Thursday, June 2, 2011


Bombing Air Hostesses

Almost immediately after the Queen’s plane touched down on Irish soil, and the first images were broadcast, Facebook provided a forum for an almost instantaneous response. The people who responded were not people with their fingers on the pulse of a nation, they were the pulse itself, an expression of public mood. Or, at least, the groups on Facebook that they created were an expression of this public mood. Some of those first groups that “popped up” (as if from nowhere, an eruption or fissure that signifies most of our digital exchanges) were particularly telling.

When the Queen was shown stepping off a plane wearing emerald green, a Facebook group emerged with the title, “The awkward moment when the Queen arrives dressed as an Aer Lingus air hostess...” There are many such groups on Facebook beginning with “The awkward moment when ...”, the most prominent having to do with “your mother”. A friend, inspired by the group, optioned one that never came to pass, but nonetheless captures something of the mood at the time; “The awkward moment when the IRA get the dates wrong and assassinate Obama ...”, as the American President was visiting Ireland exactly one week after the Queen.

Both of these one-liners, you could call them, are interesting for a number of reasons, and perhaps we can even venture further than interest and say that they are indicative of our attitude (in part) towards her visit. First, the differences between the two should be noted. The first group acknowledges the Queen as being above, or having an attitude of being above, an Aer Lingus air hostess. This “awkward moment”, then, stems from the fact that the Queen resembles an air hostess. Her role as an ascended being (ascended in the social sense) and the idea of her being a sort of living embodiment of a nation is subtly undermined within the title of the Facebook group.

Of course, her gesture of wearing emerald green was a gracious gesture towards Ireland as a nation. It was a humble gesture, designed to convey a wish to be here, but there is also a yielding element to her attire: she was yielding to emerald, the colour, in the isle of that same colour. And her yielding in such a manner towards us was a gesture which was designed to signify an exchange between our two countries, coupled with an admiration for us, but also a concession towards us. In effect, the moment she stepped off the plane, the symbolism began.

What can we make of the Facebook group, then? Acknowledging the symbolism inherent in the act of wearing those clothes, the group brings it to the extreme. It calls her bluff, and brings the symbolism to a logical extreme. She literally looks like one of us and the joke is that she is one of us - a humble air hostess to be exact.

Our national narrative holds within it the story of an eight hundred year old struggle against Britain for our own nation, of a struggle against becoming part of Britain, of the struggle of keeping Irishness alive, even of a struggle to become fully Irish.

The British, then, became a kind of ghost that haunts our national psyche. In the past, of course. Under their rule, they were the ghost that haunted Irishness, that never allowed it to be fully realised in a physical sense. They never allowed us a nation of our own. Thus they were as ghosts to the Irish psyche, or a pathology that just wouldn’t go away. Or, as a psychiatrist might put it, they never allowed us to move on. No matter how much revisionism there is, we cannot turn away fully from this aspect of our national narrative - the past haunting of Ireland (or the idea of Ireland) by Britain.

When a Briton comes over here, he or she is just the same as any of us now that these wounds have (in theory) healed. But a ghost still haunts us, and it is not the ghost of England, but rather the ghost of the past, and the fear that nothing has changed. The joke lies in the fact that when she comes over here, the Queen is demystified, like anyone of us, an air hostess specifically. And this is as it should be, as our national narrative tells us it should be, at the end of history (the end of conflict embodied by the Good Friday Agreement). This, as we shall see, is not the case, for there is still the “awkward moment” to contend with. After all, she is still a Queen.

My friend’s option reveals a notion that seems inevitable: there will be a republican reaction to the Queen’s visit. The threat however, is nullified, as the IRA “gets it wrong and assassinates Obama instead.” This is meant to reassure more than anything else. The fact that Obama is assassinated alludes more to the coincidental nature of his visit a week after the Queen than anything else. It is the IRA who are the focus here. They aren’t even competent enough to get the dates right. That is to say they would if they could but they can’t. They may try something, but they are an impotent force in Irish social life. The message here is that the hardliners are still around, but that their cause means nothing, or has nothing worthwhile to contribute. It is as if their getting the dates wrong indicates that they are not even bothered with the cause anymore, and that the cause is a hollow one. The basic message, then, is to expect some hostile reaction, but not to take it too seriously.

There is another element to my friend’s never-realised ambition for a Facebook group. It is as if we are trying to reassure ourselves. For is it not embedded within our own national narrative that Britain was our oppressor, a country that caused our people to starve, millions to emigrate, sad songs to be sung, and many a sorrows to be drowned? They are part of who we are. And so, because of all these stories we’ve been told, because of the fact that our mainstream narrative fills our history books in schools around the country with our struggle for independence against Britain, we are to be expected to harbour a little ill will, a kernel of hatred, towards a British monarch. What it does - “The awkward moment when the IRA forgets the dates and assassinate Obama instead ...” - is it reassures us that our own ill will is hollow and baseless, stupid and idiotic, misguided enough to get the dates wrong, even.

This attitude was itself borne out on national airwaves the day after the Queen arrived, with people noting that one of these rioters was wearing a Manchester United jersey, apparently revealing his lack of knowledge of the cause, the contradiction being that this person throwing objects at the Gardai in protest of the Queen’s visit - and thus in protest of Britain’s involvement in Irish affairs throughout our long shared history - was wearing the jersey of an English football team. But is this not an example of Zizek’s point that every fundamentalism grows out of genuine unrest stemming from a frustration at a lack of jobs or social mobility? The message of republicanism then comes secondary to the frustration felt by those who can see no silver lining.

The Awkward Moment When ...

Now, let’s look at what the two have in common. They both begin with the term, “The awkward moment when ...” This, more than anything else, elaborates upon the mood of the nation on the eve of the visit. What is an awkward moment but a clash of two incompatible things (things can mean anything here - people, concepts, etc.). This clash is usually irresolvable, but not threatening enough to cause this clash to actually happen. That is to say, there is a virtual clash, which is characterised by its lack of content. Thus, something is awkward always in a negative sense, a clash which suspends itself, a deadlock.

The mood on O’Connell St. on the day of her visit was just that, a deadlock, both in the physical sense and in the sense of this suspension of a clash. The Gardai had essentially closed off Dublin’s main street. Pedestrian traffic was limited and any other sort of transport was non-existent (apart from Garda cars and the Queen’s own cavalry, so to speak). The whole place was at a stand still. But there was also this feeling in the air, like everyone was holding their breadth, waiting to see what happened next.

I spoke to a workmate who had no interest in history, nor knew much about our shared history with Britain. He admitted feeling this tension in the air. There wasn’t much celebration on the streets, and there weren’t a huge amount out to see her. But it wasn’t like people weren’t happy to see her, nor that they were indifferent, nor angry even. There were a few rioters but, despite Sky News’ obsession with their antics, it really was minimal. Perhaps, if we accept the thesis that the second facebook group was a nullification of our own demons, then these few served as a sort of screen on which to project any latent aggressive tendencies the Queen’s visit might incite. They were few and easily dispersed, almost farcical, like when someone mixes up the dates, or the bomb threats that stayed that way. We knew they would. But what would’ve happened had there not been this outrageous, (impotent) violent element? Perhaps that was when the real trouble would have begun. Perhaps.

And perhaps those rioters were expressing genuine frustration, as mentioned. If so, then our dismissal of them takes an almost sinister tone. Perhaps even the fact that we can separate them from what is considered by some to be respectable Irish men and women goes some way towards this projection of our own anxieties upon those most disenfranchised within society, on these “thugs” as one texter into the Ray D’Arcy show on Today FM called them. But does this not serve as nothing less than a reinforcement of such distinctions within our society, and in a very real sense keep them disenfranchised? We can thus keep them at a distance, make them the demons upon which to project our own, middle class pathologies. And through this distancing between respectable society and the thugs we maintain the very structures which ensure such class disenfranchisement. We should dismiss the republican aspect of the rioting, for sure, but we should not dismiss the rioting itself.

Ireland’s Queen

The best way I can describe that day is simply that people didn’t know what to think. We, the middle class, the holders of the national narrative, were torn. It really was awkward. I remember a woman I work with went down to see the Queen’s car going by. She said afterwards that she wasn’t going to wave but, when it came to it, and the car was driving by, and she saw the Queen do her signature wave, she couldn’t but help herself. And this is what we all felt. I went home that evening and watched her stand silent for a moment in memory of our dead, and I couldn’t believe the sheer weight of such an act, how powerful it was. And the awkwardness lifted. And for a few days we became a nation of Queen-lovers, never ours and all the better for it, for we could claim her for those few days without any of the weight and ambiguity that your average British person must feel towards their ultimate symbol. We embraced this historical moment like we should have done. For the first time in a long time I can say (cynics and pessimists snarl at me all you want - I’d probably do the same, were I not the one feeling this) that I am proud to be Irish and that, in some sense, we seem to have grown up a little.

There has been a lot of work done over the years to end trauma of the past, still very much part of living memory up the North, and bring about a new relationship between our two countries. When in power Tony Blair apologised for the famine. In her speech in Dublin Castle, the Queen said that, with the benefit of hindsight, both our countries could have done things differently. One is straight forward. One is slightly ambiguous. Guess which meant more? That, coupled with a visit to Croke Park in which the Queen was not just shown around the stadium and told about our home grown national sports, but was also be shown where innocent Irish people were killed by British forces during the War of Independence - that was powerful. It cemented this visit as hugely symbolic, almost purely so, pointed and sharp in focus, but also layered with a vast swathe of history.

So why was Tony Blair’s direct admission of guilt by way of apology not considered (and should not be considered) as powerful an act of reconciliation as the Queen’s visit? Firstly, lets go with the obvious. It has been one hundred years since a monarch came to Ireland. There was no hope that such a visit was not going to be historic in some sense of the word. Then there is the fact that she is the Queen of England. In his defense of monarchy, Hegel puts forward the notion that the absolute of monarchy creates stability in society by becoming this focal point of decisive action, not just the seal on the institutions of a society, but the seal on society itself, establishing the bonds that hold it together. Now, we do not live in such a society and, it has to be said, neither do most Britons in the sense of having an absolute monarch. However, there society is one that has a national narrative in which, though diluted throughout the ages, the remnants of the notion of the monarchy as the pinnacle of British life still remain. She is their symbol, their diluted social seal. When she acts, she embodies the will of the country.

Now, obviously this is “just” symbolism. All this has been diluted throughout our postmodern era, hasn’t it? Well, perhaps it has been for most Britons, and perhaps she isn’t the symbol she once was. But when she came over here she resumed that role. She was truly a Queen, truly the pure will of Britain. Even the republicans attest to this in their protests. Perhaps this is because of our distance from Britain (both in terms of culture and also history) that we have abstracted the British monarch to this point. Or perhaps it is a mixture of such a distance with a close proximity to Britain, as we watch from the outside, through their magazines and Television shows. Or, romantically, perhaps we remember collectively a time when a Queen or King was that sort of being, back when they ruled us, back when they oppressed us, back when ...

Perhaps we elevated her to a symbol, an idealised monarch, a sort of in memorium for an age gone by, for a lost empire, even. And it was through this symbolism that something happened, and we could feel it happening. This, ladies and gentlemen, was an Act, with a capital ‘A’.

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