October 25, 2006

Reviews: Leviathan

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In praise of Leviathan:

Leviathan In Action

Want a debate with that drink?
By Brian Lavery, New York Times

It was not your typical icebreaker, certainly not in an Irish pub.

“You were born in England, you live in England,” said a gray-haired man in a crowded bar on the south side of Dublin.

“The mere fact that you’re born in England does not mean that you owe allegiance to the queen,” replied a bearded Muslim. “If I was born in a barn, does that make me a horse?” But then again, this was not your typical pub. It was Leviathan, a kind of soapbox-in-a-pub that has become the city’s hottest ticket by capitalizing on two time-honored Irish traditions: drinking and arguing. Held on the first Thursday of every month, it draws a sell-out crowd to Crawdaddy, a subterranean club in the arched stone vault of an old train tunnel on Harcourt Street.

The lively if somewhat goofy forum is popular with union organizers, working stiffs and university students alike, who pay 20 euros ($25, at $1.26 to the euro) to be heard and entertained. Naoise Nunn, a comedy promoter who founded Leviathan two years ago, calls them the commentariat.

“It’s a reaction to what I see as a cozy consensus in the media,” he added.

Previous topics have included the rights of immigrant workers and Anglo-Irish relations. The topic this evening was no less pointed: “Are Islam and the West on course for a clash of civilizations?” If that weren’t incendiary enough, the five panelists were handpicked to provoke conflict. Representing the traditional West were Joe O’Shea, a reporter from The Irish Daily Star, a tabloid that reprinted the Danish cartoons of Mohammed; Brigid Laffan, a left-wing professor of political science; and Alan Shatter, a former moderate member of the Irish parliament.

On the Islamic side were Ali Saleem, from the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland, and Anjem Choudary, a high-profile and controversial Islamic fundamentalist from Britain who has been accused of supporting the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Presiding over the forum, as usual, was the economist and rising media star David McWilliams, who employs an arched eyebrow and a knowing glance to provoke skepticism and laughter among the motley audience of about 300, which included scruffy students and sharply dressed lawyers.

“Get involved with the panel as much as possible,” Mr. McWilliams instructs the crowd. “If you have questions, if you have issues, if you’re irate, if you’re sympathetic, by all means …” But before the main event, the audience gets warmed up by Paddy Cullivan, an irreverent lounge singer, who performs a set of topical parodies. An Islamic send-up of a McDonald’s commercial gets a hardy chuckle, and gives everyone plenty of time to settle into their candlelit tables – and pints of Guinness.

With some people clearly buzzed, the panelists appear sometime after 10 p.m. The stage has two black leather couches under spotlights, like the set of a television talk show.

Mr. Choudary, in his opening statement, takes a conciliatory tone, seeking to elicit empathy for the Muslims who rioted in response to the Danish cartoons. But Mr. Shatter, the politician, wastes no time in confronting him.

He’s “masking” his true views, Mr. Shatter says, citing Mr. Choudary’s alleged links with groups that encourage young Muslims to become suicide bombers. As Mr. Choudary begins to reply, Mr. Shatter cuts in, “Do you believe those who crashed into the twin towers are martyrs?” The audience grows silent, even as waitresses in tight black T-shirts weave across the floor with trays of drinks.

“There are always two perspectives,” Mr. Choudary says calmly. He’s clearly been asked this question before. “Open your mind and look at the people who are living in Afghanistan, in Sudan, in Saudi Arabia, where buildings are falling on their heads on a daily basis.”

The crowd wasn’t buying it. “Answer the question!” barks a 30-something heckler from the balcony. The audience members nod their heads in agreement. “Yes or no!” Mr. McWilliams, seated on a stool between the couches, steps into the fray. Switching from provocateur to mediator, he struggles to keep the discussion from boiling over into unintelligible shouting. “Now, now! You’re getting very rowdy,” he says, pointing an accusatory finger into the crowd, like a headmaster of an elite prep school.

Keeping the lid on is not always easy, especially as hecklers find courage at the bottom of a pint glass.

In truth, however, drunken interruptions are rare; the caliber of debate is usually quite high. The combination of alcohol and discourse, after all, is a time-honored tradition here. Centuries-old debating clubs, which are still popular and cherished at Irish universities, have produced a city full of people who know how to argue.

Frustrated by what many here see as the corporate-driven mass media, Dubliners today flock to public lectures at universities, royal academies and less-formal settings like Leviathan to exercise their verbal jousting.

Spread solely by word of mouth and e-mail, pub debates have begun to crop up elsewhere, including one called the First Wednesday Debates, at Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street, which is sponsored by Comhlamh, an umbrella charity group.

But Leviathan remains the most popular by far. After the panelists parry and riposte for nearly an hour, the microphone moves to the audience floor as the format shifts to question and answer. It becomes clear that the crowd likes to argue as much as the assembled experts.

Should Muslims in Ireland act more Irish? Is Ireland a terrorist target because it allows American warplanes to refuel? Can women be treated with respect under fundamentalist Islam?

Before the panel can answer, the audience chimes in, often with nonsensical responses.

By the time Leviathan concludes around midnight, the audience is worked up. Instead of going home, the crowd ends the night with more drinks at the bar. And more debate.

On his way out the door, Mr. McWilliams, with his shock of red hair and impish smile, tries to explain Leviathan’s appeal.

“It’s about trying to recapture a bit of public space in this town,” he says. “People here are educated,” he says, but they like getting drunk. “There’s nothing worse than a sober group taking itself too seriously.”

Photo courtesy of Derek Speirs for The New York Times