Features - The Thin Air

Culture of Controversy: James Cussen


James Cussen is a historian studying toward a PhD in UCC, who is an acerbic controversial and political presence on Twitter. Seanán Kerr travelled to Cork to speak to him in the wake of recent victories for rights in Ireland and defeats for democracy in Greece and to ask how these times fit into the grand historical story and how pop culture mediates our understanding of it.

When in 2013, teenage cancer victim Dónal Walsh was given the national airwaves to express his thoughts on suicide (life is precious, don’t kill yourself), few challenged him on the matter, many of Ireland’s media intellectuals, like Olivia O’Leary instead openly lauded him, “By the manner of his death, Donal Walsh has left us a reason to live”, praising the 16 year-old for his “wisdom”, after all “we’re lucky to be alive”. Perhaps though some people, just don’t feel “lucky”, no matter how “lucky” they’re told they should feel? Few were willing to see beyond the fetisisation and martyrdom to the ugliness underneath, to separate the sentiment from reality, but James Cussen did, in a powerful post entitled, ‘Our very own child of Prague’.

“I think we’ve raised plenty of ‘awareness’ by now that mental illness is real (!); but even to operate at that tawdry level, so often utilised as a vehicle for celebrity aggrandisement, what exactly has Walsh accomplished except precisely the kind of stigmatisation our chattering classes claim to be well since past?”

“Chattering class”, as a term, barely makes sense in a modern context, it implies the leisure to talk, the privilege of being listened to, 100% mouth, 0% trousers. We all ‘chatter’ after all, talk for the sake of filling a void, talk for the sake of talk, we need to talk, it’s a different kind of ‘need’ to when someone comes up to you and says, “we need to talk,” this kind of ‘need’ implies something unpleasant and we couldn’t be having that.

Dr. Chumley: “Good heavens man haven’t you any righteous indignation?”

Elwood P. Dowd: “Well years ago my old mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world Elwood (she always used to call me Elwood), you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart, I recommend pleasant, you may quote me.”

Two tweets posted in response to the yes vote in the gay marriage referendum in May…


1 Tara Flynn 'loved and accepted'

2 Cussen 'daddy'

One is “oh so pleasant,” and one, well, isn’t. In case you don’t know, @DavQuinn is the public face of the Iona Institute, a pro-Catholic think-tank which campaigned for a No vote in the recent marriage equality referendum. Whereas comedian Tara Flynn forgives, Cussen slaps, outwardly one is nice and one is nasty, but consider how the former is extending forgiveness when none has been asked for and no apology has been offered, it’s a sentiment he dismisses as, “bullshit liberalism in a rutting display.”

“People are calling ‘Mad Max’ a feminist masterpiece just because they’ve reversed the gender roles.”

“Isn’t that a bit harsh though? It’s only a bit of fun.”

“That’s the point, it is a bit of fun, it’s not serious, but it’s been treated seriously… Today you get male celebrities wearing t-shirts saying ‘this is what a feminist looks like’, yet they still have skinny girlfriends on their arm.”

3 feministmadmax tumblr

When you meet people you only know from Twitter the first person you’re really meeting is yourself, because those gaps and holes things like social media leave out we invariably fill with some caricature of ourselves. His voice was deeper and softer spoken than I imagined, less bitey, a languorous, slightly posh Cork accent, complicated words and concepts seem to spill out of his mouth like smoke. His face is very boyish, but sharp-featured.

I asked him about Syriza and Greece, he scoffed at the idea of “Eurogroup communists,” and the naivety of “speaking truth to power.”

For example, the British economy had ran up huge debts during the second World War, the Americans had extended a low-interest, emergency credit line to the UK called ‘Lande lesse’, but not long after the war ended they cut this off. The British had elected Labour, much to the shock of everyone, with Clement Atlee having promised to implement the Beveridge report (what became the NHS), Clement Attlee sent economist and statesman Jay Maynard Keynes to negotiate with them, “a man possibly even more intelligent than Varoufakis,” he noted sardonically.

“Keynes went to America expecting that they would be so grateful and sympathetic that they’d agree to a grant of $7 billion, instead they offer a loan of $5 billion with interest, the British turn it down, so Keynes eloquently explained the situation and the Americans listened with interest, patience and sympathy, then said “thank you for your time Mr. Keynes, our offer is now $3.75 billion.”” Keynes suffered a heart attack during the negotiations and died not long after. These were two allies who’d just fought a war side by side, yet the Americans were happy to abandon pretexts of friendship and play hardball. If Syriza ever expected sympathy from Europe they were either certifiable or cynical.

4 Scauble-varoufakis-strip

He notes how throughout the negotiations, Sinn Féin have consistently backed Syriza and takes a dim view of the newly formed Irish Social Democrats, like Renua Ireland, he sees it as an exercise in branding, “Catherine Murphy will be surprised… I suspect Stephen Donnelly’s colours will out… and Roisín Shorthall has made noises about keeping the 8th.” Politicians, to him, are essentially salesmen.

So what then does he mean by ‘the left’?

“The left stands against power.”

And what does he mean when he says he’s a Marxist?

“It means a recognition that history is caused by material conditions,” material conditions essentially meaning who controls what, “it’s macro history.”

I ask him about how a lot of modern culture is about presenting a face, an observation filmmaker Adam Curtis has made, likening it to the reinvention of Victorian public and private self, economic historian Philip Mirowski has called it “training wheels for neoliberalism”. He agrees with this, so why use social media at all?

“It’s a way to talk to people and to engage with the news critically… my feed offers a routine demolition of the media.” In a way social media helped make him Marxist, “it clarified things.”
His main work as a scholar is in the history of the Catholic Church, does the history of social media bleed into the history of religion?

The church, he says, functions as a way to give validity to power, since 1075 when Pope Gregory VII appointed the bishop of Milan (previous to that the appointment of bishops was at the discretion of the local aristocracy), then ex communicated the Holy Roman Emperor when he objected, when German Princes used this as a pretext for rising against him, Henry IV had to relent and beg forgiveness from the Pope.

Today when Pope Francis speaks of the ills of austerity, Cussen sees him as “milking it, his real concern is biopolitics.” The Catholic Church he argues, did quite well out of the Protestant reformation, it allowed the Church to consolidate, clamp down and expel some trouble-makers. If you want to ask more pertinent questions about what the Catholic Church does, ask about the Vatican bank, which has been called a money-laundering front for the Italian Mafia. “Someone once asked the Pope “how many people work in the Vatican?” He answered, “about half””. The Vatican bank is said to be the richest organisation in the world, “yet when you ask how much money is there in the Vatican bank? Nobody knows.”


The 1981 death of Robert Calvi, known as ‘God’s banker’ for his connection with the Vatican, had Mafia undertones, he was found hanging from Blackfriars bridge London, in what looked suspiciously like a staged suicide, the incident was the inspiration for the plot of the third Godfather film. One thing that is known is that John Paul II was sending money to Polish nationalist trade union ‘Solidarity’ and there is evidence that the attempted assassination of him in 1981 was “blowback”.

He’d like to maybe write a great book about the Irish Catholic Church in the 19th century, as for what gives validity to power today…

Marriage is invented as a way to transfer wealth from generation to generation, the nuclear family helps to atomise and compartmentalise society. Which isn’t to say the recent marriage referendum hasn’t meant any change, it’s important for people to be accepted into the rituals of society, otherwise they exist outside of it, but the idea of people having to be ‘accepted’ in the first place is telling.

“Now you see Aodhán O’Riordáin on Twitter, calling everything “yes equality moments”.


The fixation on free enterprise and running an economy like a business ignores reality. “The thing about competition is somebody loses… Free markets hide class relations,” the trend in favouring STEM degrees and devaluing humanities gives you science graduates “with no history and a tin ear for politics.” People like David Robert Grimes of Oxford, who wrote recently in the Irish Times championing genetically modified food crops or Justine Tunney the former Occupy activist, now with Google New York who advocates giving the poor a nutrient paste, called “without a trace of irony, ‘Soylent.’”

Ordering a drink at the Hotel bar in Cork where I’m interviewing him, I see he’s gotten his phone out, he looks at it with a smile on his face, you could easily mistake for a smirk. I ask him about his Twitter moniker, “the left dream of Twitter.” It’s a reference to a line from the 1944 Soviet national Anthem, it’s meant to be self-deprecating.

“I’m hardly fucking Engels.”

The film ‘Harvey’, revolves around the character Elwood P. Dowd, a well-heeled alcoholic, whose best friend is an imaginary rabbit. The plot revolves around attempts by his sister to cure him and resolves when the people around him agree that actually he’d be much nicer the way he is, the moral of the story could be summed up in the line, “you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant.” Alternatively it could be summed up too as “leave well enough alone,” after all alcoholics who hallucinate 6 six foot tall rabbits aren’t born, they’re made (or rather unmade and broken), require some looking after and rarely are as charming as Jimmy Stewart. What saves Elwood and Harvey from the injection we’re assured would cure them, is a speech from the taxi driver, who talks about the difference between customers before the trip and after it. “After this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” In other words people are awful, so it’s better to make up your own reality, if someone is being horrible, just pretend they’re being nice… Seanán Kerr

8 nice twitter