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The future is possible

For the shiny new future that TEDx talks around the world buzz with, we need a re-invention of the system one academic tells THEO PANAYIDES

It’s the first week of a new year, and our minds teem with thoughts of the future – but in fact it was late November when I spoke with Dr Tom Clonan on the sidelines of TEDx University of Nicosia, and the future was even more conspicuous. ‘The Future Is…’ was the title of the event, the walls at the entrance to the Filoxenia Conference Centre in Nicosia plastered with posters as I wandered in search of Tom, each poster offering a different rather twee alternative. The Future is … Disruptive. Digital. Challenging. Exciting. Out there.

Tom’s own talk was perhaps less ambitious: ‘The Future is Possible’ he claimed – “but only under certain circumstances,” he adds as we sit down in the lounge area, just a few minutes after he’s left the stage. A group of kids in white T-shirts – the Larnaca Municipality Children’s Choir, I assume, having glanced at the schedule – are practising quietly on the other side of the room, marshalled by a choirmaster; clumps of people sit in twos and threes, looking animated, buzzing with the visionary thrill that TEDx talks, with their anything-is-possible mantras, bring out in the audience. Already – among other speakers – we’ve had Stuart Armstrong talking artificial intelligence and George Danos (a former Profile on this page) urging mankind to colonise Mars.

“We have all these talks about space exploration, shiny new technology, artificial intelligence, intelligent clothing. The future is a bright and shiny, unimagined place,” says Tom in his soft Dublin brogue. “But I’m saying that, based on my experience of the world – and particularly what I hear from women – for any of this to be possible there must be an emphasis on humanity, empowering women, and on love.”

I meet him backstage in the dressing room, chatting with other speakers and sipping from a bottle of beer. He gets up, shakes hands and leads me to the lounge, still toting the bottle. He’s used to journalists, maybe because he is one himself – not his only job (these days he’s primarily an academic, teaching at the School of Media of the Dublin Institute of Technology), but he writes on security and defence for the Irish Times, and does a lot of radio and TV. He’s 49, ruddy-faced, with unblinking blue eyes and a smoothly assertive manner. I barely have to ask any questions; he does all the talking.

“We’re in a cycle of history at the moment where we have patriarchal systems,” he goes on – then pauses, seeking to refine that last phrase: “The very expression of patriarchy is the slaughter of innocents by young men. Air strikes, austerity – they’re all the products of neo-conservative patriarchy, which really came to prominence at the beginning of this new century. So we’ve had a deregulated, devolved financial-services sector – and the Greeks and the Irish have suffered from that – and we’ve had to endure austerity so that bankers’ gambling debts can be paid. We’ve had the deregulation of foreign policy – we’re in an era of pre-emptive strikes, air strikes, drone attacks… When you kill remotely you’re removing the ethical decision-making from the process, and it’s indiscriminate killing. And if we keep doing that in the West we’re going to reap the whirlwind. Absolutely no doubt about that. Every time someone’s killed by a drone strike it enrages and provokes people in the developing world, and rightly so.”

What he says is a spiel, or perhaps a manifesto – maybe not rehearsed, but certainly pre-packaged. I don’t really get very much of Tom Clonan the private person – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I get quite a lot of Tom Clonan the private person, but only the parts that are no longer private. Frivolous questions are batted away (What does he do for fun? “Come to Cyprus and do a TED talk! I don’t have any hobbies”) – though, paradoxically given the theme of the event, we dwell on the past more than the future, the vivid experiences that have shaped him in the past 20 years.

What experiences? Well, let’s just mention that the title of his second memoir (published in 2013) is Whistleblower, Soldier, Spy – a book, as he puts it, that documents “a loss of belief in certainty”, above all the certainty of the ‘patriarchal systems’ he mentioned earlier. You may wonder why a mere academic is an expert on security and the ethics of drone attacks – but in fact Tom used to be a soldier before he became an academic, a Captain in the Irish Armed Forces whose deployment included, most traumatically, Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. Irish peacekeepers were sent to Lebanon to protect local civilians caught between Hizbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces – “the most fanatical Islamic resistance group in the Middle East [and] the most mechanical killing machine on earth,” as he puts it.

When he went to Lebanon, his “belief in certainty” was absolute – a belief in the culture and norms of army life, and of course a belief in the mission, “a narrative of ‘We’re the good guys, we’re going to come in like the cavalry and help the people’”. Needless to say, it wasn’t like that. “We couldn’t stop the slaughter,” he says grimly, recalling “night after night and day after day, taking the bodies of sometimes whole families out of buildings that had been struck by missiles… As a young guy from Ireland, suddenly in the Middle East, and you see the killing of children, and human beings harnessing all of their ingenuity and prowess and skills to actually kill a child – it’s like the end of the world. And it had a profound effect on me.

“But I buried that experience, as all soldiers do, and it was only when I lost my own daughter in 2003 – it was a cord accident at birth and she – she – she didn’t survive – when I buried my daughter Liadain and, you know, put her tiny little coffin into the ground, I suddenly realised as an adult, as a parent, exactly the meaning of how precious life is, and how much the people of Lebanon have suffered. I knew it on an intellectual level, but I didn’t understand it on an emotional or psychological level.

“My daughter’s death taught me that we’re all the same,” adds Tom soberly. Now, “when I wake up at four o’clock in the morning I think of my parents, who’ve passed away, I think of my daughter, who’s passed away, but now I [also] think of Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the beach in Kos this summer, and I think – is he not my son? The Meaud twins, Charlotte and Emily, who were murdered in the Paris attacks – are they not my daughters?… We’re all brothers and sisters, and I don’t see a distinction between Jewish, Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite, Cypriot, Irish, we’re all the same. And if we want to have this shiny new future with all these things in it, we have to get to grips with that pretty quickly. We need some kind of an alternative to patriarchy.”

This is all good stuff, though it sounds like … well, a TED talk, or perhaps the talk of a man who’s written books about his life (the earlier one is called Blood, Sweat and Tears) and turned it into a narrative. He talks like a politician, which he is in a way – he’s running for the Seanad (the Irish Senate) in the next election – though in fact he’s running as an independent, it’s his first foray into public life, and he’s running for a very specific reason: because one of his four children, 13-year-old Eoghan, is wheelchair-bound due to a rare neuromuscular disease. “And because of austerity he’s lost his physiotherapy, his speech therapy, his occupational therapy, his surgical review,” rants Tom hotly. “He’s in a wheelchair that’s too small for him – and Christine Lagarde comes into town and stays in the top hotel in Dublin. She’s no feminist. She’s not about equality, or sorority. She’s a patriarch. It’s not gender-specific.”

It does seem a bit odd, this constant talk of patriarchy. It’s easy to agree with Tom that the world is in a mess, that austerity isn’t working, that we need to acknowledge our common humanity, that we need, as he puts it, “a radical transformation of our power structures” – but does gender really have much to do with it? Isn’t it a question of the powerful imposing themselves on the less powerful? Isn’t violence simply the means by which power is extended and perpetuated? Wouldn’t a world run by women – assuming it contained power inequalities, as it inevitably would – be much the same as a world run by men?

That’s “a meta-narrative,” he retorts, reminding me that he is indeed an academic; “It doesn’t fit with the logic of what I’m saying to you,” he adds, not very helpfully. Still, he may have a point. After all, the world’s most “masculine” systems – the ones where women are most obviously oppressed and excluded – are the nightmarish likes of Islamic State and Saudi Arabia. Even in the West, he points out, the financial-services sector “is almost exclusively dominated by men. And they have f***ed it up. The so-called global war on terror is almost exclusively dominated by men. And – answers on a postcard, and send them to me in Ireland – is it working?”

Above all, perhaps, his focus on patriarchy may reflect his own personal journey. He seems to have been very close to his mother (she died of cancer in 2003), mentioning, for instance, that she sent him a letter for every day of his deployment in Lebanon. His dad, on the other hand, was a patriarch, albeit a benevolent one: “He was a big man, he was a cop, he was quite authoritarian and he was a hard man. I mean, we had a good relationship with him, but it was of a particular type”. Then came the army, and “you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see that [becoming a soldier] was a way of gaining my father’s approval, and his love” – but then came Lebanon, and then came the ‘Whistleblower’ part of his book title when, in the course of his PhD, he uncovered unacceptable levels of sexual violence towards women in the army, became “the subject of a very sustained programme of character assassination by the military authorities” and, having won his day in court, moved on.

In short, Tom Clonan has changed fundamentally on the path from youth to middle age. He’s outgrown that old belief in certainty, just as he outgrew the army and machismo to return, wiser and grateful, to “what my mother taught me” – though I actually suspect he’s still a warrior, just for a different cause. “I’m a very relaxed, easy-going person,” he insists at one point, but surely that’s not true all the time. After Lebanon – understandably – he began to experience “undirected anger, I was angry a lot of the time but couldn’t tell you why”, and a lot of that anger is still there, just no longer undirected. It’s there in his fluid, articulate rants, it’s there in his verbal flourishes – and it’s definitely there when he talks about Ireland today, crippled by years of austerity.

Aren’t the numbers getting better, though? I thought Ireland was the anti-Greece, the poster child for doing what you’re told and staying with the programme. “That’s all bullshit,” he snaps. “That’s the government’s position, but you talk to ordinary citizens…” Tom shakes his head: “We all know what austerity is, austerity has been a redistribution of wealth. The extremely wealthy have become wealthier, and there’s a huge increase in inequality in Irish society”. The health system is shot. Wages are down. Everyone’s having to work twice as hard just to survive. “I mean, it’s the Greek experience.”

Maybe something is stirring in the world, something getting ready to explode (or explode even louder) in 2016. Maybe the future is Tom Clonan and those people like him, those calling for a wholesale reinvention of the system – those who demand less violence, more nurturing, an emphasis on ending divisions and loving our fellows and sharing our feelings. “It doesn’t matter who you are, Life comes knocking on everybody’s door at some point,” he notes poetically. “And I think, as I grow older, I realise that we all need help, and we all need to talk to each other”. The future is possible? Whatever the future is, we’re all in it together.

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