Monday, January 21, 2019

Through the Brexit Looking Glass

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
—Philip K. Dick, in the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”

Why should you never rely on just a single news source? Because, of course, you get only one perspective, but more importantly, because it is much more entertaining to read two or more.

Here is a good example. A headline today from the UK state broadcaster (the BBC): “Brexit: May looks for way to break deadlock.” A contemporaneous excerpt from a news item from the Irish state broadcaster (which no one calls “the” RTÉ): “Mrs May is to set out her next steps to build a Commons majority for a Brexit deal amid signs she is still unwilling to give ground on her central demands.”

Both takes are technically accurate, but together they demonstrate how nuance can influence news reporting. Neither broadcaster would be known for sympathetic treatment of a Conservative prime minister, but here the BBC does at least approach the story in terms of the difficulty—if not impossiblity—for any leader to bridge the gap between the European Union and her own government. RTÉ’s reporting, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the position of the Irish government (which is understandable enough) and how Teresa May’s apparent new strategy is incompatible with it. The result is that the BBC makes the British PM look a politician in a difficult position, while RTÉ makes her look stubborn and unreasonable.

This marks something of a change. Up until now, Irish coverage of May’s efforts have uniformly portrayed her as incompetent and hapless. Perhaps this is reflexive, given Ireland and Britain’s problematic joint history and Ireland’s experiences with female Tory PMs in particular. To this day, on-air Irish journalists cannot utter the name Margaret Thatcher without a noticeable, visceral frisson wafting through the studio. Their treatment of May seems particularly odd, though, to someone like myself who considers himself an objective observer. The fact is that the prime minister’s recent ordeal of undergoing a humuliating defeat over her negotiated deal with Brussels followed by a further humiliating no-confidence vote was all in the service of trying to implement the very deal that the Irish government—and presumably most Irish people—wanted. It would have given Britain more or less the same status as Norway, which is not an EU member but which enjoys many of the same economic and trade benefits that EU members enjoy. It would have kept the UK and Ireland in a common customs union, thereby avoiding the problem of this island being divided rigidly into different customs areas. Irish politicians were cheering (if that is the right word) her on, but RTÉ just kept shaking its head and muttering, “What a sad, old duck.” Seeing a Tory politician roundly humbled seemed to take precedence over Irish economic interests.

To be fair, though, Brexit has everyone thoroughly confused. You could see it on the night of the big Brexit vote in Parliament. After May’s deal crashed and burned at Westminster, TV crews did their usual vox pop among the rabble gathered outside, and everyone—I mean, absolutely everyone—was thrilled and ecstatic. It did not matter which side of the question they fell on. Remainers were joyous because they thought this somehow meant that Brexit would not happen. Leavers were happy because they thought May’s deal, in keeping the UK entwined with the EU, defeated the whole point of Brexit. When people with totally opposing views on a question both think they have won, either one or the other or both are is out of touch with reality.

No one seems more confused than the Irish, including their media. The politicians pontificate and make pronouncements and go through all the motions of being part of the negotiations, and yet Ireland—which more than any other country beside Britain will be changed by Brexit—is a mere bystander. The negotiations are entirely between London and Brussels. You could argue that the EU is not even negotiating. It has simply issued its terms. It looks determined to see Britain thoroughly punished lest any other uppity EU member try the same thing. The one issue that might actually have been a concern for Europe, the question of the EU/UK border in Ireland, was taken off the table almost immediately by May in agreeing to the famous “backstop”—a term that has become increasingly annoying, not only because of its over-use but also for the fact that most people do not seem to know what it is. (It is meant to be a guarantee that there will be no “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the republic.) Using that border as a bargaining chip may have been distasteful, but it was really the only leverage May had going into the talks. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that her perpetually-teetering government is propped up by an anachronistic Unionist party that is hardline pro-Brexit even though it exists in a province likely to suffer the most from a hard Brexit.

This entire preposterous situation comes down to a few awkward facts to which most of the local media seem blind. One is that Ireland, which struggled for centuries to get out from under the yoke of Britain, has happily handed over its sovereignty and its key decision-making to people in Brussels. Another is that the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner and that, in the long run, the much-larger UK will do a lot better economically on its own than Ireland will if there are a bunch of barriers thrown up between it and the UK.

This is what can happen when you base your political positions on which politicians you personally like or dislike and ignore facts that are simply too inconvenient to contemplate.

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.