Why America? (Turn Left at Greenland)

December 2nd, 2011

Why would someone move to a place that doesn’t know how to make tea? In the United States, one is usually presented with a cup, pot or glass of tepid water with a tea bag lying apologetically on a cold side plate. Then comes the ludicrous business of pouring the water, squeezing the bag to within an inch of its life while waiting for some change in colour before discarding the lifeless tampon surrogate. Why would someone do this to themselves? Why would I, a near addict, do this to myself?

The tea ritual shows, in one instance, America’s stubbornness and artistry. ‘You want tea? You’ll drink it our way!’ It’s like a child coming home from school with a painting of a “tree” that closer resembles a wall, but the family sticks it on the wall for years anyway because it was how the child interpreted the tree. The painting then remains on the wall for so long that to take it down would be to remove a tiny piece of the family.

What else is America? At one moment in time, it is one, some or all of the following: charming, outrageous, lovable, free, sickening, ostentatious, confident, scared, daring, conservative, revolutionary, dynamic, proud, ingenious, stupid, showy, private, avaricious, charitable, humane, merciless, stubborn, revisionist, religious, secular, heroic, cowardly, affluent, indebted, lazy, energetic, sexy, prudish, popular, disliked, focused, flamboyant, imaginative and frustrating.

It is a country with an address in the new world but with a founding population largely drawn from the old one, a sort of perfect storm for paranoia. It is a country of seemingly incongruous contradictions. It contains some of the most religious people in the world living under a stridently secular constitution. It is a country that has managed to make two close political cousins – liberalism and conservatism – appear as opposites in the popular imagination. It is the land that brought the world much technological advancement over the past century but simultaneously had to be dragged kicking and screaming into granting much of its own population some of the most basic human rights.

America displays, and often celebrates, a certain fuzziness about the world outside. It is as if the nation was in a contemporary pre-Galileo state of existence, only it is not the Earth that is the at centre of the Universe, but America that is at the centre of the Earth and, in order to prove this point, America strives to make it so.

America is the three or four year-old with the short attention span who ends up impressing everyone at the family gathering with some adorable party piece. It is the cocky adolescent doing one handed push-ups. It is the perpetual beauty pageant contestant, doing herself up differently as years and competitions go by. It is the partner that cheats and yet you always want to go back because it holds something irresistible. And I’m going back.

 

The One After 9-9-9: Herman Cain and Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan

November 25th, 2011

A friend once confessed an anecdote to me while we were discussing the subject of job interviews. A potential employer asked him a moderately tricky question that, according to him, he answered so dreadfully that he got up, shook the interviewer’s hand and said ‘sorry, I know I won’t get the job now’ and walked out of the room. Arrogance and ignorance were swiftly followed by humility.

Whatever my friend said, however, cannot possibly have been as utterly atrocious and mortifying (in the strictest sense of the word) as Herman Cain’s effort to respond to a basic, yet moderately tricky, question about President Obama’s handling of the Libya situation this year. Cain should have just said ‘sorry for wasting your time’ and walked away from pursuing the job as most powerful person in the world.

Jon Stewart described the skin-crawlingly bad answer as “it’s like he’s trying to download the answer but it’s just the little ball is spinning and he’s just buffering.” The Cain camp blamed his slow reply on his busy schedule and lack of sleep, and assured us that the potentially most powerful man in the world is well up to date on international affairs.

Let us grant Cain and his team that and give him the benefit of doubt. His unease under pressure? His lack of basic knowledge on the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi? The way his only aim throughout the humming and hawing is to position himself on the opposite side of the President? Take all that, and put it down to having a bad day and a poor night’s rest, for Cain had already proven that it is not a lack of knowledge that makes him unworthy of Presidential status, but rather an open celebration of said lack of knowledge.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network a few weeks prior to the Libya question, CBN host David Brody asked:

“Are you ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy? Like, who’s the president of Ubekistan (sic)?

Cain replied:

“I’m ready for the ‘gotcha’ questions and they’re already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know. Do you know?

Cain followed this by saying his priority – his only priority – is to create jobs. What he effectively seems to be saying is ‘I don’t want to talk about foreign policy; I want to talk about jobs.’ Well, perhaps it ought to be pointed out to Cain that he doesn’t really get to decide when someone asks him questions on foreign policy.

The addition of multiple extra syllables into the country’s name seems to show that Cain is annoyed by its very existence and reveals a flippant attitude towards the world. This might play well among a minority within the American electorate who give the impression that they admire lethargy in international relations, but is in reality incredibly condescending towards a very large number of Americans who do want a well-rounded, knowledgeable and creative president, willing to learn more about the world both at home and abroad.

What is important in this interview is that Cain is quite proud of his lack of knowledge. The interviewer didn’t even ask him who the president of Uzbekistan was, yet Cain was happy to tell us that he didn’t know. It wasn’t even close to being a ‘gotcha’ question, yet Cain was very much got.

As I said in an article recently published in Trinity News, American exceptionalism or ‘manifest destiny’ is alive more than ever within the GOP. Christopher Hitchens recently penned a good article on this subject, only weeks after I had made the same argument (are you watching me, Hitch?). The two most recent debates – on foreign policy and national security respectively – have shown this to be the case.

The basic rule among the candidates (with one or two exceptions) seems to be: if you are struggling to answer a question, just praise the United States and label it exceptional and all will be well. The audience claps, you smile, and we move on.

Some of the words uttered by these ostensibly serious candidates are outright bizarre. Michelle Bachmann, perhaps the most vocal exponent of American exceptionalism, labelled Pakistan “too nuclear to fail”. Rick Santorum called Africa a country before praising US aid efforts to fight AIDS because it helps curb Islamism — would fighting AIDS not be a worthy end in itself? Rick Perry appears to be in the Cain camp of not really giving a damn about foreign affairs; rather, he tows the ‘exceptional’ line and maintains the policies held by almost every other establishment Republican. Ron Paul is different; his foreign policy seems to be not to have one at all. Jon Huntsman, erstwhile Ambassador to China and speaker of Mandarin, is consistently ignored. Perhaps he doesn’t shout loud enough. Mitt Romney said US aid could “bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th century for that matter.” The new tactic to win over wavering allies is to patronise them, or so it would seem.

Newt Gingrich was almost lynched for suggesting that “church-going” illegal immigrants with families who have been in the country for a quarter of a century ought to have a path to citizenship available. Church-going? It would seem Newt wants to perform a merry dance on the corpse of the First Amendment. The superficially domestic issue of illegal immigration spills across the Venn diagram into foreign affairs because what is being mooted by the majority of candidates is mass repatriation of people and families to other states. The favoured policy du jour is ‘root ‘em out and send ‘em home’. That’s right; a forced migration of perhaps 12 million people. It’s like the Trail of Tears never happened. Or rather, that it never mattered.

Very few of these candidates are prepared to have any nuance, creativity or imagination on international matters; everything is black and white. If this stakes were not so high, this might even be funny. But the stakes are that high.

 

A Year in the Life: Montreal, Canada and Me

November 12th, 2011

Why Montreal?

Why not? It seems childish to answer a question with another question, but in this case I can’t help it. I had never been to the place before moving there, but it seemed like a place for me. Why Toronto? Why America? Why Australia? Why gap years spent on some pseudo-anthropological quest to see what’s it’s like to spend time in rural Bhutan? Why stay at home? These are all worthy pursuits for certain individuals; Montreal seemed to be a worthy pursuit for me.

Plus, I knew pretty much nobody and if I wanted to I could made up an entire history for myself and give myself a new name. I didn’t, of course, but I could have if I wanted to. Even that thought – the very hypothesis – was liberating. I needed a challenge and initially in Montreal I had a long, harsh winter ahead, no friends, nowhere to stay, no job, limited savings and the need to improve in French and become comfortable with the unique twang of its Quebecois derivative.

I arrived in mid-January. Finding an apartment was theoretically straightforward but practically complicated. I had no friends or acquaintances in the city and so had to trawl through a pile of online classified ads, copying and pasting the same spiel in two languages, amending it for those ads forewarning that obviously copied and pasted spiels would be ignored (you think I’m going to write a different reply a hundred times?). The other problem was that it was Montreal and it was January and on my third day it was -31 degrees Celsius. Minus thirty one. I had to get to these places to view them in that sort of climate. “Oh but it’s a dry cold,” they say . . .

I knew the area in which I wanted to live and started by applying in that neighbourhood. One fellow rang and said I could view a nice room in that area, but when I took the metro to get there it was obviously not in that area but actually a good few miles out. It would be like calling Tallaght “Balinteer” or maybe like calling Mogadishu a suburb of Milan. It really was very far from where the ad said it was. I went anyway, saw the room, shook the man’s hand and said ‘no thanks’.

The second place I saw that same day was in a perfect location but was a little bit . . . how do we put this? It was a little bit shit. The floors were uneven, there was no natural light at any time of day, and the room offered was oddly shaped with a single mattress on the floor. I know this because a lot of the posts on this site were written from that very room. Though I was not a beggar, I was most certainly not a chooser either.

I took the room not only because of its location but also because I was interviewed for it by two lovely, intelligent, outgoing women. What could be more important than good housemates? It turned out that woman A was subletting from woman B, who in turn was planning on moving to New York with another housemate (her boyfriend) who was at that time in New Zealand. I had not yet met the other housemate.

It turned out that the other housemate, a 30-year-old man from Paris, was a coma-inducing mammal who seemed to have undergone a complete personality bypass. I have now lived with him for nine months and as such feel ready to give birth to my true feelings about him. I never got his phone number, our longest conversation was perhaps long enough to go thirty seconds beyond ‘ca va?’ and when we had a mouse issue earlier in the year, his solution was to pick up his excrement-ridden half-eaten bag of rice and utter ‘putan merde!’ That’ll get rid of them. Not. His girlfriend rivaled him for annoyingness. He would bring her home in the afternoon and, even though I may have a friend over or I’d be chatting to the other nice housemate, they would give off the sweet aural flavours of passionate lovemaking. In such situations I feel compelled to perform a little bit of coitus interruptus myself and withdraw from the scene by leaving my own home for a while. I should give this man a name, shouldn’t I? Let’s call him Spanky. Work that one out.

When I arrived, friendless and cold, I worked hard. I had set myself a goal a few weeks prior to my arrival of getting published in The Irish Times. I pitched a few articles to various editors and was eventually commissioned to write one of them. That article was published over two months later.

On a notice board in my parents’ bedroom, there is a piece of paper on which is written something I said during my early-to-mid teens that so amused my mother that she had to pin it on the board. It says ‘the three most important things in my life are newspapers, women and cake.’

From around June of this year I subconsciously switched the first two around to the point where my consumption of news and output of words didn’t just take a back seat, but rather were put in a trailer. I then forgot to attach the trailer and instead drove off without it (though I never forgot to bring cake).

The evidence for this is on this page. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by how epic the Montreal summer is and, at the same time, a person re-entered this little life of mine and took it over for a while. My output went down, as did my networking and pitching. Now that I have left Montreal, though probably not forever, I do have the very salient sense of ‘if only’ about some aspects of my year. But then I ask myself a question: if you had been offered the year as it panned out, would you have taken it in advance? Yes, I would.

Montreal is the hidden gem of North America. Homer Simpson once said “anyone could miss Canada, all tucked away down there,” and even within Canada Montreal is tucked away. There is no metropolis further north and it’s not really on the way to anywhere. To get to Montreal, it almost has to be your destination.

For many Montrealers, they are Montrealers first and foremost, not Canadian or Quebecois. I was having a sandwich in my favourite cafe (Chez José on Duluth) in around March of this year when the man serving me, a gangly bespectacled Anglophone of about my age, noticed the book I was reading:  A Fair Country by the Canadian author John Ralston Saul. On seeing my reading material, the man flipped out and went on a rant about how much he hated Canada. Of course, he was Canadian, but he gave the impression that he was trying to shake off his Canadianness like a dog trying to pick a tick off its body.

“What do I have in common with some kid in Alberta?” he demanded in a sort of rhetorical way. Canada is perhaps too big to have a uniform culture and it was never really meant to have one – that’s almost the point of its existence. The United States has been more successful in honing a sense of loyalty to one flag than its northern neighbour, but Canadians should not seek to mimic that. Any sentence that begins with ‘Canadians are . . .’ invariably misses the point; A nation of such size will inevitably command secondary loyalty from a large proportion of its citizens or, in the case of the man in the cafe, disdain. So be it. Montreal is worthy of this man’s affection in any case. It is a city worthy of anyone’s affection.

 

What happened to the American Dream? It moved North.

September 29th, 2011

(This article was published recently in Trinity News – www.trinitynews.ie)

 

There are two prerequisites that must be met in order to have some career success in American political life. Firstly, you must profess, over and over, that the United States is the greatest and most exceptional country ever to have been conceived; secondly, you must regularly express your faith in a higher, celestial power.

What is remarkable about this double expression is that the former – an absolute, unquestioned loyalty to the American Dream – is far more faith-based than the latter – the public expression of religiosity, often for political gain. The nominally secular notion of the American Dream has millions of devotees, all trying to find heaven on Earth. Thus, to knock it is to sign your own political death warrant. The American Dream is a religion for theists and atheists alike.

Look around you. Where is the new wave of Irish emigrants heading? Most of the usual suspects (Australia, Britain, Canada) have lined up at their airports to stamp Irish passports and working visas, but in this recession – our first since the 1980s – the United States has taken more of a back role. More Irish graduates and unemployed persons are moving to Canada and, fortunately for them, they are the ones who will get a real chance of enjoying the American Dream.

The numbers support this claim. Compared to the U.S., Canadians work less, live longer and enjoy better health. With a lower unemployment rate, a stronger dollar (from a position in the 1980s when the Canadian dollar was worth 69 American cents) and less sovereign and individual debt, Canada is now a better place to make money. Canadians – traditionally seen as deferential to their southern neighbours as they sloshed around in deep pools of capital in an entrepreneurial paradise –now view that same land, with its tattered economy, bloated debt and paralysed political system, more with pity than in awe. In a recent Nanos research poll of Canadians, 86 per cent said that their country holds more promise for prosperity.

That prosperity has come with shorter working hours and more time off, allowing Canadians to enjoy themselves more. The Canadian news weekly magazine Macleans has found that in recent years as Americans toil away, working to pay mounting bills, Canadians are spending more time with friends or travelling. Canadians play more golf than any other nationality in the world and have more sex but fewer teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and divorces than their American counterparts. They also drink more but have fewer illnesses and live longer.

Median income for Americans and Canadians is almost exactly the same, but in 2005 it was found that in Canada the average amount of personal debt per person was US$23,460, as opposed to a whopping US$40,250 for Americans. This means that, although they may have slightly smaller homes, Canadians have a lot more real wealth. Those figures are from before the American housing market descended into chaos, likely making for an even greater disparity in per capita debt just half a decade later. Canadians have a different definition of freedom.

Meanwhile in the U.S., debate within the Republican Party in recent weeks has focused on immigration as potential presidential candidates fall over one another in a race to see who can build the biggest wall in the shortest amount of time across one of its two land borders. Green cards, once handed out like confetti to immigrants, many Irishmen and women among them, are now far harder to obtain. The post-9/11 decade has seen American politicians tending to view immigration through the lens of terrorism or national sovereignty rather than as an opportunity to add dynamism and flexibility to the labour market. The popular image of the penniless immigrant arriving on American shore and “making it” through hard work and bright ideas is redundant if the system won’t allow it. On the other hand, Canada now accepts more immigrants per capita than any other developed country.

During one of those aforementioned debates in Florida, fanatics in the audience shouted ‘let him die’ as Republican Senator Ron Paul of Texas attempted to justify his belief that a hypothetical 30 year-old patient with life-threatening injuries or disease should not receive care unless he was wealthy enough to pay hundreds of dollars per month for private insurance. This is the not-so-small print of the modern American Dream.

Look the headline above and note the capital ‘D’ in ‘American Dream’. Why is it so? More than anything, it is now a brand – an idea that can be sold to men, women and children; something into which they can invest their money and emotions, even if the winners are almost always those already at the top. Canada, meanwhile, is no longer a blander, watered-down version of the U.S., though that reputation will take longer to change than the reality. While Americans have been busy pursuing happiness, Canadians have been living it. If anything, it is the true land of opportunity in North America.

We’ve neglected Somalia

September 17th, 2011

The following article will be published in next week’s Trinity News

At the precise moment that I sat down to write this article, there was no article on The Irish Times website homepage or world news page of that same site about the escalating famine in the Horn of Africa, primarily Southern Somalia.

There was, however, a Somalia-based news item that concerned itself with a Danish family being freed by Somali pirates having been held since February of this year. The New York Times website on the same day was the same – no homepage or world news page article about the famine, but a story on the freed Danes made the editorial cut.

Let there be no mistake about it – the story of the freed hostages is worthy and of great importance, but what is clear is this: the non-death of seven Danish people is more important to us than the real deaths of thousands upon thousands of Somalis every day, most of them children.

One of the ways in which we – potential donors to international aid organisations – manage to convince ourselves that we are powerless to help is by believing the myth that drought is the cause of this famine. This is a falsehood. The causes are almost entirely anthropogenic, caused by human factors such as war, corruption and religious fundamentalism. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest are the causes of famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause as a catalyst of famine. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

Al-Shabab has reached an unsurpassable level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. Until we care enough to try and understand what is going on, this is as sure as the sun rising in the morning.

When one considers that the escalating levels of starvation are almost entirely caused by humans and not by nature, as well as being perpetrated by one group upon others, the situation becomes more like Rwanda in 1994 all over again, with a slow wasting death awaiting victims instead of the point of a machete. This time, however, we do know what is going on and we do have the resources to tackle it, but we just choose not to. We may want to help Somalia and Africa, but we can’t do so without learning about it. We can’t learn about it without demanding news about it. News won’t be published unless we demand it.

What makes Somalia particularly unique is that the West has close to absolutely no economic or strategic use for it. There is no commodity to extract or even a central government to coax, nor is there much of a formal economy to speak of. If Africa is the continent that the rest of the world doesn’t care much for, then Somalia is the country within Africa that nobody cares for. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the place. It can be left to rot and crash.

It must be noted that we cannot blame newspapers, news websites and other media outlets entirely for their lack of coverage. Editorial decisions are usually arrived at after two questions are asked: will I get sued, and will running this story make money? We, the people, are the ones primarily to blame. When a story about a handful of alive Danes is far more important to us than a story about potentially millions of acutely malnourished Somalis, we have reached a very sad and potentially dangerous place.

It should not go unmentioned that, contrary to The Irish Times and New York Times, The Globe and Mail – Canada’ national newspaper of record – had an entire section on the famine linked from the homepage on the same day that the other newspapers carried no news at all on the issue. This meant that after one click, no less than ten articles directly related to the famine were available to readers of that site. There is hope.

God is deciding who to pick as President of Ireland . . .

September 7th, 2011

Place:    Earth Politics Committee Boardroom, Heaven

God:      Order! Okay, thanks for coming everyone. I’ll cut to the chase – I have to choose a new Irish President. Suggestions?

Moses (wistfully):          How long has it been since we did this?

Jesus:    14 years.

God:      14 years without a Presidential election? Ha! They call themselves a democracy, you know.

Everyone laughs

Jesus:    I suppose you want us to throw out some names, yeah?

God:      That would help. I can’t remember any decent candidates.

Moses:      You’re supposed to know everything!

God:      Ah Moses, give it a rest. My reputation precedes me and I’ve had a long day. So, any names for me?

Jesus (looking at a laptop screen):            I’m just looking at the odds here and they reckon this lad Higgins is going to get it. He’s got the right attributes – he’s got that dodgy Irish haircut going on and sounds awful strange. They’ll like him. He’s getting on a bit though, so you’d have to ask St. Peter how long he might stick around for.

God:      Hmmm . . . Anyone else?

St. Peter:        A Senator by the name of Norris has been mentioned. But you’ll be happy to hear he’s pulled out of the race.

God:      Why should I be happy about that?

Moses coughs and fidgets nervously, then looks at St. Peter

Moses:     Well, are you going to tell him?

St. Peter:      Never mind.

God:      Never mind what? What’s wrong with this Norris fella?

Jesus (sighing):     You know . . . he kicks with the other foot.

God stares back blankly

St. Peter:       He’s very effervescent . . .  joyous, frivolous, fabulous, Sapphic . . . Do you know what I mean?

God continues to stare back blankly

Jesus:    He bats for the other team.

God is still staring back blankly

Moses:       God, he’s gay. Do you understand?

God:      Oh right. Do the Irish people know this?

Jesus, Moses and St. Peter:        Yes.

God:      Hmmm . . . well we can’t be having an openly gay President just yet. This is a very weak field. Maybe we should somehow tell them to shape up a bit?

Noah (eagerly):        Can we have flooding?

God:      You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Okay, throw in some flooding, but nothing too drastic. Limit it to basements and ground floors in the more pointless counties – Tipperary, Laois and Offaly in particular. Oh! And Kildare. That will teach them for building too many houses on floodplains.

Moses:      That’s a bit Old Testament, isn’t it?

God:      Maybe a little, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots. I don’t mean go Pakistan on them, just have a few rural folk crying on the evening news while an RTE reporter wearing overalls stands waist deep in water, okay? The usual scenario, like last time.

Noah:    How about some fear thrown in too? Maybe have the insurance folks say they won’t pay out?

Jesus:    Not enough sandbags is always a good one!

God:      Erm, okay. But no deaths, you got that? Let’s keep our eye on the ball here – we’re trying to get a half-decent president for these people, not kill them.

Moses:      They had this man called Lenihan who would have been a solid president, but St. Peter only had to go and let him in early.

God (to St. Peter):           Did I ever tell you that you’re a fucking idiot sometimes?

St. Peter:       Sorry God, my bad. I didn’t realise how popular he was; I don’t even have the excuse that I was on holiday and forgot to leave someone in charge.

Moses:        What happened the last time you forgot to leave someone at the gate while you were gone again?

Jesus (interrupting):       JFK was assassinated!

Recalling his past errors, St. Peter looks at the ground and lets out a deep breath

Moses (to St. Peter):       Man, you really are an imbecile sometimes.

God:      Okay gentlemen, let’s leave him alone for a minute. Any other options for Ireland then?

Moses:       How about a joke candidate, like your man from Libertas or one of the Jedward twins?

Jesus:    Wasn’t Jedward punishment for Bertie Ahern sticking around so long?

Moses:        No, I’m thinking Jedward was punishment for taking the Eurovision song contest seriously for so long. Steve Staunton managing the football team was punishment for Bertie Ahern.

Jesus:    Then what was Bertie Ahern punishment for?

Moses:      Nothing. That just happened. They kept electing him without our help.

Jesus:      Are you serious?!

Moses:      Deadly serious.

Jesus:    I find that hard to believe, the gobshites. Anyway, doesn’t Bertie have a daughter who writes books? What about throwing her in as president?

God:      And why should I do that?

Jesus:    Well, last time you sent someone’s kid – your own – to do an important job, it worked out alright. Just a thought . . .

God:      Two points here, son. Are you comparing me with Bertie Ahern, and are you calling the Presidency of Ireland an important job? Because if you are, you’re off your rocker.

Jesus:    I was just sayin’

God:      And now you’ll just shut up, okay?

St. Peter (clicking his fingers, hip hop style):        Ohhhhh did you just go there?

God:      I went there.

St. Peter:       Hi-ohhhh!!!

Moses:      This meeting is getting out of hand. Might I suggest a parting of the ways and we can reconvene later?

Jesus:    You’re always suggesting a parting of the ways, Moses. It’s your solution to everything. Get a new trick already.

Moses:      And I suppose you’ve got loads of tricks, yeah? Oh look at me! Look at me turn this water into delicious wine! Prick.

Jesus:    You’re a prick.

God:      You’re both pricks and if you don’t shut it I’ll cancel the holiday and send you two to Satan for a week! Do I make myself clear?

Jesus and Moses (sheepishly):     Yes, God.

God:      This meeting is over. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. Moses, you bring the morning’s Irish Times and Jesus, you get me the latest paddypower odds. St. Peter, stop taking the few decent candidates and Noah, get things ready for the flood. We’re going to get these clowns a decent president.

Walls and Bridges: the Importance of Washington and Ottawa

September 3rd, 2011

Since human beings first spread themselves across the earth, they have encountered obstacles: rivers, mountains, scarcity of food, extreme heat, biting cold, warlike peoples and diseases – physical barriers to progress. Because of difficulties such as these, the vast majority of human history has been lived in fear.

Some individuals and civilisations embrace that fear and use it as a catalyst to attempt great feats. Ever since our species has sought new lands, one of the devices used to overcome obstacles to movement is the bridge. Bridges allowed us to eat today and build tomorrow while not drowning in the attempt. Julius Caesar made use of huge temporary bridges in order to subdue (or more often, massacre) Germanic tribes over 2,000 years ago. We use them to carry water and to drive further.

Retrospectively, however, bridges can carry more than water or cargo; they carry a lot of history. Of the three colossal countries that comprise continental North America, two of them – Canada and the United States – have capital cities that are located in parts of their respective countries in such a way that part of the cities almost became part of another country, and what links these would-be sister states are bridges. Ottawa and Washington, the respective capitals, were both capital cities by the time of the Quebec referendums and the US Civil War, which makes their capital status before these historic events all the more important and extraordinary.

When you walk, as I did two weeks ago, from Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, you are walking from the state of Virginia to the District of Columbia. You are also walking from the old Confederate States of America to what was then and is now the United States of America; in another history, you could have been walking from one nation to another. The unity that Washington brings to such a vast country can be seen in concentrated form right there on that small plot of land. The bridges are stitches on an old wound.

Earlier this summer, I also walked from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario across the Alexandra Bridge over the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec. Just as in Washington, bridges link what might have become (and might yet become) an entirely separate country within the capital city. I cannot think of any other cities in the world where this is the case.

Of course, the ways that Quebec and the Confederacy went about trying to gain independence were entirely different. For the former, two referendums ended with Quebec remaining within Canada – nobody died, at least not directly. In contrast, more than 600,000 people died during the American Civil War.

Washington is a far more grandiose city. It is larger and more monolithic with more tourists and bigger things. When one takes that walk from the old Confederacy to the modern American capital – from the South to the North – the air oozes the salient sense that this is a very important place. In that respect, the city is quite beautiful because it is a beautiful thing to be there. Physically and politically, Washington itself is a monument of monuments.

Ottawa’s beauty is more understated, built as much by the hand of nature as by the hand of humanity. Taking into account how recently the city was almost split between two countries (1980 and 1995), its status becomes a significant factor in the viability of Canada remaining one country.

Both Ottawa and Washington are metropolises that could have been permanently split by rivers, politics and war. As it is, they are held together by the will of the majority of the people and by bridges, bridges that have a modern resonance far beyond their original function.

On the Cloyne Report, Somalia, and Anders Behring Breivik

July 26th, 2011

A rebuke, a hidden cause, a massacre – it has been a tough week for God. Or more specifically, for the parties of God.

Ireland

By admonishing the Vatican in a Dáil speech last Wednesday in the wake of the Cloyne Report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny – a relatively conservative-minded Catholic – has effectively pressed the reset button on the Irish state and its relationship with the Church. The unfathomable master-slave relationship that has existed is now seemingly confined to the dustbin of history and, more importantly, Kenny and the wider Irish body politic do not appear to be seeking a reversal of that relationship, where the state would become master, but rather a separation or divorce. Ireland is dragging itself, kicking and screaming (and I choose this metaphor because that is what the pre-pubescent victims of rape at the hands of priests were no doubt doing), into the twenty-first century. While the state is rapidly losing its economic sovereignty, it is at least finally asserting its social and cultural independence from the vapid, corrupt and at times sadistic institution that is the Holy See.

What is particularly significant about this week’s events in Ireland and the Church is that, like the leaders that went before him, Kenny is aligning himself with middle Ireland – the mass of slightly conservative Catholics that make up a huge proportion of the electorate. The tipping point that made this speech possible is tripartite: firstly, gross crimes had to be undertaken and covered up by the Church; secondly, these had to be disclosed by a non-ecclesiastical party or parties; lastly, and most importantly from a political point of view, it had to be clear that at least half of the voting age Irish people had to be publicly affronted and sickened by what was disclosed. It is a sobering reflection to note that without that last part, it is unlikely that Mr Kenny would have delivered the speech, at least not in such bold language, no matter what his private feelings on the issue. It was not so much that Mr Kenny was being courageous – and we should not doubt that his feelings are sincere – but rather that the Irish people have finally given a government the opportunity to scorn the Vatican without negative opportunity cost.

A final thought; given what has come to light in recent days, months and years, one can only shudder to think what was happening during the centuries where the Church was above all criticism. How many Cloyne Reports were never written? We should not delude ourselves into believing that the Church’s rape-and-torture policy towards children (and, given the protection afforded to rapists, calling it a “policy” is quite legitimate terminology) was solely a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Somalia

The United Nations has now declared famine in parts of South Somalia, a tardy declaration that has already cost lives. But what is famine? Its effects are more obvious that its causes – the most chilling being children with oversized heads sitting on wasted bodies, waiting to die. But famine is not something that suddenly comes upon a community, nation or region; rather, it is often as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause but a catalyst of famine. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest cause famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

About two-thirds of the starving are thought to be unreachable due to the presence of Al-Shabab, a theocratic party of God that is now launching a strategy of mass killing by starvation; starving people to death in the name of religion. (Note how much easier it is to kill innocent people when you believe you have God on your side, as the third and final segment of this article will further show). Previous famines also had political as well as natural causes, notably in Ireland, where the British government initiated a policy of negligence as part of its then Empire wasted and fled, but Al-Shabab has exceeded that level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. The West may want to help Somalia and Africa, but it can’t do so without learning about it. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the continent. It can be left to rot and crash.

A final thought; during all your years of education, from pre-school through to third level, how much time was spent in the classroom or lecture theatre on African matters, save for the imperial scramble of the late nineteenth century? Answer: probably none.

Norway

Media coverage of the Utoya massacre in Norway is now four days hence, but few outlets and commentators are addressing one of the most unpalatable truths – Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian and a very conservative one at that. For Christians to disown him is moral cowardice and reveals a glaring double standard: if the 9/11 hijackers represent, at least in some part, a strand of Islam, then why does Mr Breivik not represent Christianity in some form?

It is clear from police and eyewitness statements given by survivors of the ordeal that Mr Breivik would not have stopped shooting at unarmed adolescents with the intention of killing them until police arrived on the island. He would have killed 3,000 people, given the opportunity. Why can it be said, as it has been repeatedly, that Mr Breivik is not a Christian, yet the 9/11 hijackers and their ilk are not only representative of a certain type of Islam – the fundamentalist fascistic type – but representative of Islam as a whole?

A final thought; if Mr Breivik has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, do Christians by and large believe that he will go to heaven regardless of his actions on Earth? I often think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for people like him to go to.

Given the events of the past week, it is clear that one of the defining arguments of the twenty-first century will be between secularism and the separation of church and state on the one hand and theocracy and fanaticism on the other. One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the Enlightenment and admonish those who believe that they may do as they wish because a deity commanded them to do so. That is the solace that we may take from the events of the past week.

On Ottawa (and Canada)

June 24th, 2011

Ottawa is a city shrouded in myth, but for me two stand out in particular.

The first is that it is no fun. When I said to some friends and acquaintances in Montreal that I was heading two hours east to Canada’s capital city, they sniggered. ‘Ottawa?’ they said, ‘why would you go to Ottawa?’ It was as if we were ten years old and I had just told them that I do ballet or have a stamp collection. If Ottawa could speak, she might well say ‘my reputation precedes me.’ So why did I go? Because I had never been; and that, believe it or not, is as good a reason as any to go anywhere.

While Toronto and Montreal have agitated to become Canada’s cultural capital, economic capital, sporting capital, musical capital, media capital and, not to forget, actual capital, Ottawa has straddled the two metropolises with humble glee. While Toronto and Montreal argued like two school kids over whose Dad has a bigger car, Ottawa and her citizens got along just fine.

In that respect, the city is quintessentially Canadian, performing in a domestic context the role that Canada has traditionally played internationally. Anglo-Irish journalist and provocateur-in-chief Kevin Myers once wrote of Canada’s role in world affairs as ‘the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance.’ Ottawa’s role within Canada is much the same; the capital is a slight detour to the north from the main Toronto-Montreal route, just as Canada is a slight detour to the north from the main US-Europe routes. Both easily missed, both blithely dismissed.

Ottawa is fun, as much fun for the political anorak as for fans of hip hop or electro nightclubs. Much of the city’s nightlife is contained within the refreshingly low-rise Byward Market area, situated beside the Rideau Canal. On Tuesday evening, I watched the sun set over Gatineau, Quebec from a bridge connecting Rideau St and Wellington St (possibly soon to be Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard). Below the bridge were the final seven or eight locks of the canal as it prepared to enter the river. I have always considered the construction of canals among the more underrated achievements of humanity, and the merging of sheer natural beauty with human triumph and endevour became a sort of microcosm of Canada itself.

A couple of minutes up the road stands Parliament Hill, and it is on that Hill, where Canada’s federal House of Commons and Senate meet, that the second of the myths mentioned in the opening gambits of this piece resides. As mentioned before on this page, the idea that Queen Victoria herself chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital in 1857 is one that rankles, mainly because it is almost completely untrue. I say ‘almost’ because the monarch did rubber stamp the arrangement, so to speak, but it was Macdonald, Cartier and other fathers of Confederation who decided that the small lumber town would become home to the government of Canada.

Shawni is a tour guide from New Brunswick. Towards the end of our tour, we entered a hall where portraits hang of all monarchs who have reigned from Victoria forth. Shawni mentioned the Victoria-Ottawa myth as historical fact, much to the salient satisfaction of two women from Liverpool who became instantly proud over what they believed to be true. In deference to Shawni, she is likely to know far more about Canadian history than me, but this is one thing that most historians now accept as a sort of quasi-myth. I did not want to spoil the Liverpudlians’ fun or embarrass Shawni, so I bit my bitter Irish tongue. She later told me in private that she is told from above what to say.

My brief trip was rounded off by attending Question Period in the public gallery of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and his front bench faced the Speaker always while speaking – a strange, quirky tactic – while opposition MPs directed their vexed irritations directly at their intended targets. The main topic of discussion was the continuing Canada Post lockout, with the NDP predictably backing Canada Post workers and the Conservatives the small- and medium-sized businesses they say make Canada’s economy tick. French and English mixed, sometimes in mid-flow, from those comfortable in both official national languages. This, apparently, is what goes on in Canada’s Parliament.

Ottawa, a city that constantly seems to have to justify its own existence, offers much more than what its reputation suggests. If Canada is the country the world forgot, then Ottawa is the city the country forgets. The slight northern detour is well worth it, and the same goes for Canada at large.

My hero, Romeo Dallaire

June 3rd, 2011

I have recently finished watching a superb documentary, ‘Ghosts of Rwanda’, about that nation’s repulsive genocide of 1994. In recent years, the US government — as well as those of Britain and France, among others — has publicly declared its regret that more was not done to prevent the attempted eradication of the Tutsis or reduce the human loss. The UN and its Secretary-General of the time, Kofi Annan, have made similar remarks.

Kofi Annan is from Ghana, a country that I have worked in and is very dear to me, and the UN’s spectacular ineptitude during the mass killings — including reducing their force when General Romeo Dallaire asked for backup — does not reflect well on the organisation or Annan.

However, I learned something new from the documentary. While other countries – including the US which, under the Clinton administration, was loathe to enter Africa after the Somalia debacle of 1992 and publicly stated so — were commiting to not providing troops for the UN mission, the two main countries that did stick around and provide the lion’s share of troops were Ghana and Canada. (This is discussed in part 6 of the above link, from around 4.00 to 6.00).

Dallaire, the beleagured Canadian General in charge of the UN mission, states that he said to Ghanaian General Henry Kwami Anyidoho, ”Henry, they want us out. We’ve failed in the mission. We’ve failed in attempting to convince… We’ve failed the Rwandans. We are going to run and cut the losses; that’s what they want us to do.” ‘They’ in this sentence can only be construed as the UN people at headquarters in New York.

Anyidoho said No.

“We haven’t failed, and as commanders we are going to sit here, work hard and see to its solution. So let’s tell those people back in New York that we do not think the mission should be closed.”

800,000 people are thought to have died in 100 days of genocide in an area smaller than the US state of Maryland – targeted killings without mercy in an attempt to wipe out Tutsis. The UN force, under Canadian command with a large chunk of Ghanaian troops, have been widely credited with keeping that number below the million mark.

While other governments, Western and African, were running away from Rwanda as genocide was beginning, it is no surprise to me, having lived and worked in both, that the two Generals who decided to stay were from Ghana and Canada, respectively.

And the relationship extends into our present millenium. When the Vancouver Canucks made it into the Stanley Cup Final last week — that’s the final of the (Ice) Hockey season, for your information — these Ghanaian children gave their support to Canada’s team.

Beautiful. Honest. Relevant.