. A rating (voting intentions) of 21% for Fianna Fáil is not at all decisive, but it is a significant improvement on the party’s election showing (17%).
But Fianna Fáil will struggle to improve, not because of the calibre of its Dáil representation, or even the memory of the damage it did in government (although that will be hard to live down for a decade or more), but because it doesn’t have enough credible candidates to win seats. The next local elections won’t rectify that.
Fianna Fáil back in office might be, next time round, a little more competent than the present crowd, but essentially no different – as the present crowd are essentially no different to their predecessors.
Much of the damage to the government is self-inflicted, beginning with reckless election promises when Fine Gael feared that Labour might overtake it, and Labour thought there was a prospect of Eamon Gilmore becoming Taoiseach. Fine Gael promised there would be no increases in income tax. Labour promised it would be “Labour’s way”, not “Frankfurt’s way”, and that social welfare payments and the Croke Park deal would be left untouched.
More harm was self-inflicted by wild claims of success, such as Enda Kenny and Gilmore on the supposed deal on the bank debt in June and both of them, along with Michael Noonan and others, about growth returning to the economy.
It remains in the deep doldrums, with falling employment and, alarmingly, rising emigration. More appalling still have been the cuts seemingly targeted at the worst-off, the most egregious of the pending ones being to home help.
And then, of course, there is the James Reilly debacle.
But there has been nothing like the harm that is about to be inflicted with the introduction of the property tax. There will be outrage, some of it justified (such as in the case of those who paid massive stamp duty when buying property immediately before the collapse, and where it affects poorer people).
Most of this outrage is unjustified, because of the culture of low tax that was engendered – by Fianna Fáil in its 14 years in office, and by Fine Gael and Labour during their 14 years in opposition, during which time they berated Fianna Fáil for not indulging this culture even more.
The primary difficulty faced by this government, and by Labour in particular, is the settled conviction of much of the electorate, which Fine Gael would not wish to disturb, but Labour should want to disturb.
That conviction is manifest in part by the “certainties” that we already pay too much tax; that a large part of public expenditure is squandered on extensive social welfare fraud; that significant savings can be achieved through cutting back the number of public representatives, abolishing the Senate and slashing the pay of overpaid public servants; and that an equal society is effectively unworkable.
Nobody in politics challenges these “certainties”. In particular, nobody argues for a radical redistribution of wealth and income, bar the left, which presents redistribution in terms of retribution – which, to most people, is just off-putting.
Part of the reason for this settled conviction is that our political system is driven by greed for office.
The political establishment and the media see the attainment of office as the point of politics, even though holding office does not bring the power to change much, because office-holders are constrained by the prevailing mindset of the electorate. It is through challenging and changing mindsets that power is attained, and that change happens.
It is not that politicians are universally venal, for almost all want to act in what they perceive as the national interest. But there is almost always a happy coincidence between their perception of the national interest and what it takes to gain and retain office. Throughout the boom years, nobody was going to gain office by challenging the driving force of the Celtic tiger, as people’s mindsets had bought into a culture of indulgent self-interest. That mindset is now settled. Without a prolonged counter-assault on the prevailing conviction, little can be achieved or changed.
Those impatient for power have little interest in prolonging anything that will keep them from office. But in gaining office, they find that, fatally, they are constrained by that prevailing conviction and forced to do as before. Just as Fianna Fáil did – and would do now, if they were back in office.
But Israel’s deputy ambassador to Ireland said she never believed the day would come when an Irish TV presenter would make “racist, anti-Semitic remarks”.
Mr Browne, pictured, had been complaining on his show about the lack of discussion of Israel during the last US presidential debate between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama.
“Israel is the cancer in foreign affairs. It polarises the Islamic community of the world against the rest of the world,” he said.
“Unless you deal with the problem of Israel and the Palestinians in that part of the world, there’s going to be conflict and disharmony. It’s a massive injustice — they stole the land from the Arabs.”
Mr Browne admitted that his choice of language could have been better but insisted that the criticism was justified.
“What I resent is the suggestion that because you’re critical of Israel, you’re automatically anti-Semitic. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said.
Mr Browne refused to apologise for his remarks, saying that Israel was founded in 1948 by taking land from the Arabs.
He said it was “blackmail” to try to brand everyone who was critical of Israel as anti-Semitic. “I don’t think I differ too much from Irish or European foreign policy,” he said.
But his remarks drew a strong reaction from Israel’s deputy ambassador to Ireland Nurit Tinari-Modai, who said her grandparents were brutally murdered during the Holocaust.
“I would have never believed that the day would come when a presenter on an Irish TV station would make racist, anti-Semitic remarks,” she said.
A TV3 spokeswoman said she was not aware of any complaints being made about Mr Browne’s remarks.