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Scott Larson

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Ireland’s big chill

Lately I’ve been thinking about suicide.

No, no, it’s not like that. Everything’s fine. Really. It’s just that there has been some weirdness going on lately in Ireland’s politics, which has gotten me to thinking about how popular culture views the act of killing oneself.

There is an election campaign going on currently in the Republic of Ireland, and it’s a strange phenomenon for an outsider to behold. One good thing about Irish election campaigns is that they only last, officially, about three weeks. (Of course, in reality, as in every other democracy, the politicians’ campaigning never really stops.) Another good thing is that there is extremely little campaign advertising on television. This means that the ads you do see tend to be very focused. Amazingly, the party currently running the government (Fianna Fáil) filled their first ad with an endless list of all the ways they have spent huge sums of money on everything imaginable. As an afterthought, they also mentioned that they had enacted massive tax cuts, more or less emptying out the treasury entirely, and, oh yeah, they achieved peace in Northern Ireland. Even more amazingly, the other parties, rather than doing the obvious and pointing out how Fianna Fáil has been handing out money hand over fist like a drunken sailor, have all proclaimed in their ads how they, if elected, would spend even more money than the current government.

Okay, so much for the limited television advertising. That leaves only a few other ways for the parties to reach voters. One way is to go door to door of every house in the country and personally ask for people’s votes. Another is to plaster every pole, tree, building and tall animal with gigantic posters featuring air-brushed photographs of the candidates which bear no resemblance to the actual people. These regularly get blown off by the gale force winds that are part of Ireland’s charm and land on the windshields on passing cars, causing even more road accidents than usual. But the favored way of getting out the vote seems to be a completely unrestrained contest of the kind of “gotcha” politics that would make Larry Flynt blush. A government minister cannot open his or her mouth without twenty outraged politicians from opposition parties screaming bloody murder about some gaffe or insensitivity on the minister’s part. This points up, by contrast, the civilized nature of a monarchy like Great Britain. As an example of my point, recently Prince Philip in one of those witty, off-the-cuff remarks for which he is known and loved, remarked to a blind acquaintance with a guide dog, “Do you know, they’re now producing eating dogs for the anorexics?” Not one foreign prince tried to take advantage of this remark to topple the queen from her throne.

Anyway, the alleged gaffe that caught my attention in Ireland was a remark by the government minister for sport made at a youth conference in his native Donegal. He opined (i.e. quoted and agreed with a woman whose son had committed suicide) that people who kill themselves are “selfish bastards.” Well, from the reaction, you would have thought that he had accused the Pope of being a cross-dresser. Members of every single political party lashed out at his “thoughtless” remark. Even members of his own party called his remark “unfortunate.” The best retort by far was from Sinn Féin, which is acknowledged by everyone (except Sinn Féin) to be the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. They called his remarks “insensitive.” Ouch. How bad do you have to be to be called “insensitive” by the IRA? The Irish press, which is addicted to this sort of artificial controversy the same way politicians are to campaign contributions, was quick to jump on the bandwagon. Stony-faced senior correspondents were seen on the TV news nightly, expressing bewilderment at the minister’s “lack of judgment.”

So, what message was the hapless sports minister supposed to have given to a group of young people? Suicide is cool? We should respect the right of people in the prime of their lives to kill themselves? Thankfully, no one extremely close to me has committed suicide, so I don’t consider myself in any meaningful way a “suicide survivor.” But like most people, I can say that over the years a few people that I have known pretty well and cared a lot about have taken their own lives. And it’s made me angry, and it’s made their closest survivors angry (among other wrenching emotions). The most heartbreaking cases are teen suicides. The last message I would want to send to a teenager is: hey, if you decide to off yourself, don’t worry, no one is going to judge you or criticize you. We’ll respect your decision. Like hell. Frankly, I think “selfish bastard” isn’t strong enough a term to use in this case.

Implicit in all the criticism is the suggestion that we shouldn’t speak ill of someone just because they have taken their own life. (I’m not speaking here of people who are facing painful, terminal illnesses.) Where does an attitude like that come from, particularly in a country of which the predominant religion regards suicide as the most serious of sins? Does the answer lie in the popular culture? Do the great (and not-so-great) stories of our literature actually romanticize suicide? It’s a theme that shows up in everything from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to such popular movies as The Big Chill and Thelma and Louise. These enduring stories at least hint at a double standard in western culture that, on one hand, condemns the act of self-destruction and, on the other, looks upon it at least in some cases as an act of martyrdom and, hence, worthy of some kind of respect.

Don’t misread me. I’m not blaming movies or any other media for somehow causing people to commit suicide. But our literature is a mirror that reflects what is going on in our society’s collective head. And it’s worth paying attention to.

We don’t have to look any farther than the nightly news to see what happens when a society begins glorifying martyrdom. If teenagers think so little of their own lives that they will deliberately put an end to them, it’s not that big a step for fanatics to convince them to take a few others with them in the name of some cause.

The Irish minister’s remarks caused an uproar largely because a high rate of suicide among young people is an acknowledged problem in Ireland. As an interested observer, allow me humbly to suggest that part of the solution might be to encourage frank, and even provocative, public discussion of the issue rather than to punish it or, worse, turn it into an opportunity for short-term political gain.

-S.L., 9 May 2002

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