Friday, January 28, 2005

Mary McAleese on RTÉ Radio

There has been a bit of a blogosphere spat over comments made by Mary McAleese, the Irish president, on RTÉ Radio (Real Player required) on Thursday morning. Being interviewed by Áine Lawlor, she made a comment about how, to quote the BBC (for RTÉ News's account, see here), 'Northern Ireland children were taught to hate Catholics in the same way Nazis despised Jews.' I read through various remarks and comments, made on A Tangled Web, United Irelander (also here), on N.Irish Magyar and on Slugger (also here). I'm sure there's more dotted about, but it's Friday evening and I don't want to spend to long at this. Otherwise you might think that I don't have a life, and I do, I swear!

Anyway, I have one or two things to add to the debates taking place elsewhere, one of which is a transcript of the specific question and answer that caused all the furore in the first place...

So, here it is, with the usual provisos about my writing transcripts that I included when I transcribed parts of a Today Programme interview with Tony Blair. Basically, that is that speaking ain't writing, so don't expect absolute coherence:
Áine Lawlor: And isn’t also something that we have to remember that it simply starts with intolerance and it simply starts with not caring about someone’s humanity because they’re part of a group and what happened with fascism was that it was converted then, that logic, to its ultimate efficient conclusion, the killing machines of the concentration camps?

Mary McAleese: You’re absolutely right and that’s a very good point worth remembering. And Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism. They used anti-Semitism. They built on anti-Semitism. But they didn’t invent it.

It was, for generations, for centuries, an element of the lived lives of many people, who on the surface lived very good lives and many of them would have regarded themselves for example as very good Christians. But they gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland for example gave to their children for example an irrational and outrageous hatred of Catholics, in the same way that people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of different colour and all of those things, all of those hatreds in the wrong circumstance on the street in Dublin they can outcrop in, as I have seen and heard, a little child from Somalia being pelted with rotten eggs. They can outcrop in a knife being taken in a fight and someone from Eastern Europe being knifed to death.

It’s a toxin, you see, it’s a poison, and it can be in weak and diluted form but in concentrated, even in that weak and diluted form it’s still capable of surviving long enough for a Nazi-type era to come along and to force it into concentrated form and in concentrated form you get Auschwitz, you get Birkenau, you get Darfur, you get Rwanda. That’s what you get when you don’t stop the toxin.

This longer thing, in and of itself, neither proves nor disproves anybody's point. My own opinion is first that I don't think her comment was meant vindictively, in the sense of being pre-meditated or politically strategic. Second, it was certainly a insensitive and selective and should never have been said.

It is certainly true that anti-Catholicism, as an extreme sort ethnic supremacy (as opposed to the theological kind), is akin to anti-Semitism in its mechanisms of transmission and as a basis for action, but it certainly doesn't tell the full story of NI, as Paul on N.Irish Magyar points out. Moreover, slip that it was, President McAleese should just not have said it: it was inappropriate for the day that's in it and was going to cause a significant amount of very much justifiable offense.

The terrible pity of the whole thing is, as I hope you can agree from the extended quote, that she made a good general point about irrational hatreds, about one of the lessons of Auschwitz, and it has been lost. Which is a shame.

Slightly off this topic, I'm making my way through Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory at the moment. It raises questions that (explicitly in the book) links into a lot of comments passed this week: what are we obliged to remember and how are we to remember collectively? One starting point might be described here. Hopefully I'll get to post on Margalit's conclusions when I get to the end of the book.

Update: I see today that the President has apologised for her remark.

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