I was sorry to hear of the death of Tony Benn. I had the pleasure of meeting him in early 2007, when he was one of the first first guests of my time as correspondence secretary of The Hist. So I was with him for the best part of that day, from the airport, to Newstalk for George Hook, arriving to the GMB for his talk to the Hist with little time for a snack, and then to his hotel. Though he hadn’t eaten much that day, he was happy with a short bite to takeaway to eat because he didn’t want to keep the crowd waiting. He enjoyed talking with the taxi driver, who let him smoke his pipe.
Most of the crowd were various assortments of Dublin left, the first question from the floor (I noted in my own diary) was, “I’m from Trinity Labour. What can I do to promote socialism?” The few there from the Hist Committee asked questions not on socialism itself, and he told us the figures of the twentieth century he most admired were Gandhi and Desmond Tutu.
Of course, my own political views differ from his substantially, whether on the role of unions, the control of the state on the economy, or European integration. While he at his most influential in the Labour Party, it was, I believe, far less fit to govern than in the years before or after. But underlying it, he had a democratic, republican instinct, stretching back to the old English radical tradition, which I could certainly identify with. That day in the Hist, and on many other occasions, he proposed five questions demanding accountability we should demand of all those in power:
what power do you have?
where did you get it?
in whose interests do you exercise it?
to whom are you accountable?
how can we get rid of you?
Though I would not tout many of his as the best of political ideas, in character, determinism, charm, intellectual engagement and commitment, he typified politics at its best.
Deirdre McCloskey: "It’s Good to be a Don if You’re Going to Be a Deirdre: Gender Crossing in Academia"
It’s Rainbow Week in Trinity. This year there has been a particular focus from the LGBT Society on issues affecting trans* people and the debate in the Hist is on the motion, “THB the Interests of the Transgender Community are Best Served Under the LGBT Banner”. Because of their very small numbers, the social and legal obstacles they face do not get much focus.
This brought to mind on of the those whose work I’ve read in the past year for my thesis. Deirdre McCloskey is Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at University of Illinois at Chicago and Professor of Economic History,Gothenburg University, Sweden, and has started a six-volume work on the history of bourgeois thought.
In this talk to the Oxford Libertarian Society, she talks here of how she knew at 11 that she wanted to be a girl, but didn’t transition until age 53. Talking of the social difficulties, she says it was was much easier in her particular profession than it would be in wider society, but also of how the world is becoming more open in these matter. As she says early on in this piece, “It’s a matter of a free choice in a free society; there’s nothing else involved”.
She really is fascinating to read or listen to, whether discussing economics, history of intellectual thought, or gender in today’s society.
On the subject, I also came across this manual of style this morning, a useful guide to understanding trans* people better.
This debate in the Hist was on 18 November, so before the publication of the Dublin Diocesan Report eight days later. Nevertheless, I think this showed the inadequacy of a student debating society as a forum in addressing certain issues of relevance in modern society. There are motions where one side or other is not sustainable. Sometimes this might be because of a debate on whether Russia is a threat to the West, which we held in early 2008. Many of the ordinary members of the Hist on that occasion had reason to believe the proposition, and put good cases from what they had researched. Then Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British Ambassador to Russia, spoke on the opposition, and it was clear given his unquestionable expert opinion, as well as that of former Irish Times correspondent Seamus Martin and retired Political Science Professor Ron Hill, that the case lay on the opposition.
But I mean particularly when even before the debate, those on one side know that the other is fundamentally right, and can only put their case by finding a nuanced argument, or focusing on particular points. Of course, in a competitive debating context, in its various formats, this is entirely appropriate. It serves a very good purpose in training the mind to think about subjects from different approaches. And I would not propose either that a one-sided motion is never appropriate for chamber debates, where the emphasis is truly on trying to convince the audience of a stance, and giving people the opportunity to voice their opinions. I would hold that in general, speeches in the chamber should be sincere, and that both the speaker and the audience benefit when this is the case. But I have on rare occasions myself during my many years in the Hist argued against my sincere belief, in order to capture a particular nuance, or to challenge myself to put a case. And at times when there is a somewhat imbalanced debate, it is reasonable for the Correspondence Secretary to ask good speakers to speak on the side contrary to their sincere belief to facilitate other speakers.
On this occasion, however, there was simply no contest as to which side was in the right. Despite one of the guests being the artist Cllr. Mannix Flynn, who had been through the industrial school system, the debate from student speakers’ point of view ended up focusing on issues like divorce, contraception and homosexuality. It was on issues such as these that there was at least a plausible case that Roman Catholic Church was merely in line with the mood of the time, though even then one has to ignore how much a part of that system they were, and the influence they had. I spent time myself on the question of illegitimacy, and how their stance truly affected people’s lives, but I can’t claim to have been satisfied with my speech given the enormity of the Catholic Church’s crimes and harms as we see them now. The debate put those professed Roman Catholics among us in an impossible situation, and I feel that they more than others should really be the ones to find the case for the proposition, as other than those directly harmed, it is practising Catholics more than those like myself who have been more affected.
I found this blog post difficult to write, to be able to convey the feeling properly, which is why it is here now that bit after the debate itself. I think it is only on the rarest of occasions that such a situation arises, and someone who appreciates the difficulty in selecting relevant and debatable motions, I do not mean to be critical. But there are some statements that cannot be debated.
On Wednesday 28 October, I gave the first opposition speech to this motion in The Hist. I didn’t get to engage with some of the points made later on, so my speech was a little disconnected from the rest of the debate. In my speech, I looked how things have changed over recent decades. Up to the 1980s, what was the gay community did keep itself apart from the rest of society, and was happy to emphasize this difference, to reject many of the notions of the society which had made them feel like outcasts. It was ultimately the AIDS virus that made people, both gay and in general, change in their attitudes, something I didn’t mention when speaking. Now the main claims of gay activists is simply that the state should not privilege the love between a man and a woman over any two people in general, a conservative claim for stability and a traditional institution.
I said that what people see as the gay community is really what people choose to care about. For me, that ends up meaning politics, so I listed prominent gay politicians, such as Peter Mandelson, possibly the most powerful politician in the British cabinet, Barney Frank, Chairman of the US House Financial Services Committee, or Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland. I said of the new German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, that it really mattered far more to me that he was the leader of the liberal FDP, but it was still nice to see a gay person in that position. We can choose to think only of drag queens and worry about the image they portray, or realize how much has changed.
Afterwards, someone mentioned to me that he was well read on British politics, had read Alistair Campbell’s diaries, but didn’t know till that night that Mandelson was gay. I actually think this is common knowledge in Britain, but he had a point in that Mandelson never puts himself out as gay in the way some do at pride parades, so it’s not surprising that people in general think first of those who make it clear that they are gay. It’s equally true of myself in ways, it is quite possible that he didn’t know till that night that I am also gay, as like Mandelson, it’s not something that I’d have raised out of context. But I wouldn’t have avoided speaking, as it made perfect sense in the context of the debate while others were also making their positions clear. Equally here, it makes no sense to shy away from writing on this issue which means a lot to me, or as someone active in party politics.
The best speech of the evening was from a girl who made the case that it is not anyone’s responsibility to act in any particular way for the sake of anyone else. Someone in Dublin should not have to consider the proverbial person in the closet in Leitrim who is less likely to come out if they are more flamboyant. Someone in drag is not more justified in doing so because they also perform charity work. It was a reminder to those there that gay people are simply a collection of individuals, who should act as they see best for themselves.
There were a few points on the proposition that I think worth mentioning, to give a brief answer to. I had anticipated the objection to gay bars in my speech, and my answer to the feeling that they are a form of self-imposed segregation is really that if many people go out to nightclubs hoping to score someone, we are really asking too much of gay people that they would not do the same. And as people would like to have statistics in their favour, and know that they fall into someone’s broad categorical type, it is not surprising that there are gay bars.
And there was the suggestion that it is evidence that gay stereotypes are harmful that it was news that Dónal Óg Cusack is gay, where it wouldn’t be news if a hairdresser came out. This is in large part the fault of sporting bodies worldwide, but I think there could well be some truth to this stereotype. I have as little interest in sport as fashion, but I think it likely that a greater proportion of male hairdressers are gay than of male sports players. Stereotypes are based on generalizations, and not all of them are groundless.
It turned out to be quite a good debate, more so than I had expected. We were reminded from some of the speakers of how pride parades began, and what a step that was, while many others wished to simply get on with their lives, finding gay-specific environments restricting. The atmosphere of the debate showed that, thankfully, things have changed since years gone by.
In wondering what pieces to write for my blog, if there’s a topic that I’m interested enough in to deliver a seven-minute speech on it in a debate, I should be able to muster a few hundred words on it here. I speak a few times during the year at the debates of the College Historical Society (having in the past organized these debates as Correspondence Secretary), so I plan to write up my thoughts on those debates, at least the ones from this Session.
On 21 October, I gave the second speech on the proposition to the motion, “That this house would legalise euthanasia”. This was the third time we had held this debate during my time in the society, but the first time I had spoken.
For me, it is ultimately a question of compassion. As a strong believer in individual rights, I also see it in those terms, but that philosophical and moral justification is secondary. Though we may not be able to imagine the feeling of a desire to die, we should not doubt the sincerity of those who express this wish. These are often people who are otherwise emotionally sound, but feel at this time such a level pain that they wish to end it and their live. Because of the sensitivity of the issue, I think it makes sense to advocate this possibility only for those who are terminally ill.
The two main arguments presented against the proposition were the value we put on life, expressed at times from an explicitly Christian point of view, and that treatment at the end of life is improving, and that if we give up on people at this point, we won’t develop the research into this care.
On the first of these, euthanasia may be something that we disagree with fundamentally, whether as a religious belief, as simply a deep-held belief in fighting to the end. But those coming from that point of view have to acknowledge that such stances are their personal beliefs, and while they may carry through on this in their own lives, in society at large, we should not seek to enforce such general views on the population at large, and that on other matters we don’t. In a republican society, no one should have to act on such a fundamental matter in a way that others feel is right, even if it is the belief of the majority.
From a medical point of view, I can understand the grave difficulties physicians could have with euthanasia, devoting their careers to preserving life, and for those who research in the area. Of course, no doctor should be compelled to take part in the process at any stage. But those who are suffering here and now should not be asked to continue to suffer, to sacrifice themselves, for the sake of future benefit. There are equally many doctors who have found ways to put their patients out of pain, even if if that meant death, such as by agreeing with them on a high level of painkillers, ostensibly to relieve the pain, but both knowing that it could result in death, and willing to accept that.
A common practical objection is that those who are vulnerable could be pressured to go through with the situation. This is a legitimate concern, but a 2007 report of the Journal of Medical Ethics found no evidence of abuse in the 12 years euthanasia had been in place with a strong regulatory system in Oregon, where it designed to be safe, legal and rare.
This is ultimately no more than my personal feeling, having given the matter thought. I have been fortunate not to have had to consider these questions more directly than this. But I do feel that those who can relieve their suffering should not be prevented from acting on one of the few areas they still have control over should they so wish.
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