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Growing Old?

by Frank Schnittger Wed Apr 29th, 2020 at 03:33:58 PM EST

As an old radical I now sometimes find myself in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of defending a conservative party led government. There was a time when I couldn't locate myself anywhere on the Irish political spectrum, such was my disenchantment with everything that passed for politics in Ireland.

I could just about associate myself with campaigning groups like Amnesty International and the Irish anti-Apartheid movement but never felt comfortable with the idea of joining any political party. As Groucho Marx is reputed to have said: I refused to join any club that would have me as a member.

I initially failed college in protest at the totalitarian behaviourist psychology that was being taught there. The only way to disprove the Skinner-box rat psychology was to refuse the reward of performing idiotic tests that passed for an education in human behaviour in anything other than a caged environment. Failing a test meant exclusion from the examinations required to progress to the next year. The college was "sympathetic" but all academic appeals were turned down.

I eventually graduated in politics and sociology after a hiatus of two years spent travelling and working odd jobs around Europe and Morocco - the best education I ever had - and with the sociology faculty then dominated by Marxist theorists.

When I joined the workforce after college I did so almost as a secret agent for my own personal revolutionary party. I certainly couldn't identify with the values of either a privileged managerial elite or what I considered the faux trade union militancy of a relatively privileged workforce. I ended up being extremely privileged myself, involved in almost every radical change project within the company, and never having to endure a routine job which would have destroyed me.

But it is still with some irony that I write the following letter to the Editor of the Irish Times, perhaps the establishment organ in Ireland, which has lately been giving a lot of space to rather facile criticisms of the government, perhaps in an attempt to seem relevant to a younger generation.

A Chara,

Your Correspondent, Mark Paul, is the latest to join a veritable cottage industry of Irish Times scribes who apparently know how to run the country far better than those charged with the responsibility for doing so. (Blame for expected extended lockdown shifted onto the public, Opinion, 28 April)

Castigating the government for its failure to reach its own ambitious Covid-19 testing targets, Mr. Paul would clearly have been much better able to overcome the global shortages of testing kits, reagents, and dedicated lab capacity.

But he also fails to acknowledge that Ireland has actually done much better than many other advanced economies in this regard. Ireland's testing rate of 31,179 tests per million inhabitants actually compares quite favourably with France (7,103), the UK (11,245), Sweden (11,833), the Netherlands (12,240), the USA (17,885), Germany (24,738), New Zealand (26,690), and even Spain (28,779) and Italy (30,547). (All figures taken from Worldometers.info.)

It remains to be seen whether the current downward trend in new infections as identified by our rapidly expanding testing capacity will enable a substantial easing of the lockdown on May 5th., but in the meantime a little more balance in your reportage would be appreciated.

Recent Fine Gael led governments have at least four achievements to their name which make them compare rather favourably to almost any preceding government in my lifetime. I am therefore prepared to cut them some slack when considering their other, rather obvious failings. These achievements can be summarised as follows:

1. Economic recovery from 2013-2019.

Fine Gael first took office in 2011 after a Fianna Fail led government had presided over a disastrous property boom and crash followed by the infamous bank guarantee. The debt/GDP ratio rose from 25% to 120% as private debts were socialised, unemployment rose to 16% and austerity was implemented right across the economy.

Fine Gael can't claim full credit for the recovery, but nevertheless unemployment went down to 5%, the debt GDP ratio halved to 59% over the past 10 years, Household debt/GDP went down from almost 120% to 40% and average weekly wage rates have been rising since 2015 to a rate of 3.5% p.a. over the past two years. Not everybody has benefited equally, but there appears to be a collective amnesia about just how serious our situation was only 10 years ago.

2. Constitutional reform

I lived through the 1980's when, following a visit by Pope John Paul II, a triumphant Catholic Church waged war on "liberalising trends in society". Although illegal in any case at the time, it mobilised all conservative forces to force through a constitutional ban on abortion and defeated a referendum to allow divorce even in limited circumstances meaning no reformist government, no matter how timidly, could initiative reforms in these areas.

It was not until the 1990's that people were given the right to seek a divorce or receive information and be allowed travel abroad for an abortion without risking prosecution on their return. My late wife lost her job as administrator of an adult education centre for refusing to remove leaflets from its information centre which mentioned the possibility of an abortion abroad in the context crisis pregnancies for medical or psychological reasons.

Again, Fine Gael can hardly be said to have led the reformist charge, but without the support of a major conservative party and some deft leadership, the referenda permitting same sex marriages (2015) and abortion (2018) would never have been passed by the two thirds majorities which effectively ended all public debate on those subjects.

3. Brexit

Although Brexit was hardly an existential issue for much of Europe, it risked re-opening the wounds of a civil war in Ireland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although never explicitly stated, the Good Friday Agreement, approved by large majorities in two referendums north and south was predicated on both parts of Ireland being within the EU and part of "an ever closer union". Even if Ireland couldn't be re-united immediately, at least it could be part of an ever more united Europe.

The reintroduction of border controls including the closure of most of the 300 border crossings along the 500km land border would have been disastrous for peace and stability going forward. With no mean amount of political skill, the Irish government and diplomatic corps succeeded in having Irish concerns raised up front and central in the EU negotiating position to the astonishment of the British establishment who cared only for the dynamics of the British government requiring far right English nationalist and later, DUP support.

Effectively retaining N. Ireland within the EU Customs Union and Single Market also reduces the damaging economic effects of Brexit which had the potential to disrupt the increasing integration of the economies, north and south. Again it is easy to take this diplomatic success for granted in hindsight, but without effective leadership that was never a guaranteed outcome.

4. Management of Covid-19 Pandemic.

Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadker, has been accused by one of his own party candidates of lacking empathy and being on the Autism spectrum, to the annoyance of both his supporters and disability activists. Lacking empathy is a criminal offence in Irish politics where politicians are expected to remember thousands of constituents names and the individual concerns they might have brought to them some years ago.

But his medical training and communication skills stood him in good stead when it came to understanding the public health and epidemiological advice on Covid-19 and turning abstract concepts of exponential growth into unprecedented social and political interventions unthinkable only weeks earlier.

While the UK (and N. Ireland) vacillated and changed policy on herd immunity, testing, contact tracing, the closure of schools and non-essential businesses, and the cancellation of mass events, the Irish government acted in relatively early and resolute fashion to try and contain the infection. Actions which at the time shocked most people with their severity and which now, a mere few weeks later, appear to have been only just in time to contain the pandemic within manageable limits.

Now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, the government is being criticised for allowing airports and ports to remain open, for having had inadequate stocks of testing equipment and PPE on hand, and, in Mark Paul's article, preparing the ground for a possible lock down extension by citing breaches of the social distancing protocols.

But what is the government supposed to do? Ignore the rise in travel and social activities that has been reported by numerous sources? The infection rate has come down markedly and some easing of lock-down restrictions may be possible on the next review date on 5th. May, but if many restrictions have to be retained, is that all the government's fault? And all because all preparations have not worked smoothly for a pandemic caused by a disease unknown a few months ago, and whose epidemiology and symptomatology is only now being slowly understood?

Methinks some journalists are being rather wise after the event, and some of them are the same journalists appalled at the draconian measures initiated by the government only 6 weeks ago. Whatever about forgetting about the dire straits we found ourselves in 10 years ago and refusing to give any credit to a government which helped us overcome them, forgetting the collective communal state of mind only 2 months ago when sports fans were raging at the prospect of their favourite mass sports events being cancelled is a bit rich.

I am a moderator of the Irish rugby fan forum, and received quite a bit of blow-back at the time when I supported the cancellations of rugby internationals against Italy and France on the 7th. and 14th. March. Thousands of Irish horse racing fans insisted on travelling to Cheltenham racing festival on 16-19 March despite official advice not to travel - an event which turned out to be a major vector for the disease. I know we live in a 24 our news cycle, but I expect opinion columnists to have a little more sense of perspective.


So am I an unalloyed supporter of the Fine Gael led Government now? Hell no. But in comparison to what was on offer from the opposition benches for the last few years, and even the last few weeks, they have done rather well. And I am not going to give the opposition parties a free pass just because they haven't had the opportunity to make an even greater mess of things.

Sinn Fein has been a disaster in the governance of Northern Ireland, failing to provide any government for three years, providing almost no leadership on Brexit, and going along with the British government failure to close schools and businesses until shamed by the Irish government into demanding it.

The smaller parties of the left in Ireland are terrified of entering the government because of the challenges facing the government over the next few years, and have therefore fled to the safety of the opposition benches, where they can snipe, criticise, and maintain their ideological purity but not have to actually lead a change to anything.

In Irish political culture, emoting on a problem is almost equivalent to have resolved it. Calling for greater public housebuilding is almost equivalent to being deemed to have built the houses yourself. You can certainly bask in the glow of credit when the houses are eventually delivered even if you had no input to their funding, design or building. You will be honoured for having fought for "the public's right to housing..." Your heart was in the right place.

The Greens were the junior partner in the disastrous Fianna Fail led government which more or less bankrupted the country, and have failed to show the intellectual heft or leadership that they have now become more than a one issue party. A very important issue, to be sure, but hardly the only one which needs to be addressed post Covid-19.

Fianna Fail are ideologically almost indistinguishable from Fine Gael these days, although cute enough to hide their right wing proclivities behind more populist rhetoric. They have even less leadership potential in their ranks than Fine Gael, and would probably only add incompetence to the conservatism of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

The chief issues besides Covid-19 and the economic fall-out from the pandemic that any new government has to address are the public housing crisis, a childcare crisis, and the creation of a single tier public health service with the capacity to meet ongoing and exceptional healthcare needs. All three will cost a lot of money at a time when the economy and tax base will be facing the headwinds of a national and global recession, trade wars, Brexit, global corporate tax reform and climate change.

An ideologically driven market led government cannot address these problems, particularly one beholden to the professional and rentier classes which benefit from shortages in public health care and housing - the providers of private health care and housing.

So I am still where I was in the days of my youth without a party to support. But at least I am a good deal happier about it. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to make my own way in life with the support of a lot of other good people. The party can come later!

Seemingly responding directly to the criticism in Mark Paul's article that the failure of the government to meet its testing target is the main reason why the lockdown won't be ended on May 5th., Varadkar makes much the same point I was making in my letter drafted last night.

`I don't think we're there yet': Varadkar doubtful on lifting coronavirus restrictions

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said it was "totally incorrect" to say that restrictions were not yet being lifted because the testing capacity is not where it needs to be.

"In terms of testing we've done 150,000 tests already. On a per capita basis, on a per head basis, we're sixth out of 27 countries in the European Union in terms of testing. Why we are not reopening at this stage is because of the high number of people in ICU who have Covid, the fact that the number of deaths being reported every day is still very high and the fact that we're still seeing quite a lot of new cases every day," he said.

"And if it were solely a matter of testing, given that we're sixth out of 27 in the European Union, and other countries that have tested less than us are reopening, then we would be reopening."

Mr Varadkar said a number of factors had to be taken into account.

He said: "It is really not the testing - it's the deaths, it's the number of new cases, it's the number of people in ICU that is causing [Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan] and his team to tell us that at the moment anyway it is too soon, but they are going to review that on Friday.

"I don't think I'd be out of school by saying that those numbers just aren't good enough yet. Maybe it'll change significantly by Friday. But as things stand, I don't think we're there yet."

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 29th, 2020 at 07:11:06 PM EST
My apologies to my early readers, but I have felt compelled to make quite a few changes to my original draft. I hope it reads better now.

I'm hardly surprised, given my criticism of the Times,  that the Irish Times didn't publish my letter today, and think it unlikely it will be published tomorrow.

Its the sort of topic that dates quite fast and will be overtaken by whatever decisions are taken by the health advisory group on the lock-down, post May 5th.

My money would be on some minor easing, after Varadkar moved to reduce expectations today, perhaps combined with more testing at ports and airports.

But overall I am quite optimistic that community spread has been suppressed, apart from some clusters mainly in nursing homes. Hopefully we will see substantial easing by June.

New cases identified - the peak on 15 April relates to probably or suspected cases unverified by tests which occurred over previous weeks

Hospital and ICU daily admission totals

Deaths per day - the peak on 24th. April represents suspected or probable deaths due to Covid unverified by tests which occurred over previous weeks and was added to the totals in line with new WHO guidelines

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Apr 29th, 2020 at 11:45:31 PM EST

It's good to know Trump still has his priorities right...

Trump's long links to wrestling's carnival of buffoonery

Hours after the coronavirus death toll reached and then quickly passed 52,000, president Donald Trump tweeted his 78 million followers his latest thoughts about professional wrestling.

When any other incumbent of the White House might have felt it timely to dispatch a national message of condolence, empathy or some sort of consolatory acknowledgement of the humanitarian disaster in our midst, Trump decided it was more important to declare "Triple H is a total winner!"

A pre-pubescent fan boy of a leader praising a steroid-fuelled pantomime artist celebrating 25 years of accomplished fakery. The acrid flavour of the times.

On April 1st, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, went on television and belatedly issued an executive stay-at-home order shutting down all but essential businesses across the state.

Just over a week later, with no fanfare or public announcement, the stringent rules were quietly tampered with so World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) could be reclassified as an "essential" industry.

This freed the company to continue to record live promotions in order to fulfil the exact terms of their broadcast commitments to NBC and Fox. Failing to do so would have meant forfeiting a chunk of $400 million from their annual contracts. The only thing it was essential to is their shareholders' bottom line and the only explanation for it is WWE's weirdly symbiotic relationship with Trump.

DeSantis owed his election in 2018 in large part to Trump's influence and has been in his debt ever since. The same day the governor mysteriously re-evaluated wrestling's place in the commercial universe and somehow reckoned it as necessary for society's survival as a grocery store, Linda McMahon announced that America First, the committee she heads up on behalf of the president's re-election campaign, would be spending $18.5 million in advertising across Florida.

Formerly CEO of the WWE, a position currently held by her husband Vince, McMahon also served in Trump's cabinet from 2017 to 2019. Not even one degree of separation here.

When Trump first jump-started his run for office in 2015, pundits considered the grotesque tone of his outré candidacy and christened it the first WWE presidential campaign. In his bizarro world, no finer compliment.

His links to wrestling's corrupt carnival of buffoonery (the list of performers who end up prematurely dead or addicted to drugs is long and growing) stretch right back to 1988 when he persuaded the McMahons to bring Wrestlemania IV to the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.

Over the ensuing decade, he featured so often in cameo roles across their various rancid pageants that he was eventually inducted into the company's Hall of Fame, the kind of ersatz accolade that only appeals to the truly narcissistic or imbecilic.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Apr 30th, 2020 at 03:36:26 PM EST
Seems to me the labels "conservative" and "(US-style) liberal" are up for serious reconsideration. Certainly on this side of the pond they have become meaningless even in comparison to their previous meaninglessness.

"Populism controlled by strong man" appears to be the globally resurgent system. People like kings. Monarchy is the standard historical method of governing. Nothing new under the Sun.

by asdf on Thu Apr 30th, 2020 at 04:29:55 PM EST
In European terms the US terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' mean fascist and conservative, respectively. There is no significant social democrat party in the USA...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 1st, 2020 at 02:51:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I came across an NPR station that had an interview with Gor3e Vidal. Fascinating. At one point he made the statement that America had never had a leftist government. the Interviewer asked how he would characterize FDR. He answered "Conservative". The interviewer said, "What! What would you call Ronald Reagan then?" After a pause he said, "Umm. How about 'reactionary'?"
by StillInTheWilderness on Fri May 1st, 2020 at 09:26:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Best of Enemies

Gore Vidal beamed one of his supercilious side-eyes at William F. Buckley Jr. and called him a "crypto-fascist."

by Oui on Fri May 1st, 2020 at 11:23:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He was joking. There was never anything crypto about William B. Fuckley's fascism.
by rifek on Sat May 9th, 2020 at 05:00:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I came across an NPR station that had an interview with Gore Vidal. Fascinating. At one point he made the statement that America had never had a leftist government. the Interviewer asked how he would characterize FDR. He answered "Conservative". The interviewer said, "What! What would you call Ronald Reagan then?" After a pause he said, "Umm. How about 'reactionary'?"
by StillInTheWilderness on Fri May 1st, 2020 at 09:28:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's going to get worse. Obama was relatively progressive. Biden and his "moderate because we need to get the undecided votes" VP candidate will be...not.
by asdf on Sat May 2nd, 2020 at 01:55:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by Oui on Wed May 13th, 2020 at 10:42:59 AM EST

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