Analysis & Comment

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'We are woke but not awake as our world goes awry'

I was reared on Walden Pond. Not as a long-legged fly or a sedge-side cabin dweller, but as a listener to, and reader of, Henry David Thoreau.

As small children our mother would read and quote Walden to us. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for company, three for society”. As we got older, it was the only book we required permission to read. Not because of its content but its context: the ochre, cloth-bound volume, small and snug, stitched and gold-embossed, was all my mother possessed of her father. That and his mind: palatial, questioning.

Her father died of his heart when she was nine. But it was his own father’s cruelty that killed him. It kick-started the gambling addiction that saw him put his kingdom on a horse, taking the roof from over his head, the maid from his wife, the nurse from his children. It corralled him in a lovely corporation house they were lucky to get and where they sold everything – ebony and mother-of-pearl chinoiserie, silverware, jewellery, ruby engagement ring, wedding band – and, one by one, his books. All except Walden.

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Now I’ve outlived my grandfather by two years, I find myself wondering what he was wondering as he turned Walden’s dense, almondy pages in a house full of children, living and dead, before the welfare state. Embarking on day-to-day life without his great-grandchildren, I’m drawn increasingly to the chapter ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’, remembering how, in my teens, the sleepers of the Yankeeman and the Irishman under the railroad below became entangled with Glenn Campbell and the perpendicular Wichita Lineman above.

All week the chapter has been apposite, in particular this: “Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths while reality is fabulous… By closing the eyes and slumbering and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations.”

He might as well have been writing about the Data Protection Commission’s (DPC) ruling on the public services card (PSC) which found us, politically, eyes wide shut. So ‘fabulous’ was the news, it lasted on the public mind as long as the wings of a fly on the tongue of a frog. Such is the dearth now of political discourse, or anything approaching a public philosophical life, that a subject that cannot be decocted into a soundbite, concocted into a headline or confected into a tweet has virtually no place in popular consideration or discussion. This greatly suits politicians, who count on our attention span being the length of a tweet, before another cute kitty extinguishes the fires of the Amazonian rainforest, calms our fears at the slowing gulfstream. The Government pursues its politics of followership by tweeting about Orwell and the Amazon, confident that the Huxley Soma-peddled spin has left our synapses so sluggish we won’t make the connection between planetary destruction and early-riser neoliberalism and greed, the ins and outs, the winners and losers, the them and us.

While 217 billion tons of Greenlandic meltwater head for the Atlantic, in our idea of a public life we’re hitting peak shallowness. God forbid we might commit ourselves to the idea of public intellectuals or a professorship of public philosophy. As Desmond Fennell, invoking Emerson, puts it “beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no one knows what is safe or where it will end.”

Last Sunday, on the radio with Gavan Reilly, we were perfectly safe with data expert and eyes-wide-open solicitor Simon McGarr, who, judging by his twitter account, keeps a small battalion of Department of Social Welfare staff adrenaline-filled and battle-ready, on his analysis of the PSC. He shared valuable insight on the State’s unlawful retention of the data of 3.2 million citizens, foraying into national ID cards, civil law, common law and Napoleonic codes in the process.

By contrast, RTE appeared to have no data expert on the panel with Marian Finucane. Despite her best efforts, non-expert random opinions and suggestions proliferated, including some unusual ideas on retrospective fixing of legislation. This despite GDPR being EU law and therefore superseding domestic law.

But it wasn’t only members of the panel. That the Taoiseach would himself even mention retrospective action suggests an ignorance not only of the reality of GDPR and significance of the DPC’s ruling, but an insensitivity to the nuance and depth of the essential relationship between citizen and State.

And we’re publicly slumbering on more than GDPR. Last week, I saw no social or political analysis of Justice Seamus Noonan’s signal High Court ruling allowing gardai to investigate perjury in cases heard in-camera. This courageous, powerful and insightful decision arises from a claim by a party that perjury in such a case resulted in their receiving a negative judgment. Justice Noonan’s landmark ruling will have a major impact on all in-camera cases, including proceedings involving the child and family agency, Tusla.

In a separate and unrelated court action involving Tusla, a mother previously jailed for posting details of her child’s case online was given a further warning by the presiding judge.

Privacy of children and families is paramount and must be protected. But leaving this specific case aside, a progressive, compassionate and wide-awake society must question the circumstances where any parent considers imprisonable action to be their last or only resort in dealing with an agency of the State. Particularly given the revelations about Tusla standards and practice in the McCabe case.

Just last week, the new confidential report prepared by Dr Helen Buckley cites ongoing poor practice, including long delays in registering at-risk children. We’d have to go full Sandra Bullock in Bird Box to fail to see how these cultural delays are in marked contrast to the experience of the McCabes, who found files opened on each of their children without their knowledge.The societal slumbering seems to extend to the ‘best interest of the child’ principle too, leaving us unquestioning – ‘woke’ but not awake.

I believe this excellent principle has been shrunk to a procedural banality. How else could we have 50,000 children waiting to see a paediatrician? Such a waiting list cannot be in the best interest of any child. But the list exists despite our having a Minister for Children, a Department of Children, an Ombudsman for Children and changing the Constitution to put our children first.

As with the campaigners on the PSC, those questioning the consensus on the standards and practice around children first can be seen as cranks, though perhaps less so since McCabe.

PSC? Great. Designed to save us from fraud. What’s your problem? Well, that the savings were €2m but the PSC cost us more than €60m. That’s on top of the unlawful retention of the data of 3.2 million people by the State.

Child welfare? Great. Let’s put our Children First. Except, in practice, putting our children first means a safe home for them to grow up in, not a hotel or a hub. Putting children first means feeding them in their home kitchen, not a soup kitchen. Putting children first means when they are sick they see a specialist. When they need a scoliosis operation, they see a surgeon – not their parents frantic as the ministerial distraction of ‘no more than four months’ becomes the reality of 17 months.

All the parroting, all the in-the-know nodding, all the comatose consensus is doing for us. Especially the poor. Confidence and supply is a confidence trick. Sold as supporting the slumbering citizens, in ‘fabulous reality’ it is securing seats. In our engagement with politics and society, it’s time to stop nodding, scrolling and start thinking, questioning.

If not, we will become, as Neil Postman reminds us in Amusing Ourselves to Death, like the “afflicted” of Brave New World. Not that we will be laughing instead of thinking. But that we will no longer know what we are laughing at. And why we have stopped thinking.

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