After John Haldane’s tight-rope walk over a swamp of politically correct crocodiles at the University Notre Dame’s 2019 ethics and culture conference, John Waters’ talk seemed subdued by comparison. After getting used to the somber tone of his talk, the audience quickly fell under his spell. With his balding pate surrounded by a halo of what was left of his hippie hair, his white stubble beard and cane, Waters had the air of a man who had something important to say after being released from a military infirmary where he underwent protracted convalescence following a battle in which he almost died. The fact that he described another casualty in the culture wars in Ireland did not disguise the fact that he was one of that campaign’s most famous victims.
On January 11, 2014, in a broadcast of The Saturday Night Show, Rory O’Neill, an Irish drag queen who goes by the name of Miss Panti, moved from a discussion of the upcoming Irish referendum on gay marriage, to a discussion of homophobia, to calling the Irish journalist John Waters a homophobe in a series of logical leaps that left everyone but Waters, who was home at the time minding his own business, befuddled by the charge. Waters, who had been a columnist for The Irish Times for 20 years, demanded an apology and got instead weeks of legal prevarication, which only got resolved when the newspaper threw in its hand and paid Waters a six figure settlement rather than let his defamation case go to trial. O’Neill went on to become famous, and Waters, who became a pariah after being forced out at the Irish Times, tries to explain how this could happen in a Catholic country like Ireland in his book Give us back the Bad Roads.
The fact that Waters found it impossible to defend himself against the drag queen’s charge had devastating personal consequences, but the incident transcended the merely personal in its significance. Bad Roads is not so much a description of what happened to John Waters, as it is the story of what really happened to Ireland over the course of the first decade of the 21st century. As Waters puts it:
What I had experienced and observed in the 16 months prior to the vote of May 2015 had chilled me to the marrow, and alerted me to the fragility of our democracy. In effect, a baying mob had acquired the free run of Irish society’s media apparatus. The drag queen who had baselessly demonised me had, more or less as a result, become a national celebrity, himself given the run of the so-called ‘National Theatre’ and of radio and TV chat shows coast to coast. In due course he would be given an honorary degree by Trinity College.
As a journalist, Waters was used to controversy, but “the unmitigated venom” which he encountered online after his appearance on The Saturday Night Show now made it “unsafe for me to walk down the street.” The “sense of menace” he encountered was not only unprecedented in Irish society, it was especially befuddling to those who mistakenly thought that this hate campaign was being waged in the name of tolerance. The main problem was semantic. Waters was forced to defend himself against a word, homophobe, which had no correlation to the world of reality. Rather, the term “Homophobe” was:
a word with a deliberately cultivated demonic aura and a capacity to strike fear into bystanders lest they too be daubed with its nauseous meanings and innuendoes. The condition I found myself in seemed to arise almost by something like ‘appointment’ of Rory O’Neill, by virtue of some odd form of ordinance within his remit as a gay man. He could call me a homophobe and did not need to proffer evidence. All I could do was deny it, but I would, wouldn’t I?
In his 20 years as a journalist for The Irish Times, Waters had never experienced the ferocity of what happened after his appearance on The Saturday Night Show. Waters found himself engulfed in a “tsunami of outrage” which made him responsible for “all of the wrongs suffered by homosexuals in Ireland in living memory and before.”
Bad Roads is the protocol of a man who woke up in the cultural equivalent of the intensive care unit after a bad accident and was now trying to piece together not only what happened to him but how the accident could have happened in the first place. “How did I end up under the wheels of a homosexual juggernaut,” we can imagine him saying, “when I thought I was safe in my office writing columns for a newspaper?”
Waters couches his book in a literary conceit, writing as if he were addressing his deceased father and the Ireland that his father represented. As part of his report, Waters, who was born in 1955, has to make some fundamental observations and clarifications. This attack could only have taken place because the Ireland he had grown up in—symbolized in Bad Roads by his father, to whom the book is addressed—is no longer the same Ireland which celebrates drag queens by conferring honorary doctorates on them. The Ireland of Waters’ youth is symbolized best by his father, the inveterate tinkerer. Remembering that his father had assigned him to grind the cylinders of a second-hand automobile engine he had purchased, Waters writes that:
One of the things I unconsciously adapted from your personality was the idea of reconstructing myself to cohere with some unfocused ‘moral’ paradigm for the benefit of my growing daughter. It’s strange to think how easily I fell into this without thinking about it, becoming pious and solemn and serious-minded, without knowing what purpose this might serve.
Waters may have found logos in an automobile engine, but he was a reluctant conscript in the culture wars. Up to his appearance on The Saturday Night Show in January 2014, Waters had no strong feelings about homosexual unions as a marriage issue. But he had very strong feelings about paternity. Because of the discrimination he had encountered after he had fathered a child out of wedlock with the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, Waters felt that fathers were systematically deprived of what should have been inalienable rights which stemmed from biology not the permission of politician or the whims of social workers. Homosexual marriage, he feared, would further weaken whatever remaining rights fathers still had by denying that fatherhood was a biological fact and making it a lifestyle choice granted to privileged minorities.
The state trumps biology now by defining who can call themselves the child’s parents. Under assault from the bullying power of LGBT activists, the now chronic dishonesty and abdication of journalists, the say-so of multinational corporations and the craven self-interest of politicians, virtually the entirety of family protections was being dismantled and rewritten
It is hard to say when I became aware of these tendencies in Ireland. If you pushed me I would say around 2007/8, though I cannot outline for you in any precise way the putative connections between these tendencies and the meltdown in the economy that occurred at the same time. I expect there is one, but the precise nature of it may not emerge with any clarity for a long time.
These tendencies accelerated over time, speeding exponentially at the time of the “marriage equality” referendum, when Ireland: