Monday, November 12, 2018

Reality TV Insurgency

“Local Man Suddenly an Expert on US Midterm Elections”
 —Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, November 8
Did the results of the U.S. midterm elections brighten your day and put a spring in your step? Or did they make you shake your head and wonder what is wrong with the country? If it’s any consolation, every country has its quirks and strangeness that seem to be brought out and put into high relief during political campaigns.

The Irish media paid a lot of attention to the U.S. midterms and, as usual, since the media here are pretty much dominated by the state broadcaster, the coverage was pretty much from the same kind of perspective as, say, PBS or NPR in the States. In other words, Democrats were treated as distant relatives and Republicans were regarded as alien creatures. For me personally, the coverage provided more opportunities to field questions from acquaintances and in-laws, like “How is it again that Hillary Clinton could get the most votes and still not become president?”

Ireland went through its own election a few weeks ago, although, unlike the U.S., it was not to fill seats in the national legislature. It was for the presidency plus a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment. In an email to a friend in Seattle, I joked that Ireland is going to hell in a hand-basket because, after recently legalizing same-sex marriage and abortion, Irish voters have now decriminalized blasphemy.

That’s right. Up to now blasphemy has been a crime in Ireland. It is the kind of thing that is easy to joke about but, as we know from recent reports of a Christian woman spending years on death row in Pakistan, it is not always a laughing matter. Three years ago, Britain’s multi-talented Stephen Fry made some unflattering about the Christian God on an Irish television program and, because someone filed a formal complaint, the Irish police were obliged to go through the motions of an investigation. He was not charged.

The proposed constitutional amendment was not particularly controversial, and it passed with a 65-percent majority. There were, however, voices suggesting that maybe a law banning speech offensive to religious practitioners may not necessarily be a bad thing. I suspect these were thinking as much—or perhaps even more—about religions other than Christianity. Some would be nervous about those willing to take blasphemy enforcement into their own hands. Multiple attempted murders of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who mocked the prophet Mohammad, come to mind. It was striking at the time how many Europeans were actually ready to blame the artist himself for his own near-demise.

As for the Irish presidency, there was no surprise that the incumbent Michael D. Higgins received 56 percent the vote—and that was in a field of six. Because the post is largely ceremonial, it draws no seriously ambitious politicians but rather a quirky collection of individuals, each with his or her own idiosyncratic reasons for running. The only political party to nominate a candidate was Sinn Féin, the political remnant of the Provisional IRA. Higgins, a longtime Labour officeholder, nominated himself. The others had to get endorsements from various local authorities to get on the ballot. By a weird coincidence, three of the candidates were entrepreneurs who had all appeared on a reality TV program called Dragons’ Den. (Could they possibly have been encouraged by the 2016 U.S. election?) Of all the candidates, the one who created the most buzz was 61-year-old Derry-born businessman Peter Casey. His support shot up from 2 percent to 23 percent, earning him a strong second place finish in the election, after he was roundly criticized for comments he made about the Traveller community.

The Traveller thing is one of those subjects that is hard to explain to someone who has not lived in Ireland, and I am by no means an expert. My best understanding, however, is that they are essentially a subculture within the Irish culture. That is, DNA-wise they are no different than other indigenous Irish people, but as a group they have lived separately with their own customs and a nomadic lifestyle for as long as four centuries. Some Travellers are “settled” in public housing. Others camp at “halting sites” provided by local authorities. Others simply park their caravans wherever they find an open space, in other words squatting. They make up less than one percent of the Irish population and generally have lower education and quality-of-life statistics. Last year they were granted official recognition as their own ethnic group.

Casey’s comments were in response to a group of Travellers’ refusal to move into brand-new social housing offered to them in County Tipperary because there were no stables for their horses. Casey asserted that Travellers are not really an ethnic minority and that they are “basically people camping on someone else’s land” who are “not paying their fair share of taxes in society.” The latter point is arguable, while the former point seems technically accurate to me, albeit insensitively stated. Given the condemnation and charges of racism that were rained on him, one might understand if Casey felt he was running afoul of some kind of latter-day, politically-correct blasphemy prohibition.

Inevitably, Casey was immediately compared to Donald Trump. While Casey is much more pleasant and amiable than the U.S. president, he does share a knack for provoking powerful reactions from modern liberals while others think he is only stating the obvious.

With the election over, Casey amazed people by expressing his intention to become Taoiseach, i.e prime minister, which would be a much more consequential job than the mere presidency. That goal seems fanciful given his lack of party support and the resistance of Ireland’s entrenched and close-knit political establishment. On the other hand, Trump’s quest for the presidency two and a half years ago seemed pretty fanciful too.

If he refuses to go away, as the parties and main media want him to, Casey will join a number of other would-be so-called populist leaders agitating just out of reach of power in countries all across Europe. They are thus ready alternatives to entrenched and comfortably smug political establishments. Rather than attacking these figures, politicians and the media would serve a more useful purpose if they began at least treating seriously legitimate concerns of citizens drawn to such firebrands.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Return of the Native

“Elizabeth Warren Disappointed After DNA Test Shows Zero Trace Of Presidential Material”
—Headline in The Onion, October 15
Have I mentioned that I have reason to believe I am 0.390625 percent Irish?

Feel free to be skeptical. I have not had my DNA tested, so my assertion is unhindered by the existence of chromosome evidence. It is based entirely on non-rigorous personal research into my family history by way of clan anecdotes, an old family Bible, and the conclusive authority of the internet. I have convinced myself that I may be the sixth-great-grandchild of Margaret Lewis, born in County Donegal in 1726. As I recounted on this blog three years ago, I have used this ancestral quest as a pretext for adventures both here in Ireland and in the U.S. state of Virginia. Margaret was a daughter of John Lewis, a second-generation Donegal resident (apparently transplanted from either England or Scotland, for reasons not clear) who fled Ireland after killing his new, young landlord in a dispute. John Lewis wound up in Virginia where, according to his gravestone, he “settled Augusta Co., located the town of Staunton, and furnished five sons to fight the battles of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION.”

So, once apprised of this information, my friends and neighbors here in Eire immediately accepted me as one of their own, right? Well, I have to say that they are indeed all very welcoming and have all made me feel that this country is my home, but no one seriously considers me “Irish.” Not even naturalization confers that identity in any meaningful (as opposed to legal) sense. Yes, newsreaders on RTÉ diligently do make a point of identifying every third-world-born resident and/or citizen in Ireland as “Irish” if they make the news. I have yet to hear them, though, use that term with any naturalized American or Brit. I am pretty darn sure that if I somehow got featured on the main evening news—unless I have won a Nobel Prize or something similar—I fully expect I will be described as “an American residing in Ireland.”

That will not bother me. I certainly do not self-identify as Irish—even though I happen to be the husband and father of Irish women. I do not expect the purchase of a house or the filing of a few papers to change who I am. On the other hand, if people from Ireland—or anywhere else—emigrate to my country and become naturalized, I do consider them fully American and do happily refer to them as such. That is the way I was raised to think, and that is how my country self-identifies: as a nation of immigrants. I truly believe that despite the fact that immigration has become a contentious political issue. From where I sit, the debate is a massive case of cognitive dissonance. One side thinks they are arguing about whether immigrants are good or bad. The other side thinks it’s about whether immigrants should come in legally or not.

Anyway, I understand that most other countries, such as Ireland, see themselves differently than the U.S. Irish-ness is an ethnicity as well as a legal status. What you realize here and in most countries is that the ethnicity is what matters to people. The passport you use is nearly seen as incidental. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear someone described in the news as “an Irish woman holding a UK passport.”

These musings on ethnicity and identity have been spurred, as you might have guessed, by the kerfuffle caused by Senator Elizabeth Warren when she drew attention to the results of her DNA test indicating that, “[w]hile the vast majority of the individual’s ancestry is European, the results strongly support the existence of an unadmixed Native American ancestor in the individual’s pedigree, likely in the range of 6-10 generations ago.” In other words, Senator Warren is about the same percentage (or possibly less) Native American as I am Irish.

Senator Warren comes from Oklahoma and, having grown up around a lot of people from that state and other parts of the Midwest, I always noticed how an awful lot of them proudly point to Native American or “Indian” heritage. It is nearly a badge of honor to say, “I am part Cherokee” or “my great-grandmother was Shawnee.” I always saw this pride as a positive thing and a sign of the good old American melting pot. I suppose, though, one could also view it as cultural appropriation. I certainly never felt compelled to ask question anyone’s claims of Native American pedigree or ask them for proof.

The senator’s announcement pretty much backfired, as fellow Democrats criticized her timing (right before the midterms when she is not even running), the usually non-political Cherokee Nation pointedly issued a statement that a “DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship,” and Republicans had a great time pointing out that the percentage of her Native American DNA could well be lower than the average U.S. citizen. CNN and The Daily Beast embarrassed themselves by rushing to proclaim that Warren had been vindicated in her self-identification as Native American. (She apparently once had four recipes published in a cookbook called Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek & Seminole.)

So why did she do it? She did it because President Trump baited her, and she took the bait. Observers have taken this to mean that she is definitely running for president in 2020. Lots of families have lore that is historically imprecise or apocryphal, so she should not embarrassed about that. (On the nearly-pure Swedish side of my family we used to hear about “a Spanish grandmother,” whom I have been trying to track down for years.) There is no reason to believe that she profited from designated minority status at Harvard, as her critics charge, although it appears Harvard may have used her Native American self-identification to boost its own diversity statistics. It makes no sense for her to behave defensively about a non-issue.

The real issue is what the whole episode says about her character and judgment. Of course, when it comes character and judgment, the current standard seems to be pretty malleable. I mean, look at who is in the White House at the moment. So what may really matter is what the whole #fauxcahontas episode says about the senator’s suitability for the current environment of political hardball and voters’ exhaustion with the old rules of politics.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

National Crucible

“Trump Asks Why Kavanaugh Accuser Didn’t Just Immediately Request Hush Money”
 —Headline in The Onion, September 21
Sixty-five years ago Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible premiered on Broadway. Recounting the story of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, it tells the following story. Several young women alarm the community with their strange behavior. Under persistent questioning, they eventually accuse several townspeople of consorting with the devil. In the resulting hysteria, citizens are arrested, put on trial and, despite their protestations of innocence, convicted and hanged. The play was a thinly veiled allegory of the campaign to root out Communist influence in American society in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, among his other literary contributions, Miller popularized the term “witch hunt” in the political sense.

Six decades later there is again hysteria across the land. As in the 1950s, the hunt is on to find people secretly working with Russians and against America’s interest. The difference now is that, instead of the political right hunting Russians under every bed, it is now the political left raising the alarm over Russian bots lurking in our social media accounts and controlling the commander in chief in some kind of Manchurian Candidate-style plot. We keep waiting for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to give us the definitive word on what exactly went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians, but so far we have only the hysterical speculations of politicians and commentators. People have been indicted, but so far only for infractions unrelated to the election or for so-called process crimes, that is, transgressions arising from not cooperating fully with the investigation itself.

Some people think that the #MeToo movement is a wave of hysteria. Personally, I think that any concerted campaign that roots out people abusing their authority or preying on the vulnerable is a good thing. If the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby are convicted in a fair trial, by all means punish them to the full extent of the law. On the other hand, there are instances of calling out alleged perpetrators that have an air of the French Revolution or the Chinese Cultural Revolution about them. For example, the allegations made against actor Aziz Ansari by a 23-year-old anonymous woman sounded like nothing more than a bad date. The accusation by Jimmy Bennett against fellow actor Asia Argento (who played his mother in a movie) sounds like an audacious attempt to cash in on the fact that he was 17 when they had sex. Of course, I don’t know the real truth of any of these situations. It’s not as though I was in the room when any of these things happened. Should I even try to have an opinion?

That brings us to the current circus which is the confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. What are we to make of it? On one hand, it is not actually necessary for me to have an opinion on it because it is the Senate that will be voting, not me. On the other hand, being a serious citizen requires me to have some sort of opinion. It comes down to whom one believes about things that happened decades ago and whether one believes those alleged events should be disqualifying. But since there is no objective way for any of us to know what the truth is in this situation, the question is really, who should get the benefit of the doubt? It does not help that the last-minute allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are such that they can not be objectively proved or disproved. You hear some people say that, in cases of alleged assault or rape, the woman should always be believed. That policy would certainly simplify things, but unfortunately one of the people currently saying this is Hillary Clinton, who vilified the multiple women who made accusations against her husband. And what about the accusations made by Tawana Brawley and Crystal Gail Mangum (of the Duke lacrosse case), which were eventually proven false? No matter how prevalent male criminal behavior may be, it makes absolutely no sense to consider a person more credible purely because of her gender.

My fear in all of this is that the progress made by the #MeToo movement will be undone by by one party’s blatant wielding of it as a political weapon. Donald Trump’s behavior towards women was well documented by the time he became a serious candidate for president. He had earned no benefit of the doubt, but I certainly took notice when multiple women made public accusations against him, all on the same day and each one located in a state about to hold a primary vote. Nor has it escaped my attention that the allegations against Kavanaugh, who had heretofore appeared to be nothing but squeaky clean after six separate FBI background checks, began to be doled out by activist Democratic lawyers, one after another at a point in the process when there would be little time to adequately vet them. Trump may well have won the presidency because enough voters decided that women’s accusations against him were politically and/or monetarily motivated and so could be discounted. The danger for Democrats—and for everyone—is that the allegations against Kavanaugh will look like such a blatant and callous partisan smear that it will undermine the credibility of the #MeToo movement in general.

When I think back on The Crucible, I am struck by the coincidental parallel of it chronicling the downfall of a basically good man because of overwrought testimony from various women who were egged on to condemn him. Of course, that does not mean the same is happening to Judge Kavanaugh. Besides, The Crucible was written by a man. But I am also reminded of another seminal literary work, one which was written by a woman. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is accused by Mayella Ewell of rape. Though we are given plenty of reason to doubt her story, it turns out to be an instance where the jury chooses to believe the woman. Tom Robinson is convicted and ultimately dies in a vain attempt to escape.

In that case, as in the cases of Trump and Kavanaugh, people end up choosing to believe what they need to believe.