Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Miss California shows us that we don't really care what people have to say.

If you wanted to hear some well-articulated views on a contentious social issue, a beauty pageant probably wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of venue. The cliché of the vacuous but well-meaning beauty queen hopeful who wishes for an end to world hunger is a well-worn one. Few expect such women to express real opinions, but to pander to the judges by recycling contrived platitudes about peace and love. But what happens when an aspiring beauty queen actually does give a genuinely heart-felt opinion?

Miss California, Carrie Prejean, found out for herself at the Miss USA competition last Sunday when she was asked by one of the judges whether she thought all the states should legalise gay marriage. Her reply - that she felt marriage should be between a man and a woman - likely cost firm favorite Prejean the crown, with one judge commenting: “The judges were really against her, they were bothered by her answer.” And then, unsurprisingly, the vitriol began spew forth. Like some petulant child who hadn’t gotten his way, gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who posed the gay marriage question, quickly branded her a “dumb bitch” on his blog.

Unbelievably though, Hilton claimed that it was not her views on gay marriage that annoyed him, but her supposedly divisive answer, saying that he “would have appreciated it had she left her politics and her religion out, because Miss USA represents all Americans.” Excuse me, leave her politics out? But was she not asked a straight forward question to which she gave an honest answer? The blogger also complained that her answer “alienated millions of gay and lesbian Americans, their families and their supporters.” If he is indeed concerned with representing all Americans, presumably Hilton would also have been indignant if the contestant had “alienated” millions of fundamentalist Christians with a pro-gay marriage answer.


Look, the issue here isn’t whether gay marriage should or shouldn’t be legalised, but the intolerance shown by supposedly liberal people to view points which don’t match their own. I mean, why ask the poor girl if there is only one answer which is acceptable? Do we want to actually talk about contentious issues like gay marriage or just bully people who don’t subscribe to a certain outlook? It seems even more mean-spirited and frankly hypocritical to shun Miss California so readily when you consider that only 30 per cent of Americans even support the right of gays to marry. But this, of course, is disregarded, because in the politically correct age dissent from a particularly rigid liberal view is not tolerated. In Ireland it is no different.

Only last Tuesday, on TV3’s Midday show, the controversial subject of embryonic stem cell research was tackled with precious little attempt at balance or presenting conflicting viewpoints. The parents of a child born blind were guests on the show to discuss their moving story and their plans to seek non-embryonic umbilical stem cell treatment in China. Senator David Norris joined them to argue why we should allow embryonic research and expressed his concern over the “smooth-talking, dangerous, sophisticated people” who oppose the practice.

Then presenter Alan Cantwell made it clear how it felt about the issue by referring to that “crackpot, loony crowd in Youth Defence”. And to top off the “minutiae of the pros and cons” - as the show was risibly described - Martin King weighed-in in favour by rhetorically asking “why shouldn’t we allow it?”. So there you have it: not a single person on the show who was clearly opposed to the issue. Wow, what a balanced and reasoned discussion indeed. Ironically though, the show’s other presenter, Colette Fitzpatrick, had the biggest insight of the entire show when she remarked on how immature we are in this country when it comes to such debates. Yes, we are, and her show on Tuesday was a perfect example of that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Not so gr8 - how text speak became the language of love

Picture the familiar scene: the lights are low and the air is oven-hot, the music loud enough to make your eardrums bleed. Wave after wave of drunken pub-goers crowd the dance floor like ants over a melted ice cream cone in June. Then, out of the corner your eye, you see her. Struggling to remain vertical in her six-inch heels, she could be trying to ice-skate on stilts, but to you at that moment she is most beautiful creature you have ever seen. And, joy oh joy, she’s walking - just about - towards you.

After screaming pleasantries into one another’s unfortunate ears – and after permanent hearing loss is assured for the both of you - you share a not quite magical kiss (say, a little more ‘Night of the Living Dead’ than ‘Sleepless in Seattle’). The night draws to a close and you make your way home with a name and phone number, the promising seeds of a second meeting.

The standard procedure then is to send a casual text message to your pub princess, to which you will often receive a reply in ‘text speak’ so impenetrable that it could have been written by a blind, fingerless chimpanzee. Whole sentences can be boiled down into short acronyms, punctuation can be as scarce as water in the Sahara and vowels seemingly become unnecessary. What is worrying about this often bewildering lexicon, though, is that it isn’t used simply for convenience sake when other forms of communication are impractical, but has become an integral part of the process of meeting and getting to know people. Texting is not just a handy way to arrange a meeting or express a quick sentiment; it has become a conversational tool in itself. As a device, however, it is utterly inadequate for expressing any sort of real emotion or opinion.


Due to the way they are constructed, I could have the same text ‘conversation’ with a thousand different people and never know the difference. The same inane stock questions and phrases make up the majority of texts, meaning that one never has to think about what they are actually saying.

An expression such as ‘RALMAO’ (Rolling around laughing my ass off) may as well be meaningless because all it does is allow the speaker to avoid actually expressing how, in this case, funny something is. And yet, this is how so many guys and gals get to know one another during the early stages of dating. How could one ever decide if they wanted to see someone again in real life based on a few hundred characters in a text?

Then, of course, there is the very real possibility of misinterpretation. With no tone of voice to refer to, sarcasm and irony don’t translate so well, and while this is also true of something like email, people don’t rely on it anywhere near as much for flirting or long conversations. An apparently playful remark to a girl or guy of your fancy can end up sounding rude or even downright offensive, leaving you having to make it up to someone you barely even know.

And, for the love of God, if you have to text, always, always double-check whose name is highlighted when you press ‘send’. I once heard of a guy who (so he thought) text his best friend worried about whether he should tell his girlfriend about his illicit shenanigans with someone else. The best friend and girlfriend’s names shared a few letters in common. Needless to say, the text wasn’t sent to the right person and someone got dumped. I guess that was one text message, at least, that was pretty hard to misinterpret.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cuts foolishly ignored in favour of tax hikes

The budgetary storm has finally hit and the news isn’t overly comforting for young people looking for work for the first time. The government has decided that tax increases – euphemistically termed ‘income levies’ – rather than cuts in spending, will provide the bulk of revenue needed to fill the hole in the exchequer. The danger here is that a reduction in people’s spending power will exacerbate the downturn and result in further job losses.

More than anything, those coming from college into a job-starved economy such as myself would have wished for a budget that went some way towards improving their work prospects. There are few indications of this budget doing just that. A reduction in PRSI contributions for employers, for example, was absent and a work experience placement scheme for 2,000 graduates, while welcome, was limited in scope.

To his credit, Brian Lenihan at least acknowledged yesterday that our tax base is too narrow and needs an overhaul. However, while increased taxes will raise an estimated extra €3.6 billion, his budget has once again failed to deal with the government’s astronomical levels of spending.

With not far off 400,000 people on the dole, there is simply no excuse for continuing to shelter the public service from redundancies and wage cuts. This isn’t a matter of fairness or private sector resentment, but of fiscal reality. We no longer have the number of tax-paying private sector workers needed to foot a public pay bill of €20 billion. It is utterly illogical for the public service to remain its present size when the economy has shrunk so drastically.

There is little political will to tackle this, however, so instead the government has turned to trying to tax our way out of this economic abyss – a risky process.

Perhaps surprisingly, the dole – aside from the December bonus and payments for under-twenties – was left untouched. For a great many vulnerable people, especially those with families, this will come as a huge relief. However, for a single person without a mortgage or children such as myself, a modest cut in line with deflation would have been quite reasonable. This saving could he been better spent on retaining the full early child payment, for example, which was slashed by half.

One of the most dramatic elements of the budget is undoubtedly the decision to half dole payments to under-twenties to €100. The rationale behind this drastic cut is to encourage younger people into training and keep school-leavers out of the dole queue. While ensuring the dole is not an attractive option has some merit, the degree by which it was cut was absurd. Living on such a meagre payment would be beyond difficult. And, more to the point, just what jobs exactly would these people be training for?

We need hope from the budget

Clichés are used all the time to side-step debate and reinforce lazy assumptions, but some, at least, have truth in them. Anyone too young to remember the 1980s must now surely have the odious phrase “you have never had it so good” ringing very loudly in their ears. It was a sentiment we were raised on, readily deployed by our parents or superiors whenever we complained too much or languished in self-pity. But it was, at least in many ways, true.

Until the house of cards (or should it be of ‘houses’?) came crashing down, the Irish had come to regard low taxes and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world as a given. This was the world a student could expect to live and work in after college. Whatever disappointments we encountered along the way, there was always the promise that, out in ‘the real world’, things would be better for us than previous generations. Now, for the first time in a long time, this is no longer the case.

In May, I walked out of a university lecture theatre for the last time and in September I graduated. Life since then has held both the sweet taste of opportunity and the sombre feeling of the loss of it. Days before my last exam I was offered what, as an aspiring journalist, was a dream job in a national newspaper. Then in November I was let go and the term ‘recession’ became more to me than just a word that endlessly filled newspaper headlines. For a while, I bumbled between temporary jobs like some directionless daddy long-legs, before eventually biting the bullet and paying a visit to my local dole office.

When you sign-on for the first time you lose many of your preconceptions about social welfare and its recipients. Suddenly you are aware that it isn’t just the lazy or the apathetic that collect the dole, it is also people who have no other choice. By the end of this year, up to 70,000 people with hard-earned third level qualifications will be among those who don’t have a choice. It would be foolish and arrogant to suggest that recent graduates and those about to graduate are hurting more than most at the moment – for the most part we don’t have other mouths to feed or mortgages to pay.

Nonetheless, as a graduate it is hard to escape a feeling of disillusionment with what we are to inherit. On our road to the world of work we were nourished on two, now hollow-seeming, principles: firstly, that western civilisation is ever-progressing, and that every new generation is better off than the previous one.

And secondly, despite whatever obstacles you may face, if you work hard you will succeed in life. Nice ideas, indeed, but what is the point of studying for three or four years only to be told, as I was in a certain fast food outlet, that even flipping burgers is a job which is out your reach. Most people don’t expect a free ride or an easy passage, but unless there is ladder there for people to try and climb, hopelessness is inevitable. Whatever measures Mr. Cowen and company propose tomorrow, they must at least leave people – graduates or otherwise - with the sense that shaping their own destiny is within their power. Feelings of powerlessness will only serve to prolong this mess.

But despite it all, there is reason for some optimism. Remember that irritating phrase about never having it so good? The expression was coined in 1957 in a speech celebrating the success of Britain’s post-war economy by the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. If there was truth in that expression in the wake of the most horrific war the world has ever seen, then surely we can get through this current economic nightmare. In time, I’m sure there will once again be good reason to drive young people mad with that infuriating refrain: “you have never had it so good”.