It’s a source of great annoyance to see a talent misused. If we’re honest about it, John Waters has at talent for writing. He has a magnificent vocabulary and he’s not afraid to use it. He writes in an easy, flowing manner with a technical and structural ability that is often missing from journalistic writing. It’s such a pity that the main beneficiaries of this talent are sophism, pretence, and anti-modernity. He takes post-colonial, parochial and sneering attitudes and dresses them up as high-minded social commentary.
In today’s Irish Times John wrote of his disappointment in Lucinda Creighton’s inability to save us all from ourselves. In a democracy, he’s perfectly entitled to express his feelings on our elected representatives. However, it is the manner in which he uses this analysis to denigrate democracy itself that is of particular concern in this post. By Waters’ latest analysis, Ireland is a “Republic of Fiscal Rectitude and Very Little Else”. We exist under a “delusion of independence” where “if tomorrow morning everyone in Ireland stopped talking about politics altogether, and our politicians took to their beds for good, nothing fundamental would change for better or worse. Political reality would continue much as it has, to the beat of entirely different drums … In truth, there’s hardly any governing left to be done – it all happens from outside … off the “splash” of the global economy, dependent on the ebbs and flows of the tide. He uses the metaphor of prostitution as a critique of Ireland’s low corporate tax rate wherein we live off the creativity and entrepreneurship of others.
It’s a classic naysayer’s charter and his economic critique does not sit well with his positions on other issues. However, when juxtaposed with the messianic hope of a young and articulate TD coming to the rescue, it becomes clear that John is the epitome of the politics of the helpless. That he describes our electoral process as “no more than self-flattery” when the decisions are made “Europe” or elsewhere shows that he wants to bring everyone down to his level of helplessness. There is something inherently adolescent and backward about this perspective: the sneering tone of a ‘hurler on the ditch’, as others try to make their way in the world. If anything, this is the attitude that discourages others from trying new things and taking risks on innovation and creativity. It privileges the derivative and the safe over the dynamic and young. It privileges the anti-modern over the modern.
The funny thing about it is that there’s no guarantee he actually believes it at all. Waters was all in a tizzy over the proposed abolition of the Seanad. Surely he must be aware of the power of politics to change the balance of power on religious-moral issues, given his tendency to decry Ireland’s rather limited liberalisation on such matters as patronage of schools, reproductive rights and equal marriage legislation. His dominant focus has been those very issues that are decided by voters at national level (and indeed the basis of Lucinda’s exit from Fine Gael) yet he still thinks a change of government or an abandonment of political discourse will affect nothing.
It’s evident he doesn’t know what he wants from politics or society and this explains the contradictions inherent in his worldview. In his present incarnation, his critiques of political life and societal direction are grounded in an abject fear of modernity combined with nostalgia for a youth much different to that which he lived. Perhaps this explains his admiration for Lucinda. Is she the young person he wishes he had been? Of course, this endless search for a messianic figure in politics leaves the searcher all the more helpless and it benefits vested interests (and usually conservative interests, in an added irony for John). However, to assert that, if Lucinda couldn’t do it, the collective action of elected representatives can achieve nothing is simply another act of adolescent petulance because he didn’t get his way. It encourages others to be helpless too and to hurl on the ditch while the pitch is played by the same small town heroes.