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Culture War Roundup for the week of March 11, 2024

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The "radical fringe" which is neither

What the 2024 referendum says about modern Irish political alignments


Last Friday, Ireland held its fifth constitutional referendum is less than a decade. The referendum concerned two amendments to the Irish constitution which, if successful, stood to move Ireland in a dramatically more socially progressive direction.

The first proposed amendment (the "family amendment") concerns two clauses defining the family. As the constitution stood prior to the referendum, the family is defined as a natural primary and fundamental unit group of society, based on the legal institution of marriage. The constitution additionally pledges to protect the institution of marriage (on which families are based) from attack. The proposed wording would amend this so that families can be based on "durable relationships" in addition to just marriage.

The second proposed amendment (the "care amendment") concerns two clauses regarding the role of women in Irish society. The constitution acknowledges the contribution women make to the state within the home, and hence promises that the state shall "endeavour" to ensure that women are not obliged by economic necessity to earn a living and hence neglect their duties in the home. (These clauses have been widely glossed as the constitution asserting that women belong in the home, including by no less than government ministers.) The proposal is to replace these with a single clause reading: "The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision."

This referendum marked the government's latest effort to "modernise" Ireland and bring its values more in line with those of our EU betters on the Continent. They touted the proposed amendments as feminist (no coincidence that the referendum was held on International Women's Day) and an important step towards making Ireland a more inclusive and tolerant society.

Sadly for the government, Ireland's resolutely backward, parochial, latently Catholic, Massey Ferguson-driving, GAA-playing population refused to play ball.1 Despite the backing of every major party and a raft of NGOs (who may well have been "encouraged" to endorse a Yes vote under public pressure), both proposals were rejected in a landslide, with the family and care proposals receiving a mere 32 and 26 per cent of the vote, respectively.

A wealth of reasons the proposed amendments proved so unpopular with voters have been proposed. Traditional feminists were worried that the government was angling to wash its hands of any commitment to providing financial support to mothers who don't work, particularly single mothers (of note is how the proposed amendment tied into Taoiseach2 Leo Varadkar's open admission that he doesn't think it's the state's responsibility to provide for people who are unable to provide for themselves).)). At least one article made hay of the fact that the proposed wording promises only that the government shall strive to support families in the provision of care (i.e. "we'll try to help out, but no promises") - although I'll note that the wording as it remains similarly states that the government shall endeavour to ensure that women don't have to neglect their duties in the home by reasons of economic necessity. One could persuasively argue that this is a much of a muchness.

Meanwhile, gender-critical groups were deeply suspicious of the government's desire to remove the words "woman" and "mother" from the constitution entirely. Social conservatives were concerned that acknowledging that families can be based on "durable relationships" might result in legal recognition of polycules, or even polygamy. Anti-immigration activists argued that a Yes vote would result in increased immigration from overseas (I confess I don't quite get the reasoning on this last point, and it seemed like a knowing attempt to sow FUD by piggybacking on widespread anti-immigration sentiment).

We could talk about which of the above factors were most important for the No side until the cows come home, but for now I'd like to talk about what the result of the referendum means for Irish political alignments more broadly.


Roughly fifteen years ago, a new ideology began making dramatic inroads into societies across the Anglosphere and beyond. In a remarkably short space of time, this faction has achieved enviable success in colonising existing institutions and political parties, forcing them to, at the bare minimum, pay lip service to various components of their worldview. This faction is variously referred to as "wokeness" or "social justice politics" or any other of a number of terms. It's a strange new movement indeed: a movement with whacky policy prescriptions ranging from the ludicrously utopian to almost impossibly trivial and petty; which came packaged with a unique and abstruse vocabulary originating in the academy, and wholly impenetrable to those not in the know (possibly by design); which becomes outraged by successive attempts to even apply a neutral label to the faction; which markets itself as leftist, and yet is eagerly co-signed by neoliberal capital-friendly politicians and multi-national corporations (while more traditional socialists often react to it with a blend of bemusement, exasperation and horror).

One can conceive of the woke faction as an uneasy coalition made up of woke leftists and woke liberals. The leftists are ornery, confrontational types who have no interest in playing nice or being respectable, know what they're saying is unpopular and don't care who they piss off, because they're largely people with nothing to lose (more on this in a future post). The liberals, by contrast, are agreeable to a fault, keen on "reading the room", obsessed with respectability politics, desperate to avoid being seen to make a fuss.

When woke leftists encounter public disagreement with their worldview, their default tactic is to dismiss their interlocutor using one or more of the following descriptors: "alt-right", "Nazi", "neo-Nazi", "racist", "white supremacist" "misogynistic", "transphobic" and (by far the most popular term in Ireland over the last five years) "far-right". This tactic is essentially impossible to refute, as it's ultimately a meaningless (and masturbatory) debate over the definitions of words. If I say I don't think it's appropriate to house convicted male rapists with intact genitalia in women's prisons, and a woke person says that I'm "far-right" because only a "far-right" person would say such a thing - well, this is vacuously true, based on the stipulative definition you've just assigned that term.3

By contrast, when woke liberals encounter public disagreement with their worldview, their preferred tactic is to insist that the vast majority of people already agree with the opinion in question, and the only people voicing disagreement are a "vocal minority" or "radical fringe" of extremists who've become radicalised as a result of consuming too much Fox News and Telegram. This is an essential tool for dispelling the cognitive dissonance inherent to being a liberal in a woke space.

Prior to the woke era, liberals largely endorsed safe, middle-of-the-road political opinions which could be presumed to enjoy a high level of popular support among most audiences. But as a result of the woke colonisation of traditionally liberal spaces, liberals are now expected to recite a collection of opinions and slogans which the average member of the public finds bizarre and alienating - or else. Alas, liberals are temperamentally disinclined to express opinions which most people disagree with - opinions which, if taken to their logical conclusions, imply that "almost everyone you encounter in contemporary society is a bad person". The last thing a liberal wants to do is seen to be stepping on people's toes.

Their "solution" is to dutifully mouth the unpopular opinions while loudly asserting that the opinions in question are actually popular, and studiously avoiding any and all evidence to the contrary. The minute a woke leftist says something radical and outrageous, the woke liberal will be on hand to sanewash it, massage the sentiment, assure the general public that "he didn't really mean that, it's just rhetorical hyperbole". But sometimes no amount of sanewashing will do anything to make woke opinions more palatable to the mainstream, which explains woke liberals' irritating habit of talking around opposing opinions by labelling them as "far-right", "transphobic" or similar without plainly stating what those opinions are and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.4

Pay no attention to that opinion behind the curtain

To be fair, sometimes liberals are correct in their assesssment that only a vocal minority are opposed to this or that policy. Actual Irish far-right parties are as marginalised as they come, without a single elected representative between them; progressive policies like legal abortion and gay marriage enjoy broad popular support; rates of religiosity and Catholic observance are in freefall. But on other occasions, this assessment is significantly wide of the mark.


The results of this referendum serve as a timely confirmation of what many already suspected: many woke policies are profoundly unpopular among the Irish electorate, and can usually only make their way into legislation under cover of darkness. The people of Ireland were asked point blank if they believe that families based on marriage are just as valid as families based on "durable relationships" (which could mean practically anything: cohabiting straight couples with children who are too lazy or stubborn to formally tie the knot but want all the ancillary benefits of doing so anyway; polycules made up of one woman and five men; polygamous relationships in which one man has a harem of brides). By a staggering margin, the people of Ireland responded - no, they are not. Their attitudes towards "durable relationships" now join trans issues and immigration as examples of topics on which the median Irish voter deviates quite sharply from woke orthodoxy.

When a woke leftist calls you far-right for expressing an opinion which would have been seen as a bog-standard liberal opinion five or ten years ago - well, no one wins a fight about the dictionary definitions of words, but everyone loses. But when a woke liberal argues that such-and-such an opinion is only held by a vocal minority of radical extremists, I think it's incumbent on people to retort: no, actually most Irish people don't believe "durable relationships" are essentially the same thing marriages, and they made that quite clear when they went to the polls in their tens of thousands. We're the mainstream and you're the radical fringe, the ones who hold strange and unpopular opinions they absorbed from consuming American media. Woke liberals are welcome to believe that their opinions are morally correct. They should no longer be permitted to believe, contrary to all evidence, that those opinions are also popular among Irish people.

Now of course, we shouldn't read too much into this referendum in isolation. Turnout was a mere 44%, shockingly low compared to the gay marriage and abortion referenda which both achieved a turnout in excess of 60%. It's not impossible that there are half a million+ voters out there who would have voted Yes to both amendments but didn't bother. Maybe the fine poly people of Ireland simply couldn't find the time to get down to the polls amidst their busy schedules of posting in r/relationshipanarchy and self-flagellating over their toxic jealousy. But I can't help but admit to a certain scepticism on this point. The impression I get is of a populace who were overwhelmingly either indifferent or actively opposed to the proposed amendments, and certainly not "confused".

I also want to reiterate the point that the fact that wokeness is unpopular among voters doesn't mean it's wrong - that would be committing the exact same logical fallacy in the opposite direction. I'm only pleading with liberal journalists and politicians to acknowledge that many of the policies they're advocating are deeply unpopular among voters, and adjust their tactics accordingly.


With such a striking landslide of a result, one can't help but wonder why the government even put the issue to vote in the first place. Wasting €23 million on a referendum rejected by 70% of the country is a national embarassment, and with such a skewed outcome it ought to have been obvious to the government months in advance that neither amendment had any hope of passing. Two explanations for why the referendum went ahead in spite of this occur to me. Perhaps the government is made up of woke liberals wilfully ignoring all of the evidence as to how unpopular the proposed amendments were outside of a specific social bubble. Alternatively, they thought that a given density of trendy buzzwords like "inclusive" and "misogyny" would be sufficient to trick the public into voting for a referendum which was not at all what it appeared to be. With all the talk of how "confusing" the proposed amendments were, it looks like the latter might be the case - isn't it interesting how voters are only ever "confused" when they give the wrong result? But regardless, it seems this referendum was only put to the vote because the government is wilfully ignorant, or deceitful and underhanded. Not a great look either way.

The usual fingers for the failure of the referendum to pass will be pointed. Government ministers will insist that the proposed changes were moderate and incremental, and were unfairly mischaracterised as radical and sweeping. Some journalist somewhere is bound to argue that the negative result came about as a result of nebulously defined "foreign interference". I'm sure Varadkar will eventually claim that a Yes-Yes vote would have been secured if only there had been more robust legal powers in place to combat social media "disinformation" in the months prior, using the failure as an opportunity to finally get his beloved hate speech bill over the line, it having languished in the lower house for nearly a year.

But on some level, Varadkar and his cronies knows what everyone else knows: the Irish public for the most part find wokeness bizarre and alienating, and no amount of shaming them, labelling them far-right or telling them they're in the minority in their opinions will get them to change their minds (even if they might pretend to have done so in public). Either come up with more persuasive arguments for why wokeness is right, or stop pushing it altogether.

1 A resolutely backward, parochial, latently Catholic, Massey Ferguson-driving, GAA-playing population which gave the nod to both gay marriage and abortion by popular mandate in the last decade, by a 60%+ majority in both cases - but let's not let that pair of inconvenient facts disrupt the narrative we've concocted.

2 Prime minister.

3 Strictly speaking, it isn't even necessarily a contradiction to assert that an opinion held by the overwhelming majority of a given populace is "far-right": even if this description isn't true of numerous opinions in modern Ireland, it was uncontroversially true in Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany or countless other examples.

4 Sometimes one even gets the impression of the liberal and the leftist living side-by-side in the same individual, occupying opposing hemispheres of the brain, the apologist and the revolutionary. These contrasting perspectives allow a woke person to seamlessly hop back and forth between

  • everyone in Ireland is already woke: it's only a vocal minority of far-right agitators - those dastardly Healy-Raes! - preventing it from being fully implemented


  • racism and misogyny are baked into Irish society, incrementalist reform won't do a damn thing, we've got to rip this up root and branch

as the moment requires. Scott Alexander detected some of this tension between two fundamentally incompatible worldviews in the film Don't Look Up.

Anti-immigration activists argued that a Yes vote would result in increased immigration from overseas (I confess I don't quite get the reasoning on this last point,

I think the idea was chain migration? A gets to stay in Ireland because they're an asylum seeker or whatever. A then asks if his wife can come over. Wife then asks if she can get her elderly parents over, after all they're living in the same dangerous circumstances as you said meant A was eligible to receive asylum. Family reunification policies then mean that A brings over B who brings over C who brings over... in a chain, even if you only permitted A to immigrate at the start.

I'm not saying this is a credible version, and both anti-immigration and the far-right groups trying to get a foothold here are using scare tactics, but "durable relationships" is a very nebulous term - how about instead of his wife, it's A's fiancée? or long-term girlfriend?

How about all ten of his wives?

To quote Chesterton from "What I Saw In America" about filling out visa form preparatory to being allowed in:

The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down, ‘Are you a polygamist?’

The answer to this is, ‘No such luck’ or ‘Not such a fool,’ according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated the rhetorical question, ‘Shall I slay my brother Boer?’—the answer that ran, ‘Never interfere in family matters.’

But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully.

...Or again, ‘Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.’

There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.

That's fair, makes a lot more sense now.

My feeling is that Ireland, like many countries, has been for some time in the "happy valley of liberalization" (of course it's only happy if you support liberalization), ie. the moment after the previous religious basis of conservatism has been broken and hollowed out (often quite dramatically in Irish case with the Catholic church scandals and the like), but before a new nationalist basis for conservatism has been constructed.

The anti-immigration riots and such are signs that there exists an inchoate feeling that can later be used to construct the new nationalist basis (sure, "Irish nationalism is different, it's progressive etc." - the same has been heard in many other countries just before a new right-wing nationalist movement has started to speed up), but the pieces that would make it are still finding each other.

There are politicians and movements sniffing the air and figuring out whether to catch the train, but they are still either too beholden to the old, obsolete model of religious conservatism, too afraid to lose whatever influence they have in the current system, too extreme and offputting, or simply too crazy. At some point some of the the religious conservatives will find a suitable synthesis that allows them to tacitly downgrade the most musty-seeming views, some of the ones still close to the system will detach themselves or be pushed out, some of the extremists will learn to smooth away the sharpest edges, and the crazies... well, they probably won't get better, they'll just be sidelined.

Once this happens, there might be new parties growing so fast that the liberals will feel like the rug is being pulled out under them; of course, nationalist conservatism will be different from religious conservatism, but it can still at least throw a spanner some way in the general process of liberalization.

I think it was simpler than that; we have a Citizens' Assembly where the Dáil (our parliament) puts questions to a selected number of the public for consideration as to what they'd like to happen. It's something along the lines of representative democracy and something like the ideal of prediction markets. A while back they asked the Citizens about gender equality.

The gay marriage and even abortion referenda had gone well, so the current government - being criticised for the housing crisis, matters such as the immigrant who attacked preschool kids, and the revelations about the money-wasting going on with our national broadcaster - wanted an easy feel-good result to make people happy and let the government bask in the resulting glow of "things are getting better".

Well, they mucked this one up big-time. Turns out people were not worried about sexist language in the Constitution, hence the low turn-out, and that the general public didn't trust the government weren't trying to weasel out of responsibility towards those in need by shoving off all caregiving onto 'the family'.

Just to clarify, I didn't really just comment on this referendum (there's probably indeed a large factor of the government just screwing up), or just Ireland in general, but - as is tradition in forums like this - just used the topic to pontificate on something else I've been thinking about recently.

Relevant post from yesterday by @FarNearEverywhere

Either come up with more persuasive arguments for why wokeness is right, or stop pushing it altogether.

I don't see how the "woke leftists" would much like either choice, and why they shouldn't seek instead a third. Per the first, you note that "the Irish public for the most part find wokeness bizarre and alienating," and it's not clear that there's really much in the way of "more persuasive arguments" that could change this. But they're not going to "stop pushing" what they believe is right, no matter how unpopular it is with the "resolutely backward, parochial, latently Catholic, Massey Ferguson-driving, GAA-playing" peasant masses.

So why isn't the answer to instead just keep pushing "wokeness," as hard as necessary, over the objections of the masses?

So why isn't the answer to instead just keep pushing "wokeness," as hard as necessary, over the objections of the masses?

We nominally live in a democracy. It would have been a lot easier for the Irish government to maintain the façade that they have a mandate from the general public if they hadn't just pushed a referendum which was rejected by 70% of the population. You could practically view the outcome of this referendum as a vote of no confidence.

Seems Leo is getting some stick because apparently some of the Fine Gael senators went to the match instead of turning up to vote Yes/Yes in the Very Important Vital Urgent Referenda 😁 Maybe you're not their mammy, but are you their daddy, Leo?

And now he's having a dig at Fianna Fáil. To be fair, I think Willie O'Dea probably did vote No/No, but coming out about it now is cute hoorism. But then, that's my party for yeh!

I love the fact that there's a Wikipedia page for "cute hoor".

Ireland's contribution to world culture 😀 It exists everywhere, but we put a name on it. "Cute" comes from "acute", which is why you get English/Hiberno-English sayings like "as cute as a fox" meaning as "clever, sly" not "adorable, fetching".

So why isn't the answer to instead just keep pushing "wokeness," as hard as necessary, over the objections of the masses?

Because if they don't actually have the tools to indoctrinate the next generation, the eventual, inevitable result is revolt and White Terror.

That's a big "if", though.

the eventual, inevitable result is revolt

You may be familiar with the JFK quote "those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Well, IIRC, it was the late Kontextmaschine over at Tumblr who added to this, speaking of the Vietnam war, that making violent revolution inevitable, then crushing it by force when it happens, can be a viable strategy.

Let the unhappy masses revolt… then, like in the German Peasants' War, crush them utterly with overwhelming force despite their superior numbers, then crack down harder on the survivors.

Yeah, I don't think the Irish state is quite that.......competent.

Do consider internal party politics as a reason. Consider the Brexit referendum was Cameron's deal in exchange for securing support from the Euro-sceptic wing of his own party in government. So even if they thought it wouldn't pass it might have been politically necessary to secure support from their more progressive wing.

I think woke liberals really do live in a bubble, and think using words like ‘inclusivity’ makes them popular. More to the point, this bubble has people that are woke, and it has a minority of old-school high-respectability social conservatives, the sort whose monacles pop out while they remark ‘by Jove, this gay pride parade is absolutely scandalous!’ and then harrumph ferociously through their moustaches, and that there’s functionally no one in between.

And the thing is, the general public is more socially conservative than wokes, but it’s less social conservative than moustache-harrumphers by an also extremely wide margin. Ireland supports abortion and gay marriage, that doesn’t mean it supports whatever the referenda were intending to actually do. Nor does it mean they support infinite brown people, or pretending a convicted sex offender in a dress is really a woman. Moderate social conservatives simply don’t have a home in the elite bubble; Ross Douthat, Donald Trump, and Ibram X Kendi have three entirely separate fan bases. I think what keeps happening is that the liberal elite figures out that the public doesn’t like Ross douthat’s prescriptions very much, and then forgets Donald Trump is not pushing the exact same thing. It’s What’s the Matter with Kansas syndrome.