Thursday 20 August 2009

Socialized Medicine

Despite being erroneously labeled “socialized medicine,” the US will eventually wend its way towards adopting a single-payer, non-profit, health insurance system.
Why? It’s the American way – you pay for what you get and take responsibility for yourself. Those two bedrock principles of capitalism are rarely extolled in the current shrill debate on health coverage, but because of economic necessity they will surely reassert themselves.
This was explained to me some years back by an industrialist. He operates a small factory that manufactures a specialized high-end product. Business was booming and he was on the verge of expanding until he crunched the numbers.
If he doubled his work force he would then come into the sights of Chinese entrepreneurs. There was no way he could compete, for his costs would be so much greater - in particular health insurance for his employees.
Calvin Coolidge stated that the business of America is business. Old Cal may have been given to overstatement, but when American businesses are unable to compete with the rest of the world, then we all have a problem – particularly in this current economic downturn.
The US always emerges from a recession a somewhat different country. There have been four major downturns since I first began zooming down Route 80 to gigs throughout the Mid-West. It’s getting harder to remember a time when the boarded-up factories of Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit provided decent living wages to thousands of blue and white-collar workers.
Those jobs will not be coming back. The question is what, if anything, will replace them? Are we doomed to sink into a service economy of part-time workers with little or no benefits? Or will the US rebound leaner and meaner with entrepreneurs creating meaningful well-paid jobs in new industries?
Given my industrialist friend’s decision and the seeming unwillingness of our politicians to grasp the nettle of ever-escalating health insurance costs, you tell me.
A single-payer system is not even up for debate at the moment despite its obvious economic merits. As ever there’s a systemic reluctance to face the reality that if we continue with the status quo, costs will continue to escalate and more people will lose their coverage.
And yet with the Dr. No attitude of the majority of the Republican Party, combined with the reluctance of many Democrats to embrace a government sponsored public alternative to private health insurers, that’s what we’re facing. And this time we won’t have a Hillary to blame.
Given their past records - and without a strong viable public alternative “to keep them honest,” - there is little chance private health insurance companies will keep their premiums anywhere in line with inflation.
But over and over we hear the tired old refrain, “keep the government out of medicine.” And even the ridiculous, “don’t let Washington take over my Medicare.”
Perhaps, it’s time for a national “turn your TV off week” so that people can actually look at the facts and figures without being bamboozled by talking heads vying for ratings, and other vested interests.
Meanwhile the “S” word is back with a bang, though some of the best managed and most respected institutions in the US are “socialized” and run by the government – Medicare, Veterans Administration, and the Armed Services, to name but a few.
The current proposed changes to health insurance are mere fingers in a leaky dam. By the time congressional compromises have been made and chits called in, they will be anemic at best.
Still, if they include a public government-backed alternative to the private health insurers, some meaningful competition will be provided thereby saving us from drowning in a sea of rising costs.
The proposed changes, unfortunately, will do little to help our businesses become competitive with the rest of the industrialized world.
But at least we’ll have made a symbolic start and the vast majority of Americans will for the first time be covered. From these small essential beginnings, perhaps we can reassure ourselves that it is possible to work together towards really improving the social and economic fabric of the country, and not run for cover every time the “S” word is employed as a diversion.
Then with time and the eventual introduction of a single payer system, we can all take responsibility for our own health insurance, and eventually even our own health.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Cromwell's Curse

My paternal grandfather bought four papers on a Sunday, three English – the People, Express and Telegraph, and one Irish – the Independent.
My maternal grandfather wouldn’t even hear of having an “auld English rag” in the house; in fact, it’s a wonder he allowed the Fine Gael Independent through the door for he even had doubts about the veracity of DeValera’s Sunday Press. Being of a Republican frame of mind, he barely believed the weather reports from either journal.
I read all these papers from cover to cover. Each provided a window of escape from an often suffocating small town mentality; even now I can remember rare tidbits of information gleaned from amidst those inky pages in the blissful hours between mass and Sunday dinner.
It was in the Express that I first read about “Cromwell’s Legacy.” I can still picture the article about a group of indigenous Irish who live near the beaches of North-Eastern Barbados.
They should have titled the article “Cromwell’s Curse” for it was the Lord Protector who banished the ancestors of these people to the Caribbean.
After their defeat by the Parliamentary Roundhead forces many Irish soldiers were allowed to sail for Europe. Most people, however, were stripped of their lands and banished to the rocky regions of Connaught. They were the lucky ones.
Many more, including the wives and children of the departed Wild Geese, were transported to Barbados and sold as slaves to the sugar planters. They worked the fields next to the Africans, eventually intermarried, and you can hear traces of an Irish lilt and phrasing in the patois of the racially mixed peoples of the Caribbean.
Not the Red Legs or Bakros, as they were called. They kept to themselves and can still be seen in the poorest areas, a strange pasty-faced, people, often described as “sickly, shiftless, overbearingly proud, stubborn, resentful and inward looking.” Can you blame them?
They were called Red Legs because many Irish wore kilts or knee breeches, causing their skin to be burned badly under the unmerciful sun.
And Bakros? That was a derogatory term bestowed by their African neighbors, for in the Anglican churches the estate owners sat up front, the white and black clerks and colonial functionaries were next, followed by black slaves, and finally the Irish - relegated to the back rows.
Though many priests were banished to Barbados, second-generation Irish slaves forsook Catholicism, probably because new priests could not be ordained without a bishop, and most native Irish clerics did not survive the first awful years.
The Red Legs were despised by their Puritan masters and later by the Royalists, when the monarchy was restored. The Irish, at home and, no doubt, in Barbados too, hoped for justice and restoration of their lands from the new king, but it was not to be.
The Red Legs were deemed untrustworthy, often fomenting rebellion when not fleeing from the plantations. Many crewed on pirate vessels; others escaped to more liberally ruled islands or the Southern seaboard of the new American colonies.
Those stranded on Barbados became indolent, took to drinking cheap rum, scratching out a living on the poorest of land or fishing. They got a reputation for being uppity and possessed of a laughable overweening pride - given their poor circumstances.
While wintering on Barbados, no less a person than Winston Churchill showed interest and thought to help them. But in the end, no one cared for the lowly Backro, while many suggested that because of their miserable lifestyle, they cared little for themselves.
Up until recently they received little schooling and apparently know nothing of their history. They keep to themselves and intensely resent any outside prying or interference. Some social scientists, ironically, feel that their only way to ascend the social and economic ladder is to finally intermarry with the local black population.
But some still remain, a small piece of frozen history, isolated and remote – the curse of Cromwell in the living flesh.
The boy reading the Sunday Express back in Wexford vowed to one day go see them. The man never did. Maybe someday…

Saturday 1 August 2009

Michael Jackson and Pierce Turner's Bowtie

It all began because Pierce Turner’s bowtie broke. Well, I suppose it really started when our band, Major Thinkers, got signed to Epic Records, the label responsible for the success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
We were instantly catapulted from being a Lower East Side New Wave band to the potential next big thing. Within days people who wouldn’t have spared us a subway token were flying us first class around the country.
Part of the deal with Epic was that we were required to “make the scene.” Consequently, we received two embossed tickets for the social event of the 80’s – a celebration for Michael Jackson at the Museum of Natural History.
We were also sent formal evening attire, from dress suits to black shoes (how did they know our sizes, you might ask? Hey babe, Epic’s stylists already had all our measurements!)
And then Turner’s bowtie snapped. We tried everything from needle and thread to crazy glue to fix the bloody thing; suffice it to say our tardiness led to our limo driver speeding off when some of our enterprising neighbors attempted to mount his vehicle on milk crates. In the end, we were forced to settle for an oil-spewing checker cab driven by a pot-smoking anarchist.
By the time we rattled up to the Museum even the fashionably late had long since arrived; thus, a rumor spread among the paparazzi that the gloved one was upping the ante by arriving in a cab rather than the usual poseur’s limo.
The camera flashes exploded like sheet lightning as the anarchist, with a great flourish, opened the back door and out stepped two yobs from Wexford - to be greeted by a chorus of groans from onlookers and paparazzi alike.
Everyone who was anybody in those hype-fueled days was at that party and the gloved one democratically kept us all waiting. Still, there was champagne, caviar and cocaine in abundance. I vaguely remember chatting up Yoko Ono in a Liverpool accent. She was not impressed.
After three hours most of the real celebrities were ensconced in various bathrooms, leaving Turner and me within spitting distance of the King of Pop when he suddenly made his appearance.
It was brief and to the point, to say the least. He merely raised his gloved hand, whispered “hi,” then beat it as hundreds of A-Listers streamed out of stalls and closets sneezing and wiping their noses. But I’ll never forget the sheer panic in this pathologically shy young man’s eyes; nor did I have any doubt but that he was a prisoner of his own fame and psychosis.
In the next year I would learn a lot about the celebrity music business – the managers, agents, handlers and PR firms who take so much off the top that the artist is left with an unworkable percentage along with sacks full of unpaid bills. I learned even more about the corrosive costs of celebrity, and how egotism and various dependences are not only tolerated but encouraged, thereby making the talent easier to control.
Major Thinkers are not even a footnote now; we were eventually “dropped” and returned to East Village anonymity. Michael, however, suffered a worse fate for he could have been the greatest Rhythm & Blues singer.
He’ll always be king of Rhythm – play Billy Jean at your next party and watch the floor fill within the first sixteen bars. But his longing for a lost childhood coupled with his various dependencies - many of them enabled by an ubiquitous retinue of flunkies - ensured that he never learned to touch his own soul in the manner of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke.
What does Jackson’s life say about us? Well, as a society we’re addicted to vapid sensationalism. Celebrity, after all, sells ads for toilet paper; the ongoing imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan are too complicated and tedious for such an all-important task.
And what about his death? Michael’s dependence on so many prescription drugs may seem staggering but take a look in your own bathroom closet. We have a pill for everything nowadays in our efforts to eradicate pain and grief. Unfortunately, both are part of the human condition. Michael, for all his talent and money, never came to terms with either. Perhaps it’s time our doctors did.

Frank McCourt

It was one of those sunny afternoons when you shouldn’t be belly-up to a bar. There were many such days at the Bells of Hell in Greenwich Village.
I was part of a hungover group of scribes that included Lester Bangs when the door opened and a high school kid stepped in, followed by a dozen or more classmates who lined up silently behind us. Then a slim unprepossessing man slammed the door behind him and addressed the nervous teenagers, “So you want to be writers?”
Thereupon he dismissively waved his arm at us and concluded sadly, “look at the end result.”
That was Frank McCourt – entertaining and original, but always with that razor edge that kept you on your toes.
I remembered the incident at Rosie O’Grady’s last week when President Clinton in a glowing eulogy remarked that he wished he’d met Frank before he became “a big shot.”
That would have made him more familiar with the Limerick man’s acidic wit, some of which was surely inherited from his mother. One night at the Bells she confided that her four sons were a “private Gethsemane” to her; and when an aspiring writer arrived wearing a broad brimmed hat favored by poets, Mrs. McCourt hissed, “will you look at the head on that fellah and the price of turnips!”
Many of Frank’s buddies from the Bells and the Lion’s Head surfaced for the memorial, among them Pete Hamill, Jack Deacy, Sheila McKenna, Dennis Smith, Don Berger, and David Amram. Amid the tributes to Frank’s many qualities, one went unmentioned – he kept us honest.
Back then, Frank tended to cede the floor to his younger brother Malachy, the ebullient Denis Duggan, the saturnine Nick Browne, or any of a dozen other hard-boiled wits and raconteurs. But dare anyone affect a false air or go beyond an accepted level of exaggeration and Frank would flay the offender with a deliciously acerbic quip.
It was a delightful shock to all of us – Frank included - when Angela’s Ashes catapulted him into literary center stage, ordaining him “chief Mick,” into the bargain.
I was in Rosario, some hundreds of miles up the River Plate when this ascension finally hit home. Having a few hours to kill before a gig I dropped in on a convention of Irish-Argentinians where I was introduced to a somewhat intoxicated missionary cleric from Limerick.
Stuck for words, I remarked “McCourt country;” whereupon, this guardian of virtue cursed Frank into a knot for besmirching the good name of their native city. During our ensuing “frank exchange of views,” I marveled at the sheer irony of the impoverished boy from the back lanes causing such uproar six thousand miles from rainy Limerick.
Frank would have reveled in this brouhaha for he had a rare appreciation of the absurdity of life. Literature, though, was his chief delight and it saved him from the darkness he could so easily have slid into. In Frank’s universe, good writing was an end in itself and, though he immensely enjoyed his celebrity, he had little time for the pretensions that abound in literary circles. He once told the story of having a drink with a lady officer who took a shine to him while he was serving with the US Army in Germany.
“Are you familiar with Joyce?” She inquired
“No, is she here yet?” Frank replied.
I could scarcely believe my eyes when this lovely, but sometimes morose and moody, man showed up at one of Black 47’s earliest gigs accompanied by a beautiful younger woman. He was positively beaming and chatting her up a mile a minute – the sparkle of his conversation reflecting in her eyes. Ellen eventually became his wife and brought him a great store of happiness.
And as I listened to the musicians play The Parting Glass at the memorial, the heart nearly fell out of me recalling all the nights the words of that song were bellowed out in the Bells. So many of that unruly choir have been silenced, for as Pete Hamill put it, “they’re shooting at my regiment now.”
But then I remembered we still have Frank’s luminous words and the smile in Ellen’s eyes to remind us of the man and his magic.
So long, Frank, there’s not a prayer in hell we’ll ever see your like again.