Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Picture of Conor

This is a description of a fairly typical Irish liberal-- at least, one of the better breed of Irish liberal. I'm not talking about the kind of liberal that goes to Atheist Ireland meetings and writes venomous comments under John Water and Breda O'Brien articles on the online edition of The Irish Times. They are not worth bothering about.

Let's call this Irish liberal Conor.

Conor is forty-two years old. He has a wife and a child. He is a devoted father and a good husband. He works as a computer programmer. He's big into movies-- his favourite director is Woody Allen-- and he's also big into music. Morrissey and Nine Inch Nails are amongst his favourite bands. He thinks a lot of the more recent music is rubbish.

His parents were devout Catholics but he never really took it seriously. You couldn't say he lost his faith, since he never had it. Still, he has a lot of respect for religion in general and Catholicism in particular. He doesn't believe in God because, he says, he sees no rational argument in favour of such belief. He has happy memories of going to Mass and he likes hymns, carols, holy statues and church architecture. He think that the Bible has a lot of profound things to say about the human condition, on an allegorical level. He has no problem going to Catholic funerals, weddings and memorial Masses, although he chose not to have his own child baptised. He isn't sure whether he will send him to a non-denomational school or not.

Conor opposes the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and contraception, which latter he thinks causes immense suffering in Africa. However, he thinks abortion is a complicated subject which is simplified by rhetoric on both sides. And he thinks the same about euthanasia. He himself thinks that both should be available, under certain restrictions, but he thinks it's reasonable for people to oppose them, and sees the danger in euthanasia on demand and abortion on demand.

He thinks that the ordination of women is a matter for Catholics and non-Catholics aren't really entitled to an opinion on it. He makes fun of liberal priests and thinks the Church should have stuck to the Latin Mass and fish on Fridays.

Conor is a feminist, but he thinks that women's liberation and the sexual revolution has had a lot of drawbacks. Though he is in favour of divorce, where marriage breakdown is a reality, he thinks many liberals don't have a deep enough understanding of the havoc it wreaks on children and families.

Likewise, he thinks women have paid a high price for the sexual revolution, as things stand. He is quite chivalrous, and he's appalled by the way women are portrayed in rap videos, on the covers of men's magazines, and in advertisements. He thinks pornography is a growing problem and, although he is opposed to censorship, he thinks schools should try to make teenagers more aware of the distorted picture it gives of women and of sex. He believes that there are differences between the sexes that are not culturally conditioned.

He restricts the amount of television that his little boy is allowed to watch (no advertisements at all), and he intends to keep a tight rein on this in the future. He reads to him every night, and he is very eager to introduce him to classic children's books. Conor believes that the imagination is very important, and that our world of passive entertainment and mass media is in danger of crushing much that is fine in humanity. He uses his mobile phone as little as possible, and he is withering about Facebook, Twitter, reality TV and blogs.

Conor does not join with many of his fellow liberals in rejoicing over the decline of Catholicism in Ireland. He agrees that the Church gave Irish people a sense of meaning in their lives, as well as a moral foundation, and that the disappearance of these things has left a vacuum in Irish society. He thinks ritual, ceremony and tradition are important. He attended a Christian Brothers school, and for the most part he thinks they were good men. He is quick to point out the contribution that priests and nuns made to Irish education, health and social services.

He frequently makes fun of his own liberalism, calling himself an "old hippy". He also makes his fun of political correctness, especially the term "significant other", which makes him cringe.

I think Conor is a pretty realistic portrait. I don't know anyone exactly like this, but he is an amalgam of many people that I do know-- both male and female.

I like Conor a lot.

This is my problem with Conor.

The negative side of Conor's social vision is easy to achieve, while there is no sign at all that the positive side has any hope of being made a reality.

Conor is like the town council that demolishes a three-hundred year old building, promising (and fully intending) to build a museum there, but who runs out of money and ends up letting a fast food restaurant and an underground car-park take its place.

Conor believes in the importance of community, ritual, tradition, stable families, childhood innocence, imagination, courtesy, respect, social bonds, high culture, and folk culture.

It depresses him that the social revolution of the last century, instead of leading to these things, seems to have led to consumerism, individualism, family breakdown, crime, infotainment, alienation, careerism, and a decay of moral and intellectual seriousness.

Conor believes that the "freedom from" aspect of liberalism has been almost achieved, and now the more difficult and important phase-- the "freedom to" phase-- should begin in earnest. This would involve bringing about a society where people can enjoy a truly humane and fulfilled and integrated existence, not simply bread and circuses or endless distractions.

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, within the resources of liberalism that shows any promise of bringing society even one step closer to any of these things.

Liberalism, though very good at weakening social bonds and overthrowing taboos and customs, has shown no propensity at all to build community, or strengthen family life, or provide a sense of collective identity, or perpetuate traditions, or to establish ritual and ceremony, or to inculcate an idea of sublime. And these were all things that Catholicism (and Christianity in general) did exceedingly well.

Conor is a well-meaning, idealistic, serious-minded fellow who can never bring himself to see that the world he is helping to bring about is the very opposite to the world of which he dreams.


  1. Nice post Maolsheachlann. I liked the allegory you gave of the old building and the museum - allegory is the correct word, right? I doubt Conor and his friends would be too pleased though.

  2. Maybe more a simile than an allegory. I'm glad you liked it though.

    Oh, maybe Conor and his friends wouldn't be pleased...it doesn't matter how generous or how sympathetic you try to be (as I tried in this post), at some point the differences between ways of looking at the world become impossible to avoid. The path forks, and you can't help offending or irritating people you like in most ways. At least that's my experience.

  3. Conor seems to be a modern version of John Henry NEwman's "gentleman", who is sometimes mistaken for Newman's own ideal but was really intended to depict the highest form of purely human civilisation in order to show what it lacks:

  4. Yes indeed! That's exactly what I was trying to get at, really. Except a particularly Irish type.

  5. Just found this now. Astute and compelling piece. Your capacity to imaginatively enter into and appreciate this kind of existence and yet see its dead end is - alas! - rare.

    1. Thanks Roger! That's very kind. I think we really have to sympathise with other points of view if we are to address them.