Thursday 26 March 2009

State of the Union

Talk about a state of the union. I’ve passed through many states in the course of my recent travels with Black 47. How are things going out there in the country? Well, as ever, you’re hit with the sheer irrepressible sense of energy and optimism that Americans have always had in abundance; yet, these ineffable characteristics are curried with a deep anger, a brooding sense of anxiety and a revulsion towards politicians and the shadowy mix of financiers and speculators who many feel have sucked the life-blood out of the country.

In short, there’s almost a palpable sense of betrayal abroad. Most people feel that they’ve worked hard, done their part and deserve better. Some may have stretched to buy the home that was a bit beyond their means or overcharged their credit cards, but even they don’t want or expect handouts from the government, and they’re perfectly willing to work that extra job to get things back on the straight and narrow. The problem is: the ground is being pulled from beneath their feet as many face unemployment in tandem with rising health care and education costs.

Most are aghast at the wars and excesses of the last eight years, yet they hardly had time to celebrate the lifting cloud before the new president was swamped by a deluge of problems. The more financially secure feel that it’s the inevitable case of the chickens coming home to roost, while those who have already lost their jobs - or fear for them - are just plain frightened.

Everyone wishes to get the country back on track again. But, unlike the mobilization of World War Two, the enemy is not tangible. This time it’s not the Germans or the Japanese that are being confronted – it’s a basic lack of trust. The social contract that unified us was dismantled brick by brick in the recent go-go years of narcissism and “looking out for number one.”

And in the background there’s the endless chatter of cable TV, instant Internet news, partisan blogs and twitters that vilify and predict by the second, then recalibrate their opinions, nail a new victim and predict all over again.

Many people are disoriented because they must come to terms with the fact that the America they knew has changed. Where once we were a great manufacturing nation, now we have become a service society that gets paid to look after and entertain each other. Look at the glass darkly and it could seem that the US risks becoming a big Ronald McDonald, minimum-wage franchise.

Great ideas put into practice, however, can and will elevate the country. The next Apple or Google is even now being conceived in someone’s bedroom or garage. The keys, as ever, are education and innovation. While more and more people cannot afford the former, I saw no lack of the latter out there in the middle of America. In fact, many are already reeducating and reinventing themselves to meet what they fear is a coming meltdown.

They despise both Democratic and Republican poseurs and naysayers. They don’t trust the media and regard all the talking heads as mere pawns who will jump through any hoop to boost their ratings. They want positive change and they’re willing to pay for it, but they’re leery of spending their children’s heritage in parcels of “trust us” trillion dollar schemes that they have not been consulted about.

They are crying out for affordable health care and back the President’s as yet unannounced plans because they recognize that costs must be brought under control. None has a kind word to say for their current insurers and yet all are deathly afraid of losing their coverage.

Many are amazed that they trust this new President so deeply, including some who are borderline racists. They desperately want him to succeed and admire his quiet confidence. They will stick with him, though one gets the impression that time is tight and his political capital is finite.

In an age of bitter anxiety and dreams postponed, I was repeatedly struck by how much, and in such a short time, we have all come to depend upon President Barack Obama.

Saint Patrick's Day

On one day a year, they congregated outside Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street in New York City and marched in celebration. To some of these immigrant Irish and their American born children it was a religious occasion, but to most the gathering was an affirmation of their right not only to survive but to thrive in their adopted country.

That's what I sense on St. Patrick's Day - an echo from a time when the Irish were despised outsiders. And that's why I go along with the raucous energy, the excitement and even the green beer, the plastic shamrocks and the ubiquitous leprechaun.

I didn't always feel that way. When I arrived from Ireland, these manifestations of Irish-America were at best embarrassing. Back home, our own celebrations were rigid and religious; we did sport actual sprigs of shamrock but there was no beer, green or otherwise. The Parade up Fifth Avenue and the ensuing bacchanal seemed downright pagan by comparison.

I had other immigrant battles of my own ahead. The band, Black 47, was formed to create music that would reflect the complexity of immigrant and contemporary Irish-American life and to banish When Irish Eyes Are Smiling off to a well earned rest in the depths of Galway Bay.

This idea met with not a little resistance in the north Bronx and the south sides of Boston and Chicago; but when irate patrons would yell out during a reggae/reel "why can't yez sing somethin' Irish?" I would return the compliment with, "I'm from Ireland, I wrote it! That makes it Irish!”

With time and familiarity, Irish-America came to accept Black 47, probably more for our insistence that each generation bears responsibility for solving the political problems in the North of Ireland, than for recasting Danny Boy as a formidable gay construction worker.

I, in turn, learned to appreciate the traditions of the community I had joined along with the reasons for the ritualized celebration of our patron saint.

And now on St. Patrick's Day, no matter what stage I'm on, mixed in with the swirl of guitars, horns, pipes and drums, I hear an old, but jarring, memory of a people rejoicing as they rose up from their knees.

Our battles, for the most part, have been won; indeed, one has to search an encyclopedia for mention of the Know-Nothing Party or various 19th Century nativist politicians and gangs of bullyboys. Anti-Irish sentiment, not to mention Anti-Catholicism, is a rarity.

Might it not be time then for our New York St. Patrick's Day Parade to celebrate all Irish people no matter what religion (or lack thereof), sexuality or political conviction?

It's a broad step, I know. But with a just peace finally taking seed in the North of Ireland, might we not some day witness Dr. Paisley, Mr. Adams and various members of the Irish Gay community walk arm in arm up Fifth Avenue.

Impossible? Perhaps, but I, for one, would have wagered heavily 15 years ago that Sinn Fein would never sit in a Northern Irish Parliament. Times change, as do tactics and even rigid principles.

Whatever about Parade pipe dreams, we still must honor the memory of those who paved the way for us. Part of that responsibility is that Irish-Americans should never forget the new immigrants from other lands, legal and undocumented.

Many, like our forebears, are fleeing poverty and are striving to feed and educate their families. It would be the ultimate irony if an Irish-American were to look down upon the least of them; for to my mind there is no place in the Irish soul for racism, sectarianism, homophobia or even dumb old Archie Bunker type xenophobia.

I once heard Pete Hamill ask: "What does the Pakistani taxi driver say to his children when he gets home after 12 hours behind the wheel?" I can't say for certain but I'll bet he echoes many of the sentiments of those Irish who gathered outside Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street so many immigrant years and tears ago.

Monday 9 March 2009


Nationalization! The dreaded “N” word is on all lips except the President’s. Has the former “most liberal member of the senate” been mesmerized by the soothing, soporific cadences of Gov. Bobby Jindal?

I think not. After all he has introduced a stimulus the like of which could raise FDR from the dead, while I hear that his health insurance plan has Speaker Pelosi hoisting her skirts and dancing the Tarantella. The only fly in the ointment is that he continues to treat a growing number of zombie banks as though his communion penny was deposited amongst them.

As long as the financial system of the country totters on a foundation of “toxic assets,” President Obama, Treasury Secretary Geithner and Lawrence Summers, can huff and puff ‘til the cows come home but they will not return the US to economic normality. Then again, as Bob Dylan once pointed out, “I don’t know what normal is anymore.” After the recent economic shellacking who does? Makes you almost long for good old Dubya voodoo economics when the war in Iraq was fought without costing the country a dime.

President Obama’s dithering is indeed puzzling. He seems to have so much else right. Spend your way out of the approaching deflation, break the stranglehold of petro-dictators, and provide a sane national health system so that when jobs eventually begin trickling back employers wont have to shoulder prohibitively expensive health insurance.

It’s staggering that the President still listens to his Treasury Secretary, the same gentleman who barely raised a whimper at the New York Fed during the worst Wall Street excesses. At least, Mr. Geithner appears to be banned from spouting anemic daytime prognostications for fear the Dow will keel over and slide into the Hudson.

As for Lawrence Summers - all I ever hear is just how smart he is. Well, he wasn’t so smart when he endorsed deregulation back during his own treasury reign; while his views on women’s aptitude for mathematics when President of Harvard were hardly those of a considered thinker. Even had he been correct in his Archie Bunker musings, he was either too arrogant or unaware to muzzle himself. Show me the home where a woman hasn’t the best handle on mathematics, practical or theoretical; and point out the lady who would allow banks to keep their tainted assets on the books at some fairytale price rather than at market value.

President Obama is throwing good money after bad into the black holes that are Citigroup, Bank of America and AIG. Better send in the shock troops now and find out if these institutions are, as suspected, basically insolvent. Short-term nationalization – or whatever genteel term you’d prefer - won’t be pretty but eventually a credible financial floor will be established, thereby encouraging the private sector to invest in and reclaim these failed banks again.

The real fear is that neither the vast sums needed nor the public’s goodwill will still be on tap unless the problem is faced immediately. Governor Jindal is already taking rehabilitation classes at the Sarah Palin School of Economics, and Newt Gingrich waits in the wings ready to resurrect the Reagan deregulatory revolution.

Try not to get sidetracked by all the hot air about clamping down on the bonuses of Wall Street executives. Those billions are mere drops in the bucket compared to the trillions that our masters of the universe have gambled – and lost - on securitized mortgages. We’ve had all the smokescreens and Band-Aid economics we can handle. How about a dose of reality for a change?

Anyway, enough doom and gloom! I for one am hedging my bets. I have applied for a shovel-ready stimulus grant and plan to start an all-ages retirement community up in E. Durham. We’ll do yoga in the morning, drink dollar beers in the Blackthorn all afternoon while watching the Mets sweep to the World Series. And, in a masterstroke of synergistic marketing, I have approached both Guinness and Viagra to donate a pint and a pill for each member’s nightcap. As the subway driver said, “they’ll never know what hit them!”

I will be accepting applicants at BB Kings on March 17th. All those who oppose nationalization will receive preference. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!