By Eithne Hogan
There’s an old saying in marketing and sales: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” In this specific approach to sales, advertisers and those involved in the sales pitch of the market are encouraged to appeal to the consumers’ emotions, be entertaining and keep the message clipped and trimmed because in this our day of the shortening sound-bite, no one really has the time to read anything substantial or totally sink their teeth into unseemly or unnecessary grizzly fat. The basic idea is that if your ads stand out for their sizzling originality, you will get the customers to eat more steak but more desirably you will get the customers to buy into your product and only desire your particular cut or portion of meat.
So what on earth has steak got to do with politics? And for those already in the know, why on earth am I using an already overused analogy of the sizzle and steak approach in consumerist advertising? Here’s why. Because I have found that this marketing hype and strategy is an implicit if not a consciously selected feature of some of the articles I have been reading recently about the coalition created government spun Irish recovery. This already cooked recovery has been nicely prepared and packaged in that strategic field where politics and media interact, our guaranteed Irish main-stream media and discourse. It has been selectively sealed and seasoned by many collaborators including independently minded Brendan O’ Connor with the added ingredients of our erstwhile labour TD Joanna Tuffy. But this whipped up sizzle and splash approach is not the only ingredient in the recipe demonstrated in this particular cuisine. This rigid rump – whether you like it well done, medium rare or red raw and oozingly bloody – additionally carries with it a hint of Euphemania, a sprinkle of rhetorical inversion while served up on the cold stone face of manipulated statistics, downright denial and nebulous improbability. In effect, the sensations of the sizzle are amplified to such a degree that the practicalities and realities of the steak and what it constitutes are lost in the turbulence of swirl.
I’ll move away from the steak and my indulgences shortly. And I apologise in advance for this linguistic feasting. But the struggling-to-be-free consumer in me is strongly resisting the fine-tuned media weave of how Ireland has finally turned the corner of recession. The voice in the web is telling me that if I and others are only willing to optimistically grasp the harder edge of the brick on the perimeter wall of recession, and dare to peek around the corner; as purveyor of this new vision, we will bear witness to a “stunningly” panoramic view of the small but “central”, “real” and “grassroots” steps of toddler economy and patchy growth. Or as Brendan exclaims in his Sunday Independent article, if only those who are fearful allow themselves embrace the herald’s good news and tidings:
“Just as there was a time where we became very adept at filtering out and ignoring any negative signs of the economy,” [in the boom], “now we seem to have developed the opposite trait, where we are able to ignore any good news.”[In the recovery.]
Brendan portrays negative attitudes toward the economy and its current state as fear-based and psychological. The attitude to the economy is deemed the problem not the economy itself. He explains that our cultural conditioning of doom and gloom of late has led us to both deny the boom as a chimera “we were wrong to buy into” and the recovery as “life creeping back” with uneven and patchy moves. The crux of his hypothesis therefore hinges on the premise that even without presenting statistics or facts, our attitude has become so divorced and disconnected from the figures we meet, we will still perceive the negative because we have been conditioned to do so – and even he, as he admits is prone to disbelieve the “stellar” changes happening in the night skies of his and Ireland’s economic and therefore real-world landscape. This stellar luminosity is mirrored in the economic toddler steps on the ground where according to Brendan, “many people are actually feeling the recovery in their pockets”.
And sure isn’t that what we’ve all been waiting for since the 2008 inimitable crash? Isn’t it?
Aren’t we waiting for real change?
[Sic expected ambiguity]
So now that we have the sense of sizzle. Now, I think we should call in the steak.
Well actually no. We won’t. Not just yet. I’m afraid we have a little bit of sizzle left to spin. Because I do agree with Brendan in one thing. We are being culturally conditioned. And to be fair, his article is but one of many complicit in this conditioning. The dissemination of thoughts here is becoming more and more pervasive and persuasive. And sometimes the effect of well-rehearsed repetition can bring with it belief. On air, on-line and in text – both in audio and visual media, repeated positives are propounded. Those of us who are recovery objectors are classified as behaving irrationally and emotionally. Our faculty for reasoning and logic is conveniently judged disjointed and out of kilter with practical on the ground economics and therefore with real life.
Consequently, some of us will smell and desire this sizzle while some of us will feel the appeal but see the steak for what it is. Obviously, these are of course my considered observations. Observations based on evidence I will discuss shortly.
Cui bono from this illustrious enterprise? Perhaps the current coalition, if perceived as the rescuers will up the ante on their position in the forthcoming election, if enough of the electorate believe this sizzling narrative? Maybe the supporters of FG and Labour in particular in the face and potential of the sheer unknown prefer the comfortable position of the status quo to the sirens and sounds of change ringing loudly in the air about their ears? Who knows? These are of course my perceptions, but hopefully they are rooted in the physical world around me and not in the chimera of the night sky. I perceive this sizzle and appeal as an attempt to lead us into the false security and comfort zone of pre-electoral pre-budget euphemistic recovery. It is an attempt to make us believe our attitude, our perception, and our heartfelt intuition is misled and misinformed and is at a disjuncture, completely divorced from the true and authentic Irish political experience. It is an attempt to tell us we are imbalanced in our observations and pointed in the wrong direction in our political trajectory and journey. Since where you currently believe yourself to be will inevitably determine the direction in which you go, unless you are presented with the steak or less/more appealing sizzle of a new narrative. It is an attempt to bring these perceptions, well-grounded in rational thought and fact compounded by an abundance of empirical experience and the real lives and accounts of people into the mystical spin of cultivated and controlled statistics and furthermore into the fairy-tale land of our current mediated coalition politics.
It is a chimera we are being encouraged to buy into.
It is the land of make believe.
It is not an attempt to shield us from harm. It is an attempt to shield us from the truth.
And this is where the politics of inversion and the use of euphemism come in to play.
We are living in a time of what could be classified as managed democracy. In 2003, philosopher Sheldon Wolin described the United States as increasingly turning into what he called an ‘illiberal democracy’. According to this model and system, illiberal democracy is in essence a form of inverted totalitarianism. This may sound overtly critical and a harsh indictment of affairs when transferred to the Irish situation but listen carefully to the nuances of the description, and most importantly, apply this description to the factual indisputable happenings and events presently occurring in Irish society.
“In inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism”.
Think Irish Gas. Think Oil. Think forestry and fishing. Think Aer Lingus. Think Bus Éireann. Think about what is happening in the HSE and the shifting transformation into agency employment and contractual engagements. Think about the awareness of all purposefully underfunded projects and the exploitation of public services, health and even education. Think privatisation. Think water…
Think about your free speech and the new bills slipping in under the convenient truth [and undeniable wrongdoing] of cyber bullying. Think the “Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015”. Think political policing. Think about the word power. Why? Because it is not the citizenry who ultimately hold the power to define what is offensive, that is, not in the effective legal world which administers justice for these selected acts. Warranted, there are circumstances where slander, libel, verbal abuse, name calling, threats, taunts, jeering, sneering, ridiculing, and uncalled-for criticism can be objectively defined and I do not condone this behaviour but I equally agree with the blogger who differentiates between something being subjectively offensive and being objectively harmful. I also agree that the legislation pursued confuses the two types of behaviour especially in Section 3 and consequently is dangerously and potentially maliciously bringing us deeper into the unchartered ground of total authoritarian dictates, Irish style. The balance of actions and behaviours leans too greatly toward subjective responses to offensive actions and renders the bill, in my opinion as flawed and ill-conceived – irrespective of whether this is the intent of its design. In its imbalance, it tends toward the all-encompassing or even single behavioural act without scale or degree of build-up and that inexactitude is potentially combustive.
Regarding the subjective leaning in the Bill/Act, and a valid view that must be considered is the blogger’s assertion that: “We can’t draw up laws based on how sensitive people are to the views of others, apart from anything else, such a law would probably be found repugnant to Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution: Freedom of Speech. We can’t legislate based on how unstable an individual’s personality is, how badly they desire to be insulted or how deeply disordered they might be.” In reality, there is an abundance of cyber communications that could fall into this category. Who therefore classifies? Who categorises? Who in effect criminalises?
As the blogger states and we must at least consider this interpretation, without necessarily agreeing with it: “the thickness of my skin is not a measure of your criminality.” In some cases, he suggests, “Offence is not given. It is taken.”
THE FATE OF DEMOCRACY
In his book, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism”, Wolin portrays a country where “citizens are politically uninterested and submissive – and where elites are eager to keep them that way. At best the nation has become a “managed democracy” where the public is shepherded, not sovereign. At worst it is a place where corporate power no longer answers to state controls. Wolin makes clear that today’s America [just insert Ireland] is in no way morally or politically comparable to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, yet he warns that unchecked economic power risks verging on total power and has its own unnerving pathologies. Wolin examines the myths and mythmaking that justify today’s politics, the quest for an ever-expanding economy, and the perverse attractions of an endless war on terror. He argues passionately that democracy’s best hope lies in citizens themselves learning anew to exercise power at the local level.”
That book written in 2003 in the context of its portrayal of the political sphere has transformed in some ways over the passing years to 2015. The conflicts and tensions, certainly in Ireland and obvious across Europe and the US, show the elite are having a difficult job of management and control. As corporations are avariciously vying for their chunk of the economic pie and ALL of a nation’s resources; transition from the stereotypical image of sleepy, passive citizen sheeple to vigilant and judiciously awakened observers has accelerated in pace and is accentuated by these changelings’ increasing engagement with political activity. The description of docility and passivity of the Irish citizenry is no longer an easy fit. With demands for authentic participation in democracy and power emanating from the citizens themselves; these varied groupings of the populace have literally and metaphorically taken to the streets and now describe themselves as an awakened and risen people. These people are substantially growing in number.
A SPRINKLE OF COERCION
Brendan, however, views this situation differently. He certainly implies that it is of ultimate importance that the freedom of speech is a democratic imperative and remains so and without hesitance I agree with him there. This freedom is a complex issue when one attempts to separate and differentiate between what is classified as seditious, harmful, hate-speech or obscenities and what is regarded as fruitful, constructive, collaborative, positive or productive. Sometimes this depends on what side of the fence you are standing on or which rung you cling onto on the economic and/or corporate ladder – that is, if you are even anywhere in reach of the ladder to begin with. This complexity of determining freedom adds the counter claims of censorship and the need to protect the holistic human rights of the individual and collective in society when weighed against the considerations of the security of the individual or state etc. etc. Countries differ in approach to manage this. The more authoritarian country as we know will enforce overt government censorship.
While theoretically under the EU convention of human rights, we are informed that “the freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected”; we all know that that is not the case in the real world of Ireland since whoever owns the media, ultimately owns the voice [power]. Or at a minimum filters and channels the voice. There will of course be token diversity and acceptable lenience but always within the realm of acceptable discourse. Never wholesale. Never unaccounted for. Never without some scrutiny or with allowance of so much as a whisper whistling its way in totally or liberally unscreened. And this of course is the ‘battleground’ of media space with its crisis for the journalist’s understood but unenviable maintenance of personal integrity in expression and thought. That is of course where journalists feel pulled or torn by their partisan positioning.
So I find it spectacular, when Brendan inverts the natural perception of this media-controlled world to become a world and stage where he is “verboten” to speak his thoughts on Ireland’s recovery despite the fact that the article he is writing is in one of the country’s most referred to mainstream locations of limited and restricted space and where he cleverly separates the equally mediated world of TV, creating an argument between his public and private world. No. Brendan in his grievance asserts that “anyone who dares to air this view [about the recovery] in any public space, like on a TV discussion show, will quickly be shot down as being out of touch with the so-called “ordinary people” who are all “struggling.” But ironically, when he takes this view into the ‘private’ zone of his personal newspaper space; he can express his opinion completely. Without restriction. Without sanction or censor.
And I’m wondering. Are all opinions so freely accepted into this our nation’s sanctuary and comfort zone? Have we not experienced the mediated world of a public TV show with expected and timed applause overshadowed by the axe of the editor?
Just a question…
Ambiguously slipping into terms of Germanic prohibition and for some reason morphing into the German tongue, we are informed by Brendan that he is the victim of persecution and [overtly German?] silencing outside the company’s office. Perhaps this was a dash of innocent wit or sarcasm or maybe there lies within the implications of something more ‘sinister’ in his chosen vernacular. Whatever the writer’s intent, the outcome and impact is where a nationally identified place of restricted thought for the majority of the populace becomes a personal space and location of conservative sanctuary and the unfettered liberation of free speech for him. Here, Brendan is safe from the attacks and censorship of the Aengus O Snodaighs or other Sinn Fein “misery junkies” of the world as referred to by our supporter of the recovery, Ms Joanna Tuffy – whom Brendan with conservative charismatic chivalry defends. Both our poor sufferers appear to be the victims of a ruthless authoritarian censorship, made up of those dictators in the totalitarian and authoritarian public space who for some reason are deserving of the Germanic turn of phrase rather than the simple use of the word forbidden.
In Brendan’s analysis, we are reminded that employment is growing “across nearly all sectors”, not just for smart, young tech graduates; also in the “bread and butter sectors” which include construction and manufacturing. It is stated that these industries are the bread and butter of the local economy.
Amongst other prominent Irish and European economists, Michael Hennigan, editor of Finfacts declares in his article of 5 August 2015, “Fact and Fiction”: Ireland’s economic statistics are “heavily distorted by the foreign-owned multinational sector and the level of distortions have increased in recent years.” He continues this assessment by offering examples of how this distortion occurs; examples that are far beyond the scope of this article to sufficiently cover. But I would go as far as to state that he offers a credible slant on the manner in which statistics can be manipulated to suit the needs of the promoter of these numbers when desirable. And remember, this discussion is not so much a dialogue to delve laboriously through these economic interpretations or sword fight at dawn with honour-defending numbers…
So hands up. Here and now I express my financial analytical limitations. However, although I am not a learned or expert economist and would never dare pretend to be; I can however look around me enough to know that from mine and many other people’s vista in Ireland; we do not share the O’Connor or the Tuffy view.
Consequently, we are obviously not standing on the same balcony.
Furthermore, Hennigan contests that: “The national accounts data was issued with no material caveats and also last week, the Central Bank noted in its latest quarterly Bulletin that “the high rates of growth in exports and imports in the monthly trade data suggest that some of the impact of contract manufacturing may have carried over into the early part of 2015. Our working assumption continues to be that this represents a step increase in the level of exports and imports and not a lasting upward shift in their growth rates.”
The Bank had warned in February of the distortions caused to 2014 GDP (gross domestic product) by so-called “contract manufacturing” which involves booking overseas transactions in Ireland, mainly for tax avoidance purposes. A month later the CSO said in a technical note that considerable comment had attributed “undue significance” to the matter and it was “not particularly significant in explaining the recent growth in Irish GDP.”
Enda Kenny, Taoiseach, in a speech in March 2015 said in respect of the 2014 trade performance that “export growth at 12.6% was the strongest since 2001” — of course political distortion is different to economic impact but it does matter when ministers confuse spin or lying with substance.” [Michael Hennigan.]
Hennigan also cites that the manner in which you measure statistics affects the outcome or desired result of your findings:
During Ireland’s international bailout (2010-2013), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its surveillance reports used what is termed a “broad” rate of unemployment similar to what has been produced by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics since 1994. In June 2015, the US rate was 10.5% compared with the main rate of 5.3%.
In April 2013 the IMF said: “the underemployment rate in Ireland stands at a staggering 23%” — which included part-time employees seeking full-time work and the unemployed in what the CSO term “Live Register Activation Schemes.” In that month the total number in schemes amounted to 86,000 people.
Combine these 86,000 people with the number of Irish emigrants including the “smart, young tech graduates” Brendan refers to that make up the figure of 80,900 and then rethink the presentation and substance of the argument Brendan and Joanna groupthink offer.
The Central Statistics Office says 69,300 people came here in the 12 months to the end of April 2015.
That is up more than 8,500 on the previous year.
The data has also recorded a slight drop in emigration.
80,900 people emigrated in the year to the end of April this year – that figure is down by 1,000 on the previous 12 month period.
The figures bring the estimated population of Ireland to 4,635,400 – a population increase of 25,800 compared to April 2014.
Ponder the word slight. Now add the total of emigrants to the total number of participants on “Live Register Activation Schemes” and we get the grand old figure of 166,900. Also consider the incoming figure of 69,300. Look at the population increase. Count the jobs and share them out. Think problem. Think big problem. Think government reaction. Think authentic solution. Think sizzle. Think spin.
But most importantly, what do you think? Well, for my part, I believe transparency, honesty and an accurate view of unemployment or any issue impacting the wellbeing of society would be a far better approach toward confronting and the process of solving than the unproductive immoral reaction of burying your head in the sand and falling into the trap of convenient myth and comforting distractions. It is in fact a most heinous crime, if the perpetrator is consciously aware and complicit.
[Additionally, I should add I was never an ace at maths. But exposing the rationale behind the manipulation of figures and deciphering the psychology underpinning this practice is a critical and essential activity. Asking who benefits bears more consequence for our real lives and decision-making capabilities than continuing to cloak the disintegrating skeleton in the finance department’s cupboard or even in Enda’s office. Future-proofed understanding of how society and politics function holds much more relevance for society than someone suggestively swinging a calculator above our heads demanding us to press yet again a different set of buttons to fix a newer set of recovery based distortions. Even these statistics belong in the geometry set of euphemism…]
“These euphemisms have become very handy for masking anxieties but also for surrounding our financial transactions with verbal fog.” [Ralph Keyes]
In recent decades, we have been inundated with the use of economic euphemisms e.g.: challenging economic environment (recession) non-performing assets (bad loans), downward adjustment (losses), substantial write-offs (big losses), profitability was reduced (more losses), negative growth (they shrink), all of these alongside a plethora of other examples. Our current turn of phrase in Ireland is that we must now call the economy in downturn a recovering economy or simply the recovery for short. What is the outcome? “In this way, we can abolish the business cycle merely by changing the words we use. Macroeconomic planning then becomes very easy. Instead of seeking results, we need merely to change our language.” [Euphemania: Show Me the Liquidity, Jeffrey Tucker]
SALES OF CARS AND HOME IMPROVEMENTS
Tuffy and O’ Connor both cite increases and sales of cars and money spent on home improvements as definite signs of recovery creeping back in to Ireland. Sales of cars apparently increased by “48pc in July of this year” while home improvements increased by “32pc”. In neither of these examples are we offered a breakdown or differentiation between cash sales and sales financed by credit or loans. This division, if offered, would speak volumes about real spending power and real recovery. The difference is far from minor.
In their entirety, neither Joanna nor Brendan’s assessments adequately discuss the dreaded deficit word or the continued upward trajectory of our national debt. They might consider the following appetiser to temper their eagerness to sell us their line or feed:
“Nevertheless, Ireland’s national debt (2015) still lay on an upwards trajectory, because of a continued deficit, primarily because of the low relative productivity of Ireland’s high levels of public expenditure, alongside a market-competitive private and FDI sector as evidenced by the Irish private sector’s high rankings in many world competitiveness indexes, such as those of the World Bank, and others.” Here, we are advised that “the key to a country’s economic recovery and the restoration of financial normalcy is the stabilisation of the National Debt.” [www.financedublin.com]
Euphemistic language when utilised politically, not only carries with it the danger of hindering communication. Euphemism fogs and clouds thought. Well and good if this is the intention of advertising and misleading customers. Consumers largely expect this sales pitch and buffoonery and work through their resistance to its seduction over time. Or in some people’s case, by design or unawareness they just don’t… But in relation to politics and running a country, I would contend that the continuing habit of concealing the facts in this unconscious, covert or overt manner promotes the muddled thinking that created the problems to begin with and also recreates the loop of what causes collapse in the first place. This muddled thought and ideology when subsumed into economic euphemism is at its worse in the political sphere since this sphere permeates and impacts on the very fabric and structures of a nation’s health, life and ultimate wellbeing. It is not difficult then to identify and determine a sick or broken system or structure or see the signs and live the symptoms of a total systemic failure. We will observe this already dead system desperately using all conceivable measures to hang on to the skeletal remains of its own demise.
This is why Brendan’s reference to the homelessness crisis as a problem is a reckless avoidance. This is why referring to unemployment as a current problem is thoughtlessly counterproductive and damaging. This is why alluding to the issue of emigration as a problem is irresponsibly regressive. This is why the convenient omission of the savage approach and legal mechanisms inherent in our eviction crisis in Ireland and how these people feed into homelessness is also a negligent avoidance and action. For far from being a positive move in supporting current policy and combatting euphemistic governmental trends, the use of euphemism and foggy thought more than simply degrades clarity. Transparent unequivocal truth about the economy is what our nation needs right now and preferably at all times. Though I am admittedly idealistically naïve to conceive this state of affairs would ever be possible in a world determined to model itself on the values of competition, survival-of-the-fittest, and an explicitly aggressive ever-expanding need for profit.
But at least we go some way toward it as a nation! As a democratic nation, we need this government to ditch the spin. We need them to slash the sizzle. We should demand that they must fess up and burn the rusty cauldron this recovery is concocted in. Because it is what it is and it should be honestly addressed. But no. The powers that be in Éire insist on holding up a different tin. They insist on fabricating their own words on the tin. So it does not do what it says on the tin. This act and scripting is so out-dated with such unnecessary sophistry that at first the words may seem clever and witty but instead they are critically damaging our ability as a nation and democracy to think our way through the hard years ahead with our positivity and optimism properly and accurately located in a proactive and preparing society. As citizens, we must demand a society that works its way through current crises and problems with the lucid candour and frankness that our country and its people deserve.
That is where our positivity and assertiveness lies.
We are not a public full of misery junkies. We do not look to the chimera of the night skies while avoiding the earth beneath our feet. Our positivity, hope and optimism lies in the ability to stand resolutely on the earth with the soil firmly beneath our feet-where seeing the stars or dreaming our dreams is not negated or excluded from our vision. Our positivity and hope and optimism enable us to hold on tightly to the edge of our dreams and our visions and not surrender them to the dustbin, sidewalk or coffin of long-term and enduring austerity and pain. Some of us have already lost this battle, their lives and hopes and dreams never to be recovered. Our positivity and optimism lies in respecting and honouring their souls. Our positivity lies in the realisation that we can change things. Our positivity our optimism and our hope exists in the eyes of our loved ones and in what we desire and plan for our children and our grandchildren. Our positivity will reel these visions in as required and requested and in the light of a new dawn, with a new eye to the task ahead, with lucid and democratic innovation our positivity and our hope will collectively start our day afresh.
For now it is time to fully sense the sizzle and know the steak.
Or simply said, in alignment with a Russian proverb:
It is better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.
And above all this: when we collectively learn to recover our democracy, with the false destructive divisions of ruler/ruled released, we will have stepped into the light of a true recovery. And within that truer more authentic recovery, we will meet the social structure of a free, democratic society, where this resilient and continuous dynamic creates the psychological conditions for its greater internal peace.