Friday 17 July 2009

Ireland - A Kinder Country?

Is it just me or has Ireland become a nicer place since the Celtic Tiger developed a toothache? I hadn’t been back in eighteen months and the change was both startling and pleasant.
Like many I was delighted with the country’s economic boom and its newfound confidence. However, Ireland’s many masters of the universe are no different than our New York breed: arrogant, self-serving bantam cocks who, as my mother used to say, have “lost the run of themselves.” Thankfully, they were far less in evidence this trip.
But let me diverge from my own prejudices and predispositions. I recently took a group over to Ireland with the purpose of showing them the “literary, historical, political and musical” side of the country, God help us - a tall order in six weeks, let along 6 days. They were a mix of Celtic Crush listeners - a show I host for SiriusXM Satellite Radio - and Black 47 fans.
Almost all were visiting for the first time so let me give some of their observations.
First and foremost, Guinness made a huge impression. There’s nothing quite like putting back a lunchtime pint of plain for building a solid foundation, thereby setting a contented course for the rest of the day.
My fellow-travelers – all of them hard-working, intellectually driven people – used such glowing terms as “mother’s milk,” and “liquid Quaaludes,” to describe Arthur’s porter, now in its two hundred and fiftieth year of brewing. They were, however, aghast that young Irish people seem to have forsworn black magic for American alcoholic beverages “with all the body of an anorexic flea” as one lady from California put it while ordering a third when we had just stopped for “the wan.”
You have to wonder about the future of this “nectar of the gods” in the Emerald Isle since I never saw a person unthreatened by mid-life crisis raise a pint of plain. Ah well, I hear business is booming in Nigeria and we have a host of new converts recently arrived back in the US eager as Mormons to spread the word.
Putting aside the booze for a moment, I think we should petition Bono to espouse a new cause – the addition of a sunroof over Ireland, for there are few countries with such marvelous scenery when the rain stays in Spain. Apart from a few blustery showers, we were favored with warm and breezy weather. Perhaps, the black stuff was working its magic but the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, Connemara, the South Wexford coast, West Cork and the Kingdom of Kerry never looked better.
My group was beyond impressed by the ever-present sense of history. Some months prior to departure, I had given them a list of books, movies and poetry to digest so most had some sense of Ireland’s literature and past. But whether it was Yeats in Sligo, Sarsfield in Limerick, Joyce in Dublin, Cromwell in Wexford or Mick Collins in West Cork, we seemed to have ghosts peering over our shoulders everywhere.
But let’s not forget the living. The Irish people we encountered were invariably warm, witty, welcoming, humorous, and unfailingly kind and polite. There have been times over the last decade when I felt that I’d better book a month ahead to make sure that old friends might fit me into their harried schedule. Perhaps it’s the general economic downturn but everyone seemed to have time for a chat – and a pint.
The Irish have always been noted for their love of words and conversation. Having forfeited our own tongue, we took the English language, twisted and turned it into something unique and malleable, rinsed it out with good cheer and humor, and infused it with spirit, soul and a delight in the hearing and telling a good yarn.
Much of that seemed to have vanished in the boom years when one was more likely to be regaled with bulletins on rising house values, the latest holiday in Thailand, and a host of vapid consumerist exploits.
Booms may be good for the bank balance but busts seem to gain more traction for the soul. In our own tough economic times maybe that’s something worth remembering – and when all else fails, how about a pint of black magic to put all manner of things in perspective.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

No Times at all, Just the New York Times

Why don’t we stop foolin’ ourselves?
The game is over…
No good times, no bad times,
There`s no times at all,
Just The New York Times…

So said Simon and Garfunkel back in 1968 when the New York Times seemed as impregnable as Fort Knox.
What times we live in! Recently, the mighty Times had to put its spanking new office building in hock; not to mention that the Boston Globe is holding on by its fingernails, while the Philadelphia Inquirer and the LA Times can barely afford the paper to print on.
The only good news of late for the newspaper business is that its demographic of “more mature” readers is living longer. Make sure you’re taking your vitamins – we need every one of you!
Personally, I find it very hard to face the day without a newspaper. And yes, you’ve got it right. I do have a subscription to the New York Times, that commie-leaning, hater of Rush Limbaugh. But, fear not! I’m far from being an elitist, for I also cast a jaundiced eye over the News, Post, various freebies, and of course, our own dear Irish Echo.
There are two fail-safe ways of measuring the ever-changing nature of New York City – the nationality of cabdrivers and what people are reading on the subways.
Leaving cabs for another day, it’s not what people are reading on the subways any more - it’s that they’re not. Now I’ve nothing against iPods except that if the city takes a turn towards turbulence again, there’ll be a lot of stunned looks, sore heads and ripped eardrums.
There are those who say, “the hell with them auld rags, with one click of a finger I can find out what the ayatollahs are up to in Iran and at the same time get the inside scoop on the color of Britney’s nail polish.”
I can’t vouch for goings on in Tehran but when it comes to cosmetics the Internet is only in the ha’penny place compared to the Echo where Eileen Murphy can give you the lowdown on the eyeliner employed by every boy-band that ever winked a virginal come-on at a camera.
Not that I haven’t had my own problems with the Times. Back in the day, it often favored British Government hacks over nationalist sources in the North of Ireland. But, in general, it does provide a fairly insightful background to world affairs, though on the home front it’s shamelessly more partial to the Yankees than the Mets.
My problem with the Internet, TV and Talk Radio is that we tend to gravitate towards views that we already agree with. Take for instance my brief infatuation with Rachel Maddow. What was I thinking? Now she drives me mental for I know exactly what’s on her mind before she says it
. C’mon, Rach, put some spice back in our relationship – surprise me for once! It’s not that I’ve deserted you for Bill O’Reilly. Far from it, but Maureen Dowd of the Times knows how to keep a guy’s attention – she’s not only unpredictable, she’s got a head of thick Irish red hair to die for.
I have little doubt but that there’s a big shakeout coming in the newspaper world and that opinionated blogs, tweets, toodle-dos and yet to be invented digitized forms of communication will become the main source of information.
Still, that’s nothing we haven’t witnessed before – take a skim back through the myriad pugnacious periodicals of the early Republic when editors were regularly called out to duel - (note to Editor O’Hanlon, keep your pistols oiled, I’m contemplating a column on the Post-Marxist political, sexual and social ramifications of Daniel O’Donnell’s lyrics!)
All joking aside, we live in dangerous time and there is a need for the sensible, well-thought-out, down-to-earth voices of the Hamill-Breslin era. We didn’t always agree with them, but they made us think and consider other ways of looking at things.
Perhaps, I just haven’t sufficiently trolled the Internet but such voices seem to find more fertile ground in established newspapers. Besides, Maureen Dowd knows how to keep her men interested, and, to the best of my knowledge, the color of her hair doesn’t come off a pharmacy shelf.

I Worry About Barack

I worry about Barack Obama. It’s not that I don’t think his stimulus will eventually have some effect, but by the time it kicks in we may have already weathered this particular recession. And what then will we have to show for the huge outlay and subsequent deficit?
It seems that our major thinkers are always a day late, but rarely a dollar short – rush into war in Iraq because of mushroom cloud delusions, bail out AIG because they insured every bank and bookie without proper collateral, and now pump money across a multitude of schemes instead of building, for instance, a national rail and subway system. But that’s democracy for you: it moves slowly, doesn’t come cheaply, guarantees disagreement and, hopefully, eventual compromise.
That’s why I fear for the man himself – his coolness, competence and logic are an obvious target in a country awash with guns and demagogues who preach intolerance and paranoia.
Although our president displays little of his turbulent passion, Bobby Kennedy keeps springing to mind. Odd in itself, since Bobby was a real agent of change who might have sent the country in a whole different direction.
Barack has no such illusions. As far as I can see, his main goals are to avoid picking new fights halfway around the world while guaranteeing decent, affordable health insurance at home. Oh, and of course, he has set himself the small task of cleaning up the economic, military and social shambles bequeathed him by the previous administration.
Yet all I hear from his critics are old stock phrases such as “socialization” and “Europeanization.” Obama is no more a socialist than Alexander Hamilton. Like the financial brain of the founding fathers he believes in free trade and free markets, albeit with a strong federal government ready to take action whenever market forces lead the country to the brink of economic destruction.
Still, despite his pragmatism, he faces the same demons that put paid to Bobby - guns, ignorance and a shadowy array of hate-filled nuts just dying to leave their mark on history.
I hesitate even voicing this opinion, but the fact is, that despite the US possessing an overwhelming majority of citizens with good will, there beats within the country an unruly heart ever wary of change.
The hatred and sheer illogic that I hear spewed out on talk radio would be comic, if it weren’t so threatening. Of course, the reason that these buffoons exult in distorting any kind of rational argument is that the more extreme their views, the more we listen, which in turn ups their ratings, allowing their corporate bosses to sell more advertising. Talk about ultimate bang for your buck!
Unfortunately, reason and logic fly out the window when vitriol and sensationalism enter. Night after night on stage, for the first three years of the War in Iraq, I listened to robotic slogans about patriotism delivered with the same glassy eyed glare by the same strident hate-filled voices.
You might as well have been talking to Mrs. Murphy’s cow as countering that the US was founded on dissent, that it is indeed patriotic to question the motives of your leaders instead of following them like lemmings, and that not one of the founding fathers advised getting involved in overseas wars.
Likewise it’s hardly worth mentioning that the Second Amendment guaranteeing a “right to keep and bear arms” was initiated by a citizenry that did not wish to maintain an expensive, and possibly seditious, European style standing army. Far better to summon up a well-armed militia should there be a foreign or internal threat.
No one wishes to prevent hunters from knocking off deer to their hearts content, but has Bambi become so ferocious that he needs to be taken out by an AK-47? And, even more consequentially, do we need to make available such a legal array of deadly weapons - more suitable to the Khyber Pass - to any nut with proof of identity?
Then again, President Obama appears to be treading warily on this issue, for despite a blitz of proposed legislation he has made little move to control the ever-increasing scepter of guns within our community. Perhaps, like Michael Collins with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he has a fair idea what it might mean for him.
And, still, I worry about the man.