Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

And that’s ten minutes.

American Fascist

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Americans have never done fascism well. I suppose it is something in the national character, perhaps a basic distrust of government – fascism is, at its heart, a statist philosophy – or an unwillingness to compromise their own (sometimes equally wacky) views to collaborate with the great leader. As well, I suppose, Americans are too opportunistic, too willing to seize the main chance, to ever stick to an ideology in the face of ill winds.

It’s not that they haven’t dabbled with fascist-lite movements. The KKK once held sway in much of the south and occasionally made inroads elsewhere, but they hardly managed to create a clear or consistent vision of America beyond white people (or rather men) must be – or rather remain – in charge. Now, the KKK is so toxic that even Donald Trump, on reflection, wants nothing to do with them. As for other manifestations of modern fascism, the American Nazi party has never been more than an eccentric fringe, the John Birch Society has faded into history and even skinheads – with no soccer games to hooliganize – are hardly a threat to take over city hall, let alone the White House.

Donald Trump, who is now routinely called a fascist, is a classic American populist, more aware of what he is against then what he is for. He’s certainly no Hitler – he may be as crazy but he lacks the focus. He lacks the courage, too. One shouldn’t forget that Hitler was decorated for bravery during World War I, not once but twice. Donald Trump ducked the draft.

A closer analogy might be Mussolini if only because of the tendency toward bombastic buffoonery and odd facial expressions. But Trump’s brown shirts are self-organizing, not a direct creation of a political strategist. Which isn’t to say that Trump hasn’t embraced and even encouraged their violent tendencies.

But Trump the populist could easily become Trump the fascist – while every populist doesn’t go down that road, almost every fascist has started from that place. Even if he hasn’t crossed the line yet, he is the most likely and most serious candidate – in the history of modern America – to do so. If his own party can’t stop, let’s hope that America does.

America does have a history of stopping domestic fascists, one way or another. Sometimes they use the light of day – the discrediting of the KKK was accomplished less by the FBI than by the exposure of the dark underside to their lofty (and endlessly overblown) rhetoric. Words not swords brought down the Grand Wizards. Words, surprisingly, spoken by Superman.

Huey Long, a populist with a plan, was a wildly popular governor and an emerging figure on the national scene when he was gunned down on the steps of his legislature. George Wallace, the most significant third party candidate of the last seventy five years, was a violent segregationist (racist) who was shot and paralyzed at a political rally. While I don’t approve of shooting, in Wallace’s case, it turned the trick; he renounced his previous views and became (almost) a liberal.

And then there is the most famous American fascist of them all – Ezra Pound, a towering literary figure and force of the early 20th century, who embraced anti-Semitism and fascism and made propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during the war. After, he was imprisoned in an open air cage in Pisa before being brought back to America to face a treason charge and possible execution. Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway intervened and, instead, Pound spent eight years in a mental hospital before being allowed to return to Italy, a broken man but still a fascist dupe.

Pound continued to write during his imprisonment in Pisa and I leave you with the opening lines from Canto LXXIV:

The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s bent

shoulders

Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,

Thus Ben and La Clara a Milano

by the heels at Milano

 

The dream is fascism; Ben and La Clara are Mussolini and his mistress, captured and executed by the Italian resistance and hung upside-down and naked from a tree, where they swung for three days before being cut down.

Odd how so many fascists come to similar ends.

And that’s somewhat more than ten minutes.

 

 

Awakening

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In August 1968, I was thirteen and interested in only a few things: science, science fiction and making money. I was aware of politics – you couldn’t grow up in my house and not be but I wasn’t really engaged. Still, I knew who the Kennedys were and what had happened to them. Because our family attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I knew about the civil rights movement and the murder of Martin Luther King. But politics as a passion – I couldn’t imagine it.

I was staying with family friends in Diligent River. I was there for the three week long blueberry raking season. Leo Tibbets ran a crew, consisting mostly of his own six kids and a few others like me. He and his wife, Margaret, were great friends of my parents and were happy to take me on. Their house – which had electricity but no hot water or indoor toilets – was crowded anyway; what was one more body? The days were long – we were in the field from first light until last – and the work was hard but it was fun and I was looking forward to the six hundred dollars I would make and the things (mostly books and school clothes) I would buy with it.

At night, we played games or sang songs or watched the grainy black and white television in their small living room. And that was when I changed.

The Democratic National Convention was on in Chicago. Thousands had gathered to protest the Vietnam War. They didn’t bother with the Republicans – there was no hope there – but they thought the Democrats could be moved. Mayor Richard Daley – a vulgar, racist authoritarian (sound familiar) – was having none of that in ‘his’ city. He called out the police and the National Guard. No protesters allowed in Chicago in 1968. The protests escalated – and so did the violence, mostly perpetrated by the forces of law and order. What happened next was later described in a Federal investigation as a police riot. Protestors and journalists were bludgeoned and gassed and arrested. Meanwhile the television cameras showed masses of mostly peaceful protesters, chanting ‘The Whole World is Watching,’ in the face of baton wielding police.

Inside the convention, liberal Democrats criticized the police and the mayor for their tactics; they were met with vulgar and racist taunts – though no one was thrown out in the streets. The rest is history.

For a thirteen year old from Nova Scotia, the spectacle was galvanizing. I was filled with outrage at the injustice of it all. I became determined that I would never be bullied or terrorized or made to shut up. It helped to have parents who nurtured my freedom and intellectual curiosity and who challenged me to find and follow my moral compass. A year later I sat on my first constituency executive and ten years after that I ran for office. Chicago was my awakening.

Now, we have another protest in Chicago. Donald Trump claims his free speech is being violated, as if he hasn’t squelched free speech at every opportunity. As if he didn’t know that holding a rally in one of the biggest Democratic strongholds in America wouldn’t provoke protest. And then he runs away, blames other people and whines about hate in America. Mayor Richard Daley would have sneered in contempt at such a weakling.

The riots in Chicago in 1968 inspired in me a lifetime of fighting, in my own small way, for human rights, for social programs, for labour unions, for human progress and, yes, for a just society. What will the agitations (they hardly merit the word riot) of the Trump campaign inspire in America? Time will tell.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Twitchy

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You’ve seen them. People with their faces buried in their devices as they drift down the street or grabbing their phone when if ‘bings’ – even if they are in the middle of a conversation. Their fingers drum impatiently on their desk if their computer takes a few seconds to boot up or connect. They growl when their texts or tweets or Facebook posts or Tumblr messages aren’t instantly answered. They hate waiting for anything; they don’t seem to know how to relax, even for a moment. Instant gratification gratified instantly.

You know who I’m talking about. The Twitchy generation.

Oh, not millennials or whatever generation comes next. A lot of them seem pretty laid back about everything – their love lives, their careers, the end of the world. They even read physical books. But that’s another story.

I’m talking about the forty-somethings (spreading into the fifty-somethings). They seem to think that history happened six months ago and the future had better get here pretty damn quick. And why can’t I get that show on Netflix!?

I think people under thirty actually understand that none of the programs which are supposed to connect our world really operate in quite the way they promised. At least their eye-rolls and shrugs when I ask them about it seem to suggest that.

No it’s the people who didn’t grow up with the highly connected and immediate (unmediated) world, that seem to have lost all sense of time, all sense of the slow changing nature of the world.

Take the current political world we live in. Nothing has really changed in the last fifty years. Governments have a life and elections – unless you are living in an unstable democracy or none at all – occur to a schedule. Presidents are almost never impeached; majority governments never fall before their allotted time.

Yet, to listen to the pundits, six months is an eternity. I saw a headline the other day asking if Justin Trudeau was the Teflon PM. For crying out loud, he’s been in office for less than four months – how much dirt do you think the world has generated in that time for any of it to stick? And as for delivering on his promises – why aren’t they all done right now? Why do we have to wait for consultation or debate or legislation or doing it right? If it isn’t here now it’s never coming, I tell you. Twitch.

Meanwhile in the USA people are moaning that Trump will be president and think how great/awful that will be. There won’t even be a vote for eight months. It’s not long but it’s not tomorrow. And when he gets there – if at all – all those things that he promised won’t arrive on February 1st. Twitch. Twitch.

I see this all the time. My boss – who is in his seventies – will leave a restaurant if there is a line of more than six to get in. My wife swears at her ancient computer every time it takes fifteen seconds to connect. People my age grumble whenever their favorite movie is rescheduled for a month – and heaven help George R.R. Martin if he delays his next book again.

We won’t stand for it. What do we want?  Everything and when do we want it? Now, goddamn it! Or yesterday.

Screw history. I want the future. And I want it before tomorrow.

Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.

And that’s ten minutes. Too late as usual.

Westerns

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At the heart of the American dream is the idea of the frontier and, integral to that, the myth of the Old West. The cowboy – more than any other figure – has been an iconic image that defined America to itself and to the world.

The western expansion of America began in earnest in the 1830s and over the next fifty years, the west was gradually filled up – to the extent that the empty spaces of Montana or Wyoming have ever been filled. By 1890, virtually every space on the continental USA had been ‘tamed.’ That is to say, Native Americans – defeated as much by disease and starvation as by force of arms – had been deprived of their traditional lands and livelihoods and confined to the reservations and the law – in the form of both Federal marshals and Pinkerton detectives – had asserted itself over the lynch mob vigilantism of the previous years.

But, in the meantime, the idea of the cowboy and the code of the west had achieved mythic proportions and all the disagreeable portions had been literally whitewashed – the contributions of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans swept away as if they had never existed.

Yet, some estimates put the number of black cowboys as high as one in four; certainly, they represented a far greater number than were ever portrayed in popular novels (in the 19th Century) or the movies of the first half of the 20th. The gear that made the cowboy famous – chaps and lariats – were all adaptations of clothing and tools that Mexican gauchos had been using for several generations.

Cowboy culture is real – if occasionally idealized and exaggerated. No-one who has spent any time in the west and attended even a single rodeo could deny that. But most ranchers I know – and I admit I’ve only met a few – are more likely to wear ball caps as cowboy hats and few, these days, still round up their cattle with horses. It’s not quite a vanished culture but it exists – as do many resource industries – on the fringe of modern life. More to the point, they continue to exist as part of modern life as integrated into modern industrial capitalism as any office or factory worker. After all, who would buy their cattle if there were no cities?

But this myth of the independent cowboy – and most importantly this myth of the pure white west – continues to fuel the ideology of people like the Bundy clan and their band of fellow travellers. They make a show of flashing their guns but, usually, it comes to very little. The most recent rebel stand ended not with a bang but with a whimper and now some of the former occupiers – waiting trial in federal jails – have even talked of law suits against the government – as if the courts ever played a prominent role in the old west (actually they did – but they have no place in the mythology).

I’ve read a western or two in my life – who hasn’t occasionally delved into Zane Grey? I’ve even read some of the speeches of the only real cowboy (movie cowboys don’t count) to occupy the White House. Teddy Roosevelt did as much to establish the western myth as anyone else. Paradoxically, he also did as much to establish a federal presence in the west – through parks and conversation areas – as anyone since. Irony is not dead – it’s gone to live in Oregon.

And that’s ten minutes.

Being Bundy

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If you google: Is Cliven Bundy related to…, Google will autocomplete with ‘Ted Bundy.’ Clearly enough people are doing it to set the algorithms atwitter. The answer, by the way, is no; ted Bundy assumed the name of his mother’s husband when he was twelve.

A better question might be: is he related to Al Bundy? It certainly seems plausible. Al spent most of his time not on the job but occupying the sofa of his living room while other people brought him snacks.

I suppose it is wrong to make fun of these folks – the endlessly procreative elder Bundy and his wayward sons who seem to have all the time in the world to takeover a wildlife refuge. Most of the ranchers I know – and I know a few in Alberta – are too busy working their land to take extended leave elsewhere. Half of them are lucky to get away for a couple of days to visit neighbours in the next town over.

But the Bundy’s seem to beg for ridicule. They asked to have snacks and socks sent to them through the mail – an institution of the federal government that goes back to the time of Ben Franklin. I doubt if they are capable of seeing the irony of it all. In fact, viewing the video a young Muslim woman made of the occupiers, they don’t come across as malicious or dangerous or even all that stupid. They come across as naive and confused, defensive and maybe a little bit uninformed.

They certainly don’t seem to understand that public land set aside as a refuge in the time Teddy Roosevelt already belongs to the people. Of course, they don’t mean the actual People writ large when they claim to be taking back land from the government for ‘the people.’ They mean them.

It is equally easy to laugh at Ammon Bundy’s claim to despise the federal government when he has benefited from numerous federally funded programs to support his ranching business. I suppose when they talk about using their own personal money they feel the same way about it that they do about the nature reserve. It’s all mine anyway. Federal grants are just my way of taking back money the government took from ‘the people’.

I get that – I feel the same way about arts grants.

And of course, the allegations of fake marine qualifications, fistfights over misappropriated money (apparently used for a booze up) and all the rest – really makes us wonder if this isn’t all a distraction to keep people thinking too deeply about the other things wrong in America. I get a feeling that one of Trump’s campaign officials is in Oregon for a reason. What it is one can only guess. When it comes to Trump – it’s all a mystery, my friends.

So the Bundy’s manage to drift in and out of our consciousness – pissing off progressives and birders (and there are more of those than belong to the NRA) but, in the end, who cares? Let them stay in those poorly insulated shelters. The winter is long – even in Oregon – and I’m sure that what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger. After all, many are cold but few are frozen.

And that’s ten minutes.

Revolution

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It has been suggested that radicalism cannot survive the aging process. A quote widely attributed to Churchill states: if you aren’t a communist at 20, you have no heart; if you are still one at 60, you have no head. The implication is that revolution is a game for the young and that, eventually, cooler heads will prevail. A greater (false) argument for the gerontocracy has never been made. Old men are very good at holding on to what they have.

Still, I find my own desire for manning the barricades has diminished with the passing years. I really never was much of a marcher; I preferred to plot my revolutions in ivory towers or, more often, in the back rooms of political parties. In my twenties, I was a Marxist of sorts but certainly no hardliner. I had a distaste for the more violent proponents of revolutionary change. I believed – still do – that change can be achieved through the ballot box as well as through direct, but peaceful action, through labour negotiations and strikes, the courts, social protests, boycotts. Gradualism was my mantra; evolution rather than revolution.

Now, as I pass through my sixties, I’m not so sure. The patience of youth has been replaced by the impatience of age. I no longer want change to occur ‘someday’ but ‘right now.’ I suppose I want to see it happen in my lifetime not in some mythical future that will, for me, not exist.

Not that there hasn’t been tremendous progress in the course of my life – most of it brought about through the lurching mechanisms of human progress, rather than through sudden upheaval and revolutionary destruction. Certainly some of the change that has occurred in Africa and South America and China has flowed out of the revolutions and wars, the social experiment of the Cultural Revolution and the greater evils of genocide and ethnic cleansing. But these changes were not because of the violence but in revolted response to its consequences. Perhaps the old ways had to be broken – perhaps – but the breaking did not in any way lead to the utopia promised by the breakers.

But I digress. In many parts of the world poverty has been reduced, the chains of serfdom have been thrown aside, women have achieved some measure of equality – more some places than others – the hold of ancient religions have been (mostly) loosened, the worst excesses of capitalism have been moderated. Yes, all that is true.

Yet, the forces of reaction – the power of old men – remain strong. Far too many people are too cowed or too easily bought with bread and circuses, are too easily frightened by the spectre of change (and after all, some of the revolutions I mentioned have been pretty fearful) to ever embrace the possibilities of real democracy, real liberty, real equality.

Some days, it makes me so angry… but I’ve also reached a place where ‘old men shouting at clouds’ seems particularly futile. So I do what I can. Propose changes to the status quo that move my part of the world towards a more just place; use my limited money and time and energy to do some good. And trust that the fire of youth will forge a better future.

And that’s ten minutes.