Friday, July 26, 2019

In the Political Swing of Things

“Bailey has stuck to her guns by claiming that the swing at the Dean Hotel was unsafe and therefore she was entitled to make her compensation claim, despite being laughed at for a long period of time by the Dean Hotel, the opposition, her own party and indeed the country at large… but is she right? Not seeing any other way to put this issue to bed, WWN got shitfaced and headed to some local swings to see just how dangerous these things are…”
—“Are Swings Dangerous? We Get Locked & Find Out,” the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News, June 24
Irish beer lovers and teutonophiles were disappointed on Wednesday when it was announced this year’s Dublin Oktoberfest has been canceled. The reason given was the rising cost of insurance. For the past several years the autumn festival has drawn festive crowds to George’s Dock in the capital.

A statement from the organizers read, in part, “In Germany we are not used to the claim culture that has developed in Ireland and therefore we have decided to take a break this year. The belief that putting in an insurance claim doesn’t hurt anyone except the insurance company is incorrect, consequently great fun events like ours find it hard to go ahead when suspect insurance claims from a small minority of people can ruin it for everybody.”

There is some dispute over how much the rapid increases in insurance premiums are owed to fraudulent claims as opposed to industry greed, but nobody who lives in the republic has escaped the ample anecdotal evidence of the so-called “compo culture.” And then there is this little factoid. Researchers at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway examined all reported instances of whiplash patients seen by spinal specialists between 1996 and 2011. How many of those patients went on to initiate legal action? All of them. How many of them continued visits to the specialists after the legal action was concluded? None of them.

For our own anecdotal purposes, let’s look at one random case that was reported in the papers in May. In 2015 while on a night out with friends in Dublin, a woman from Dún Laoghaire sat on a swing in the bar of a Harcourt Street hotel. She held things in both hands, at least one of which was a drink, but later said she had not actually imbibed. She fell off the swing and went to a hospital the next day. She subsequently sued the hotel on the grounds that the swing was “unsupervised.” Furthermore, her complaint said that she could not engage in her hobby of running “at all” for three months after the accident. When this is eventually reported in the papers, there was ridicule and outrage, not least because a national newspaper reported she took part in a The Bay 10k run just weeks after the incident.

You might wonder why this particular case received so much press attention. It is probably because the woman in question (Maria Bailey) was a county councilor at the time and, a couple of weeks after her accident, was nominated and (subsequently elected) by the Fine Gael party to be a TD (member of the Irish parliament). Making things more awkward, Fine Gael, which is currently in charge of the government, has made an issue of reform of the legal compensation system. Even more awkwardly, this all hit the papers and airwaves around the time of local and European elections in which Fine Gael generally underperformed. Many members of the public emailed Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar saying they would not vote Fine Gael because of the Maria Bailey incident. Shortly after the election, Bailey dropped her legal claim.

Fine Gael conducted an internal review of the matter, but the resulting report will not be made public. As a result though, Bailey has been removed as chair of a parliamentary committee but has not been suspended as a party member.

Given the current dissatisfaction with Fine Gael (yes, people are actually calling it SwingGate) and the fact that the party currently polls second to the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, you might expect opposition leader Micheál Martin to terminate the “confidence and supply” agreement which keeps the minority government propped up and trigger parliamentary elections. After all, Varadkar has been Taoiseach for more than two years now but has never actually faced voters as the Fine Gael leader. But Martin shows no interest in doing so. The narrative for three years now has been that the next election should be delayed until the Brexit “emergency” is over.

In other words, voters, there’s no hurry in calling you back to the polls. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about all this government stuff for now.

Apparently this current status quo suits the political class just fine. Everyone has their Dáil salaries and perks and look forward to their generous government pensions. It’s not like there is a life-and-death political struggle going on or anything that needs to be settled. Heck, blow-ins like myself can’t even figure out what the philosophical difference is between the two main parties—beyond whose great-grandfather fought on which side in the Civil War.

Yes, everything is just fine—at least until someone gets a bit greedy and ill-advisedly runs to the claims courts.

Monday, July 8, 2019

History’s Bridge

“It was only meant to be a few hours of fun. A lark. On a sunny Saturday morning the three of them set sail on Puget Sound because of Maria’s dream. Then disaster struck, and the three of them were plunged into a dark adventure in which they would confront good and evil, past lives, and a timeless curse born from a tragic love.”
—Marketing tagline for the novel The Curse of Septimus Bridge
One thing you soon learn from living in rural Ireland is that the past is never very far away.

I used to think that history did not weigh on Americans the same way it does on people in most other countries, but lately I question whether that is as true as I thought.

Americans seem to be going through a period of unearthing and rediscovering and reliving and, most pertinently, relitigating their country’s past. On one hand, this is a good and necessary thing to do. It is healthy to come to terms with past wrongs and to attempt to right them where possible. On the other hand, it can also be divisive. Dwelling obsessively on the past can lead to competing historical narratives and a sense of grievance that can be exploited by manipulative leaders.

I myself have been doing a fair amount of dwelling on the past during the past several months. As you can see by the shameless plug on the right-hand side of this page, I have a new “latest novel.” The Curse of Septimus Bridge is another one of my fantasies, but unlike The Three Towers of Afranor it does not take place in a made-up mythical world. It starts out in Seattle, Washington, and somewhere in the middle of the story, it finds itself (of all places) in 17th-century Ireland.

This had the strange effect of causing me to see the place I live at a temporal remove. The few remnants of Galway’s medieval wall, which now are incorporated into a city-center shopping mall, sprouted up to surround the central city as it did many years ago. The ruined castles that dot the surrounding landscape became new again and were once more inhabited by the twelve tribes, i.e. the dominant Anglo-Norman clans, of Galway. The city waited apprehensively, as an English army led by Oliver Cromwell headed its way, cutting a swath from Dublin across the island.

This sense of distant local history coming alive is new to me, but not to the Irish. Mention Cromwell’s name today, and you get a palpable reaction. There are plenty of reasons for the Irish to feel aggrieved by their larger neighbor—conquest, massacres, religious and national persecution, famines, and a bloody civil war that happened just a bit less than a century ago. Somehow, however, people manage to get on with their lives, mostly in peace and even in general prosperity—political dysfunction in Belfast and Brexit notwithstanding.

Of course, the peace is not absolute. For much of the late 20th century, Northern Ireland was rocked by violence. That is what comes of different groups adopting and adhering so strongly to their own mutually exclusive narratives that they cannot accept the legitimacy of imperfect but democratically elected leaders whom they cannot abide.

Just something to think about as we head deeper into the interminable 2020 election campaign.

By the way, the paperback edition of The Curse of Septimus Bridge is available from major online booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The digital version is available exclusively from Amazon’s Kindle Store. Those are US sites. For other countries, kindly consult my book blog.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Choosing Sides

“Political Scientists Trace American Democracy’s Severe Polarization to F***ing Idiots on Other Side of Aisle”
 —Headline in The Onion, October 31
The actor Liam Neeson found himself in hot water in February while being interviewed for his latest movie. Cold Pursuit was, by many accounts, a pointless remake of a cleverer Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance, but it was consistent with the vigilante-action-hero persona that has been the Irish actor’s bread and butter the past few years. Perhaps that is why he thought an anecdote about his own misguided flirtation with street revenge might stir interest among his fans.

Neeson was nothing but contrite and self-critical as he explained to The Independent of London how years earlier, after a friend of his had been raped by a black man, he had gone “up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody—I’m ashamed to say that. And I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could… kill him.” Subsequently on the Good Morning America program, he said his reaction “shocked me and it hurt me. I did seek help. I went to a priest, I aired my confession, I was reared a Catholic. I had two very, very good friends that I talked to. And believe it or not, power-walking helped me. Two hours every day, to get rid of this. I’m not racist. This was nearly 40 years ago.”

Public reaction in the media, both traditional and social, was brutal. Not only was he widely excoriated for having had those feelings four decades earlier, he was roundly criticized for talking about them in the present. Few seemed inclined to give him credit for honesty in speaking about an extremely emotional reaction to a terrible event in his youth and having learned from it.

My own personal reaction, as usual, was different from the ones I kept hearing and reading about. What Neeson described did not sound to me like racism—at least as I have always understood the word. Here is the Oxford dictionary definition: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” It does not sound as though the actor went looking to get into a fight with a black man because he thought black men were racially inferior. He wanted revenge for a crime and was apparently seized by the notion that, because a black man was the alleged perpetrator, all black men were therefore guilty. That would be tribalism, not racism.

As a native of County Antrim, Leeson should understand the concept of tribalism better than most of us. The six counties of Northern Ireland have been convulsed for generations by antagonism between those who identify as British and those who see themselves as Irish. The latest sad example of these old hatreds was the pointless death last month of activist/journalist/author Lyra McKee, who was struck down by a stray bullet fired by a teenaged member of the New IRA during civil disturbances in Derry. The intended target was presumably the police officers on the scene. Amid the shock and grief that followed, there were hopeful murmurings that perhaps this might be the senseless tragedy that would finally bring people to their senses. If only. My memories are all too vivid of people saying the same thing in 1998 after a bomb killed 18 Catholics and 11 Protestants (including a woman pregnant with twins) in the County Tyrone town of Omagh. The bomb was planted by yet another republican splinter group, the Real IRA.

People who commit such atrocities justify them with notions like justice, revenge, and sovereignty. They are harder to justify when described as what they actually are: murders committed because of hatred for someone else’s tribe.

These days in the U.S. I see a lot of what seems to me to be tribal thinking. Some of it breaks down along racial lines, and I think it is useful to see those divisions for what they are—the tribalistic mindset of us versus them.

What concerns me these days mostly, though, is the country’s political division. It does not seem enough anymore merely to demonize politicians. Their supporters and voters must also be designated as beyond the pale—even evil. You rarely hear officeholders or commentators give their ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt and at least having good intentions. The worst is always assumed.

The other day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reported as saying that she does not “automatically trust” President Trump to respect the 2020 election result “short of an overwhelming defeat.” Of course, the president’s response would be that many Democrats have yet to accept the 2016 election result and that they have never stopped trying to undo it.

Let us hope that talk like this stays in the realm of partisan rhetoric. When political parties in a democracy become reluctant to hand over power after an election because they do not trust the other party’s intentions or character, we run the risk of finding ourselves on the slippery slope to to overt tribalism. Sadly, there are all too many historical examples of where this leads.