Responses to Myers on single parents

February 9th, 2005 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

I’ve got a letter in tomorrow’s Irish Times, but somehow I feel little satisfaction. It’s one of many written in response to this column by Kevin Myers. So strong has the general response been that the Irish Times has had to turn over its entire page to the issue – and none of the letters defend Myers.

I’m an occasional letter writer to papers, generally in response to previous content, and from time to time my stuff gets published. Usually this is gratifying, as I feel I’m contributing to a debate, and to be honest it’s nice to see your name in print. On this occasion, though, I was so upset by the tone of the column that responding seemed a duty rather than an indulgence.

So what did Myers write? Building on recent comments by Edward Walsh, former president of the University of Limerick, about single parents and state supports, Myers generated a series of obnoxious insults of single parents, their children and those who have disagreed with Walsh. While he pretended to engage with the topic, the column was little but an excuse for his nasty self-important [I’m sorry, I’m lost for sufficiently strong adjectives and nouns here].

Anyhow, since the Times operates behind a firewall, below the ‘fold’ I’ve included the text of my letter (as submitted – it was lightly edited for publication) and Myers’ columns – both the first and the apology. I should warn you that Myers’ column is truly odious, so feel free to pass by without experiencing it.

Oh, and credit where due: I became aware of the issue thanks to a press release from Labour Party senator Michael McCarthy.

And finally, the Irish Times has an editorial on the issue of the ‘on the one hand’ ‘on the other’ variety that I usually expect to see in the Daily Illini. The IT is never strong on editorials – they tend to be the most juvenial 250-500 words in the paper in content and style – and this raises slightly above average in attempting to grapple with an issue, but fails in trying to hue to hard to a middle line. Have I mentioned I hate liberalism?

My letter:
A Chara,

There seem to be two types of newspaper columnists. There are those who try to grapple honestly with a pressing social issue, attempting to persuade their audience to join them in engaging with the topic, stimulating thought on often complex issues. Then there are those who feed on controversy and insult, who in their own minds are ‘contrarians’ speaking truth to power, though so often they actually direct their oh-so-clever barbs at the not-so-powerful members of society. Members of this latter group mistake controversy for debate and insult for insight.

The latest piece from Kevin Myers (8 February) is a particularly egregious example of the latter class. Not only does he use the term ‘bastard’ – and follow it with the classy “You didn’t like the term bastard? No, I didn’t think you would.” – but he later talks of “cash-crop whelping.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard the verb whelp used to refer to human activity – and numerous dictionaries inform me that it is particularly associated with dogs, wolves and other carnivores. And of course there’s the casual misogyny of presuming opponents to be caught in a “schoolgirl swamp.”

I presume that Myers will see complaints about his column as proof that he is stimulating debate – all while laughing at those upset by his nasty rhetoric. Some people will carefully call on the voluminous evidence available to refute his ‘arguments.’ I do not care to do so. There is undoubtedly room, as with any element of social policy, for debate – even robust debate – as to the merits of any particular approach. However the minimum we must expect is that those taking part in such debate demonstrate a minimum level of respect for those who will be subject to such policy, and a recognition of our shared humanity.

There are many people who could provide such useful, informed input on important topics, controversial or not, in your opinion columns. Indeed, some of your current columnists currently do so. However there is no reason why you should provide Kevin Myers with an opportunity to continue with his crass, deliberately insulting rants.

Is mise,

Andrew Ó Baoill

First column
How did Edward Walsh feel as he found himself sitting outside the warm tepee of political correctness, and in the howling blizzard of reality, after his remarks about unmarried mothers? Kevin Myers writes.

Not very comfortable, probably. Never mind, Ed, I’m used to the vitriolic epistolary hiss in the column inches that besiege me in my little corner here. We can sit together here in the snow and perish together – or maybe think the unthinkable.

Such as that our system of benefits to unmarried mothers is creating a long-term time-bomb. Even as things stand, we are bribing the unmotivated, the confused, the backward, the lazy into making the worst career decision of their young lives, and becoming professional unmarried mothers, living off the State until the grave takes over. Our welfare system is creating benefits-addicted, fatherless families who will be raised in a culture of personal and economic apathy – and from such warped timber, true masts are seldom hewn.

The response of Anne Bowen, policy officer of the One Parent organisation was – naturally – that Ed’s remarks were “offensive” and “hurtful”. God knows why she didn’t say “unhelpful”, “unsavoury” or “distasteful”, which form part of the usual verbal repertoire of the politically correct. This assesses any political observation not on its factual merits but on the lachrymosity of the audience.

So she naturally declared that it would be extremely “hurtful” to suggest that women would choose single parenthood for financial pain, or that “they would be put themselves before their children”. No doubt it is hurtful. But is it true? And how many girls – and we’re largely talking about teenagers here – consciously embark upon a career of mothering bastards because it seems a good way of getting money and accommodation from the State? Ah. You didn’t like the term bastard? No, I didn’t think you would. In the welfare-land of Euphemesia, what is the correct term for the offspring of unmarried mothers? One-parent offspring? But when we use that deceitful term, one-parent, we actually mean fatherless, in the social meaning of the word, though not of course in the genetic sense. The lads who (in Sinead O’Connor’s immortal word) are the donors are probably off elsewhere, donating away wherever and whenever they can, and usually without having to pay a penny of child support for the results of their generous donations.

Ed had suggested that mothers of bastards could earn up to €20,000 a year from benefits. Through her gushing tears, Anne inconsolably declared that a lone parent (i.e., a MoB) gets only €148.80 a week, plus €19.30 per child. And indeed, this would be impossible to live on if it were all that the State forked out; but it is not. In addition, the State pays for the MoBs’ rented accommodation – worth over €13,000 or more a year. So the MoB’s real income could come to nearly €23,000. If you’re working, you have to have pre-tax earnings in the region of €38,000 to match that income.

All of which is a long-winded way of describing insanity – because we all agree it is mad to bribe impressionable young women into a life of MoBbery, which is crushingly limiting, with little sense of achievement or personal ambition, and no career to speak of, other – that is – from cash-crop whelping.

And how do MoBs cope when their male bastards (in a literal sense) become metaphorical bastards in adolescence? How does a woman assert her will over a sour, aggressive, uncommunicative teenage boy? Well, she usually doesn’t – as a study of the parental backgrounds of gang members in London and New York – where they are ahead of us in such matters – will tell you. Mob members usually have stressed-out MoBs for mothers, and absent FoBs for dads.

The central heresy underlying welfarism is that benefits don’t influence general conduct and that all the State is doing is simply helping individuals. Social groups – the argument goes – do not emerge in direct response to welfare payments. That’s what liberals in the US said, so they formulated policies that were kind and good, and certainly not ones that were designed to corrupt and deprave. But corrupt and deprave they did. Welfare lines and teenage moms by the hundred thousand emerged as a direct result of the apparently but illusorily attractive State incentive not to work.

Well, even that compulsive sharer of pain, Bill Clinton, knew something tough had to be done: at the instigation of a Republican-dominated Congress, he began a concerted drive against MoBbery, cutting welfare and introducing strong tax incentives for working MoBs. The results were amazing. After 30 years of unbroken increase, the rise in MoBbery was swiftly halted. Welfare handouts plummeted; and 10 years on, two out of three MoBs are now in work.

We just know that’s not going to happen in Ireland while debate remains mired in the schoolgirl swamp of what is “hurtful” and “offensive”: why, thith howwid talk makes one want to cwy. Even our super-sized MEP, Big Mac, tearfully denounced Ed for his heartless remarks. Well, naturally. After all, Sinn Féin/IRA have strong proprietorial feelings about single-parent families, having made hundreds and hundreds of them out of what had originally been two-parent families: why, God love them, they’ve even dabbled in making a good few no-parent families.

We have 80,000 MoBs, and the numbers are rising; time to ring the alarm bells. But of course, in Dáil Éireann, we’ll get some weepy, sanctimonious bilge over what is “offensive”, while the rest reach for the ear-plugs.

Second column
Here follows an unconditional apology for my remarks the other day on the issue of unmarried mothers, writes Kevin Myers.

So many readers have been made extremely angry by what I said that it is clearly not merely an issue of political correctness or social conformism. Their feelings are real, passionate and heartfelt, and I bitterly regret clouding an issue of major importance in Irish life by using provocative, ill-thought-out and confrontational language.

I was trying to insult nobody, but trying to discuss the subject of the rising tide of unmarried mothers, with the resultant increase in fatherless families, in an astringent and irreverent way. To take an issue of such sensitivity and present it in challenging language is risky; and in taking such risks, I failed lamentably. Indeed, by unintentionally insulting so many people, I lost both my audience and the argument – leaving me with much to regret and even more to apologise for.

I intended to hurt no one, but to cause people to discuss the subject first raised by Ed Walsh last week. It is a serious issue, which has emerged in other societies like ours, most particularly the US, where radical reforms in welfare have been made in order to curb the increase in mother-only families. In tackling this subject, I deliberately used the word “bastard” because I genuinely feel that the word has no stigma attached to it; and because I feel this with such a passion, I did not allow for other people’s sensitivities over it.

Here I was wrong, very wrong. A journalist who wishes to make a controversial case, and who knows he is straying into difficult areas of sensibility, must be careful of people’s feelings. I did not take the necessary care, and the outpourings of emotion and anger which have occurred are clear proof of this.

These words are not written at the request of the editor or anyone else, but entirely at my own initiative. This newspaper allows me great latitude to express my opinions, which are often at variance with those of my colleagues, and sometimes with our overall editorial stance.

This is one of the strengths of The Irish Times. We stand not merely for freedom of thought, but for freedom of expression also.

But there are limits to all freedoms, and I transgressed the limits of freedom of speech in the tenor of my remarks. I intended to abuse no one and to insult nobody. For this issue is not about individuals but a serious social phenomenon which must be addressed by the State. We cannot tolerate a situation in which large numbers of young women are drawn into the perils of early and unmarried motherhood by the allure of the apparent protection afforded to them by the State. This “protection” is a trap, in which young woman can spend the rest of their lives, thwarting them of ambition, purpose and any proper individuality away from a chronic State dependence.

This is good for no one, least of all the children, who not merely are raised without the disciplines of work and wage, but also without the presence of a male authority figure in their lives. Other societies have pioneered the mass experiment in fatherless families, and they have found them as way-stations to male delinquency, gang membership and criminality.

Some people have argued that the loss of so many men in two world wars in Europe and the US did not cause the male children of families thus made fatherless to become disruptive. But societies were more stable then, and usually other male figures – uncles, grandfathers, brothers – were there to assert themselves as centres of authority.

We live in different days, when society is more fluid, more dynamic and, for all the wealth that we now enjoy, more uncertain. I believe that families are better off with two parents; and though of course many, many single mothers are splendid and responsible parents, as a social construct we cannot do better than the two-parent family.

And this is not just for the good of the children, but for the good of the mother too: the burden of child-rearing is best shared, and not borne on the shoulders of a young woman who drifted into motherhood as a teenager because, for the moment, it seemed an attractive option.

For all the State benefits that a young single mother gets, the penalties are huge, and the price paid is enormous – not least the loss of personal freedom through her twenties, when she might be stranded in a flat, with young children to mind, and no outside support, day in and day out, for year after dreary year.

I wrote my column because of my concern for those who have already been lured into this trap, or are about to be drawn into the career of benefit-dependent single-motherhood. I feel passionately about the predicament that a dysfunctional welfare system is creating, usually for the most vulnerable, unwary and the most helpless in our society. Middle-class girls are seldom so misled.

In my desire to make my point powerfully, I used stupid, offensive language, and I deeply apologise for that. To Irish Times readers who were so offended and appalled at my words, from the bottom of a full and contrite heart, I am very, very sorry.

  1. One Response to “Responses to Myers on single parents”

  2. By Justin Mason on Feb 10, 2005 | Reply

    Hi Andrew —

    Good job. Myers’ contrarian antics are pathetic and tiresome — and your letter got right to the heart of what was wrong with his column.

    The sooner Irish media ditches its obsession with contrarianism, the better.

    –j.

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