Magdalene Laundries: The Waning of a Culture of Control

4 02 2013


This intriguing post, by the always wonderful Sibling of Daedalus prompted a quick response ahead of the release of Martin McAleese‘s report on state involvement the Magdalene Laundries. Mr. McAleese announced yesterday that he intends to step down from the Seanad, leading to understandable speculation as to the contents of the report, which is due to be unveiled tomorrow.

What is beyond question is that, both before and after independence, a combination of church (both Catholic and Protestant) and state power operated to confine and control “problem” populations: women who fell pregnant out of wedlock, illegitimate children, the poor and the mentally ill.

The human cost of this regime is hard to imagine, with many women spending years essentially working as slaves, with customers of the laundries including the Department for Defence, Áras an Uachtarán (the Preident’s residence), other emanations of the State, and pillars of the establishment. There is  something distinctly unnerving about this description, from 1939, of the Laundries as “spiritual lifeboats”.

The exhumation of a mass grave at a Dublin institution in 1993, containing the remains of 155 women, many of whose deaths went unregistered, brought the issue to public attention as never before. The last Magdalene Laundry closing its doors in 1996, but the stories of the women who lived and suffered in these institutions are still only beginning to be told.

Leading criminologist Ian O’Donnell and sociologist Eoin O’Sullivan have worked to bring this system into focus and understand its context. While it’s often taken as a truism in criminological circles that the latter half of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in punitiveness and a nascent culture of control, O’Donnell and O’Sullivan show that, for Ireland, the opposite is true.

While there was undoubtedly an expansion of the formal criminal justice system, with its associated politico-juridicial discourses, checks and balances, a separate and regime, based on religious discourse, for the disciplining other forms of perceived “deviance” was on the wane. It’s a shocking fact that in 1951, a full 1% of the Irish population was in some kind of coercive confinement, more than the rate of imprisonment in the US at the peak of mass incarceration.

O’Donnell and O’Sullivan’s meticulous efforts cast light on the harsh and often conveniently neglected world of prisioners, prisoners and penitents, and its place in the technologies of social control prevalent in 20th century Ireland, and the extent of both elite and public knowledge, acquiescence and acceptance of these practices (review here, via Differential Association).

While there’s some comfort to be had in the fact that Ireland is beginning to come to terms with this inglorious history, many of the victims of this regime are still suffering, not least because their slave labour wasn’t sufficient to earn them a state pension.  I can only hope that the release of Mr. McAleese’s report will be the next step towards justice for the Magdalene victims, and towards Ireland’s finally coming to terms with the authoritarian cruelty in our past.


Hasbara: Beyond the State of Denial – Condemning the Condemners

30 01 2013

Just a very brief post in response to some of allegations that have been going around of widespread anti-Semitism in Ireland, primarily from Sarah Honig in the Jerusalem Post, with (mais, bien sûr) Ruth Dudley Edwards throwing in her 2c in the Telegraph. Long story short, Trócaire, Kerry teachers and schoolchildren are accused of expressing anti-Semitic views, based on tenuous, quite possibly non-existent evidence. The school in question has issued a full rebuttal on their site.

There’s been an increasing aggressiveness to Israeli PR in the hasbara era, probably a product of the fact that, if you outsource your propaganda campaign to the world at large, who knows what kind of nutjobs will jump on board. Although, let’s be fair, the Israeli Embassy in Dublin aren’t exactly shy with their hasbara, either.

But this incident, in particular, has gotten right under my skin. I honestly believe that the school, the teacher, and the parents of the children pictured should sue the Jerusalem Post and Ruth Dudley Edwards for defamation.

It seems that Israel regards Ireland as such fallow territory that we’re all to be dismissed as a bunch of Jew haters,  (the most anti-Semitic country in Europe according to Ynet) and left at that. The odd thing is that I can never recall having witnessed an anti-Semitic incident in Ireland, either in person or online.

Further, I don’t recall any Irish newspaper welcoming the Israeli ambassador “with an article titled, ‘Welcome to hell.'” as Ynet claimed. Curious that they didn’t link to it or name the paper … it’s almost as if they’re just making it up.

Again and again over  the past few months, this line of argument has been put forward, with ever increasing vehemence. Which, of course, has nothing at all to do with Ireland’s recent appointment the UN Human Rights Council.

On a broader basis, when looking at hasbara, I can’t help but be reminded of the late, lamented Stanley Cohen, a former participant in the Zionist project, who became disillusioned when the reality proved more sordid than his noble aspirations. A great mind, possessed of a rare empathy and humanity, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis (may he rest in peace).

Of particular note, I think, is Cohen’s application, in States of Denial (pdf summary), of Sykes and Matza’s “techniques of neutralisation” to the case of state crimes. States of Denial was written in 1992, and Sykes and Matza were talking about “delinquent” youth, but I think the categorisations have hasbara in 2013 down to a tee – particularly, in this instance, the fourth category:

  • Denial of injury – they exaggerate, they don’t feel it, they are used to violence, see what they do to each other.
  • Denial of victim – they started it, look at what they’ve done to us; they are the terrorists, we are just defending ourselves, we are the real victims.
  • Denial of responsibility – here, instead of the criminal versions of psychological incapacity or diminished responsibility (I didn’t know what I was doing. I blacked out, etc.) we find a denial of individual moral responsibility on the grounds of obedience: I was following orders, only doing my duty, just a cog in the machine. (For individual offenders like the ordinary soldier, this is the most pervasive and powerful of all denial systems).
  • Condemnation of the condemners – here, the politics are obviously more explicit than in the original delinquency context. Instead of condemning the police for being corrupt and biased or teachers for being hypocrites, we have the vast discourse of official denial used by the modern state to protect its public image: the whole world is picking on us; they are using double standards to judge us; it’s worse elsewhere (Syria, Iraq, Guatemala or wherever is convenient to name); they are condemning us only because of their anti-semitism (the Israeli version); their hostility to Islam (the Arab version), their racism and cultural imperialism in imposing Western values (all Third World tyrannies).
  • Appeal to higher loyalty – the original  subdued ‘ideology’ is now total and  self-righteous justification. The appeal to the army, the nation, the  volk, the sacred mission, the higher cause – whether the revolution, ‘history’, the purity of Islam, Zionism, the defence of the free world or state security. […]

Somewhat pressed for time, and really just posting to vent, so I’ll wrap up there. There’s a more comprehensive rebuttal on the facts here. More to follow.

Adventures of Tim Worstall and the Backward Paddies

9 01 2013

Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute, Forbes, Telegraph et al, recently posted a piece on the NNI links licensing debacle here in Ireland, under the charming headline “It Would Have To Be The Irish NewsPapers Trying Something Insanely Stupid Like Charging For Links To Websites“.

There’s a clue to the content in the headline, suffice it to say that it involved a rehashing of tired old ethnic stereotypes and, yes, Paddy jokes.

Needless to say, some of us thought that this was somewhat offensive. Tim thought otherwise, and responded in the comments. A further piece was published on bemoaning the “old Irish chip” towards our neighbours, or words to that effect, with Tim again weighing in on the comments, seemingly blind to how his little piece of knockabout fun on Forbes could possibly offend anyone. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get any joy out of that particular site this evening, so I’m posting my response here:

Tim, it’s quite simple. You gratuitously introduced a spurious ethnic/national/racial element to a story where none belonged. It’s a story about old media failing to adapt to the online era. Nothing more.

Wouldn’t your word count have been better spent getting into the meat of the issue? You know, email Simon McGarr or others who have been served with NNI’s ridiculous licensing notices for comment, a few post around here if you’re interested? Contact the grand old lady formerly of D’Olier Street or NNI for the other side? Look at the legal framework, which clearly doesn’t support the claimed right?

You know, journalism.

Maybe even have a look at the comparative legal position – funnily enough, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales have explicitly recognised copyright vesting in web links, in the case of Newspaper Licensing Agency & Ors. v. Meltwater Holding BV & Ors, a 2011 decision, which was the main authority relied upon by NNI for their utterly ludicrous position …. at least, it’s ludicrous in Irish law … a quick google search would have found it for you.

Instead, your article amounted to “I know it’s not PC to guffaw at backward Paddies, but … har har har, backward Paddies”.

Comedy gold.

I did err in the football hooligans analogy, I’ll admit that much, it would be more like referring to the Sinclair C5 by saying “well that was a flop, typical Brit … that’s what caning and rounders at boarding school, followed by years of sexual repression will do”. Simply gratuitous, incongruous, irrelevant and frankly embarrassing.

To be fair to you, as we backward Paddies are prone to say, it could well be a generational thing – for my peers and I, people are people first and foremost, reducing an individual, or an institution for that matter, to its national origin as primary defining characteristic is simply not acceptable. You see, even behind closed doors, “typical Irish/black/Brit/Yank (etc. ad nauseum)” simply does not wash any more, not as humour, not as anything. But I have met men of the colonial generation who are simply incapable of adapting to this reality, which is probably why they run in increasingly small and frightened numbers around the clubs outside Nairobi. Maybe you just can’t see.

In summary, either lazy journalism or an expression of more deep rooted xenophobia. In either case, unacceptable. Hopefully in future you’ll stick to wibbling on about the actual issues rather than touting to be picked up by the Bernard Manning school of comedy.

I hope to revive this blog in the not too distant – I note that Tim also has some enlightened views on the recent lead and crime controversy, which may be a good place to start.

Crowdsourced Justice?

18 06 2011

Probably a bit late to be posting, but I’ve just found the most fascinating sites:

To summarise, in the wake of yesterday’s rioting in Vancouver, following a resounding defeat for the hometown Canucks against the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final (ice hockey), websites have been established, dedicated to “naming and shaming” rioters. I’m hoping to make contact with the organisers for comment – can’t imagine that they’ll be back to me for a few days, things seem to be pretty hectic for them right at the moment.

I’ve never come upon anything like this before, will need to consider further before commenting.

20 Years of The Foucault Effect

16 06 2011

The Birbeck Centre for Law and the Humanities has very kindly made available, in iPod friendly format, the proceedings of a recent conference celebrating the anniversary of the hugely influential Foucault Effect, a milestone in the dissemination of Foucault’s later ideas, particulary within the Anglophone world.

More importantly, as a characteristically incisive Jonathan Simon pointed out during his address; appearing as it did some seven years after Foucault’s death, The Foucault Effect was an exhortation to “get back to work”. After all, Foucault, in his own words, “[did not] write for an audience. [He wrote] for users, not readers”. While his place in the sociological canon is richly warranted, to treat his works in themselves as a core focus of scholarly analysis is to negate their purpose: That of a toolkit by which individuals can trace and understand power relations in society, and hope, perhaps, to transcend them.

Blogging is hard…

15 06 2011

For a full time office drone (I like to think of myself as the grease in the wheels of justice), an armchair social critic, and an inveterate procrastinator, a commitment to produce content of a reasonable standard on a consistent basis is probably not realistic. In many ways, I do envy my friends sheltering in the academy, with their prerogative of whiling away their days, pondering and writing. Not that I’d ever admit it without the camouflage of a WordPress handle, nor that I’m ever one to shy away from producing my “real world” authenticity as an argumentative trump card, when the need arises.

(On the flip side, I get the feeling that my office colleagues, when they’re being kind, tend to think of me as an essentially well-meaning, but fundamentally misguided, hare-brained, academic type, at least when it comes to matters of social policy. This is a topic to which I shall return.)

The quandary: to post and be damned, or to agonise over the crafting of incisive and cutting-edge material. For any number of reasons, not least my intellectual shortcomings, I think that the former approach must prevail, if this blog is to survive as a going entity. You have been warned.

Then there’s the question of tone. I credit my legal education for the destruction of my writing style: ten years on, I’m still struggling to find a balance between the stuffy constraints of discursive formations assimilated in my youth, and my simple joy in language as a vibrant, crucial, humourous, irreverent force. I wonder whether it is possible to accurately address the lived realities of crime, while remaining aloof from the profane and the subversive; the carnivalesque world, captured so vividly by the late lamented Mike Presdee :

[C]arnival revels in abuse. Using popular argot, it brings down the mighty and uses language, the tool of discourse and reason, as a celebration of oaths, of colloquial language and abuse. The many popular unofficial voices of carnival shout in opposition to the monologic speech of the dominant order. Against the coherent logic and language of the talking head, the stomach and the arse speak out the belch and the fart, destroying the logic of language and in its way disrupting and destroying order. The carnivalesque becomes the language of disrespect par excellence for, after all, carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people but lived by them.

Thus carnival represents a world upside down, but most importantly a world that is restructured through laughter, for alongside its images of social upheaval carnival is joyful. The laughter comes, as Eco et al. point out, through the breaking of a rule, and this laughter is both deriding and revitalising, ambivalent or Janus-faced. Additionally the laughter is both directed out to those in authority and is self-reflexive; carnival laughs at itself while it laughs at others. Its laughter appeals, as Orwell remarked in ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, to the ‘Unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul’. Humour rightly understands the law, its weaknesses and its true lack of rationality. It truly transcends the law and carnival humour looks to the consequences. Here in carnival is the ‘survival’ humour of Nuttall and Carmichael, which challenges and contests, turns inside-out and upside-down the efforts of authority to maintain law and order. Crime is here the subversion of bourgeois order.

The tendency to fret over whether a commentator can remain credible in dealing with the big issues, while deploying a linguistic style that is playful, entertaining and engaging is the bane of my blogging life. The effort to develop such a style is its purpose.

My other blogging bête noire is the question of time management and personal effectiveness. How to find the time to produce work of a publishable standard, even when the bar is set as low as a bloggers? In this regard, I’ve found The 99% to be a goldmine of practical advice. I’ve always tended to, at best, sneer at anything approaching “self-help” material, at worst to think of such works as crude disciplinary technologies of the soul. Be that as it may, I must give credit where it’s due; I’ve picked up a lot of interesting tips from that site. Implementation is the trick.

Now, that’s quite enough self-reflexivity for one post. More substantive material to follow.

Machines of Loving Grace #1

30 05 2011

Adam Curtisnew series is currently showing on BBC2, with the second episode airing tonight, and the third and final part next Monday. I’ll come around to the tonight’s episode at a later date, for now I’m going to concentrate on the first one. As always, it’s beautifully produced, with original interviews linked and contextualised by the judicious use of archive footage. The soundtrack is terrific as well, from Pizzacato 5’s dreamy J-Pop over the opening credits through Nine Inch Nails and Morricone to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne as theme to the Clinton/Lewinski affair.

Aesthetics aside, the thrust of the first instalment, “Love and Power”, is that, during the 1990s, an emergent combination of radical individualism, exemplified by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, combined with a faith in the ability of computer technology to facilitate a new, global, network-based economic model, served to obscure the role of old-fashioned political power; with the corollary that the model of a network of rational, self-interested agents cannot satisfactorily account for “irrational” human behaviours such as love, lust and altruism.

Much internet commentary that I’ve come upon to date has treated the episode as a critique of Rand, with many bloggers leaping to the defence of a lady wronged. Personally, Rand has always struck me as a tin-pot Nietzsche, whose writings are basically an unreadable mess. Admittedly, this may come down to a question of my own ideological biases, but, in any event, I think such criticisms fail to engage with the show’s more concrete conclusions.

Of particular note, from an Irish perspective, are the eerie parallels between our current predicament and that of the Asian economies in the late 90s. Just as in the Asian context, our government stood back and looked on with glee as the New Economy worked its magic, producing, in the words of interviewee Steven Roach, “manna from heaven, that candy that politicians only dream of”: permanent and dramatic growth based on the new technologies and connectivities of the global markets. In the process, they dismantled the regulatory restraints that might have curbed the worst excesses of “irrational exuberance“.

Of course, as we now know, the rising tide may have been lifting any and all boats, but there was no water in the ocean. Once the bubble burst, the IMF arrived in Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, bearing massive loans, offers not to be refused. This strategy managed to stabilise the economies for only a short time, before the the speculators took this same money and ran, leading to dramatic collapses. I think Curtis’ narration understates the case slightly in saying that, “part of [the loans’] real function was to rescue the Western investors, not the countries”.

All of this was facilitated by the role, per Joseph Stiglitz, of “agents of the financial world embedded in the heart of government”. With Clinton already having willingly ceded much of his authority to the markets, and floundering in the wake of the Lewinski affair, Robert Rubin and the treasury were, by Rubin’s own admission, effectively running foreign policy.

From a selfish point of view, of which Rand would no doubt have approved, the critical point of the programme is that this process was repeated in the last decade, only in mirror image. For Curtis, in the past decade, Chinese political power has been the key catalyst in maintaining the stability of the world economic system, rather than the ability of self-directing networks to spontaneously attain equilibrium.

Thus, the consumer boom and attendant property bubble were the result of a conscious decision by the Chinese Politburo to hold down their exchange rate, flooding America with cheap goods and immediately re-investing the profits in American Government Bonds, as a system to “manage America”. This, in turn, allowed Rand’s accolyte, Alan Greenspan, to inundate the global system with cheap money.

Part of me chuckles at the image of a gnomic Greenspan sitting in his bath every morning, poring over page after page of data looking for the emperor’s new clothes, failing to see the real increases in productivity that would be expected given the state of the markets, but ultimately deciding, under political pressure, that the mysteries of the New Economy must be so profound that they are indecipherable by conventional means; and at the supreme irony of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, the ultimate Randian Heroes, being beholden to their authoritarian, communitarian antithesis.

Any smile turns bitter when it’s borne in mind that the overheating and eventual collapse of this fantasy has again seen the financial sector mobilising political power to preserve themselves, with “the price … being paid by the ordinary people of the countries”. Such as myself.

I’m a massive admirer of Curtis’ ability to pull back the curtain on the ideas that drive (or perhaps are used to justify the behaviour of) powerful elites. Of course, there is an element of polemics at play, but I think his visual style represents a tacit acknowledgement of the fact, and the constraints of a few hours of television mean that his programmes can only represent a springboard for the exploration of ideas rather than authoritative treatises. To his credit, I’ve invariably found that digging deeper into his sources reveals his exposition of ideas to be a balanced one.

So, I’ve always regarded Curtis as the acceptable face of the polemicist – one who encourages the exploration and consideration of the big ideas of our times, posing questions more than suggestion answers. The most important thing, love him or hate him, is that he’s got an unrivalled ability to initiate debate on important, complex ideas for a mass audience. This first episode, more than any of his previous work, represents a call to arms:

We know that the idea of market stability and market democracy has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. This task of the imagination is the imperative of our times, and we should be grateful to Curtis for posing it in a relatively accessible and entertaining form.

The first episode is available on the BBC iPlayer now, the second should be up shortly. If that doesn’t work for you, it can be streamed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 or, for the time being, at the top of this post.