Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Good Friday Disagreement

This morning, I heard some of my colleagues discussing the Irish Republic's ban on selling drink on Good Friday. I only heard a snatch of their conversation, so I couldn't tell if they were supporting it, denouncing it, or simply talking about it. But it got me thinking about the subject.

I won't pretend that the Good Friday ban on the selling of alcohol is a hot topic in Ireland. As far as I can tell, very few people get worked up about it. A certain Irish Independent columnist, who is a libertarian, and whose work I dislike so much that I can't even bring myself to name him (it's not Kevin Myers), opposes the ban, as I just learned from Wikipedia. (I stopped reading him long ago.)

And you do hear a certain amount of grumbling about it, from some quarters, every year. Of course, the more peevish sort of secularist is offended because it happens to be a religious holiday.

I am a fervent supporter of the law. It's probably my favourite Irish law.

Not because I have anything against alcoholic drinks-- goodness, no. I drink. Not all that often, but enthusiastically. I'm also enthusiastic about other people drinking. And about pubs. And about pub mirrors. And about drink bottles, which are always very decorative and handsome. (I can imagine the neo-puritans of our society taking a stand against this, soon, and lobbying for all bottles of alcoholic liquor to be sold with plain white labels.)

And it's not because it's a religious festival. I'm not in favour of religion being pushed on anybody. I do think it's perfectly legitimate for the State to demand a certain respect for the religious customs of the majority, or even of a minority-- but I'm not even in favour of it for that reason.

I'm in favour of it because I'm a big fan of anomalies, exceptions, inconsistencies and even absurdities-- when they have no grave consequences. I think their desirability can hardly be overstated. I think this subject even takes us deep into the question of what makes a good society.

In this context, I would like to quote (as I have often quoted) the great G.K. Chesterton, except this time I am quoting him to disagree with him:

"Anomalies do matter very much, and do a great deal of harm; abstract illogicalities do matter a great deal, and do a great deal of harm: and this for a reason that anyone at all acquainted with human nature can see for himself. All injustice begins in the mind: and anomalies accustom the mind to the idea of unreason and untruth. Suppose I had by some prehistoric law the power of forcing every man in Battersea to nod his head three times before he got out of bed: the practical politicians might say that this power was a harmless anomaly, that it was not a grievance. It could do my subjects no harm; it could do me no good. The people of Battersea, they would say, might safely submit to it; but the people of Battersea could not safely submit to it, for all that. If I had nodded their heads for them for fifty years, I could cut off their heads for them at the end of it with immeasurably greater ease; for there would have permanently sunk into every man's mind the notion that it was a natural thing for me to have a fantastic and irrational power. They would have grown accustomed to insanity."

Now, I disagree with that vehemently. I disagree with it with all my heart. I disagree with it at the top of my lungs and jumping up and down and waving my fists in the air. For once, I think Chesterton is speaking arrant nonsense.

Sanity, I think, is not just the absence of madness but something positive, definite, tangible; like fresh air or solid ground. And surely one of the most distinctive features of sanity is being able to tell the difference between the trivial and the non-trivial. I'd go further and say that a sane mind is made more sane by exercising this discriminating faculty on a regular basis.

Is there any more distinguishing mark of the bore, the pedant and the crank than the inability to make this distinction? Mind you, I'm not saying that the trivial isn't important in its own way. It is important. But important in a different way from more weighty and consequential matters.

I don't think Chesterton's example is very fair, since compelling someone to nod his head three times is a matter of forcing someone to do something, rather than forbidding them to do it. I think a man might reasonably object to being forced to do something trivial, rather than having a trivial constraint put upon him. (And being forced to nod your head before rising isn't all that trivial, especially imagining how such a requirement would have to be policed!)

But let's accept his comical example. Is it really the case that the people of Battersea would be any more likely to acquiesce in having their heads chopped off after fifty years of agreeing to nod their heads before rising? Well, would the Irish people be any more likely to accept a year-long ban on alcohol sales because of the longstanding Good Friday law? Or (because this seems an equally valid conclusion) would we accept a ban on the sale of anything and everything on Good Friday, because this law had accustomed us to the idea?

Of course not. Chesterton was being silly in this regard, I think.

I might seem to be making heavy weather out of a triviality myself, but I think this subject is actually very important. The importance of arbitrary rules like the Good Friday sale on intoxicating liquor is that they run counter to a particular view of society, one that I think is increasingly widespread but which should be opposed whole-heartedly; that is, that society is 'a machine for living in', in the same way that Bauhaus architects proclaimed that a house was a machine for living in.

Society is not a machine for living in. The choice before us is not between a hive existence, where the individual is subsumed into the collective, and a Wild West. The vast majority of what goes on in a particular society is individuals going about their business, families going about their business, sports teams and trade unions and hardware shops and travelling circuses going about their business. I think it's very seemly to have the occasional reminder that the nation, or the particular society we live in, has some claim on us, over and above the claims of living together without stepping on each other's toes.

Could anything really be worse than a completely rationalistic society? Jurgen Habermas (about whom I know next to nothing) wrote a book called Towards a Rational Society. (I see it on the shelves of my library.) I don't know what sense Habermas meant it-- since he co-authored a book with Pope Benedict, I won't assume the worst. But the idea of a society whose every institution, law, convention and practice is entirely rational is utterly dispiriting-- like the prospect of living in a Plexiglass palace. The soul, I am sure, would cry out for something that couldn't be explained away, something that just was.

Regulations that are unnecessary, arbitrary, anachronistic and inconvenient have many advantages, I think. They create social solidarity. They give rise to amusing anecdotes about people trying to circumvent them. (I think this is fair game, by the way.) They mark a particular time or situation (like Good Friday) as being special. They make us appreciate our freedoms and privileges and pleasure by obstructing them for a little while. And they become a distinguishing mark of the community (which is my first point of social solidarity, but seen from outside.) Perhaps best of all, they irritate libertarians. (I love libertarians, as I love all mankind, but it does them good to be irritated-- a truth they acknowledge by getting irritated as often as possible.)

People love these rules. 'Did You Know?' columns are always full of facts about how it's illegal to kiss an alligator in Alabama or to walk backwards holding a frying pan in Merthyr Tydfil. This proves that a world without petty regulations would be a duller world. Nobody ever wrote an article about how you can wear whatever clothes you want in Oslo, or that you are permitted to sing in every street in Canberra.

Another reason the Good Friday liquor law is good; it's inconvenient. It's my personal theory that civilization is built upon inconvenience, and corroded by convenience. But that calls for an article in itself, not less than ten thousand words long.

In the meantime...drink up.


  1. As someone who doesn't drink I'm not sure I can partake in this argument, but I will say that I do like those old fashioned pubs that have that old wooden look with all the random clutter hanging around.

    I think you're right about people being attracted by these rules though. I remember when I was a college there was a guy who was an atheist/agnostic - not the kind that was really interested in talking religion though - and for some reason he liked to join in on giving up something for Lent. When I asked him about it he didn't really have a reason for doing it, he just did.

  2. I suppose it's the same reason kids jump on floor tiles of a particular colour, or avoid stepping on the cracks!

  3. I remember when I was an agnostic, reading a book about World Religions and feeling an intense desire to have some taboos of my own to follow.