Monday, June 30, 2008

Ancestor Worship reviewed in Irish America magazine

Ancestor Worship has gotten a review in Irish America magazine. In their latest issue (June-July 2008), Tom Deignan was brief but very flattering. Here is his piece:

Poetry

Formerly the editor of the Galway literary magazine The Burning Bush, Michael S. Begnal is an accomplished poet, whose new collection Ancestor Worship has just been published. Though American-born, Begnal mingles the Irish and English languages in his work, which reflects on ancient history as well as pop culture. Take, for example, this sample from the title poem, which recalls Frank O’Hara: “It’s like when Lennon laid / his New York album on you, / and appeared in pictures / in his new image – / Revolutionary, / sudden Irishman, / Manhattanite.” Begnal’s poems are filled with similar humor and the joys and anxieties of living in the shadow of those who came before us.

(12.00 euros, 80 pages, http://www.salmonpoetry.com/)

Monday, June 23, 2008

PIG: a journal, Issue One

The first issue of PIG: a journal was launched on Saturday, June 21st, in Asheville, North Carolina. This is a great little poetry magazine, which is hand-produced by editor Jennifer Callahan utilizing some very impressive book-arts, silk-screening, and letter-press skills. Not only does it look nice, but it contains some really good writing as well. On a first reading, (and first listening, at the launch), a few standouts for me were Jaye Bartell, Hope Rinehart, Stephen Kirbach, Mark Prudowsky, Mara Leigh, Joanna Furmann – well that’s one-third of the roster right there, and frankly I was impressed in some way or another with just about everything here. I have a poem in it too.

For more info on PIG: a journal check out the above link. For ordering information, contact the editor at pigajournal@gmail.com (also, a note on the title page says that submissions are being accepted through 12/1/08 for the next issue, a themed issue “on the topic of adolescence and childhood”).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Death of the Lisbon Treaty?

On June 12, 2008, Ireland voted in a referendum to reject the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon. The margin was 53.4% against, to 46.6% – a clear margin of victory. The turnout was 53%, which is quite high by Irish standards. All in all, it added up to a resounding defeat for those unelected Brussels bureaucrats and the Irish political establishment, who wanted to push this undemocratic treaty on an unsuspecting European public.
That is a good thing. Make no mistake.
The Lisbon Treaty, though portrayed by its supporters simply as a means to streamline the workings of the EU, was really about moving toward a European super-state. It included many aspects of the failed 2004 EU constitution (which was rejected in 2005 by France and Holland), as if they thought they could sneak the constitution in through the back door. As Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president of the Convention on the Future of Europe (which drafted said failed constitution), wrote in the London Independent:
The difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content.... They have taken the original draft constitution, blown it apart into separate elements, and have then attached them, one by one, to existing treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon is thus a catalogue of amendments.... In terms of content, the proposed institutional reforms – the only ones which mattered to the drafting Convention – are all to be found in the Treaty of Lisbon. They have merely been ordered differently and split up between previous treaties.... Otherwise, the proposals in the original constitutional treaty are practically unchanged. They have simply been dispersed through old treaties in the form of amendments. Why this subtle change? Above all, to head off any threat of referenda by avoiding any form of constitutional vocabulary.... But lift the lid and look in the toolbox: all the same innovative and effective tools are there, just as they were carefully crafted by the European Convention.... When men and women with sweeping ambitions for Europe decide to make use of this treaty, they will be able to rekindle from the ashes of today the flame of a United Europe.
Thankfully, Ireland, out of all the EU countries, was bound by Bunreacht na hÉireann (its own constitution) to hold a referendum on this perfidious document, and thankfully the result was a good one. If instead the Yes campaign had won, it’s quite likely that this would’ve been the last Irish referendum on any EU matter, since Lisbon, Article 48, would have made it possible for the European Council to amend existing treaties by majority vote, without the need for an intergovernmental conference or further treaty – and without a treaty, thus nothing for Ireland to be obligated to have a referendum on.
Lisbon would also have cut Ireland’s voting strength on the European Council by more than half, as the Treaty changes the already complicated qualified majority voting procedure. In addition, it would have definitely ended Ireland’s automatic right to a Commissioner (something already presaged in the 2001 Nice Treaty). This means Ireland would have been without a Commissioner for five years out of every fifteen. Inexplicably, the Irish political establishment was trying to argue that this loss of representation in Europe would somehow be a good thing; again, that it was merely a streamlining measure. But why anyone who purports to have Ireland’s best interests at heart would argue that Ireland should accept a reduced position in the EU, is beyond me.
Another dangerous aspect of Lisbon, at least from the Irish perspective, was that it threatened Irish neutrality, since it would have created a common defence and possibly obligated Ireland to increase military spending. Article 11 says “The Union’s competence in matters of common foreign and security policy shall cover all areas of foreign policy and all questions relating to the Union’s security including the progressive framing of a common defence policy that might lead to a common defence.” While it may have been possible to receive some sort of opt-out allowance, there is no doubt that Ireland would come under increasing pressure from its bigger bullying partners to go along with the “common” EU defence policy.
It has become obvious now that the dominant larger European countries see the EU as a rolling process, leading to further and further integration, until such time as a federal and constitutionalised Europe is merely a fait accompli. The rest of Europe is in a sense being led down this dark corridor, guided by the driving forces of France, Germany, Britain, and Italy, unaware of what truly lies ahead yet willing to be cajoled further. Each new treaty takes them another step closer to the EU super-state that these former colonial powers dream of.
We have gone from the Maastricht Treaty to the Nice Treaty to the Lisbon Treaty, each time being told that this is it, and that it’s merely procedural, just to make EU structures function more smoothly. However, it is clear now that those who feared rolling integration have been proven right. We have already seen an attempt to impose a constitution, and now with Lisbon we have seen the attempt to sneak the same failed constitution in through the back door. Happily, Ireland has at least for a brief moment put an end to that venture. EU citizens should be insulted at the way that these unaccountable bureaucrats blatantly tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. At least Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is honest about his United Europe ambitions – most of the Irish political establishment tried to lie to people about the true nature of Lisbon.
Let me say here that, despite the foregoing, I am not at all suggesting that Ireland should withdraw from the EU. I have no problem with economic and structural cooperation where it benefits everyone involved. There are many positive things about the EU, and it has certainly helped Ireland emerge from its previous status as an economic backwater (a hangover from its up-until-recently postcolonial situation, “Northern Ireland” notwithstanding), enabling it to lessen its dependence on the British market (though Britain naturally remains Ireland’s largest trading partner). It has broadened the Irish consciousness and in certain ways helped the country to modernize itself through the wider exchange of ideas. And of course there were EU Structural Funds in the mix as well. Some have actually suggested that Ireland “owes” the EU because of this, and should have passed the Lisbon Treaty for that reason if nothing else, so as not to appear “ungrateful” to our European benefactors!
However, the suggestion that a country’s sovereignty can be bought off for cash is, or certainly should be, ludicrous. Ireland rose up in 1916, beginning a successful War of Independence from the British Empire, but also one which resulted in the deaths of many Irishmen and women in the process. Exactly what would be the point of this, if Ireland were now going to give away its sovereignty to another even larger empire? Yes, I said it: empire. Is it any accident that the countries driving these moves toward integration are the former big colonial powers? After World War Two, Germany could never attempt to rule over Europe again on its own – but it can through an EU super-state. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but not quite, if it’s a major player in the EU. Etc. Meanwhile, the small countries like Ireland would be the ones getting screwed. If the EU were to ratify Lisbon, countries like Ireland would see its representation diminished to the point that Germany, France, and Britain would be able to push through any measures they wanted, with very little opposition from the rest. The vision embodied in the Lisbon Treaty therefore is undemocratic, neo-colonialist, and exploitative.
Ten years ago, I published a letter to the editor in The Irish Times about the EU and the then looming introduction of the euro currency, in which I asked, “Isn’t anyone bothered that we’ll be giving up that particular Irish sensibility that sees fit to put animals like the horse, the salmon, and the bull on the country’s coins in exchange for utterly characterless maps of Europe?” I might also have mentioned trading writers like James Joyce (formerly on the 10-punt note) for those bland gestures to European architecture (but not any actual, real buildings) that were soon to grace the euro notes.
For me, the issues which surround the EU are not only political, they are cultural. Concomitant with European political integration is the homogenization of culture, symbolized by the loss of Celtic art on the Irish currency, but played out in many different arenas. Which is one of the reasons why a poet such as myself would bother to write a piece like the one you are presently reading. Politics, art, culture, language, identity (both personal and national) – they are all bound up in this debate. I am for a Europe, indeed for a world, where all people and all cultures are respected, tolerated, and coexist side by side, but not one in which some are dominated by or subsumed by others in order to bring about a European hegemony, or forced to conform to the artistic banality exemplified by the euro currency. There is a cultural emptiness at the heart of the EU; could it be any different? As the French used to say, vive la différence.
I would like to think that the Irish rejection of Lisbon has put an end to the notion of further integration. But for all the pro-Lisbon side’s pretense to democracy, they are already mobilizing to circumvent the voice of the Irish people as expressed in a free and democratic referendum. Where we were told during the campaign that there was “no Plan B”, and that an Irish “Yes” vote was needed or else the whole thing would be derailed, now all of the sudden EU politicians are urging the other countries to ratify Lisbon anyway, and continue on as if nothing has happened. This, despite the clearly-expressed will of the Irish people, and despite the fact that under current EU law, all countries must ratify the treaty before it can come into effect.
Yesterday’s Irish Times quotes French President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying, “The others must continue to ratify – that is also the intention of (British Prime Minister) Gordon Brown, who told me so on the telephone yesterday – so that this Irish incident does not become a crisis.” In the same article, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier seems equally dismissive of the “incident”, saying, “(The question is whether) Ireland for a certain time can clear the way for an integration of the remaining 26 (member countries).” (It’s also quite interesting that everyone is now openly calling it an integration treaty – they all wanted to keep quiet about that particular detail during the campaign.)
So it seems as if the EU establishment is prepared to do everything it can to ignore or even overturn the Irish referendum. This means that the coalition of progressive political parties such as Sinn Féin, groups like the Peace & Neutrality Alliance, and many others, needs to continue on in order to fight whatever measures may be taken to subvert this referendum result. (Although Libertas was also an instrumental part of the No campaign, I feel the need to point out that they are coming at it from something of a right-wing perspective.)
The Irish government shamelessly and cynically re-ran the 2001 Nice Treaty referendum until they got their desired result. It seems like it would be a risky proposition for them to try it again this time, given that the reasons for a No vote on Lisbon were much more varied than they were on Nice (where most people’s objections could be dealt with by a hastily arranged clause on Irish military neutrality), and that the No campaign is now much more organized and motivated. But I have no doubt that something is up the sleeve of both the EU and the Irish government, so the No side needs to be prepared.
What the Irish government should do now, is go back to Europe and robustly explain that the Lisbon Treaty is dead, and that therefore a new one needs to be negotiated which actually increases democracy in the EU instead of centralizing power in Brussels, views every nation as equal, does not diminish some countries’ representation while increasing that of the bigger countries, does not obligate sovereign nations to a common defence and foreign policy, and does not attempt to secretly embroil them in an increasingly integrated super-state. It should tell them that only then will the Irish people be able to vote for it. It should put forward a vision of the EU as something other than the out of touch bureaucracy that it has become.

Unfortunately, Taoiseach Brian Cowen seems ready to kowtow to his European counterparts, meekly planning to go to next week’s European summit to, as an RTÉ story has it, “see if there is a consensus on the way forward,” and refusing to rule out a new referendum. According to The Irish Times, Cowen told the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, “that the referendum result was clear but that he also believed the treaty was not yet dead.” It is, or should be dead, and Cowen and the rest of the EU ought to be looking for a new and different way forward. The fact that they are not doing this has to be worrying to anyone who cares about democracy and the future of Europe.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Signed copies of Ancestor Worship

Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, Middle Street, Galway, Ireland, now has some signed copies of Ancestor Worship for sale. If you happen to be in Galway, stop in and pick one up. Alternatively, they can also no doubt be ordered through their website (click their link above).