Monthly musings in ALIVE!

What liberals did to Venezuela

Blame It on Fidel, Fidel being Fidel Castro, is a film by Julie Gavras, daughter of the famous left-wing film director, Costa Gavras. She is more subtle than her father, but no less ideological. 

Made about ten years ago, and set in France, the film tells the story of two radical left-wing parents and Anna, their daughter. 

An intelligent and precocious little girl, Anna is mystified by and resentful of the sacrifices her father and mother make for the causes they espouse. 

Those sacrifices, including poverty and removal from the religion class where she excelled, bring suffering on her as well. 

Eventually, however, the influence of her parents prevails and she goes down the same radical road herself.

While Gavras’ ideology is clear the film is a touching and revealing study. It shows how a child’s mind and soul are influenced by her surroundings and by the adults among whom she lives and whom she loves. 

But the film works on two levels, the personal and the ideological. We watch it today, aware of what is going on in Venezuela, whose present woes can certainly be blamed on Fidel.

The country is on the brink of what commentators are calling “apocalyptic collapse” under its economically illiterate President, Nicolás Maduro. 

Even food is in desperately short supply; the murder rate in Caracas, the capital, is the world’s highest; and inflation may top 700% this year. 

The failure of the socialist policies of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro, now stand exposed. Unbelieveably, despite all this, the cult of Chavismo is still strong. 

According to the Financial Times, Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and “should be a rich, modern nation.” 

Instead, after 17 years of “revolutionary rule” under Chávez and Maduro, it provides the “most extreme example” of the mismanagement that led to the downfall of leftist governments in Brazil and Argentina. 

But its problems go far beyond the economic illiteracy of its leaders, said Matt O’Brien in The Washington Post. 

Much of the money “redistributed” under Chávez went straight into of the pockets of the regime’s cronies, and drug dealing has flourished. These days, Venezuela is no better than a “gangster state”. 

Venezuelan Emiliana Duarte, writing in The New York Times, reflects: we were raised to believe that we lived in “the most stable democracy in South America. 

“Yet now I find myself in a country where mob lynchings are commonplace – 74 have been reported this year.”

Looking at little Anna 10 years on from Gavras’ story of her conversion to her parents’ radicalism, and looking back at those radicals of the late sixties, we wonder what they would make of Venezuela today, a product of all they stood for.

An end to meaningful political debate

Ireland is not a particularly radical country, despite last year’s referendum which changed the institution of marriage to include homosexual relationships. 

That vote was passed more on a wave of sentiment cooked up by a powerfully funded lobby and a notoriously biased media rather than by any thought-out radicalism. 

What is frustrating about Ireland, however, is that while it is at heart conservative, it is pathologically ashamed of being so. 

It has few conservative media voices and every political party is terrified of being called conservative.

And the country’s left-wing minority have organised themselves in the media so that conservative voices are excluded or sneered at or intimidated as soon as they speak.

All this is crippling our capacity for serious political thought and a meaningful political debate.

Political parties are not in themselves the problem, as many people complain. Edmund Burke argued in their favour.

They were not, he said, factions contending for their own particular advantage, but rather bodies of people united by a vision of the common good of the nation. 

Partisanship, he insisted, was beneficial, as it helped to organise politics into camps defined by different priorities about what was best for the country.

Parties as such are not our problem. Our problem is the poverty of our political thought and judgment – impoverished because it no longer has a basis for recognising what the common good of society is.

Learn from history or…

Historian Mary Beard has written a new book, S.P.Q.R., on her speciality, ancient Rome. It will not endear you to the Romans, and may even horrify you. 

Certainly they were trying to do their best, striving for some kind of justice. The book gives some sense of mankind’s long painstaking journey towards the rule of law. 

While we see some of the origins of our own civilisation there, we realise how radical and necessary was the Christian revolution to bring us to where we are today.

The book also reminds us of what we will lose if we abandon the principles of that revolution, as the West is now doing wholesale. 

Only when Roman society began to be transformed by the Christian faith did the Roman world and law flourish as the framework for western civilisation that it has become today. 

Until then it was a cruel world, dominated by selfishness and the pursuit of power and pleasure, filled with the seeds of its own destruction. 

History is full of warnings. We ignore them at our peril.

From the current issue of ALIVE! 

This is where we are but does anyone know what to do about it?

Today’s New York Times tells a story which, when you read between the lines, is not news about what has just happened. It is about what is going to happen. Add it to the story of a few days ago when British security chiefs warned us that their concern is not about whether that country will be subject to another terrorist assault, but when it will happen. The result you get when you tot up this sum is that we are under siege. Alarmism? No. Just alarm.

It is all the more alarming when we seem not to have the slightest notion of how to protect ourselves from an enemy whose ruthlessness, with each new atrocity, exceeds the one which went before. At the moment all we seem to hear from our governments are expressions of horror, condemnation, and outrage in which all the superlatives have been exhausted and sound banal.

Empty platitudes of defiance and promises of ‘no surrender’ are all we get by way of coherent policy – and they’re no policy at all. Where are the leaders who are going to deal with this? Where are the ideas about how to deal with this. If they do not emerge soon we are at the eve of destruction as the Roman world was in the face of the barbarian onslaught of the 5th and 6th centuries. In the world in which we live, given the pace at which things can move now, our destruction will be fast and furious to a degree which will make progress of the fall of the Roman Empire look like a snail’s pace.

The only policy the international community seems to have in place currently is that of defeating ISIS on the ground in the Middle East. How effective those policies are remains to be seen. ISIS now, however, has clearly opened up a second and far more deadly front – a front that is not a front at all but a lethal virus. It is this strategy that has us all at sea and through which so much havoc can be wreaked that it can truly destroy us.

The Times flagged its story this morning in its daily briefing newsletter with this:

Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.He barely had time to settle in before members of the Islamic State’s secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

Read more »

In Britain today we have an example of the futile gestures which passes for policy when it was announced and reported on Channel 4 News that:

Hundreds more armed police, with handguns and semi-automatic weapons, will be put on patrol around London’s major landmarks – as the Met police chief promised to help reassure the public and deter terror attacks.

The song remains the same

Britain is a trading nation, surely one of the greatest in the history of the world. Its empire was built on trade and not built initially on political ambitions. Once built, politics and political struggles had to feature, but they were not what it was all about. This may not have been true in the medieval era when feudal and dynastic forces were primarily in play – for example, the Angevin Empire, the reining in by Henry II of his feudal barons in Ireland and the Hundred Years War. But in the Modern era the driving forces were trading ambitions and explorations seeking more lucrative trade.

And so it still is today. The United Kingdom joined what is now the European Union – significantly it was still the European Economic Community then – for reasons of trade. That Community already had a political purpose in its DNA but Britain – perhaps naively – chose to ignore it, or think that this would really never come to anything. Britain has a political self-identity which means it would never allow itself to be politically subject to any alliance or coalition of European nations, even a benign one.

The satirical portrayal of Britain’s relationship with the European Union portrayed in the BBC’s Yes Prime Minister 30 years ago has more than a grain of truth in it.

So where is this trading nation now, in the aftermath of Brexit? Not very far, we might suspect, from where it wants to be or needs to be to keep itself on track as a leading trading nation in the world.

Brexit has now freed Britain from the political bonds which she saw relentlessly tightening on her by the well-intentioned semi-democratic – if we accept the standard definition of democracy – alliance which is the European Union. She may now say to herself, “now that’s done, and I’m glad its over”, and get on with what she does best – trading.

But will the sulking members of the European Union whose political bonds she has unceremoniously and shockingly severed now want to make life difficult for her. Will they want to punish, as some have threatened, her by thwarting her trading ambitions. Not likely, for the simple reason that to do so would be to make life difficult for itself. Sensible people do not usually bite off their noses to spite their faces.

While political union remains an ambition of the EU, it knows very well that such a union has no future if trading principles and economic well-being are neglected. The leaders of the Eu will now sit down with new Prime Minister Teresa May and her team-GB and hammer out a trading agreement which will be as much as possible like that which has been operating over the past 20 years and evolving for 40 years. For the EU to come to that negotiating table looking for revenge is the stuff of tabloid journalism. They will be looking for the best deal for them – and the best deal for them will be essentially “more of the same”. If an important component of your car’s engine breaks down you set about repairing it to get yourself moving again. You do not discard it in a fit of anger and hope for the best. You repair it. You may replace it with a better model – but you cannot ignore it.

The silly remark by Jean-Claude Junker, in response to Brexit, that “the British vote has cut off one of our wings, but we are still flying”  was wryly commented on by a letter-writer in the Daily Telegraph who said, “Presumably the direction is round and round in circles.” That would be about the height of it if Junker’s attitude were to prevail.

The Daily Telegraph reported speculation today – in the light of the bizarre economic growth figures reported for the Republic of Ireland yesterday – that Ireland  might be the hardest hit nation of the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. No, she won’t, for the very same reason that the EU will be looking for as little disruption as possible in trading arrangements between all the nations which up until now have made up the Union.

The only negative prospect for Ireland now is a political one. With the UK in the EU there was some hope of a brake on “ever closer union”. Now there is none. Ireland now is at risk of losing whatever was left of the sovereignty she won almost 100 years ago by exiting the United Kingdom. When she attached her carriage to the European Economic Community over 40 years ago, like Britain, she did not give much thought to loss of sovreignty. Since then, however, she has felt the gradual erosion of this and the tensions associated with it. That tension was manifested in two futile rejections of EU treaties – in both cases she was sent back to think again and on each occasion humbly submitted to the greater authority.

With the United Kingdom’s weighty and contrary carriage now politically uncoupled from the EU train, Ireland can expect to see a High Speed Rail transformation and find herself, sooner rather than later, coupled to a sovereign federal state. She may have to think about that and ask herself if this is what she really wants, as she currently celebrates the 100th anniversary of the rebellion which led to her decoupling from another Union.

Still unsurpassed?

Time for a little diversion again, courtesy of the New York Times online “Backstory” once more. Today they take us through the history of the sliced pan – or any other kind of loaf you like to mention.

Sliced bread is, of course, the benchmark for all good things. But it wouldn’t exist quite as we know it without Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler born on this day in 1880. 

His bread slicer produced the first package of machine-cut and wrapped bread 48 years later, on his birthday in 1928.

Bakers didn’t love the first version of Mr. Rohwedder’s invention, which he started working on in 1912. They feared the individual slices would quickly go stale. Mr. Rohwedder tried to ward that off by holding the loaves together with sterilized hairpins, but the pins kept falling out.
Finally, he added a step that automatically wrapped the bread, too. 

Eventually Wonder Bread bought a version of the machine.

Sliced bread was banned very briefly in 1943, to wide chagrin. The move was intended to control bread prices and save on wax paper during World War II. Headlines heralded the lifting of the two-month ban: “Housewives’ Thumbs Safe Again,” read one.

It wasn’t just housewives, though. In 1963, reporters noticed a Band-Aid on President John F. Kennedy’s finger and asked him what had happened.
Mr. Kennedy laughed and replied: “I cut my finger when I was cutting bread, unbelievable as it may sound.”

Amy Padnani contributed reporting.

Underlying causes which led to Brexit


The philosopher John Gray argued on BBC Radio last week that Brexit will have a greater impact on the EU than it will on the UK. And he predicts the British experience is likely to be repeated across much of continental Europe over the next few years. 

There is much that is compelling in his analysis.One of the most salient points he makes is that the underlying causes which led to Brexit are not to be found in England – or in Britain – but in the EU itself. This is a project which, by overreaching itself, will unravel disastrously unless these are honestly addressed and resolved.

I think what he is saying is that it is time for the promoters of the European project to stop dreaming of a superstate and become more pragmatic. Then we can all get back to living real lives and feel free again.

That this feeling of freedom has evaporated and left  a sense of loss of sovereignty in a number of European countries is dangerous. The do-good idealism inherent in the European project has failed to translate into reality in the hearts of Europeans. Failures like that are often not just unfortunate. They can be dangerous. The resentment generated by failed well-intentioned experiments can be the seed-bed of very dangerous reactions. The theory of this project is not enough, no matter how confident its champions may be that it is working in practice.

Is there at work here an example of  what Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace? He was commenting on the German, General Pfuel, fighting for the Czar. He described him as “one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion – science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth.”

At first sight, Pfuel, in his ill-made uniform of a Russian general, which fitted him badly like a fancy costume, seemed familiar to Prince Andrew, though he saw him now for the first time. There was about him something of Weyrother, Mack, and Schmidt, and many other German theorist-generals whom Prince Andrew had seen in 1805, but he was more typical than any of them… 

A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.


Surely this is a sentiment not too far from that of General Pfuel?

Could it be that this self-assurance of Pfuel – or Martin Schulz – is what permeates the European project for “ever-closer union” and that a growing number of those living within the borders of this block are now beginning to feel repelled by it – because they know that it is as ill-fitting for them as the Russian uniform which Pfuel found himself inhabiting? Might it be that the citizens of the best-organized state in the world, paraphrasing Tolstoy,  always knowing what they should do and knowing that all they will do as  Englishmen will undoubtedly be correct – have made the right call on this?

Reducing our public discourse to meaningless gibberish

Of all the ‘isms’ that supposedly rational mankind has inflicted on this world there is none more irrational, vicious and ridiculous than racism. It has spawned murderous violence, hatred and wasted lives like no other. But like a great many other evils in this world, a misunderstanding of the true nature of an evil and a confusion in the public mind as to what really constitutes an evil is almost as evil as the thing itself. This is now happening to the evil that is racism.

If I have a simple disagreement with my friend or colleague while we look for a solution to some problem, our lives can remain fairly simple. We don’t lose sight of the substantive issue. If, on the other hand, I find myself disagreeing on exactly the same issue with someone from a different cultural background, of a different nationality, ethnic group or even a different race, I immediately expose myself to the charge of racism. As soon as that happens we lose sight of the problem we have been trying to resolve.

This confusion is dangerous. It is crippling our capacity to think, to converse and to organise our society. It is absolutely rife in the current discourse over Britain’s relationship with the European Union and it is paralysing us in our efforts to pursue any kind of justice in resolving some of the terrible consequence the horrors in the Middle East and Africa.

The abuse of language is vicious – and what we have in this case is an abandonment of meaning in language. Language is one of our civilisation’s most precious gifts. The weakening of its capacity to help us find solutions to our problems threatens to destroy us.

A racist must always be called out for what he is. But calling people racists in the utterly lazy way in which the term is now being thrown around is not only ridiculous but is also reducing our public discourse to meaningless gibberish.

More writing on the wall?

Plain talking  (below) by an Irish parliamentarian about why Europe is coming off the rails. 

The truth is that it has turned into a bureaucratic juggernaut dazzled by its own ‘wisdom’. It is not only out of touch with the millions it purports to serve but disdains them. When they hear a voice like this I can see them shaking their all-knowing heads in pity. What we have now is a cadre of pseudo-democratic front-men posing as leaders when in fact they are no more than mouthpieces for the Brussels elite. There are no bad intentions on the part of any of them. They are all lost in a system which they created but which has now taken possession of their souls. EU2016 = HAL1000?
Until we get democratic representatives who will again openly and intelligently question and challenge the system which purports to serve us we cannot consider ourselves as living in a democracy. 
Michael Fitzmaurice exemplifies the kind of voice we need to hear more of. 

The riches of Terrence Malick


We need a break from the culture wars. In the Middle Ages the Church tried on occasion to get the warring feudal kings, princes and barons – or whatever – to take time out from their seemingly endless wars. They tried to promote what in my Irish language history class was called a ‘sos cogadh’, if my memory, and my Irish, serve me right. It was a kind of ceasefire, literally a rest from warfare, like we tried to have between the IRA and the British security forces in our local Irish ‘troubles’ here at end of the last century.

So a unilateral ‘sos cogadh’ it is, for a few days at any rate. We will take a break from Abortion – sorry, Amnesty – International, same-sex marriage, Donald Trump Vs Hillary Clinton, corrupted education systems, ISIS, European football and all those stressful topics.

We will take a dive into the deep end of the cultural reservoir and reflect for a little on the deep, deep cinema of Terrence Malick.

I was moved to do this by a piece I read some time ago on the Aleteia website, posted on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the release of Malick’s magnum opus, The Tree of Life.

There, Matthew Becklo reminded us that when The Tree of Life hit movie theatres the responses were all visceral. “Some hailed it as an instant classic; others dismissed it as pretentious garbage; and a whole lot of people left the theatre scratching their heads.” He himself is in the first category and in an effort to win over those who either hated it, or were just plain confused by it, he gives us a few reasons to give this beautiful artefact another look in 2016.

His first reason is the verdict of that authoritative voice, the late Roger Ebert. Before he died, Ebert included it in his list of the ten greatest films ever made. Ebert said “I believe it’s an important film,” and will only increase in stature over the years.”

Not only has the film done so but it has done so because with the passage of time and the opportunity that this gives for revisiting it, not just once or twice but many times, you will see further into its depth with each viewing. The real reason for this is that Malick’s later films are not just rooted in the human. They connect us in some way with the divine. They are in fact prayers. They do not shy away from the sensual, albeit with delicacy. Neither does the Song of Songs. In all this Malick’s work bears a great affinity with those other masters – whose influence has had a bearing on his art – Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. Ebert in fact wrote, “Terrence Malick‘s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence.”

Malick’s two films since The Tree of Life do exactly the same thing, each one taking a different angle on our existence. To the Wonder explores the mystery of love, not just human love but divine love as well – and the mysterious point where the two meet. The Knight of Cups takes us through the terrifying capacity of our kind to destroy ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure – with Hollywood as the metaphor for evil. The evil is not so much in what it produces as in the environment into which it sucks all those who participate within it.

But it is not just the spiritual meaning of Malick’s work, not just the way in which he explores the connections between our actual existence and our struggles with our destiny, which spell-bind us. It is the visual presentation of this. Here his co-artist plays his part. He was Emmanuel Lubezki, the first person to win the cinematography Oscar three years in a row: for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015). He was nominated for his work on The Tree of Life – but the Academy was a bit off that year so he did not get it, nor did they. Lubezki has been Malick’s cinematographer since The New World, that other metaphorical work which explores in the tale of Pocahontas the complexities of the troubling reality of colonisation and multiculturalism.

For Matthew Becklo another compelling reason for revisiting the film is that its meaning is easier to follow the second time around. He observes that “The visual grandeur of The Tree of Life was enough to distract anyone from its storyline. But Malick also experimented freely with his characters and their locations, creating what many saw as an overly loose narrative. Even Sean Penn was displeased, remarking that ‘clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film’.”

“Malick,” he says, “does ask his viewers to keep their eyes (and minds) open, but he won’t leave them in the dust when they do. On a second viewing, the storyline becomes crystallized, and separated out from the more poetic sequences. This opens the door to a deeper dive into the meaning of the film as a whole.”

Robert Barron has produced a short YouTube essay on The Tree of Life in which he explores and comments of the themes of this visual and poetic masterpiece of cinema. Barron shows us how it is also a deep reflective work of natural theology. Perhaps The Tree of Life might be the best way of bringing us to a permanent ‘sos cogadh’ in our infernal culture wars?

Five finger exercise


Who gives the UN the right to lecture the Irish on their laws protecting the life of an unborn child? Is our Government cowering before a group of self-important UN busy-bodies who just speak for themselves?

These are questions which need to be answered. At last it seems as if someone is prepared to speak up on behalf of our sovereignty as a nation. When will someone show us the faces of these arrogant bureaucrats at the UN Human Rights Committee who last week declared that Ireland’s protection of the equal right to life of women and their unborn children amounted to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and instructed us to remove this provision from our Constitution. Are these people nothing more than agents of Abortion International, who are abusing the agency of this useful but flawed organization to try to snuff out the lives of human beings on the pretext of a very partial definition of human rights.

Here at last we have someone from within the political establishment calling this out for the outrage it is. He is Barry Walsh, a member of the Fine Gael Executive Council who was president of Young Fine Gael from 2007-2010. We are told that he writes in a personal capacity. That’s OK. We can live with that. He has the courage to challenge his party on this. “It is high time, he says, “that our ministers, TDs and Senators had the courage and the sense of leadership to stand over our record as a society that respects the right to life and which provides a standard of care for mothers and their babies which is second to none in the developed world.”

He adds that unfortunately the Government has made no public attempt to defend Ireland against this arrogant UN quango, let alone to query what legal basis or moral authority it has to make them.

The pro-life organizations have been complaining about this self-appointed tribunal’s dangerous posturing since it issued its obiter dicta over a week ago. The political establishment just goes on ignoring them. Now, however, perhaps we see a chink in  the dark facade of Fine Gael’s cowardly behaviour surrounding this whole issue.

Let us have a proper media investigation as to who exactly these 18 UNHRC people are. Let us examine their back stories so that we might get a better understanding of what their agenda is. Then we can ask them fairly and squarely how exactly they define humanity and see what the basis of their argument is for excluding millions of human beings from that definition – sending them to the charnal houses of abortion clinics worldwide. If your understanding of human life is flawed how can you even begin to talk about human rights?

The muddled thinking which allows this woolly definition of humanity to persist is what allows our society to continue to accept this human carnage. If we just cleared our heads and let the scientific evidence speak for itself we would bring this lethal confusion to an end. The fingers before me, hitting this keyboard, were already there in my mother’s womb. This “I” to which these fingers, moved to do what they are now being guided to do by whatever intelligence  I have, was there from the moment of “my” conception. What is so difficult about that? Hello!


The most devastating ecological disaster of all?

Is this something we should be worried about? If even a fraction of what Camille Paglia is saying here is true, it is hard to argue that it is not a matter which should deeply concern us. Our universities, more than ever before, are where the minds of the future are forming themselves – and a true university will always see that the most important work being done there is the work the students themselves do. But if they can form themselves then the reverse is also true. They can deform themselves.

Cultures have become degenerate in the past. Civilizations have disintegrated and vanished. Somehow new civilizations emerge eventually – but the human cost, the loss and the suffering which human kind experiences in the trough between these two peaks can be the stuff of nightmares. Will some scholars in centuries from now, perhaps even millennia from now, find these words of Paglia – and God only knows what medium they will find them in – and say here was the Cassandra or the Tiresias of the 20th and 21st century,  Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs, (who) perceived the scene, and foretold the rest…