Category Archives: Alienation

Media: Cruel arbiter of youthful self-respect

According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, one in four Irish teenage girls aged 16-18 is self-harming, and obesity rates among young people are higher for those socially less advantaged. This news of Nov 3rd 2016 shows that Ireland is following a pattern that is uniform throughout the developed world: a new tyranny is growing, far more insidious than any that preceded the rise of electronic and print media.

Under British imperial occupation Ireland suffered huge psychological damage that has still not been overcome, but at least we had far closer bonds with one another than is happening today. We could join to celebrate what we had retained of our historical memory, and dream together of a future truly free.

But what does true freedom mean today for Irish young people, when stereotypes of physical attractiveness, celebrity and success are mercilessly relayed to them by ‘must have’ devices that wake them in the early morning. And when trolls, fashion police and ransom honey-pots lie in wait on ‘social media’ throughout their waking hours?

This ‘media colonisation’ was impending even before Ireland’s 20th century overthrow of ‘the British yoke’. The very first clinical diagnoses of what are today termed eating disorders occurred in the 1800s, in an era of expanding print mass media. The latter exploited the appetite of young women for every detail of the costume and ‘lifestyle’ of highly placed ‘beauties’ – such as Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

It was this ‘new woman’ who, along with her good friend the Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, put an end to the wearing of the crinoline and made slimness de rigeur for fashionable women from then on. According to one account they had in their early friendship retired to a private room to measure their waists – inaugurating what is now the global craze for competitive thinness. Ominously, Sisi insisted upon a rigid low calorie diet and dedicated herself to physically demanding sports – and it wasn’t long before the highly placed female readership of the growing print media was aware of every detail of this new ‘must’ for the ‘new woman’.

The first clinical descriptions of what is now called anorexia were written when Sisi and Eugenie were most influential, in 1860 and 1873.*

The habit of imitating social models began much earlier, of course, but the media  multiplication of images of the model ‘socialite’ meant that body-shape competition intensified – and the least ‘body-confident’ girls among the upper classes were necessarily in most danger. Now every young woman is subject to the same threat.

As for rates of obesity, those too are now known to correlate with social disadvantage and the self-dislike to which the least fortunate give way. ‘Comfort eating’ is far from being a myth for those subject to media, yet incapable of participation in any of the competitions for status that they see.  Self-cutting is obviously closely related, an expression of the deepest self-rejection.

For commercial media, competition of all kinds is the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – because of a singular human frailty: our tendency to agree that our worth is indeed determined by other humans, by ‘society’. There is a complete uniformity in the damage done to young men who ingest steroids to ‘bulk up’, and young women who swallow dieting doctrine, by virtue of the same conviction: ‘I must not be shamed by my body’.  Media are almost uniformly the conduit of this merciless dogma: beware at all costs of social contempt; seek honour through conformity.

Those who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom have not yet noticed that it is now from a thoroughly secularised media, dominated by purely commercial interests, that a far greater danger threatens. Or that, as the greatest theme of all great religion is the equal sacred and inviolable value of every one of us – no matter what ‘society says’ – it is only through those who believe this passionately that true freedom will come.

‘What happened to sin?’ asked the late Sean Fagan. Answer: it became ‘self harm’. (For St Thomas Aquinas ‘God is not offended until we harm ourselves’.)  Irish Catholic clergy, many still despondent over their own recent shaming, need to remember that it is only from their current social altitude that the Gospel can be effectively preached.

Only now, released from its mistaken role at the pinnacle of social respectability,  can the Irish Catholic church – clergy and people together – effectively uphold the full Gospel of the equal and infinite value of every person.  The power of Christendom to teach the whole Gospel was always an illusion, because it was in those centuries of the clergy’s greatest social power that the deepest meaning of the Resurrection was almost lost: that our value, our worth, is God given and is therefore not in the gift – or justly subject to the contempt – of any other power: not ‘society’, not media and not even the Church.

*    See: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard  [Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 3 (Spring 1996)]

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The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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