Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Irish Collapse: Sicíní Coming Home to Roost?

So the curtain has finally come down on Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” era. I lived in Ireland for a period that roughly corresponded with the worst excesses of its economic boom and witnessed the symptoms — property speculation, rising rents for smaller spaces, an obsession with mobile phones and the newest technological devices, and ridicule of anything that reminded one of Irish nationalism (conflated generally with the bad old days of Ireland before, say, the 1990s). I remember one Easter in the early 2000s, walking down the streets of Galway and overhearing two youths who had picked up a leaflet some group or other had had printed of the text of the Easter Proclamation. The two were reading it out loud to each other, but exaggeratedly and ironically: “...of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom....” Laughter ensued. I can’t say that I blamed these kids, who couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 at the time and who clearly had come of age in a society quite alienated from the ideals of the 1916 Easter Rising, a society concerned more about car payments and holiday homes than history and independence struggles. But it did serve to provide a stark example in my mind of where Ireland was at at that point in time.

Interesting then to note that, as Ireland’s present-day ruling class and its bankers have driven the country’s economy into the ground and have in essence sold its sovereignty off to the IMF and the European Central Bank, The Irish Times would suddenly gesture toward the language of patriotism, 1916, and of Irish republicanism in a recent editorial titled “Was It For This?” (Nov. 18):
IT MAY seem strange to some that The Irish Times would ask whether this is what the men of 1916 died for: a bailout from the German chancellor with a few shillings of sympathy from the British chancellor on the side. There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Their representatives ride into Merrion Street today.

[...] A nation’s independence is defined by the choices it can make for itself.

Irish history makes the loss of that sense of choice all the more shameful. The desire to be a sovereign people runs like a seam through all the struggles of the last 200 years. “Self-determination” is a phrase that echoes from the United Irishmen to the Belfast Agreement. It continues to have a genuine resonance for most Irish people today.

The true ignominy of our current situation is not that our sovereignty has been taken away from us, it is that we ourselves have squandered it. Let us not seek to assuage our sense of shame in the comforting illusion that powerful nations in Europe are conspiring to become our masters. We are, after all, no great prize for any would-be overlord now. No rational European would willingly take on the task of cleaning up the mess we have made. It is the incompetence of the governments we ourselves elected that has so deeply compromised our capacity to make our own decisions....
There are a few things I would observe about this. For one, yes it does seem a bit strange. The Irish Times, similarly to most newspapers, of course has its own agenda and republicanism is not usually part of it. Though I have always considered The Irish Times the Irish newspaper of record, something like the New York Times, it has always seemed to me fairly anti-republican, in fact, and very D4 upper middle class. Nonetheless, this editorial pretty much hits the nail on the head, I have to say, even though it’s about 15 years too late. Ireland has indeed been sold out, but I don’t recall the IT being quite so vocal in its patriotism when, for example, the government twice re-ran referendums on European Union integration treaties when it didn’t like the initial “No” results.

Irish Times columnist John Waters responded to his employers’ apparent hypocrisy with a piece called “No Use Whining or Talking about the GPO Now” (Nov. 19):
Emerging from the mists of the 1950s, and finding ourselves with an undeveloped economy and no clue how to make it function, we decided to sell off our natural resources and bits of our sovereignty in return for folding stuff. Then we hit on the idea of offering Ireland to the multinational industrial sector as a cheap location in which to operate, no questions asked, which meant that our people could be provided with jobs without any expenditure of indigenous effort. Then we joined the euro and thought it no more than our due when Ireland was flooded with German money looking to turn a trick.

Surrendering all levers and mechanisms by which we might have continued to exercise control over our own collective destiny, we lay back and subjected ourselves to the whim of world capitalism.

Now the casino has collapsed on top of us, why should we be surprised, still less embarrassed? When you place your fortunes in the hands of transnational gamblers, you should expect to see stars every once in a while.

The point is this: we are not the masters of our own destiny and have not been for many years. That’s how we wanted it. It is a bit rich, if I may use that term in this rather inapposite context, for those who led the charge to have us give away everything true and useful about ourselves to now be whining about the loss of sovereignty.

When you have conditioned people for years to turn their backs on the past and think and speak only about “Ireland Inc”, it might be wiser and more edifying to say nothing about the GPO.
Good point. And as someone who has myself spoken out over the years in my own humble way against the course Ireland has taken, I reserve the right to do so again, even if it entails reviving some degree of contrast with earlier history. Not that anyone would really have had reason to listen to me, an unknown poet, but back in 1998, I wrote a letter to the same Irish Times, which attacked “this age of encroaching European blandness.” I noted that Ireland was in some ways still dealing with the effects of British colonization and rhetorically asked whether the country was now “really going to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire of EU hegemony” in a vain attempt to demonstrate what I felt to be a mixed-up notion of “self-confidence.” I say it was a rhetorical question because clearly the answer was already yes. My letter then went on to bemoan Ireland’s plan to join the euro: “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?”

Though my concerns in this most likely glanced-at-then-quickly-forgotten letter were partly articulated in the realm of aesthetics, and infused with an obvious cultural-nationalist perspective, I sensed that what Waters speaks about in his more recent column would probably come to pass. Nationalism has no intrinsic value for its own sake I now realize, but arises in response to political, cultural, and/or economic oppression by outside forces. It can be a quite powerful bulwark against said forces. (This is not to say that I no longer see inherent value in Irish culture, language, and so forth, because obviously I do.) Only now have those forces become apparent to The Irish Times, it seems, in this new context of sudden economic collapse, as the IMF’s and the ECB’s “representatives ride into Merrion Street.” But I would suggest that in Ireland such forces had never truly disappeared, and as the IT correctly observes, inhabit the minds of Ireland’s own native ruling class and probably certain sections of its people. They are not only outside, but in.

I have long thought that Ireland is still going through a series of phases in response to its former colonization. During the period of 1916-1922, after hundreds of years of exploitation and cultural disembowelment, it asserted and gained its political independence. The nationalism that was theretofore valid and inspiring began to ring hollow when Ireland quickly became an economic backwater and was essentially raising its children for emigration. Suddenly by the 90s, through some rather dubious strategies (as Waters succinctly describes above), Ireland became the “Celtic Tiger” and the country was transformed into a bastion of nouveau riche who shallowly imagined that a few years of success could erase everything. It was always inevitable, I thought, that there would be a shocking return to hard times, and that perhaps this would force people to reassess, and maybe then would Ireland finally be itself having weathered this new turn. Something like thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

Well, whatever about such grander theories. The immediate problem now is that Ireland is pretty much screwed for a while. It has been pimped out to German banks and to the EU. Instead of punishing the property speculators, the bankers, or the people who secretly made the decisions which got the country into this situation to begin with, it is the average person who will now have to suffer in the government’s soon-to-be-imposed austerity measures, which seem likely to include deep cuts in health care, social welfare, the minimum wage, etc. That is, if the government lasts that long. It looks like it will be brought down sooner than expected. But then what? Fianna Fáil obviously deserves to be voted out, if not run out, of office, but its inevitable replacement of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition won’t be any better. Fine Gael is simply Fianna Fáil Lite, and they have had their own corrupt politicians over the years, their own cronyism. Labour long ago ceased being the party of Connolly and Larkin and have in recent decades been nothing more than a prop to one or the other of the two big Civil War parties.

It can only be hoped that the anger and resentment the Irish people currently feel will somehow evolve into a new politics, perhaps elevating one of the smaller parties — Sinn Féin, perhaps — into contention. Or perhaps some completely new party or movement can yet spring up. If Sinn Féin is in the mix, though, they cannot continue to rehearse their previous platforms which have worked in the North (as sympathetic as I have been to them) if they want to make a difference in the Republic. The old opponents have morphed. They are no longer an easily, politically identifiable British Empire, but instead, as they are the world over, the shadowy forces of uncontrolled corporate greed which operate both extra-nationally and indigenously. The recent protests were good to see, however, in an Ireland which has been asleep for far too long.

When you cede control of your monetary policy to the EU, you become prey to the more powerful forces that control it, and this is exactly what we’re witnessing now. Not that Ireland should cut its EU ties, and it’s probably true that a small country like Ireland cannot go it completely alone, but it's worth observing that the country became economically successful while the punt was still in existence. The euro is not necessary. The present economic model of the EU has shown to be wanting, and it was a lie that countries would have to give up sovereignty in exchange for economic certainty. Ireland did all of that, and this disaster has happened anyway. In light of this, the economist Paul Krugman has briefly laid out a possible scenario for exit from the euro:
I used to be a full believer in the Eichengreen theory of euro irreversibility, which said that no nation could even discuss leaving the euro, because it would lead to the mother of all bank runs. But as I wrote in April,

But now I’m reconsidering, for a simple reason: the Eichengreen argument is a reason not to plan on leaving the euro — but what if the bank runs and financial crisis happen anyway? In that case the marginal cost of leaving falls dramatically, and in fact the decision may effectively be taken out of policymakers’ hands.
Krugman goes on to write that we’re not at “crisis-level yet. But the ghost of a possible ejection from the euro is starting to become visible.” This is apparently not an isolated opinion, as Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has today noted, “It’s our common currency that’s at stake.” Only time will tell if such a thing might happen, but for Ireland, things are pretty bad. I guess, though, it would ring hollow for me to invoke the spirit of 1916 since The Irish Times has already beaten me to it, or even as a poet to say that Yeats would be rolling over in his grave or something — because this is a new situation, a unique point in history and time. But it sure appears that the chickens and the stylized Celtic birds which used to grace the old 1-pingin coins may finally be coming home to roost.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pharoah Sanders live!

Caught the Pharoah Sanders show at the August Wilson Center last week (Nov. 13), and how really great it was. I was surprised firstly by how bop-focused it was. While my sense of Sanders is overwhelmingly tied to his late 60s and early 70s free-jazz work on Impulse! (and also from his intense free stuff with Coltrane in the mid-60s), his bop sensibility on the night was impeccable. I know this is not news to anyone who has followed his post-Impulse! career. That’s not my favorite period of his career, but this performance maybe made me rethink Sanders a little bit. Pharoah’s band, consisting of his touring pianist William Henderson along with the Pittsburgh rhythm section of Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Roger Humphries (drums) and George Jones (congas), held it down solid, and I suspect their own bop sensibilities at least fed into (if not drove) the vibe. I say this partly because, in the advance article in the City Paper, Pharoah suggested that he would go with the flow of his band: “We’ll just get together and start playing....I might just call a key: F-sharp minor, and that’s it. Everybody just blows. It’ll always be right.” So I initially expected the set to be freer, more spontaneous. Instead it was very directed and very much in the bop mode, and it only makes sense that Sanders would play to the band’s strengths.

I was surprised secondly also by how Coltrane-centric this set was (again, I probably shouldn’t have been, since Sanders has recorded late-period tributes to Coltrane). The band opened with a marathon version of “My Favorite Things” (at one point, I thought, incorporating the theme of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” which resembles it in a way) and finally closed, as an encore, with “Giant Steps.” Henderson’s piano-playing was often reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, utilizing his signature block chords throughout most of the evening. That said, there were also some quite original progressions on his part, Monk-like in their mathematicality, but in what I guess I should call even a Henderson-like mode. Broadly speaking, though, this was very Coltrane Quartet of the early 60s — bop structures but with free, exploratory solos.

Pharoah himself was not quite as guttural or shrieking as in his earlier days. But the tone of his tenor is so uniquely his own, and that in itself was what was revelatory about the show, to hear it live, in front of you, rather than the ultra-intense bursts of energy contained on albums such as Tauhid, Jewels of Thought, Izipho Zam, Black Unity, or Village of the Pharoahs. Those bursts were still there in this set, however, from time to time. Pharoah would occasionally toss them out, or alternatively work up to a certain level, where, it seemed to me because he is so immensely talented and skilled, he can just let go and let the spirit move him (so to speak) to heights of beauty. Equally beautiful were those rare moments of squawk or overblown notes. Pharoah has always been so good at playing overblown notes that he can even play them melodically. At a couple of points in the set, also, he stopped blowing into his horn but continued to work the keys, allowing the air that was inside to be moved around by them, finally producing a quiet but unmistakable feedback-like sound. It was an inspired stroke, almost as if he was saying that he himself was but a vehicle for something else, the music, which is in the breath of life, existing on another level, actually outside of the person, occasionally allowing itself to be directed, though, and brought out into our world.

At age 70, Pharoah seemed to tire at times and would wander off-stage to take a break while the band did their thing(s). Well, who can fault him? But it was always a great moment of anticipation fulfilled when he’d walk back out, tenor at the ready, to renewed applause from the audience, and begin playing again. While the backing band was great, it was Pharoah we had all come to see. In the second half of the set, he once or twice stopped playing to dance around and dig his musicians, and the crowd would urge him on, some yelling, “Go Pharoah, go Pharoah!” And then he’d move back to his spot and blow some more. This was what it was like to hear and to see the greatest living tenor player. Perhaps Archie Shepp is a close second, but that accolade has to go to Pharoah Sanders now, and this show was proof.