A brief note on courage

Since Ireland’s pro-austerity Fine Gael/Labour coalition came to power in 2011, it has prided itself on having the courage to take tough decisions. It supporters in the media (which is to say, the media) have adopted the refrain with the dreary gusto of a monastery at prayer. Variations on the theme rattle off the presses and ooze from the airwaves, as commentators gush over the government’s capacity to inflict suffering with impunity. Editorials drip with pious warnings against the dangers of yielding to populism, and the entire commentariat has taken up residence in a parallel Ireland, wherein the bitter medicine of austerity has effected a miracle cure.

Over the past four years, the ruling elite has attempted to mould reality to the contours of its simplistic Thatcherite morality tales. Having failed, it has simply declared reality altered by decree. Unemployment figures are trumpeted as though mass emigration and the herding of citizens onto free labour schemes never happened. Ministers crow about protecting social welfare rates even as they accept plaudits for slashing them to ribbons.

The Labour Party has taken particular pride in its willingness to ravage and curtail the lives of those who traditionally form its core vote. Emboldened by praise from big business and the media, there appears no natural limit to the party’s inexorable drift towards the furthest fringes of the European right. The party contains committed ideological extremists such as leader Joan Burton, but the majority of its parliamentary contingent are simply vacuous automatons, random assemblages of molecules with just enough coherence to vote through a benefit cut. For all that, their calculated viciousness should not be underestimated, excused or forgotten; malice is often little more than stupidity run to seed.

And yet still, from the government benches and the newsrooms, comes the shrill, aggrieved demand that these architects of social catastrophe should be applauded for their courage. The distinction between tactical ignorance and outright delusion has long ceased to be meaningful in Irish politics, but a brief primer on the nature of courage seems to be in order here.

A basic prerequisite for any act of courage is the element of sacrifice or personal risk. There is nothing courageous about an extremely well-paid politician severing the financial lifeline of a single parent (unless you’re a believer in the immortality of the soul). That is not a “tough decision” for anyone except the victim. There is no bravery and no honour in skewering the poor, the sick, the elderly and the helpless when you have the ardent support of the wealthy, the powerful, the entire media and every financial and governmental institution in Europe, with the full repressive might of the police and the judiciary standing by, ready and willing to come down like a ton of bricks on the merest flicker of resistance.

It takes no courage to deprive a disabled child of vital supports if, should it cost you your seat, there is another one waiting for you behind the desk of a grateful multinational. None of that is courage, and no amount of ideological alchemy can ever turn it into courage. It is the opposite of courage, the most abject and contemptible cowardice.

By contrast, the decision of Greek voters to defy explicit, well-grounded threats from every locus of unearned power in Europe was an exemplary act of courage. It will not go unpunished by a vindictive European elite, and will be condemned as irresponsible by those who rattle their drums on behalf of the big battalions. But listen closely to their sneers and their scorn, because you might just detect a note of terror.

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