Wednesday 24 March 2010

The Dog Barks But The Caravan Continues On Its Way

Let me tell you the story of Ahmad Shah Massoud?
Never heard of him? Well, the self-same gentleman has more than a little to do with the likelihood of you getting or keeping decent health insurance, and with the deficits now burdening the country.
Not that he’s put a lot of thought into the matter since agents of Osama Bin Laden blew him to kingdom come on Sept. 9th, 2001.
Massoud and Bin Laden were allies back in the Roaring 80’s when Texas Democrat, Goodtime Charlie Wilson and President Ronald Reagan funneled sack-loads of cash and weapons into Afghanistan.
And wasn’t it sweet music whenever those merry Mujihadeen knocked another commie chopper out of the skies. History, alas, is nothing if not a circle game and now the Mujis are shooting at US soldiers.
It would have been very different if Massoud, aka the Lion of Panjshir, had survived.
Although liberal by Afghani standards Massoud still wasn’t the kind of guy you’d bring down the pub, for being a strict Muslim he didn’t take a pint.
Other that that, he was like most Americans: a god-fearing patriot who detested outside interference in his country’s affairs. He took particular umbrage in 1979 when the Afghan Government invited in the Soviets to protect them from fundamentalists upset by new- fangled ideas - like educating women and immunizing children against disease.
To make a long story short, a lot of differences got shoved under the table during the Jihad against the USSR, but when the Soviets eventually beat a retreat various factions of the Mujihadeen squabbled over turf rights. A disastrous civil war broke out, American supplied Stinger missiles were flying like confetti after the Super Bowl, and the country was destroyed.
Things got so bad that many Afghans welcomed as protectors the fundamentalist religious scholars who constituted the Taliban. Only one individual had enough stature to unite the various ethnic, secular and nationalist forces in opposition to this new radical Islamist movement.
Yeah, you guessed it, Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance. And when Bin Laden, apparently unbeknownst to the Taliban, set in motion the plan to blow up the World Trades, he took care to first nullify his former ally.
A prescient move - for when the US invaded some months later the opposition was so fractured that Bin Laden was allowed to escape across Torah Borah Mountain. He would never have made it in one piece if the Lion of Panjshir had been alive.
All water under the bridge, still one question remains - what happened to Massoud’s Northern Alliance that held off the Taliban for years despite being hopelessly outnumbered?
One would think that they’d be four square behind President Karzai; or could it be that they find his government so outrageously corrupt as to be not worth fighting for?
Rather let the naïve Americans drain their wealth and manpower then pick up the pieces on their way out. After all, there’s a saying in that part of the world, “the dog barks but the caravan continues on its way.”
President Karzai estimates that it will be fifteen years before the Afghan Army can control the country. In which case, we’ll spend the fortune that we no longer have aiding them, and to what end?
Al Qaeda doesn’t need sanctuary among the mud huts of Afghanistan. It has the slums of Karachi, the deserts of Yemen and the beaches of Somalia, along with other havens that we haven’t yet even dreamed of.
Invading other countries is costly, cumbersome and bloody; it achieves little bang for the buck – and let’s face it, would we be happy if a foreign army with different social, religious and political ideals was policing our soil?
Sure, we just whipped the Mujis in Marja; but, as in Iraq’s Battle of Fallujah, the great majority of “bad guys” skedaddled leaving the 10% would-be martyrs to make certain we’re left holding the bill for damage done to homes and civilians. Come Spring, we’ll mark the same dance card in Kandahar, and so it goes…
Bin Laden pulled a masterstroke by assassinating Massoud. Even now he’s basking in the knowledge that we will waste even more years, money and lives in this graveyard of empires 7,000 miles across the globe.
Meanwhile at home, we cannot afford to provide our own people with decent health insurance, our deficits balloon and our infrastructure crumbles - the dog barks but the caravan continues on its way…

Thursday 18 March 2010

Lennon, Connolly & The Irish Arts Center

All right, I’ve got one for you! What do John Lennon, James Connolly and the Irish Arts Center have in common?
“It’s about time he got on my wavelength,” says your man up in Pearl River. “Don’t I adore the very ground the Beatles walk on, and what could be better than the Wolfe Tones singing about the “Irish Rebell,” and sure haven’t I been meaning to drop by the Irish Arts Center this twenty years or more.”
Ah, isn’t it a wondrous thing when reader and writer connect! All three, indeed, have one man in common – Brian Heron, a grandson of Connolly who inspired Lennon to write Luck of the Irish, and once upon a time persuaded the city of New York to grant a building on West 51st Street to the fledgling Irish Arts Center for a mere pittance a year.
The Irish Arts Center has been through many changes since its revolutionary days – it has produced academy award winners and nominees, Jim Sheridan and Terry George – but has never lost its sense of adventure and willingness to take a shot on an idea.
And now it stands poised to become the Irish center that New York has always lacked. The Irish government and the city of New York are foursquare behind this new venture that in coming years will grace a block on 11th Avenue where once the Westies prowled.
Of course, we must all kick in. You don’t have to do so with big donations, although they would be welcome. How about taking one of the many wonderful Irish music, dancing or language classes, or checking out a concert or theatrical production?
I have always feared that there might be a carpenter in Queens who could be the next O’Casey or a barman in the Bronx blessed with the latent talent of Patrick Kavanagh, neither of whom ever fulfilled their promise.
There’s a haven for such literary aspirants in the heart of Greenwich Village. It’s not that Glucksman Ireland House will make them better writers but when they cross its threshold they will enter a cocoon of literature and learning where they may share with others their love of Joyce, Yeats, McGahern or McGann and their desire to emulate such giants.
Ireland House holds readings, lectures and concerts, and in general stimulates the Irish-American intellectual life of the city, all in a very friendly and casual, if efficient, manner. A word of warning, you do risk running into me at Pádraig Ó’Cearúll’s Irish classes where conversation is spiced with much laughter and one only needs an interest in the language to participate.
Again, like the Irish Arts Center, Ireland House depends on community support and you don’t have to be an aspiring writer or artist. Just drop by for an event, even risk a year’s membership; you’ll find it will work wonders for your mind and, quite possibly, your soul.
There are so many great social and cultural organizations around the country, and I risk alienation from many friends for not mentioning theirs. However, I’d like to applaud an institution that has received many the knock in Irish-America over the years – the Irish Consulate.
While its staff has always been polite and efficient when it came to renewing a passport or divulging some piece of information, there was a time when many Irish-Americans of republican, or even broadly nationalist, views felt a deep sense of alienation from the Irish diplomatic corps.
Now, one could argue that Sinn Fein’s participation in the political process helped ease this rift, but the healing goes well beyond that. Consul General, Niall Burgess, has thrown open the doors of the consulate and it’s a rare week that there are not a number of events that include all from “shanty to lace curtain” of every political persuasion.
Not to mention that his outgoing, informed and informative deputy, Breandán Ó’Caollaí is so ubiquitous and welcomed about town, that I could have sworn I awoke to see him slipping out my doorway the other morning after setting my unruly desk to order.
On this St. Patrick’s Day it’s a pleasure to tip one’s cap to these dynamic organizations that have added much to the cultural and social life of the city and country in the last year. One hopes that all of you, including my correspondent from fair Pearl River will join me at one of their classes, readings or functions in the coming year.

Sunday 14 March 2010

St. Patrick's Day Message

On one day a year, they congregated outside St. Patrick's Cathedral off Prince 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 in the middle of 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 and even treasure 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. Anti-Irish sentiment, not to mention Anti-Catholicism is a thing of the past. Might it not be time then that our New York St. Patrick's Day Parade broaden its parameters to celebrate all Irishness no matter what religion (or lack thereof), sexuality or political conviction. It's a broad step, I know. But now with the makings of 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 the Sinn Fein party would never sit in a Northern Irish Parliament. Times change and with them tactics and, even, treasured 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 otherwise. Many, like our forebears, are fleeing tyranny, economic and political, 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, in my mind anyway, 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 St. Patrick's Cathedral so many immigrant tears and years ago.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Progressive Angst

One thing that constantly amazes me is how easily intimidated progressives are when it comes to making their views known.
Contrast this with conservatives who have absolutely no qualms in enunciating the righteousness of their cause.
What an interesting phenomenon: for looking at the history of the last eighty or so years, progressivism has more than held its own.
FDR is almost universally hailed as one of the great presidents. Apart from prosecuting World War II, his administration bequeathed us Social Security, and helped drag the country out of a crippling depression.
Harry Truman, though a Democrat, quite adeptly balanced progressive and conservative instincts; and Dwight Eisenhower - nominally a conservative - built the interstate highway system and much other national infrastructure that served as bedrock for the first sustained all round US prosperity.
What politician nowadays would even dream of such essential nation building at home, although most regularly sign off on likeminded projects for the Fifty-First and Fifty-Second states of Iraq and Afghanistan? And don’t talk about deficits! Both Truman and Eisenhower administrations were burdened by huge World War II debts.
And on it goes - JFK was a progressive with cold war tendencies, while LBJ improved the lives of countless citizens with Medicaid/Medicare/Civil Rights legislation before miring the country in Vietnam.
My point is: the US has a long history of combining and working with all shades of the political spectrum.
So what has happened to the modern progressive? All you need is for one
blowhard to pipe up in a bar about "Obama ruining the country," and the hush that descends over sundry quivering liberals and left-wingers is almost deafening.
When have you ever heard one of them exclaim, "Excuse me, my good man, not to make too fine a point of it, but could I note that when President Bush came to power in 2001we had been enjoying a healthy Federal surplus for three years.
In the course of his stewardship, he managed to squander this by giving tax breaks to people far outside your income bracket, all the while swelling the newly created deficit by pursuing a war in Iraq that he merely invoiced but chose not to pay for.
Nonetheless, this Republican president - correctly in my opinion - bailed out many big banks and an insurance company, in order to prevent the whole economic system being flushed down the cosmic toilet.
Yet, in all my evenings imbibing dirty big pints within the walls of this fine establishment, I fail to recall you once raising your voice in dissent against such massive government spending.
Now I grant you that President Obama, in an effort to jumpstart a flaccid economy, did initiate a stimulus program of 787 billion dollars (35% of which has been spent or given in tax cuts; 20% is still in the pipeline and 45% unspent). This intervention has saved many jobs and created not a few; in fact a sizeable number of economists feel that if he increased that amount it would be handsomely returned when federal revenues eventually rebound.
I might also mention that our president – God bless him, Michelle, his Mother-in-Law and the two lassies - is attempting to drag the US up to par with much less prosperous countries by enabling all our citizens to purchase affordable health care and that this plan will eventually help to reduce the deficit.
Now, bartender, please give my learned friend here a pint of your best Guinness and follow that up with a shot of Jameson's so that he can digest this information with a sufficiency of ballast in his belly and a full head of steam."
C’mon, already, let’s give credit where it’s due. Barack Obama inherited a mess of ridiculous proportions. And yet its causes are daily drowned out by the propaganda of vested interests, a miasma of misinformation, and a sheer unwillingness to face up to the facts of recent history.
When he was running for office many of us chose to see our hopes reflected in his message. My own feeling, after a year in office, is that he’s a very intelligent but cautious president of fairly conservative views.
He’s by no means what I’d hoped for, but perhaps he’s a man for the moment – an Eisenhower who’ll inch us back onto the path of pragmatism and structural soundness.
Whatever! He’s the best we have. But he’s going nowhere unless we take the time to speak up and tell it like it really is.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher was the greatest all round hitter I ever saw - or heard. Sure he knocked many over the fences but it was the sheer consistency that astounded. I've no idea how many times I saw him, it's all a blur of blue denim, booze and a hyper-energized Irish Blues.

He always seemed melded to that battered Strat and the sweat flew off him as he coaxed notes out of it that we couldn't even imagine. Sure, he played the Blues, but in a way that I've never heard before or since. I guess it was because he was connected to the Delta by way of Ballyshannon, Cork, Belfast and London; and much of the grit of those towns infected his fluidity.

Do yourselves a favor - pick up Live in Europe! To me it ranks alongside Bob Marley and The Wailers Live as one of the great concert albums. That's exactly how Rory sounded and I treasure my copy because it brings back cider nights when Dublin would throb with electricity because the kid was back in town.

Rory was more than just music to us. What did we have back then - showbands aping any tune that made it to the Top Twenty? Of course, there was Van up North, and we treasured him, although his people had our own well and truly under the heel of the Unionist jackboot. We didn't care; to us Van was Irish and made even grim, repressed Sandy Row seem glamorous.

But Rory was our own. He had taken the boat to London with Taste and conquered it. Sure, Clapton, Beck and Page had greater star power but they didn't have Rory's consistency and that longing to live every moment through his music. I won't mention Hendrix, for how can you compete with a wraith who had the fire of angels coursing through his fingers.

I watched Clapton and Beck recently on stage in New York. Eric, as ever, had that wonderful fluidity but he seemed to be on remote control much of the show. He only came to life when Jeff threatened to blow him out of the water. And Beck was great - never under-rated but now unknown to many, he was all harmonics and whammy bar, and as innovative as he's ever been.

I couldn't help think of Rory. Put him out there and he would have upped the ante in his sweat-soaked denims and forced those two masters out of their contented cruise control. That was our kid, night after night, he took us way beyond ourselves to a place where we could see that teenage dreams could become even more than reality.

And when he'd left the stage after many hoarse and blistering encores, and the lights were bright and the bouncers were trying to get us to go home, we'd still chant

"Nice one, Rory, nice one, son
Nice one, Rory, let's have another one..."

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Those Founding Fathers

Whenever the country is in a crisis, I take a step back and think of the Founding Fathers. It would be a slight understatement to say that there’s sore need for their cool counsel at the moment.
I’m sure Senator Evan Bayh is a decent man, but is it churlish of me to feel that part of his decision to not run for re-election is because he was passed over twice as Democratic candidate for Vice President?
However, he did strike a chord with his statement that “even at a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not being done.”
Now one could argue that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, well-heeled individuals who not only believed that propertied males alone should have a vote, but that women should be relegated to the kitchen, parlor and bedroom. The occasional lettered lady, of course, might aspire to the role of supportive pen pal.
To cap it all these gentlemen who extolled the virtue of liberty refused to deal with the cancer of slavery.
History is like that, though – examine it through the lens of our own times, and you will witness few rose-colored scenarios. Indeed, had the issue of slavery been dealt with back then, it’s unlikely there ever would have been a United States.
And still these men had great wisdom and foresight, and through compromise and principle they bequeathed us an enlightened constitution and a framework within which to work out our differences and problems.
Most of them greatly feared mob rule. They were suspicious of demagoguery and felt that the “great unwashed” were too easily manipulated.
Whatever would they think now as media clowns, blowhards, braggarts, and a twenty-four hour news cycle pollute any kind of civil and meaningful discourse? Is it any wonder that people are confused and angry and yet are not quite sure who caused their problems, let alone what the answers might be.
These Founding Fathers were giants: great debaters, writers, and leaders – take a glance at the Federalist Papers most of which Alexander Hamilton apparently dashed off in between frolicking, politicking, making a living and raising a family.
Many were bitter rivals whose supporters fought in the streets; Hamilton himself was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, and he particularly disliked Thomas Jefferson.
And yet, they made big, though often unpopular, calls. With the newly fledged republic on the verge of bankruptcy, Hamilton insisted that all debts from the Revolutionary War be honored, for if not, the markets and creditors would never again trust the fiscal credibility of the country. He was accused of favoring the banks but argued his case brilliantly and, in the end, his rivals acquiesced.
The stoic George Washington looked on appalled. He knew most of the combatants and had but one hope – that they never form themselves into political parties. While he didn’t agree with many of their ideas, he felt that they were basically decent men who could be appealed to on an individual basis. Combine them in parties, however, and the herd principle would take over.
The idea of public opinion holding sway was frightening. Congress, whether in Philadelphia or Washington, was far from most members’ constituencies. There they were isolated and able to deliberate and make decisions for the national good, unlike our present day peacocks preening before TV cameras while leading with those ubiquitous sanctimonious words that have me running for the hills, “The American people…”
In the end, though, the Founding Fathers depended on a literate and intelligent electorate. As there was nothing approaching universal suffrage, the body of voters was small, condensed and often well educated by today’s standards. Common discourse was part of life and entertainment in and of itself.
There were of course Bill O’Reillys and Keith Olbermanns, provocateurs long on short fuses, fueled by political partisanship; but people of the time were used to lengthy church sermons and public rallies, and were practiced in crystallizing thoughts, summing up ideas and arriving at their own conclusions.
What’s happened? Are we too exhausted from work, too narrow in our frame of references, too set in our ways, too desirous of partisan political victories to see the damage we’re doing to the republic entrusted to us?
Hardly a founding father - but an effective, pragmatic politician and Mayor of Wexford - Dominic Kiernan once remarked to me, “every country gets the government it deserves.”
Say it ain’t so, Dom.