Thursday, 5 July 2012

Irish Echo Column 7/16/08 - How much has Changed?

Wexford was a small town in my youth, scarcely 12,000 people, but it had a cultural richness that belied its size. Not, mind you, that anyone had much money: any differences between the wealthy and the poor were based more on a rigid class distinction than the size of one’s bank balance.

Indeed, few people possessed bank accounts, but everyone saved, be it in post office, credit union, or various charitable associations where one stashed the occasional spare shilling to defray the costs of Christmas.

Then again, Wexford was a place unto itself with its own accent, tradition and, more than anything else, a sense of history. Henry II had done penance in Selskar Abbey for the murder of Thomas Becket, Cromwell’s cavalry had galloped through the Franciscan Priory after slaughtering women and children in the Bull Ring, and the Pikemen of ‘98 were hung on the Slaney Bridge after almost sweeping the redcoats from the country.

The town was both geographically and culturally isolated from the hinterland and would have been claustrophobic had it not been for its seafaring tradition. It was not uncommon to hear men in pubs talk about New York, Cape Town and Sydney, the way others spoke of Carlow, Kilkenny or Portlaoise.

Perhaps, that was why there was a tolerance for differing political beliefs despite the ongoing turbulence of local history. My father’s father had a brother killed while serving with the British Army on the Somne, while my mother’s father's sympathies tended more towards the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Yet, they always raised their hats to each other when passing.

Wexford men even fought on opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War and yet all - be they Marxist, Fascist, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein, Labor Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan, and a host of pesky independents - maintained a basic civility in their mutual dealings.

How odd then to witness the fractious, nay even poisonous, relations between members of the Republican and Democratic parties. In a European context both would be regarded as right of center. They may have some differences of opinion on policy, yet their main theatre of battle appears to be in coaxing funds from donors.

When the chips are down and the flags waving neither party has much of a problem with displacing governments halfway around the globe. Perhaps that explains why both believe in crippling defense budgets – a considerable part of which goes to special interests - though in the Republicans favor, one of their presidents, General Eisenhower, warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He also managed to end the Korean War. I wonder if there’s any chance of cloning this remarkable man and posting him to Baghdad?

Oh, and did I mention that neither party has the courage to come up with something as rudimentary as an economically sound system of universal health coverage?

So why then the level of vitriol between partisans on both sides? It is puzzling and, alas, would take a satirist with the skills of Jonathan Swift to highlight the absurdity of the current political process. Despite 24/7 media coverage of the fray, no such genius appears to have materialized; then again, Swift’s comments could hardly be encompassed in 30-second sound bites.

Nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs. Senator Obama, despite the flaccidity of his health insurance plan, does seem to be invigorating the democratic process by registering new voters and persuading many of them to donate small amounts to his campaign.

I don’t know about you but personally I’ve never really understood why taxpayers should subsidize politicians in their pursuit of elected office. If their message has sufficient resonance, voters will pony up their hard earned bucks in much the same way sports fans buy their teams’ paraphernalia. All that is needed is a sensible cap on donations so that the rich and powerful do not subjugate the process.

But it is on the Republican side that the greater ray of hope gleams. Partisans – including such conservative warriors as David Brooks of the New York Times - are seeking to resuscitate the GOP and redeem it from its ignominy as the Grand Oil Party of the Bush years.

For the two-party system to work, we need a vibrant, inclusive Republican Party, one that looks to the traditions of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, and not only cares about reducing taxes but is responsible for the deficits accrued on its watch.

We need a party that has as much concern for community as the individual, because as a nation we are only as strong, educated and healthy as those of our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than us.

We had no Lincolns back in Wexford – such people come rarely; but there were Teddy Roosevelts who could balance rugged individualism with concern for the common good. There were Eisenhowers too: people who went to war reluctantly and never forgot the value of peace – who intrinsically knew that building roads, rather than rattling sabers, made a country stronger and safer.

I wish the Republican party nothing but the best. There are surely amongst its adherents Roosevelts and Eisenhowers itching to restore traditional GOP values. And perhaps even now there is a Lincoln shuttering the windows of his law office and taking the first faltering steps that will eventually land him in DC.

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