NOTE: I almost never blog about stuff I have some sort of excuse for talking about; that it took me three fucking days to write the following is the reason why. The worst part? It will bore all of you. Well, fuck you, here it is.
Lisa Derrick reminded me the other day that the new Irish law making "blasphemy" punishable by up to a €25,000 fine has gone into effect.
It's an odd sort of a brand-new law to be hearing about in this day and age, to be sure, and has attracted exactly the sort of response you'd expect, particularly online. And it is a pretty stupid law, all things considered. Not Patriot Act level stupid, OK, though not all that bright, either. But I can't really go along with Richard Dawkins here:
Prof Dawkins said: “One of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved countries, Ireland has recently become one of the most respected as well: dynamic, go-ahead, modern, civilised – a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk"....
“It is a wretched, backward, uncivilised regression to the middle ages. Who was the bright spark who thought to besmirch the revered name of Ireland by proposing anything so stupid?”
I am rarely happy with calling laws like this "backwards" or "medieval," because it's rarely a helpful way of understanding exactly why stuff like this gets proposed, or what the stakes are in any specific dispute. And I insist: It is always the specific dispute that matters, not how it fits into preconceived ideological frameworks, even ones I'm sympathetic to.
Ireland provides a pretty good example of what I mean. Throughout much of the last century, the Free State, & then the Republic, had a notoriously strict censorship regime, based on the 1929 Censorship of Publications Act. The Irish censorship regime was (and still is) often characterized as originating from atavistic Catholic confessional impulses.
But if you look closely at the public and official debates of the 20s, it just was not that way. The major motivation for the censorship laws was a pervasive fear that the new state was behind the times. Ireland was left without the sort of active censorship mechanisms that characters like Anthony Comstock had blessed the US with. Even more worrying were the strenuous activities of Jix, particularly, because, well, what was the point of independence if you were not distinctly more moral than those you said were too immoral to keep themselves in charge of you anymore? (Irish, Canadian, Australian, and Indian censorship regimes all proved pretty grim, FWIW -- ostentatious official rectitude in regards to The Sex being a tempting way to say "we deserve autonomy" on the cheap.)
Hence, the machinery of censorship in Ireland was intended as a mark of modernity, not of backwardness. Every truly grownup nation could ban shit it did not like, so why not the Saorstat?
And to be fair, they were not exactly wrong in this assessment of what was internationally fashionable at the time. And even given the darkest theory about the current blasphemy law, Ireland really wouldn't exactly be off the charts "backwards" now, either, if the question is to do with religious intrusion into the affairs of state. Dawkins's statement, you know, is kind of patronizing in this regard. Gosh we were all set to let Paddy sit at the Big Nations Table, but now they've gone and acted Backwards again, poor Paddy. Unfortunately, however, while Paddy sure did take to the book-banning and other even more horrible nonsense, name the Western Nation that behaved in an exemplary fashion about regulating sexuality 1920-1970 before singling Paddy out as "backwards." Likewise, as a 21st century American, I'm supposed to judge anyone else in the National Not-Religious-Crazy-Olympics?
Heck, in Ireland, the "blasphemy" issue is interesting, for why it did NOT come up in the 20s, when banning shit was in vogue. The reason is not actually all that obscure. The new government was anxious to not appear confessional: after all, a central tenet of classical Irish nationalism is that it is not sectarian. That the 1920s divorce controversies showed the fissures in this idea doesn't mean it didn't have a powerful influence, so what you find in the censorship movement of the time is a hell of a lot of pious ecumenical horseshit about how this was all a happy-come-together movement of All Good Irishmen Catholic and Protestant to Stamp Out Porn and "Race Suicide" (ie, contraception advertisements). Nobody wanted "blasphemy" to be an issue. So it wasn't. Would have seemed... well, backwards.
Which brings us to 2010, of course, and the apparently astounding question of why an Irish government wants something that would have been thought too reactionary even for discussion in the 1920s.
MINISTER FOR Justice Dermot Ahern is to cut proposed fines for blasphemy from €100,000 to €25,000, under changes to be made to the Defamation Act next week.
Mr Ahern said the legislation, which passed its committee stage in the Dáil yesterday, has been drafted to “make it virtually impossible to get a successful prosecution [for blasphemy] out of it”.
A blasphemy prosecution has not been won for a century, while powers already in force under the 1961 Defamation Act have never been used.
The Government is currently modernising Ireland’s defamation laws, which passed its committee stage in the Dáil last evening.
Under Article 40 of the Constitution, “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter” is a criminal offence.
Mr Ahern insists blasphemy must remain a crime, unless the reference to it in the Constitution is removed. “It is already there in the 1961 Act, and it is in the Constitution and we have to comply with the Constitution. You are in derogation of your duty if you ignore the Constitution,” he told Opposition TDs.
The inclusion of the blasphemy clause was accepted by Government TDs and passed by nine votes to six during yesterday’s committee stage debate.
The offence, published as amendment to the original Defamation Act, “is a little bit more modern” than the one contained in the 1961 Act “which could potentially put people in prison”, he said.
The change in the €100,000 fine to just €25,000 will be made during next week’s report stage debate.
Mr Ahern, who opposes a constitutional amendment, said he could proceed with his plans; abandon the legislation, or else hold a referendum.
This is not an outlandish explanation. The Irish constitution of 1937 is rather a mess that needs to be lived down in a lot of ways. It doesn't contain anything as institutionally asinine as, say, the US Senate, but that is rather a low bar; on the whole, it's an embarrassment. It was, for instance, submitted to the Vatican for approval beforehand (true), and it contained certain notoriously problematic sections. The Ireland of the 30s was not the Ireland of the 20s, you see, for a lot of reasons outside the scope of an already too long blog post.
What I'm getting at is that what is really in dispute with the Irish blasphemy law is to do with how the Republic is going to deal with its troublesome constitution and the extent to which this legal past will cease to haunt its legal future. I don't myself, on the merits, agree with the theory bubbling about that Ahern is interested in pushing this because he's a closet Catholic fundie, though there is little doubt that he's hardly earned the benefit of the doubt on related issues. I agree, on the merits, with the argument of people like David Norris (full disclosure, I've met him, an excellent fellow) and Michael Nugent that what should happen here is that the 1937 Constitution should be amended to be less stupid.
But Ireland is no more or less a meritocracy than the USA is, and we're chock full of stupid, and "what should happen" is here very rarely correlated with "what will happen." Ireland is no different. And this is no minor point.
This struck me forcefully as I was reading through the debates on the blasphemy stuff (Irish parliamentary debates can BTW be very, very funny). Look at this.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: However, for a number of reasons, it would not be my intention to bring forward proposals for a referendum at this time. Thus, in order to complete the long awaited reform of defamation we must now — we have an obligation under the Constitution——
Deputy Dermot Ahern: ——address this matter. My immediate predecessor as Minister indicated here in the Seanad on two occasions that we must address the appropriate legislative provision of blasphemous libel in regard to offences contained in the relevant article of the Constitution. It is stated in plain English and one could not get any plainer than this. Article 40.6.1° states:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
It cannot be any plainer.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: It is because of the Corway case. It is being incorrectly alleged that neither of my predecessors felt there was a need for this. A member of the Labour Party was on a programme and said something that was a complete untruth, and he knew it. The Minister, Deputy Lenihan, said on 11 March 2008:
If we repeal, in full, the provisions of the 1961 Act in reforming the defamation laws, we create a gap unless some provision is made for constitutional offences. We must also be mindful of the decision of the Supreme Court in the Corway v. Independent Newspapers in 1999, where the Supreme Court indicated a need to address the law on blasphemy. At this stage, I would suggest our duty is to ensure that there is no gap created in the case of these offences, which are recognised by the Constitution. [Indeed, they are the only criminal offences recognised in the Constitution.] I reiterated this very clear position on Second Stage during the debate in the Dáil on 8 May 2008. My predecessor as Minister and I clearly signalled that a new legislative proposal regarding blasphemous libel would have to be made at some stage on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
The deletion of Article 46.1.1° was recommended by the constitutional review group in 1996, and more recently in July 2008 by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in its report entitled “Article 46.1.1 — Freedom of Expression”, which dealt, inter alia, with blasphemy. Deletion was also recommended by the Law Reform Commission in its report in 1991, but they also recommended a number of other matters. However, the committee saw no need for a constitutional amendment in the short term, but rather that we might avail of any appropriate opportunity in the future.
Deputy Dermot Ahern: I understand. I do not know whether Senator Norris knocks on doors on North Great Georges Street, but I knock on doors in O’Hanlon Park in Dundalk, and when I go around knocking on doors asking people to vote in favour of the Lisbon treaty, I do not relish——
Deputy Dermot Ahern: ——asking at the same time if they want to take blasphemy out of the Constitution. I hazard a guess that Senator Norris might not get the response he wants when he knocks on doors in O’Hanlon Park.
I have the utmost respect for David Norris, but I have to say, the Minister scores a point here.
If you want my interpretation, and you do, because you've read this far, I think Ahern is sincere. No Irish Minister for Justice wants to deal with this sort of blasphemy nonsense, as it is a legal loser (see the 1999 Corway case, to which I can't find a decent link, fuck it), and a publicity disaster -- for any Minister for Justice so unlucky as to personally stuck with it, never mind for the country. (Hilariously, the reason the fine seems so high in Ahern's bill is that if it were small or nominal, the case would no longer be an Irish High Court matter, but one for the Irish Circus Courts. Can't have that!)
When you boil it all down, why is the Irish Minister for Justice proposing a nutty on its face law for blasphemy? Because if he doesn't, he might have to deal with an even nuttier prosecution. And why? Because of the nutty Irish Constitution. And why doesn't he want to just change the nutty Constitution? Because he's afraid that the Irish electorate might be just so nutty as to vote overwhelmingly for the nutty option.
He is, in other words, looking out for his ass.
While I have my issues with Ahern, and Ireland past or present, "medieval" just does not work here. Shit, Ahern is a more adult and sophisticated politician by miles than, say, Jim DeMint. More importantly, I wouldn't trust Americans not to do the wrong thing either in similar circumstances. Quite the opposite, really.
So enough of this "backwards" garbage please.