Celtic Thunder, ‘Mythology’ Tour

October 25th, 2012

Belmullet, a sleepy fishing town in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, was once described by John Millington Synge, the famous playwright and poet, as “without appeal to the imagination.” Cowered on an isthmus between Broadhaven Bay and Blacksod Bay on Ireland’s west coast, the town eschews the lure of the open Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the peninsula, preferring instead to look to the calmer waters of the bays for sustenance. Fishing has been a lifeline since long before Sir Arthur Shaen began building what soon became a tiny village of thatched roofs in 1715.

Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, widely regarded as his magnum opus, was indeed based on the playwright’s experiences in the area around Belmullet. For a town without appeal to the imagination, he certainly squeezed every ounce of inspiration he could from a place he had dismissed just a couple of years previously.

Imagination often works in this way. We dismiss something – a place, a person, a pastime, a piece of art – as insipid or simply quaint yet plain, only to return and view that very same thing in a whole new light for reasons that seem beyond basic comprehension. A good example of such a thing is the sea.

Around the time St. Patrick was active as a missionary in Ireland – that is, around fifteen or sixteen centuries ago – a humble fisherman named Aífraic went to work one day near what is now the town of Belmullet. Heading to the shore he saw four swans – the children of Lir, Lord of the sea – dancing on the waves and singing sad songs. The children were famous for their beauty and were the most beloved of the tribe of the old Gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Their grief was the result of suffering an extended period of purgatory at the hands of Aoife, Lir’s second wife, who, jealous of the fact that Lir’s children were born to him by her late sister, and Lir’s first wife, Aoibh, condemned the two sets of twins to 900 years of living in the bodies of swans.

“Out with you upon the wild waves, Children of the King!

Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.”

The children still retained their human mental faculties, however, and Aífraic went to see them every day. They came to love each other, and the fisherman, who moonlighted as a poet and storyteller (indeed, the prefix ‘Aí’ means “poetic inspiration” in Old Irish Gaelic) told the story of their suffering to neighbours at evening gatherings. The tale eventually spread across the Kingdom of Connaght in the West of Ireland, where the known world ended and the great Ocean began. Beyond the waves, so they say, lay the Otherworld, Hy Breasal – the haven of lost souls.

It is claimed that if you still believe in the old Gods and Godesses of of the Celtic world, it is possible to do as Aífraic did and hear the songs of the children of Lir. If your boat approaches the island of Inisglora, off the Erris peninsula near Belmullet, you may still hear their beautiful laments from the waves.

Only one of our human senses, sound, is stimulated. The eye is left unprovoked, though one cannot help scanning the horizon for the source of the call, while the wind in the air continues to bring the same sweet, salty air to the nose and tongue as it did before the ear became so excited.

“Celtic spirituality is awakening so powerfully now because it illuminates the fact that the visible is only one little edge of things.         The visible is only the shoreline of the magnificent ocean of the invisible.”

John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong

One could point toward meteorological conditions or a trick of the mind to explain the voices in the wind (the Celtic nations are, after all, the windiest in Europe and some of the windiest in the world, lands where every draft, breeze and gust seems to carry a whisper sent to tease us into believing, perhaps only for a moment, that some soul has absentmindedly left the door to the Otherworld slightly ajar for a while after popping outside for some fresh air), but to completely reject any possibility of a more transcendental reality that lies outside of what can be seen would do a great disservice to our innate yearning for truth beyond our immediate experience.

Mythology, that soft blend of entertainment, ideology and religion, was, of course, originally unwritten, and poets such as Aífraic were oral storytellers. Like those moments when one believes in the reality, or rather the legacy, of the children of Lir based on the perception of a call from the ocean or lakeside, mythology in its truest form was and is an entirely oral and aural phenomenon. This is in spite of the fact that today we are more likely to consume mythology as a visual experience, focusing on words written on a page rather than sounds carried through the air.

Had Aífraic and others like him not divulged their stories to others, those myths would no doubt have been lost to those same winds that today still hint at a heroic past. Even Homer, without a doubt the most eminent storyteller in the history of mythology, drew on a large well of rhapsodic oral poetry in his native Greece.

Celtic Thunder offers a route back toward what mythology was when Aífraic went to work one day and met the children of Lir, back to what mythology was before mass production and uniformity. The aural experience is elevated above the other senses, followed by the visual. Words are to be heard, not read, and when they are heard they are to be heard through song. And just as J.M. Synge had to look twice to find inspiration tucked away in a corner of the Celtic world, what we have is a thread of Ariadne – through a labyrinth of modern distractions, we can wind our way back to where we started, back to something truly worth sharing.

Celtic Thunder, Voyage II

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the second one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.

 

When the SS Nevada docked at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, it had been twelve days since the ship left Queenstown (now Cobh) on the coast of County Cork, Ireland, having previously departed from Liverpool. It was the usual route for an emigrant ship, but there was something distinctly extraordinary about this particular journey.

The Nevada exited the soft tranquility of Cork Harbour and entered the Atlantic Ocean on December 20, 1891. With the City of Paris and Victoria also due to spend Christmas at sea while bound for New York, and Ellis Island not yet operating as an immigrant landing station, it is very probable that those on board had no idea they would be the first to be processed at the new facility.

The first immigrant to pass through was steerage passenger Annie Moore from Cork, a rosy-cheeked girl of fifteen years, who, along with her two younger brothers, was joining her parents in New York City. The elder Moores had arrived fours years previously at Castle Garden, which was neither a castle nor a garden but a squalid crime-plagued immigrant station at the southern tip of Manhattan.

To mark the occasion, an American Official presented Moore with a $10 gold piece, a sum of money that was greater than any she had ever previously owned. It is fitting that the first immigrant off the Nevada was an Irishwoman, as people of Celtic origin were playing an increasingly prominent role in social, economic, and political life in North America. It was a time when women, particularly young women, were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and it would not be long until they achieved the right to vote.

Annie Moore’s story is usually told in this happy-go-lucky way, but it is often forgotten that every immigrant is, by definition, an emigrant too. The song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears — a staple of the Celtic Thunder repertoire — evokes the more nuanced, bittersweet reality that was no doubt felt by every emigrant setting foot on foreign soil for the first time. For them, every feeling of hope was balanced with pangs of sorrow, each enthusiastic thought compensated with melancholy. Rather than being exclusively a feel-good story, the reality of the Moores and others like them — $10 coins notwithstanding — was much closer to what the Ancient Greeks called pathos, more heartbreak than joy. Even with the exciting prospects of her new life, the song reminds us that, for Moore, the ‘isle of home is always on your mind’ and one ‘you’ll never see again’.

The Celtic Thunder set for this Voyage tour is filled with songs that poignantly elicit those same feelings, in doing so reminding us that, in spite of the material comforts and opportunities offered by the modern world, missing home is a human constant. A rendition of Michael Bublé’s Home reinforces almost identical emotions to those experienced by Moore, the only real difference being that in Bublé’s more contemporary ballad the narrator knows that his pathos is but a temporary glitch, not everlasting.

It is a decisive distinction that differentiates the late nineteenth century mode of thought with its early twenty-first century counterpart. While Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears is in many ways a prototypal Home, its heart weighs heavier owing to the fact that the world was a far larger, less accessible place then than it is today.

What is so captivating about this collection of songs, however, is that it does not reference bygone days just for its own sake, but rather it sets down a vision of the past — our past — that has the potential to be hugely relevant, even helpful, to how we live our lives today. Tacitly or otherwise, what one sees and hears is all influenced by something that came before.

All art is like this. Taking only songwriting, there are millions upon millions of songs and probably billions upon billions of lines. Encased in all these are trillions and trillions of ideas and concepts. To top it all off, there are quadrillions of phrases and words, in countless languages, used to express those ideas. We pull material from the same well, but the real excitement comes from those moments in time when we discover the potential of building our own well. And yet it is still a well. It is the paradox of originality.

Some artists wear their inspiration squarely on their sleeve while others are more esoteric, but success comes from the humility of recognizing that creativity is far closer to innovation than it is to invention. Michael Bublé did not inaugurate the idea of writing a ballad on the subject of missing home, nor did he discover a new musical note never heard before, but ultimately something original and poignant was composed.

The chef creates a delicious new dish out of traditional ingredients. The painter strokes her brush in way that resembles the work of somebody she admires. The metalsmith makes a new type of weapon that is stronger than any other, even though he is using the same metals he has always used. Allusions are made, and creativity forever invents itself. The great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best when he wrote, “Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor.”

What Celtic Thunder offers in this regard is exceptionally rich. Not only are allusions made between songs written in different ages — as in the case of Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears and Home — but the performance itself pulls from a profusion of wells while also building its own. In that sense, it fulfills Emerson’s challenge and more. It is personal and universal, momentary and perpetual, intellectually challenging yet thoroughly accessible. Behind tales of material voyages such as that of Annie Moore, it further reveals a voyage of the mind and of art — the journey of concepts and thought, commodities that belong to the commons of humanity across every epoch. More than anything, it is a richness that belongs to you as much as anybody else.

 

 

Celtic Thunder, Voyage I

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the first one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.

 

There is a poem called An tOileán Úr – The New Island – penned by an unknown Irish poet in the mid to late 1700s, about one man’s reluctance to join the thousands upon thousands of people leaving Europe, and Ireland in particular, at that time.

After much deliberation, the unknown poet arrived in America and, once there, walked mile after arduous mile without seeing a single soul with whom he could communicate. Nothing but dense woods and the roar of wild beasts. Scared and alone, the poet happened upon a modest dwelling where the people asked where he was coming from. “Ireland,” he said, “in the wood of Lisreagh, beside Lough Erne.” As soon as the words left his mouth, wrapped as they were in the soft lilt of an Ulster accent, an elderly woman rose from the comfort of the fireside to greet him.

“God bless you of all the people I’ve ever met,” she said, holding his hand. “Many were the pleasant days I spent in Ireland and beside Lough Erne in the wood of Lisreagh; there’s no other place like it from Wales to the Head of Howth or from Cork to Lisbellaw.”

Realizing that the only thing he particularly liked about the New Island was that he found someone reared not even an afternoon’s journey from his own home, he resolved that he would be happiest back in Ireland, where he could pass the time with people who truly understood him.

We will never discover whether he made the trip home, though it is highly unlikely he ever did. Before steamships became the transatlantic norm, one could expect to spend seven weeks at sea before sighting land once again. His poem made the return voyage across the ocean, however, and became what is now a popular folk song in Northern Ireland. Perhaps he stayed, cultivated land and raised a family. Maybe one of his descendants, lured by tales of gold fields and a faraway ocean on the other side of the “island”, travelled west on a wagon train a century later and helped to create the idiosyncratic Celtic aspects of what is now modern North American life.

The motif of pining for home while on an epic voyage has transfixed humankind since the first stories were ever told. Gulliver travelled, Dorothy had to make it home from the Land of Oz, while Odysseus took ten years to return to his Kingdom of Ithaca, an adventure that in turn inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In many stories, as in real life, music is both the residual beauty that flows in the wake of an epic voyage, as well as often being a catalyst propelling the protagonists toward their destination. Song is both a cause and effect of where and how the journey proceeds, and no group of people understood that more than the Celts. After a migratory and wayfaring history, they have handed down a rich songbook of countless laments, anthems and love songs. The essence of the independent Celtic mind lies not only in what it thinks and how it thinks, but also in how it channels those thoughts for others through the medium of song. They are born entertainers.

It is salient that we seem as interested in the voyage home as we are about the journey to some unknown place. The hero of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, was faced with a choice by the Gods – stay in Greece, grow old, and die in comfort, or get on the ship to Troy and become the most famous and loved of all the Greeks, knowing that he would never return.

Knowing that you would never return. It was a choice faced by millions as they heard stories about the new lands of North America. Looking west from Galway Bay or the rugged Kerry mountains, they debated whether or not to make the journey down to Queenstown on Ireland’s south coast from where they could hope to board a ship west. They might never have travelled more than a few miles from home in their life, yet tales of cheap land, abundant food, liberty and religious pluralism were hard to resist.

But home is also is a difficult place to leave, especially when you know you will never return. At Ellis Island in New York Harbor, for decades the first piece of American land upon which the emigrant would rest his or her weary foot – indeed, the first person to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore from County Cork – a quote is written on the wall below the Registry Room. “Too soon I arrived at the quay and left my last footprint on my native land,” wrote Robert Whyte in 1847, during the height of the potato famine that engulfed the island of Ireland.

My last footprint. Finality. Certitude. Resolution. Hope. Fear. A one-way crossing.

That feeling is lost on those who make the same voyage today. We have airplanes. We have networks. We can make a few clicks of a button on a computer and instantly see family and friends from home while talking to them. Contemporary voyages may be easier and less heartbreaking, but we have lost something along the way – the songs. Music and poetry helped ease the sorrow while leaving an enduring legacy that defines who the Celtic people were and are. There’s no app on any smartphone for curing loneliness. The less tangible aspects of our past – songs, stories, plays and more – are far more important to us than any material invention. Carried along through the ages by passion and pride, they are adapted and freshly moulded to entertain and empower whoever is fortunate enough to hear, see and muse upon such creativity. It is the sound and spectacle of Celtic Thunder.

For nomadic Celts, the ocean was their artery and their vein, moving to and from the heart of the voyage. Railroad tracks, rivers, canals and roads were an extension, smaller vessels running alongside. Of all the peoples that roamed not just across the wine-dark seas, but across the continent during those pioneering centuries, Celts played enormous roles in forging the paths of history wherever they went. From the unknown poet to the most recent emigrants, via American Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, North Americans of Celtic ancestry owe a large measure of their success and freedom to those who came before. We are all indebted to them.

 

Moving to New York: The Apartment Hunt

April 15th, 2012

This article was published recently on www.realcityny.com, an online magazine for whom I am writing a series on immigration.

 

The first time I ever came here it felt like I was walking around a Woody Allen movie. Even those who’ve never been to America have seen New York on their TV screens, read it in their novels and heard it in their music. I went unabashedly about my tourist business, paying hard cash to go up tall buildings to take bad photographs and buying a hot dog from a man on the street even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Sometimes you have to accept that you’re not at home and welcome the fact that you may as well be carrying a sign saying “Tourist.”

That was 2008, and I only stopped over for a few days while returning to my native Ireland after a summer spent working as a soccer coach in California. Now I’m back, but in a much altered role. I moved to Washington, D.C. in January but decided within days to get a one way bus ticket four hours northeast. I’m an accidental emigrant; I didn’t even know I had emigrated until after someone told me I was an emigrant, and an emigrant is, by definition, also an immigrant. There are over three million of us in this city, all searching for a piece to call our own. I’m lucky in that I love my home — an island tucked away in the Atlantic, spooned by Britain (though our history is anything but cuddly). Other immigrants to the city know they will never see home again or have no wish to; I know I’ll see my dearest friends and family for Christmas.

* * *

Regardless of background or legal status, we must all take part in certain rituals here. Using the few contacts, if any, that one may have to unearth some sort of job come close to the top of the list, but something we all experience is the fabled apartment hunt. While I was not writing cover letters or perching myself on a stool at the East Village bar my Irish cousin works in, I was looking for a room.

I started the search on the source of every good, bad and ugly thing in modern urban life — Craigslist. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted, but I knew what I couldn’t have — a place to myself. Supply and demand economics saw to that. Via the power of the Internet and a touch of blind trust, a man let me have his room in an East Williamsburg fourth floor walk-up while he was touring Europe and Australia with his band. That gave me a month to look for something more long-term.

It was around mid-February when I started seeing places, the first being in Bushwick. I’d e-mailed Simon, the man who posted the ad, and he told me to meet him there the next day. As he turned the key into the door, I asked, “Do you live here too?” “Yes,” he replied. We went in and I was waved in the general direction of the room I entered alone. “I’ll be in here,” said Simon, as he strode into the kitchen, which doubled as the common living space. The room was adequate. It was sort of soulless and bare, with furniture that looked like it might fall apart at any moment — but not a cockroach or bedbug to be found. If you were to put a sign on the door it would say “meh.”

On entering the kitchen I pointed toward the other room and asked, “Is that your room?” I already knew the answer, of course, given that it was a two-bedroom place. It was just an icebreaker, an effort to get him to talk. “Yes,” said Simon. I should point out that at this stage I’d told him my basic background, nationality, route to New York, where I was staying and why I was here. I’d probably even thrown in a bad joke or two for good measure. Simon had murmured a total of five words and not looked at me once. I knew he had good English from our phone conversation, so this was just creepy behavior. Goodbye, Simon.

February was gathering pace, and I needed somewhere to live. Next up was a railroad-style place near the Myrtle-Wyckoff L/M stop. I had already spoken to Francois on the phone and could tell he was the jovial sort. We flickered between English and his native French, at which I had become pretty useful while living in Montreal. Icebreaker dealt with. I met him at the place and, in contrast with Simon, this man could talk. However, there are two things that drive me slightly gaga when talking to someone for more than a minute: when they don’t remove their sunglasses or when they leave their earphones in their ears. Francois had his earphones in the whole time, so I didn’t know if he was listening to me or music. If it was the former, why not take half second to pull them out so I can stop wondering? If it was the latter, I don’t know where to start. I should add that the room, which was advertised as having a bed, contained a semi-deflated air mattress and a closet held to the wall with gray Duct tape.

Then I saw a gorgeous little place in Greenpoint. It was near perfect, with a backyard where, in my mind’s eye, I saw my friends and I sinking a few beers under the late afternoon summer sun (this daydream ignored the fact that those friends didn’t exist yet). Amy, who oozed sense and hospitality, seemed like a person I’d like to live with and we shook on a deal whereby I would move in with her and a man from China in a few weeks. I didn’t hear from her for a few days so I sent her a text. “Worst case scenario,” she replied, “I’m leaving the apartment.”

It turned out that she’d posted an ad for a room that wasn’t actually available because she wanted a couple living in it to leave. She then told them that I was moving in but had forgotten the key elements that make up democracy, power and basic human numbers. She was outnumbered two to one and was asked to leave. I was roomless once again. The world was welcoming the birds to share the spring, and I had to beg the man from whom I was subletting to let me hang around for another little while. I was getting a real lesson in the pervasive flakiness that undercuts a large proportion of this city and this world.

Those are just a few of around a dozen rooms I saw, but eventually I found three men in Bushwick around my own age who enjoy the same things as I do. We have guitars hanging on the wall, a piano, a projector for watching sports and whatever else 20-somethings might need. Plus, every night the dishes are washed and put away. It’s a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears — you have to find the one that’s just right.

* * *

It’s not that I don’t care about those Manhattan buildings that sucked me in four years ago, but rather that I can’t afford to. Real life, as opposed to the temporary life of the tourist, is an energy sapping experience where one is often left fatigued and frustrated, even if things ultimately end up in good order. As John Lennon sang in a song released just before he was shot dead in this very city, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I barely notice the buildings now. They’re a fixture on the horizon like the Dublin Mountains where I grew up — a playground in the distance if I ever find the time for that sort of thing.

New York has the dual status of being a fantastic (in the original sense of the word) tourist destination as well as a global immigration hub. Arriving as an immigrant is strange because one can’t help spending those first few days in the mindset of a tourist before the fantasy departs and the reality of city living takes over. Between 1970 and 2007, the number of immigrants living in the United States quadrupled from 9.6 million to 38 million. Via accident of birth, I am one of the few lucky ones. I have a nice, shiny work permit glued into my Irish passport — a passport that is, due to a history of emigration, hard work and subsequent good will, one of the most valuable in the world. All I had to do to get here was be Irish, and all I had to do to get a work permit was be a recent graduate. I didn’t pay anyone to smuggle me through a desert and I don’t live in fear of the police (any more than the average American).

Despite my apartment struggles, I still have it relatively easy. Others do not. Legal and illegal, wealthy and destitute, young and old, male and female — we all live among the mostly wonderful people who were born and raised in this land. Right now the phenomenon of international migration to this city and country is just numbers. I’m going to get out there and start talking with people to find the faces and lives behind them.


A hypothetical Kony 2012 situation: “success”

March 8th, 2012

Let’s set up a hypothetical situation, one that is both theoretically and practically possible. The situation is objectively simple: Joseph Kony is captured or killed in 2012.

Now two subjective responses:

(1)    This is a good thing. Over 99 per cent of people would agree with this, myself included. It would be better if he were captured alive and tried at the International Criminal Court, but the US does not recognise the ICC.

(2)    The Kony 2012 campaign would be largely responsible for the effort. The majority of people would probably agree with this. I would be in the minority.

Imagine Tiger Woods was ten shots clear of the field on the final hole on the final round of the Masters and handed you his putter for a putt one inch from the hole. You nail it and the crowd stands to applaud and shout your name, but who deserves the trophy?

As this article in Foreign Policy magazine (one of the most respected magazines in the world) points out, Kony’s LRA is not in Uganda and has not been for about six years. The people of central Africa, including some political decision-makers as well as ordinary citizens, have been successful in calming a horrible war to the extent that the LRA is no longer in northern Uganda and has been reduced to a near impotent rump. A tremendous effort has been made, by Africans, to achieve the improved situation that exists today. Alas, Kony lives. Invisible Children thinks that wealthy white westerners should be credited for arresting him and for everything else that went before. The video consistently advances the notion that the people of Uganda and Africans in general are impotent and not worthy of decision-making positions. Invisible Children want to be given credit for the hard work of other people.

Worse still, they want to achieve this self-aggrandising aim by offering logistical, material, financial and emotional support to an army run by a man, Yoweri Museveni, who has a track record of using child soldiers (please watch this video). The logic is this: help child soldiers by escalating a war and aiding an army that itself has also used child soldiers. The logic continues thus: capture the criminal Joseph Kony and try him in the International Criminal Court, pressuring American and Canadian politicians to achieve this even though the US does not recognise that very court.

Furthermore, the army does not number 30,000, as the video suggests (rather, that is the ballpark figure for the total number of child soldiers since the army’s inception), but instead numbers at most in the hundreds. We should aim to eradicate the LRA, but what Invisible Children overtly advocates – assistance to the Uganda People’s Defence Force – would escalate a war that is presently enduring an uneasy ceasefire. This might – and only might – result in the capture and arrest of Kony, but only after a bloody campaign that would most likely result in children being used as human shields.

If Invisible Children were serious about making Kony famous via a poster campaign in cities, they would have gone with this very simple idea – by clicking a link on their site you could download a poster that you could print off at home and photocopy. Instead, they ask that you send them $5 for the posters. If people responded to this video not by opening their wallets but by opening their minds, they would think of something like this and act accordingly. But people are sending money to an organisation that supports the despotic government of Yoweri Museveni and will aid an army that has murdered, raped and looted its way across central Africa. Make your own posters, and make your own minds.

 

Hugo O’Doherty has written on African affairs for various publications in Ghana and Ireland. He believes that Joseph Kony is a vile person who needs to be brought to justice. hugo@hugoodoherty.com

Why You Should Not Donate To Invisible Children/Kony 2012

March 8th, 2012

Like many people across the world, I am in the large minority that takes internet access for granted. On March 7th, millions of wealthy people who count themselves among that group watched a half-hour long video made by a group called Invisible Children.

The video went viral and ended up gaining unprecedented support via a mixture of pledges of support and video sharing, both quite innocent, and donations. The request for these donations after an emotionally manipulative video, however, is quite sinister – brazenly so. It was a tour de force in coercion, emotional manipulation and sophistry, and millions are falling for it.

I can’t tell you what to do with your money, that’s entirely up to you. But if you had not heard of Joseph Kony before yesterday and are now thinking of reaching into your wallet for some change or your credit card, stop. Stop right now, please. I can’t tell you what to do with your money, but I can ask you what to not do with it, and what you should not do is donate to this group. Let’s say you do decide to donate though, as is your right; where would the proportion of your donation that is not spent on salaries and administration go? (If you want to read beyond this point, and you should, I suggest you open the video in another tab because I will be referencing certain points of it in parentheses.)

Invisible Children does not hide the fact that it would lend its financial resources to help the Ugandan Army in its aims (19.23 and 21.47). Uganda has been led by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat who has also used child soldiers and “ghost soldiers” , since 1986. Among many of its human rights violations, the regime tortures prisoners, oppresses other political parties and the press and also wishes to introduce a bill that would have ‘convicted homosexuals’ put to death.

In the mid 1990s, the Museveni government forcibly removed over one million people of the Acholi tribe from the northern part of the country to concentration camps further south. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently have some of the highest mortality rates in the world at around 1,000 per week. Both Kony’s LRA and Museveni’s UPDF have committed terrible atrocities against these IDPs.

The video says we need to pressure American politicians (why just American?) to go after Kony and try him in the ICC, but the US isn’t even a member of the ICC (21.00). It asks that people put pressure on representatives to try a criminal in a court they themselves have voted against recognising. It juxtaposes a Republican lawmaker and an ICC prosecutor. It is incoherent logic.

It also states that it is the Ugandan Army that must be supported in achieving the aim of capturing Kony, but as the video also points out, Kony is most likely no longer in Uganda (15.00). This advocates that the Ugandan Army invades another sovereign state or states when those states offer no credible threat against the invading state, going against international law. The Ugandan Army has already entered other states and exploited resources: oil, mineral reserves and rich farmland. In addition, the Museveni regime, along with ally Rwanda, initiated or helped initiate the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed an estimated 6 million people – more than any conflict since WW2.

Look at the brief montage of footage (17.26-17.38) where people are out in matching shirts with a banner declaring where they are; not one of them is in a lesser developed country or even in Africa. No Cairo, no Abidjan, no Cape Town, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi . . . All of these cities have zones with internet access. They also have walls and they also have paper, so you would think that a “global” effort to capture Joseph Kony, an African, for war crimes by putting up posters would at least entail some element of Africa in the solution, no? This video was directed solely at rich nations because they are the ones with citizens who have the means to donate by buying the action kits and posters, which retail at $30 and $5 respectively.

The video also depicts the Ugandan regime as honourable, wishing to deploy soldiers to hunt a war criminal but limited by technological and financial restrictions that US advisors can help overcome.  This is simply not the case in reality. They are promoting keyboard activism.  If people use this viral exposure to do something useful, such as target the political root causes of the problems – something that we, as those with access to the internet, could do – then we ought to be impressed.

But for the moment, the lack of context and the black-and-white moralist tone of the video clouds a series of highly delicate political and social situations in central Africa.  Doing some good is great, but most of the video was filmed over five years ago. A lot of the ring leaders, such as Vincent Otti, are no longer alive. Going on a revenge spree is a solution for nothing. If you chase the symptom away, fix the problem, don’t wield pitchforks and hunt. This is not Rwanda 1995 when we actually ought to have done something to stop a genocide that killed 800,000 people in under 100 days. (That’s the same as three 9/11s per day for 100 days straight in an area smaller than the state of Massachusetts.) We didn’t care then because there was no economic or strategic interest in the region at a geo-political level as there is now.

At its worst, the video manipulates a child through a highly staged mock interview (09.20 and 13.00), is neo-colonial and says that only wealthy white people can cure poor non-white people of their problems. It is Kipling’s White Man’s Burden in all its jingoistic glory. It is a real life version of Team America. If you actually want to do something in the long-term about the LRA, Kony, Uganda and Africa, then take a consistent interest in Africa rather than hopping on board because everyone is wearing the same colour t-shirt. You could start by demanding of the education system in your country that if a history course is given on Africa (usually titled the “scramble for Africa”), then perhaps it should not just be given solely from a British and French perspective and should not focus exclusively on how it affected European affairs. If you want to do something positive in the short- to medium-term after watching the video and wish to make a donation to a group doing great work in the area, you can donate to Amnesty International, MSF or War Child, among others.

People are saying “Is it better to stand by and do nothing?” – implying that doing nothing is the only alternative. This creates a false dilemma, is a logical fallacy and is intellectually lazy.

Reading this was probably a lot less fun for you than watching the video, but then again I didn’t write this to entertain you or make you feel better or worse about yourself. Did you ever watch the Simpsons episode ‘Trash of the Titans’? It’s the one where Homer becomes sanitation commissioner. During a debate, his level-headed opponent says;

“All right, fine. If you want an experienced public servant, vote for me. But if you want to believe a bunch of crazy promises about garbage men cleaning your gutters and waxing your car, then by all means vote for this sleazy lunatic.”

Homer won in a landslide after an appeal to people that they could feel better about themselves by being lazy – intellectually lazy. It takes no intellectual effort to put on a t-shirt, put up a poster or make a donation. Let’s not do the same thing the population of Springfield did. For once, let’s actually care about Africa and Africans.

 

 

Hugo O’Doherty has written on African affairs for various publications in Ghana and Ireland. He believes that Joseph Kony is a vile person who needs to be brought to justice. hugo@hugoodoherty.com

 

Occupiers’ Garden: OWS goes to Washington, D.C.

January 30th, 2012

“You know what? They never even fucking told me. They never told me what they arrested me for,” shrieks Athena, a New Yorker whose voice is anything but that of a goddess. I was first drawn towards her because she was walking around the West lawn of Capitol Hill like someone who had been told that there was a nickel for every blade of grass she stepped on. Stomp stomp stomp. It was an unseasonably warm but soggy day, making for progressively squelchy stomps as the day wore on. She was simultaneously singing. Let it shine, let it shine. I’m gonna let it shine. All over the West lawn, I’m gonna let it shine.

It was like Marian Finnucane doing a Shakira impression, with a hint of Sarah Palin for good measure. Well, at least she wasn’t just standing there looking miserable with a ‘Down with capitalism’ sign. She was also taking dozens of photographs of people holding up a banner she had made with two simple words: ‘Occupy United’.

“New Year’s morning, I was arrested. In 2012 I started off my new year in jail,” she says, reliving memories of the NYPD slapping the cuffs on her slender wrists in Zuccotti Park. No fireworks, no midnight kiss, so not such a great way to enter a New Year, one would think.

“It went great. I was held till about 7am, but it was actually really fun because I was in the Paddy Wagon for a couple of hours with a bunch of other Occupy women and, with teamwork, we were able to hook up our live stream to text message whoever the hell we wanted to and we just did not feel limited. So actually it was a lot of fun.”

Athena spoke while snapping away, then abruptly asked for my card. My card? I’ve been in America for one day and have had a phone for about an hour. I made my apologies on the card front and made a mental note that calling yourself a journalist in this country and not having a wad of shiny cardboard slips on your person is akin to calling yourself a snow remover who carries only a miniature bucket and spade. You may as well not turn up. Even people with McJobs probably have cards. Junior vice-burger flipper supervisor.

This is Occupy Congress, a one-day extension of the Occupy movement whose focal point is Occupy Wall Street. That’s three Occupies in one sentence, and why not? The word is everywhere here, just a couple of hundred feet from one of the most iconic buildings in the world on the day Congress reconvenes. Congress, with its 11 per cent approval rating; that’s like if the population of California all said ‘they’re doing an okay job’ and every single other person across the other 49 states said ‘they’re doing a terrible job.’

So does Occupy have a political aim? “Oh it has a political aim,” states Athena, emphatically.

“I don’t think the Occupy movement should have any political aim and in itself will never support any political candidate,” states Mike, with equal fervour. He’s a fresh-faced man, no more than maybe 23 years old, who sat on a train for 60 hours to get here from Reno, Nevada. I didn’t seek him out, he just came up to me and said “you’re awesome.”

The disparity between Mike and Athena, between East and West, between urban and rural, perhaps even between male and female, reveals what many commentators believe to be the fundamental weakness of the movement – it doesn’t know what it is. But that could also be its strength. It’s an open shop as long as you obey one commandment – the perceived cuddliness of politicians and corporations is fundamentally wrong and needs to be done away with. If you agree with that, you’re in.

Wildebeest, a Bostonian, is one of those loud, serial high-fiving types who could only be from this continent. At first I assumed he was using a pseudonym, but then remembered that this is a place where two men called Mitt and Newt are vying to becoming President. “Mama took one look and said this boy is gonna be trouble,” he declared when asked about his name.

As Wildebeest roamed across the lawn, his large Stars and Stripes flag waving upside-down from a pole, he started shouting and pointing “party on that lawn right there.” Why there? “The cop told me to get off the sidewalk and on the lawn so that’s exactly where I’m going.” Touché.

He did have one relevant question to raise though: “You know what I’m distressed about with the police? It’s that they’re gonna die in the same tax bracket as all of us. And the fact that they don’t believe that is a joke. They need to wake up.” This is a far more salient point than merely having a party. If American history has revealed anything, it’s the consistent use of police by lawmakers within divide and conquer politics. The paradox of how Occupy is developing is that the police seem to be helping to wind it down while also providing the fuel that keeps people angry enough to continue turning up.

Sam, a Floridian living in South Carolina, is one of those who has loitered within the movement in spite of a lack interest where he lives. Occupy Columbia, the capital of the Palmetto state, has had – at most – 12 people. They could have just had a game of six-a-side, but instead got the bus up to Washington for this rally, so commitment is not an issue here. He was not here to party, but to make some rather strident points: “You look at all these laws that are being put into effect – the only ones that are being put in effect are the ones being paid for by the corporations. You look at any other bills, they get lost for months at a time in limbo because nobody’s paying the congressmen to bother voting on them.

“There’s so many things that I just can’t understand why people didn’t even just look at it for a second and go ‘wait, no! No! That’s not how it’s supposed to be!’” What Sam exposes here is that the issues are probably far too big to be resolved by simply occupying public spaces. What he said also happens to be the basic mantra of the Tea Party movement, Occupy’s supposed ideological opposite.

After sunset, Athena, Sam, Wildebeest, and Mike joined about 1,000 others around a stage in front of the Congress building. A rather terrible comedian somehow managed to lose the crowd as a chorus of “March! March March!” rang out. And so they did march, some to the Supreme Court, some to the White House, some to the Capitol – all to reconvene later back where they started. This could be seen as speaking volumes about Occupy in general; people meet, people splinter off, people meet again back at the starting point. Movements ought to move, but this one is close to walking, quite literally, around in circles.

 

GrannyKiller

January 30th, 2012

I have become involved with a new project with three journalists with whom I worked with on Scope magazine called GrannyKiller. It will be an online magazine of sorts, with interactive feature articles, live blogs and the like. We’re temporarily hosting some stuff on a tumblr site. I have one piece up there about Occupy Congress, but expect some more developments soon. Peace!