Tuesday 23 July 2013

Stay Out Of Syria

Are we crazy? After the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan to even entertain the idea of any form of intervention in Syria is an exercise in scaling moonbeams. Yet that’s what those doughty warriors, Senators McCain and Lindsey, are proposing. The toppling of democracy in Egypt only emphasizes the instability of this part of the world and how important it is to cease meddling in Middle Eastern affairs.

Of course part of this rush to conflict is to make President Obama pay for his ill-considered “red line” threat over the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. As if the estimated 90,000 already slaughtered in this civil war weigh nothing in relation to the 150 or so poisoned with Sarin and other types of nerve gas.

It’s time to bite the political bullet, Senators; no matter how much it sticks in the craw, Barack Obama has won two presidential elections and because of his achievements in ending a couple of wars, stewarding the country through a financial meltdown, and extending affordable health care availability, his face will probably end up on some coin or bank note.

Still, not to worry, Hillary Clinton will be a lot easier to deal with in three years – and meanwhile both of you will have major moments in the sun if you can persuade your recalcitrant Republican House colleagues to pass a sensible immigration bill. In the meantime, later for military involvement in any more Muslim countries – this generation has enough wounded warriors, thank you.

You think Iraq was a quagmire? It’s got nothing on Syria. The Crusaders came barreling down this biblical highway on their way to Jerusalem and the natives, understandably, have had a thing about infidels meddling in their internal affairs ever since.

By all means send humanitarian aid and plenty of it, not only are up to 2 million people homeless and hungry, a great deal of the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed. But forget about introducing no-fly zones, taking out the Syrian Air Force or neutralizing Assad’s supply of chemical weapons.

It’s hard to imagine how this conflict can ever be resolved. A small sect of Alawites are hanging on to power for dear life because they know it’s curtains for them if the majority Sunnis ever take control.

The Alawites have always been mistrusted by their Sunni neighbors; if they were just simple Shiites who revere the prophet’s cousin, Ali, they might be acceptable, instead they have the nerve to celebrate Christian and Zoroastrian feast days, believe in reincarnation, and, most importantly, don’t like anyone telling them what to do.

As we know from bitter experience in the North of Ireland, sectarianism is a curse; it’s now playing out its poisoned hand in Syria where the Alawite 12% of the population, led by the Assad family, have been ruling the roost for almost half a century. Russia, with its naval bases, and Iran, with its support of Hezbollah, are major players on the Assad side, but in the end the numbers favor Syrian’s large Sunni population.

This is a battle we should run a mile from; it will play out of its own accord, partition will most likely be the bloody, and perhaps desired, result.

We have our own nation building to do. Instead of sending young men and women off on more impossible foreign adventures, give them employment at home rebuilding roads, bridges and cities. Oh, but I forgot, that would only add to the deficit, as if bombs, bullets, and American lives come cheaply.

The last thing Syria needs right now is a new crusade. The Sunni rebels, including hard-line Al Qaeda sympathizers, will get armaments from their co-religionists in the oil rich Gulf States; any help we give should be in the form of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid.

Senators McCain and Lindsey would be better off employing their considerable political skills in securing decent and sensible immigration legislation. It’s an issue close to Irish hearts and many of us will be very grateful to them for their efforts.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Where Have You Gone, Franklin Delano...

There’s a feeling of unease infecting the country.

One could attribute it to the recent recession but it’s deeper and cuts right across society. It’s the uncertainty of what’s coming next. What kind of world are we handing over to our children, and will they find a meaningful place in it?

Change follows every big economic upheaval; it’s the sheer suddenness that’s troublesome this time. Take the industrial revolution of the 19th century when people fled their agrarian societies and flocked to cities to spend the rest of their short lives toiling in factories. Drastic though it was, that change played out over decades, and in the end people formed unions, governments intervened on their behalf, and conditions became more acceptable.

Again during the great depression of the 1930’s the patrician president, Franklin Roosevelt, initiated game changing legislation that with time, and the outbreak of World War II, restored full employment to the country.

In the current malaise, however, no one appears to be thinking ahead; if anything we’re living in a fool’s paradise where politicians endlessly jaw on without offering any meaningful solutions to a myriad of social and economic problems.

At a time we should be spending to promote job creation, as Roosevelt did in the 1930’s, the mantra is “cut taxes and deficits,” when it’s now obvious that the 2009 stimulus programs – although heavily weighted in tax cuts - saved us from the long term recessions of many European countries.

But the most troubling aspect is the sense that we’re not all in this together, that those in the top financial echelon share little of the general uncertainty.

“I’m 48, I lost my job. I’ve always played by the rules, but now the system has no use for me.” I overheard a woman say recently.

She has a point, with the weakening of unions she is on her own. A person half her age will be willing to work for a lot less just to get a foot in the door.

Employment may be finally picking up but good jobs are scarce and reserved for those with the requisite skills. Meanwhile many colleges are a joke, even less prepared for the huge societal change than the rest of us. They charge through the nose for degrees that have little relevance, leaving students with debt they’ll likely never repay, especially with Congress unwilling to put a cap on student-loan interest rates.

I’m by no means decrying a Liberal Arts degree, far from it, but to send any graduate into the current specialized workforce without a sound knowledge of Excel and other computer programs is madness. But not to worry debt-ridden graduates can always pick up those skills with an unpaid internship.

The housing market is finally beginning to boom again but it’s a hard nut to crack for those without substantial means. Not only are large institutions buying up property but as many as a third of all purchases are now being made with full cash down. Meanwhile credit is still tight and mortgages difficult to come by for the less affluent.

Is there no hope? Of course there is, but it will only come from the ballot box. Look how pragmatic Republicans have done an about face on immigration after the last presidential election. Their reasoning may have been self-preservation but who cares - the country will receive an economic lift by the introduction of millions of hard working and enterprising people into the system.

Still, real change won’t come without anger – anger at a system that is no longer working for the great majority, anger at a political class that must go hat in hand to corporate chieftains and their moneyed ilk for the funds to run for office, and anger at ourselves for allowing the system to be appropriated.

Of course we can take our anti-depressants and sit around waiting for a new Franklin Roosevelt to make everything okay again. But without a general desire for change I’m not sure even the patrician from Hyde Park could cut through the current national malaise.

Monday 8 July 2013

Jazz and all that Love

What do you think about Jazz? Can’t make head nor tail of it? I used to suffer from the same affliction myself. And yet Jazz may well be the great American cultural creation, so in this season of mom, apple pie and another Mets’ nosedive let’s take a look at it.

First things first - the key to enjoying Jazz is finding your way in. My own initiation came at the Kiwi, a down and out after-hours joint in Manhattan’s East Village half a lifetime ago. The place didn’t even boast a jukebox but when the humor was on him one of the regulars used to blast his cassette mix-tapes from a battered old boom box.

Jimmy Rees had been featuring John Coltrane that uproarious morning though he might as well have been playing Larry Cunningham and The Might Avons for all the attention I was paying.

I’m not sure exactly what happened but suddenly the iconic sax man’s manic stream of notes began to make sense and I swear I could tell exactly what he would play next. It was exhilarating, like deciphering a hidden code that allowed you to enter a wonderful new world.

When I finally looked over at Rees, he was beaming back at me, “You finally got it, man, right?” He called out.

Rees died soon thereafter. They misdiagnosed him in a local emergency room, thought he was just another drunk who needed sobering while he was suffering from a bad dose of Pneumonia.

But let me try and pass on the gift he gave me. First of all, don’t start with Coltrane, he may be a titan and someone you’ll enjoy in time, but he’s too much of a speeding train to safely clamber aboard. Rather go with Miles Davis.

Miles was the coolest and he understood Trane and his addiction to notes per minute delivery. Once when the sax man mournfully concluded that he was so infused with his muse that he could never seem to conclude a passage, Miles dryly suggested, “Did you ever try taking the horn out of your mouth?”

Miles was the man and in more ways than one. When heroin was wiping out the world around him, he locked himself in a room for two months and went cold turkey. He emerged determined to echo the terrifying loneliness he’d just experienced and to do so with the fewest and most relevant notes possible.

Begin your journey with any of his albums, but I would suggest Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, or Porgy and Bess.

Kind of Blue is the top selling Jazz record of all time and for good reason – it’s accessible. It sounded like cocktail music to me at first, and therein lies the key: play it in the background while having a brew. If you’re off the sauce, don’t worry – this understated masterpiece will still work its magic but may take a few minutes longer.

Coltrane is on there, restrained for once and interacting beautifully with Cannonball Adderley on alto-sax. But most importantly listen for Bill Evans’ lovely piano chords; they make the perfect bed for the aching sparseness of Miles’ trumpet.

I’ve listened to Sketches of Spain innumerable times and found new reasons to marvel with each hearing. Many would say it’s not Jazz at all – more a mini-symphony - but who cares; after a couple of listens you’ll have gained an innate knowledge of the culture and history of Spain, and you won’t have endured a word of a lecture.

You’ll already be familiar with many of the melodies of Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin may be America’s pre-eminent composer, but Miles and arranger Gil Evans take his music to places that the Bard of the Lower East Side never dreamed of in their scintillating re-imagination.

Try one of these albums for the Fourth of July – you’ll be amazed at how well they go with hot dogs, burgers and cold beer. In a world of hype, Miles remains the man and if you can handle his coolness he’ll open you up to a whole universe of red, white and blue American music.