Friday, January 20, 2023

Another son of the auld sod

After 15 Grueling House Speaker Votes, America’s Long National Nightmare Can Finally Begin
 —Headline on the satirical news website The Babylon Bee, January 7
It may have taken 15 votes, but Kevin McCarthy finally did become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. His road to this position was long and not always promising. He first got elected to Congress during the Bush 43 Administration as part of the Republican class of 2006 in which he was one of the so-called Young Guns, along with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Those two are long gone, but McCarthy somehow managed to adapt, survive and hang on through the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and the winds of change that elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

There is much to ponder about the constitutionally prescribed process that resulted in so many ballots for Speaker becoming necessary. Much of the press coverage focused on the fact that such a number was unprecedented—unless you went back a century. There were suggestions that this was symptomatic of fundamental disarray in the Republican Party, if not in the entire U.S. political system. Perhaps it is, but such wrangling after national legislative elections is not unusual in other countries.

For example, here in Ireland, as I wrote three years ago, the 2020 general election resulted in three different political parties having a theoretical shot at forming a government but only after a complicated negotiation for a coalition. Voters went to the polls on February 8, and though the results were quickly known, it was not until June 27 that Micheál Martin was sworn in as Taoiseach, roughly equivalent to Speaker of the House in the U.S. system. The following year, the Netherlands took nearly 10 months of negotiations to form a government after its parliamentary elections.

In other words, protracted post-election negotiations are often the norm in many countries. Usually in the U.S., though, because there are only two viable national parties, such negotiations tend to happen mostly out of the glare of intense press coverage. After the 2020 U.S. elections, Democrats had a similarly thin margin in the House, but they managed to make all their intra-party deals before the official vote for Speaker. Is that better than how the Republicans did it? Is it preferable to keep political messiness more out of the voters’ view or is there some value in having the in-fighting in public view?

As it happens, I have a couple of strange connections to the new Speaker of the House, and not just deriving from the fact he and I were both born in Bakersfield, California.

I do not know the man and have never met him, but with a name like Kevin McCarthy he obviously has an Irish connection, and I have a way of running into those. Back in 1998—before McCarthy was first to elected to office (to a seat on the Kern County Community College District Board of Trustees in 2000)—he was in charge of Bakersfield’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. That was the one for which my bride of three days was drafted to be the queen. She was given no choice in the matter by an Irish-American family friend from my home town, who had a penchant for latching onto any visiting Irish people. He had previously secured the parade queen’s crown for the visiting niece of our town’s Irish priest, who hailed from Donegal.

Once McCarthy’s struggle to be elected Speaker began dominating the worldwide airwaves, it was inevitable that local Irish genealogists would go to work. American presidents’ Irish connections have been a fascination here since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, followed by his sentimental and celebrated visit to Ireland a mere five months before his tragic death. No other U.S. president has had as close a connection to Ireland, but a surprising number of them have at least had Irish in their DNA. Subsequent visits here have been made by Richard Nixon (Quaker roots in Kildare), Ronald Reagan (Antrim, Tipperary), both presidents Bush (Down) and Barack Obama, whose maternal ancestors were traced to the village of Moneygall on the Offaly-Tipperary border. Obama’s visit, in particular, caused great excitement here and to this day is commemorated by an elaborate service station complex called Barack Obama Plaza near Moneygall on the Dublin-to-Limerick motorway.

Nixon’s 1970 visit is of particular interest in this house. It included a visit by First Lady Pat Nixon (born Thelma Catherine Ryan) to meet distant cousins in the South Mayo town of Ballinrobe and to see her “home place” very near where my wife is from. The local story is that the land owner, on short notice, had to locate a likely structure (a mucky old shed as it happened) and quickly clean it up and make it presentable for the visit. Mayo is also home to cousins of President Biden, who (not unlike the man who made my wife a queen) delights in his Irish connections, which also includes cousins in County Louth.

So what have the genealogists come up with for Speaker McCarthy? An article in a local newspaper informs us that his great-grandfather was Jeremiah McCarthy from Cork. It turns out that Jeremiah married a fellow Irish immigrant named Mary Heskin. A 24-year-old widow, she was from a family with 15 children in a South Mayo village. In other words, she was from just down the road from us.

Jeremiah and Mary were married in the Kern County town of Tehachapi, 40 miles from Bakersfield. For some reason our local paper spells the town’s name Tihachiopia.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Atomic Age?

“No scientific subject has ever aroused quite the same mixture of hopes and fears.”
 —Nobel-Prize-winning English physicist Sir Edward Victor Appleton, on atomic energy
One of the first places in the United States where nuclear power was put on the ballot was in the California county where I was born and grew up. It was also the first time U.S. citizens shut down a nuclear plant project with their votes.

Partly in reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the country had gone on a spree of building nuclear power plants. One was proposed to be built ten miles west of the town of Wasco, which would have put it about twenty miles from my own home town. At first, the project was non-controversial, but as things progressed, opinion divided. My father’s boss was one of the main leaders in the campaign against it.

The area was politically conservative, which should have made it supportive of energy independence and of the cash the project would have injected into the local economy. The concerns, though, were over public safety and, most importantly, the fact that nuclear reactors require huge amounts of water for cooling. Locating it in a place with extremely hot summers and which gets about six inches of rain a year did not make a lot of sense to farmers who, even in the best of times, are in a perpetual struggle for water. In an advisory vote in March 1978, voters rejected the project with a 70-percent majority.

Popular culture has always conspired to make us fear atomic power. The world’s first general awareness of the split atom was two bombs wreaking havoc on Japan in 1945. Nearly every bad thing that has happened in horror and monster movies since the 1950s onwards has been caused by nuclear radiation. In 1979, James Bridges’s movie The China Syndrome, a made-up story about safety coverups at a nuclear plant, put atomic fear in people. That alarm was magnified by the nearly concurrent partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Four years later Mike Nichols’s based-on-true-events film Silkwood, about the mysterious death of a nuclear plant whistleblower, heaped on more paranoia.

Subsequent accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and Fukushima in Japan did nothing to make people more comfortable with nuclear energy. The thing is that, with a little digging, we find that these events are not always exactly as we collectively recall them. No one actually died as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of Chernobyl, around 30 first-responders died. There was an increase for a time in thyroid cancers among those living near the plant, but few of those were fatal. In Japan in 2011, thousands died, but all fatalities were because of the earthquake and tsunami. No one died from radiation exposure.

Are nuclear plants safe? No source of energy is completely safe, but nuclear is clearly statistically safer than, say, coal. But is it safe enough? I don’t know the answer. Only society collectively can decide what is safe enough and what tradeoffs are acceptable or the least bad. Most people who know a lot about this stuff seem to be saying that, if the world is serious about trying to alter humankind’s contribution to climate change, then the real choice is between mass adoption of nuclear (which emits no carbon) or a serious dismantling of the modern economy. Renewable energy sources like wind and sun are appealing, but there are limits to how much they can provide. Over the summer the European Union quietly designated nuclear fission as green energy. Without a lot of fanfare five years ago, John Kerry (now a special presidential envoy for climate) changed his stance on nuclear from anti to pro.

What European country produces the most electricity carbon-free? Easily, that is Norway. Virtually all its electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. Others with low carbon footprints are Sweden, which gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear, and France, which normally gets 70 percent from nuclear. (Due to some problematic maintenance, several French nuclear plants are currently offline.) In one of the worst positions is Germany. In the wake of Fukushima, it began dismantling its nuclear program while also continuing to make itself dependent on Russian gas imports. Now with the war in Ukraine, it depends on coal imports.

One of the most outspoken voices for nuclear, coming from the left, is author/activist Michael Shellenberger, who has twice run for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. He features in a documentary I saw at the recent Galway Film Fleadh and about which I wrote on my movie blog: Frankie Fenton’s Atomic Hope. The film is extremely thought-provoking and well worth seeing for anyone interested in the topic. What is interesting is how the nuclear debate is playing into the climate-change discussion. The movie has been surprisingly well received in some climate activist quarters.

It seems to me that that the nuclear energy alternative more or less forces the hand of climate crusaders. If people truly believe that the current climate trajectory has existential consequences for humanity and that altering human behavior is the only hope of affecting that trajectory, then doesn’t nuclear power have to be considered as possibly the only way to accomplish that without societal breakdown?

Two key questions thus are 1) is the production of nuclear energy reasonably safe enough to adopt widely and, if we’re not certain, 2) do we have enough confidence in climate computer models to take the risk anyway?

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Meanings, Hidden or Otherwise

“I don’t think this kind of thing [satire] has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted. I think the people who say we need satire often mean, ‘We need satire of them, not of us.’ I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War.”
 —Musician, singer-songwriter, satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer
“There are times I was not sure if it was fantasy or a political satire (loved Bob) or both. If it was a political satire, I was a little unclear as to what was being satirized.”

So wrote an early reader of my newly published novel Last of the Tuath Dé, and she was by no means alone in wondering if it was actually meant to be some sort of Swiftian parody. That pleased me. I mean, the part where she wasn’t sure.

To be clear, the aim of the book (it’s a sequel to my earlier fantasy adventure The Curse of Septimus Bridge, about a nice young Seattle woman’s induction and baptism of fire in the profession of demon hunting) was really no more ambitious than to provide some escapist entertainment—perhaps mainly for myself but hopefully for others as well. But the provocateur in me doesn’t mind if the book also gets readers to think, question and wonder.

My Dallas Green books (Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, Lautaro’s Spear, Searching for Cunégonde) are all firmly entrenched in particular times and places, and there are frequent references to contemporaneous events and politics. Such real-world stuff generally doesn’t intrude on my fantasy books, but this time the story involved the end of the world being brought about by, among other things, a worldwide collective madness of a religious/political nature. It was going to be hard to avoid parallels—inadvertent, unintended, subconscious or otherwise—with real-world events. Indeed, now more than ever people seem to be finding themselves alarmed by what they see as fanaticism among those they disagree with.

I know from experience that, in reading my book, readers will reliably overlay whatever sociopolitical template suits them. When the Zen’ei, harbingers of the apocalypse in this story and magnets for Mercenaries, cultists and fanatics, trash the major cities of the world with their unthinking violence, I have no doubt that many will nod knowingly and think of the stop-the-steal protestors, trespassers and rioters of January 6. At the same time, I will not be surprised if other readers read the same text and see it as a representation of that segment of BLM protestors and/or Antifa activists who wreaked havoc in several major U.S. cities during the summer of 2020.

So, which is the right interpretation? The answer is: yours.

Once literature is out there in the world, it has its own life. You—and maybe even most readers—may take lessons from my work that are completely different than anything that was in my mind. I know I have certainly done that to other artists’ works. Authors may tell me they intended one thing, but their work may tell me something completely different. There are necessarily two participants in any single literary transaction.

So, is that it? Am I some mealy-mouthed relativist with no positions of my own?

Don’t worry. I did slip in some strongly held beliefs and personal principles. Look hard and you’ll find them.

Or if you don’t want to look hard, then I’ll just tell you what some of them are. Like these:
From Chapter 9:
  “They insist on their own language. Mercenaries call themselves Legionnaires. They call demons ‘hants,’ and for them Demon Hunters are ‘Hant Oppressors.’ ”
  “That is no accident. To control words is to control the mind.”

From Chapter 19:
  “But he fills the world with lies. He should have been stopped.”
   “Do you remember none of my lessons? You can’t stop lies. If you begin suppressing lies, it is not long before every uncomfortable thing you hear sounds like a lie.”

From Chapter 22:
  “… This may surprise you, but I realized you were right. I had never believed the conspiracy theories before, but the more I thought about yours, the more it began to make sense.”
  “You do know, don’t you, it’s not a conspiracy theory if it’s true?”
There may be others, and it might be worth reading the book to find out. If you want to do that, then click here (or on the book’s cover over on the right-hand side of this page) to go to my book blog where you will find lots more information about the new book as well as all my other ones. And you will also find links to many online sellers of the paperback and digital editions.