Lionel Shriver writes novels. She called one of them We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was scary. Lots of people bought it. Her new book is called Mania. It is set in the near past. It is about the Mental Parity Movement. Under its rule nobody is allowed to be cleverer than anyone else. The word “stupid” is forbidden. Big words are scorned. No sentence (such as this one minus the parentheses) may have a subclause. The vernacular has lobotomised smartphones. Chess and crosswords are abolished. Qualification points are unnecessary for admission to university. Barack Obama is no longer president. His eloquent oratory proved his electoral undoing. The Three Stooges is banned. Ditto Mr Bean and The Big Bang Theory.

[ Lionel Shriver: ‘I do not want to be told I'm privileged’ ]

Mania breaks every Mental Parity rule. The novel is intelligent, satirical, literary, dystopian and absurdist. But by no stretch of the imagination is it absurd. It’s chillingly plausible because the anti-intellectualism it depicts is already sprouting in our midst. Cork city’s main library had to lock its doors to the public last year during protests over books with LGBTQ content and after agitators entered libraries, filmed themselves verbally accosting staff members and put the footage online. In the pre-internet Dark Ages, books were ritually burned. Shriver sets her story in a town called Voltaire, after the oft-exiled French philosopher and civil liberties advocate whose books were publicly cremated in Paris.

In our age of “bigly” Donald Trump, “fake news”, grade inflation, “citizen journalists”, populist politics and keyboard warriors, the lowest common denominator sets the agenda. If you can’t say it in 280 crude characters, it’s not worth saying. Nuance is a no-no. The erosion of respect for expert knowledge – Shriver’s “brain-vain snobs” – is eating away at the foundations of public discourse. Covid-deniers, climate change-deniers, Holocaust-deniers and Elvis-is-dead-deniers demand equal esteem for their opinions as for those of specialist scientists and historians who have spent entire careers studying their niche subjects. In that arena, facts are rendered redundant. Truth perishes. Society slides to hell.

This zeitgeist has produced a new catch cry – why on earth is everyone so angry these days? What so enrages people as to make them picket Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman’s home with their masked faces and odious slogans? What fuels the hatred that makes someone phone in a bomb scare concerning Justice Minister Helen McEntee’s home, necessitating the evacuation of her two infant children? How resentful must the arsonists feel when they set fire to accommodation for asylum seekers? This is not the genial Ireland of the welcomes that many of the protesters claim to love.

Where did it all go horribly wrong? Social media seem the obvious culprits but they are primarily the platforms for ire; not fully the cause. Political correctness gets blamed, along with lefties and too much change too fast. “Progressives” and feminists, transgenderism and NGOs all get a kicking. But liberalism is not the root of it either. Laxity is. Decades of bungling public administration and institutional mendacity have shattered public trust. One by one, the citadels that once presumed to command the people’s faith have fallen – the Catholic Church aiding and abetting paedophile priests; the government denying the IMF was on the way even while the limos were waiting to greet them at Dublin Airport; Charlie Haughey and his Charvet shirts; the economists assuring us “the fundamentals are sound”; the media whooping up the property boom; the EU threatening we would burn the bondholders at our peril; the health service withholding information from women with cervical cancer; the €2 billion-plus national children’s hospital; the developers and builders flinging up fire-hazardous apartment blocks; the councillors bunged brown envelopes for the planning permission.

When trust dies, anger is its natural successor. Cynicism will not be far behind.

Most people try to live by the rules, but allegiance to the orthodoxy starts to crumble when you cannot get a school place or mental health or scoliosis treatment for your child, or you cannot see the same doctor twice in your out-the-door GP surgery and your frail parent is lying on a trolley with a broken hip in A&E, and you have little hope of acquiring your own home in your fecund prime. These are the realities of life in Ireland little more than a decade after two monumental State reports by the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals were published, chronicling payments to politicians and corruption in the planning system. No politician or businessman – only one PR bagman, Frank Dunlop – has gone to jail on bribe charges as a result of those inquiries. In the same period, the country’s population has exploded, eclipsing five million people for the first time since the Famine, but much of its infrastructure has remained stuck in the 1980s.

Corruption and bad government, excessive taxation and human misery conspired in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Then along came the Dark Ages to take its place. That’s a pattern that is starting to look worryingly familiar. If a country can be traumatised, Ireland is a candidate for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since the economy crashed in 2008, while the sordid details were flowing from the tribunals and citizens were losing their homes, their livelihoods and their sense of security, scant attention has been paid to its collective psychological impact. Yet the symptoms are visible – anger, fear, destructive behaviour, poor concentration. When you discover the rules you thought everyone was obeying were being spurned by those at the top, a natural instinct is to reject everything you used to think was true. Thus blind faith is supplanted by cynicism. Trust in those who are supposed to know better turns to knee-jerk derision.

Only by regaining the people’s trust can Ireland recover. That will require every institution to be fastidiously fair and candid with those they serve. It means no political playing to the gallery, no empty election promises, no pretence about quick-fix solutions, no refusing to answer questions, no more hubris. Once trust is broken it is doubly hard to regain it.

For all our sakes, we should remember the Carl Jung quote that Shriver chose for Mania’s preface: “It is becoming more and more obvious that it is not starvation, not microbes, not cancer, but man himself who is mankind’s greatest danger, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”

QOSHE - We need to talk about why we’re all so angry - Justine Mccarthy
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We need to talk about why we’re all so angry

29 95
03.05.2024

Lionel Shriver writes novels. She called one of them We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was scary. Lots of people bought it. Her new book is called Mania. It is set in the near past. It is about the Mental Parity Movement. Under its rule nobody is allowed to be cleverer than anyone else. The word “stupid” is forbidden. Big words are scorned. No sentence (such as this one minus the parentheses) may have a subclause. The vernacular has lobotomised smartphones. Chess and crosswords are abolished. Qualification points are unnecessary for admission to university. Barack Obama is no longer president. His eloquent oratory proved his electoral undoing. The Three Stooges is banned. Ditto Mr Bean and The Big Bang Theory.

[ Lionel Shriver: ‘I do not want to be told I'm privileged’ ]

Mania breaks every Mental Parity rule. The novel is intelligent, satirical, literary, dystopian and absurdist. But by no stretch of the imagination is it absurd. It’s chillingly plausible because the anti-intellectualism it depicts is already sprouting in our midst. Cork city’s main library had to lock its doors to the public last year during protests over books with LGBTQ content and after agitators entered libraries, filmed themselves verbally accosting staff members and put the footage online. In the pre-internet Dark Ages, books were ritually burned. Shriver sets her story in a town called Voltaire, after the oft-exiled French philosopher and civil liberties advocate whose books were publicly cremated in Paris.

In our age of “bigly” Donald Trump, “fake news”, grade inflation, “citizen journalists”, populist politics and keyboard warriors, the lowest common denominator sets the agenda. If you........

© The Irish Times


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