Wednesday 26 March 2014

The Price of Privacy

            What do you think of Edward Snowden? 

            I’m talking about the bespectacled gentleman who broke the news that the NSA is keeping tabs all of us. You could reduce his actions to a simple – “Well, he betrayed his country, allowed our enemies access to national security secrets, so send him up the river for 20 years.” You’d definitely have a point.

            On the other hand, most great political and social changes have originated with rebels who decide their government, or its methods of ruling, are detrimental to the welfare of its citizens.

            Those who opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars are now seen to be on the side of the angels while the “patriots” who sent American kids halfway around the world to be maimed and slaughtered are discredited.

            If nothing else Snowden’s case once more highlights the fact that when governments accrue great powers - allied with breathtaking technical tools - they will use them. Remember the smirking face of Donald Rumsfeld at televised news conferences as he extolled US firepower during the first  “surgical strikes” on Baghdad.

            We watched in fascination as offending targets were pinpointed and summarily destroyed much like in a video game. No mention was made, however, of the many innocent people who died in these assaults.

            The bottom line is – if the NSA has the power to vacuum great quantities of phone and internet data, it will; and, given the right set of circumstances, that information will be used for political purposes. And I’m not talking Republican/Democrat here. President Obama shows every bit as much zeal in maintaining a secretive and burgeoning national security apparatus as his paranoid predecessor.

            Had Snowden not blown the whistle, none of us would have been any the wiser about the sheer extent of government surveillance. No one is saying that a tap shouldn’t be put on potential suicide bombers or the like, but there was a time when you needed a court order to do that - and that system worked well.

            But Snowden has only touched the tip of the intrusion iceberg.  Take Google, and in particular its Gmail service. Ever notice just how the various advertisements that appear on your social media pages are so tuned into your interests?

            Oh man, have they got me down! Ads for Celtic Rock, Manchester United, and pale ales, appear with numbing regularity; of late, however, offers of cures for alcoholism and flagging sexual interest have caused me deep concern. Does Google know something I don’t?

            Recently I’ve been inundated with ads for Gilt? Never heard of it? Well, neither had I, but it’s an online outfit that can garner you large discounts on brand clothing. Now I’ve never bought an article of clothing online, so was wondering if Google had finally hit a wall. But, lo and behold, turns out I had loaned my computer to a friend and, upon inquiry, discovered that like any respectable young metrosexual he visits everyday.

            It’s a crazy ever-morphing world. The very concept of privacy is out the window in most people’s lives. Take the twin phenomena of reality shows and Facebook. In a mad lust for celebrity many are willing to abase themselves before millions on television, while most others share intimacies online that would have appeared shocking a decade ago.

Many people under 30 find this all this quite normal. Few care that if you put something up on Facebook you are granting the company the right to exploit that information for commercial purposes.

            Why get upset? Everyone else is doing it, and besides it doesn’t cost anything. In the end, however, privacy will cost - and a lot. For many of us have already made a pact with the digital devil – if I use your free services I hereby grant you the right to exploit me in return.

            That difficult but perceptive man, George Orwell, must be groaning in his grave. Not only has 1984 come to pass but, hey, we’re all down and dirty with it.

            That’s why I think Edward Snowden is much more saint than sinner; I would even venture to call him a citizen visionary. He has seen the future and is prepared to do something about it.

Sunday 16 March 2014

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 on this gloomy church holiday. The Parade up Fifth Avenue and the ensuing bacchanal seemed downright pagan by comparison.

I had other immigrant battles of my own ahead. 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 at the bottom 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 broadens 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 with the makings of a just peace finally taking seed in the North of Ireland, might we not some day witness Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and various members of the Irish Gay community walk arm in arm up Fifth Avenue. Impossible? 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 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 answer 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.

Tuesday 11 March 2014


             Wexford has long had an association with Australia. It began soon after the uprising of 1798 - when Lord Cornwallis declared an end to executions those rebels still in captivity were shipped off to the Botany Bay penal colony.

            They took their grudges with them and in 1804 rose up again, only to be defeated on Rouse Hill thereafter rechristened Vinegar Hill in memory of the last battle of the Wexford rebellion.

            In the 1950’s many more Wexfordians took advantage of the subsidized Ten Pound Boat Fares for those who promised to settle in Australia, perhaps lured by the visions of spending Christmas on a sweltering beach rather than freezing in our December dampness.

            One other exodus was less known though often spoken about by my grandfather. It was an effort by successive English governments to seed their Australian colony by sentencing women to seven years penal servitude often for offences as trifling as stealing a pound of butter.

            With no chance of returning home the hope was that the unfortunate women would breed with male convicts, their offspring eventually providing cheap labor in this far off outpost of the empire.

            Thus when Tom Keneally invited me to collaborate on a musical concerning four of these exiled Irish women I was familiar with the situation. Tom, who wrote the novel, Schindler’s List, had a more personal connection. In 1838, his wife’s great-grandmother, had been sent from Cork to Sydney aboard the convict transport ship, Whisper for stealing a bolt of cloth.

            It would take many years of writing and revision before Transport was deemed stage worthy. We began with a concert version at the Irish Arts Center, before heading to Sydney’s Sidetrack Theatre for a full workshop. Transport is currently receiving its world premiere production at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.

            My job was to turn the penal voyage of the four women into music, hopefully of an uplifting nature. Oddly enough, this was less difficult than it might seem; for the English authorities, at a minimum, wished to deliver the convicts alive and kicking – dead ladies tend not to make good breeders.

            A fiddler was provided to many ships – dancing, it was felt, would keep this valuable human cargo in good nick for the criminal suitors who awaited them.

            Was there romance on board? Inevitably, when you cramp single men and women aboard an overcrowded, sweltering vessel for four months; not to mention that sailors were often allowed to share their berths with a “sea wife”.

            Nonetheless, the misery could be profound – women had often been torn from husbands and children with no chance of reunion. Keneally’s genius is that you recognize the DNA of the modern Australian character in the four women he and director, Tony Walton bring to life at the Rep.

            As the ship leaves the Northern hemisphere the ladies begin to turn the tables on their jailers - and their own destinies. For ironically, they are the lucky ones, escaping from a country teetering towards famine and starvation.

            How to summon this scenario into music? It would have been easy to recreate an Australian Black 47 but the nautical setting demanded a different style. In the end I employed a mixture of Irish Traditional, British Music Hall and Show Tunes to capture both the tragedy and ultimate redemptive nature of the story.

            Did Tom Keneally and I succeed? There are nights when I think we came close, others when I despair of ever transforming such a complex subject into a coherent musical. But the audiences have been solidly behind Transport with either full or sold-out houses the norm.

            In the end, though, all that matters is that the story of these brave Irish women is finally being told. They were abandoned people – dead to those they were torn away from. Some entered second marriages in Australia and their descendants are only now communicating with distant cousins back in Ireland.

            Perhaps, the most telling lyric in the show is delivered by Kate O’Hare, a young revolutionary, when she sings about her fiancĂ©e and the country she will never see again:

                        But I will go on
                        I will put this pain behind me
                        Now that you’re lost
                        Lost unto me…

Transport will continue at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd Street, NYC until April 6th  For information on tickets go to or call 212-727-2737

Power To The People

            How will historians view our age? Will it be “the best of times and the worst of times?” Probably.

            With the disaster in Iraq receding and the winding down of involvement in Afghanistan, there’s an almost universal distaste for illogical foreign adventures. Even on the Far Right there’s a growing consensus that an over-bloated defense budget is not good for the country’s fiscal health.

            The first faltering steps are being taken to ensure that every citizen has a right to decent health care at a reasonable price, even if the power and influence of the health insurance companies remain pervasive.

            On the debit side income inequality continues to be the dominant issue; in the current political climate it’s difficult to see just what effective steps can be taken to alleviate the growing financial imbalance – short of a radical overhaul of the economic system.

            That’s hardly likely, but then again there’s always people power. On a tour of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1989, I witnessed the birth of a peaceful mass movement that led to the dismantling of many hated police states.

            No one is comparing income inequality with the excesses of those wretched fascist entities, except to point out that things can actually change and quickly. It’s no exaggeration to state that there’s been a growing unease in the US with the fact that the top 1% controls over 43% of the nation’s wealth.
            This was highlighted by the golden parachute of $109 million granted Henrique de Castro by Yahoo after 15 unsuccessful months as Chief Operations Officer. To cap it all, Mr. Castro was only second in command.

            Any less august personage would be on his way out the door, pink slip in hand, within minutes of HR coolly informing him that his services are no longer required.

            Nor is the system working for corporation stockholders. Profits may be peaking yet dividends remain paltry. Between executive salaries, stock buy-backs and the maintenance of large cash reserves, the wealth is not being spread or reinvested. Rather power and rewards are concentrated in the hands of an elite circle of chairmen and CEO’s.

What’s to be done? Well, some years back the Occupy Movement – though
unfocused - highlighted the gathering disquiet of young people who foresee a life of low salaries and high college loans repayments. But when autumn winds began to bite, rebellious youth stampeded back online in the hope of nailing down some coveted internship.

The general mood in the more adult workforce seems to be: keep your head down until better times. But will the salad days of the pre-financial crisis return? Probably not – it’s a changed world, more high-tech, interactive and competitive.

Industrial output is high, mostly because those still employed are picking up the slack after wholesale dismissals. Why hire when the current staff can make do? Why invest if that means hiring expensive full time employees. Far better use temps or part timers – hey how about that nice new batch of college graduate interns!

            Besides, both white and blue-collar jobs can now be outsourced. Why hire in Detroit when it’s less expensive in Delhi? The world’s your oyster if you’re a cost-cutting executive.

            Once we get beyond the political smokescreen of Obamacare, income inequality will be the dominant issue. Raising the minimum wage will help those at the bottom of the economic ladder; the taxing of all income – earned, investment and capital gains - at the same rate will give a haircut to those at the top.

            But should change stop there? Apple alone is sitting on $159 Billion in cash reserves, most of it overseas. Should these profits be repatriated and thus become subject to US taxes? Should corporations be “encouraged” to invest in American workers?

Issues like these will call for rational debate rather than the usual finger pointing and name-calling. From the Founding Fathers on, political discourse has been incendiary, but at the worst of times well-intentioned people get together and work for the common good.

            We’re at one of those points now. The system needs an overhaul. It will come from neither Left nor Right. It must come from the people.