Thursday, August 18, 2005

He's Gone

As those of you who know me are well aware (and those more casual readers will soon find out), I am leaving my family home for the first time in any permanent sense within a week. I have been busying myself with the requisite tasks that it takes to move, including cleaning the deep fryer, letting my creditors know where to send the past-due notices and packing the collections of twenty-eight years at the same address (I am not counting the four years at Saint Joseph's. That was just like an extended camping holiday).

The real weight of the affair has yet to hit me, which I am sure it will soon enough. I am overcome with an intense sense of parting never to return, although I know I will. Perhaps it is something engrained in my Irish soul that views parting as final and as something that we all must do. Believe me, I want to live on my own as sure as my parents would like to see me seek my life elsewhere for a change. I cannot, however, help these feelings of loss and finality. There is a going-away party for me on Saturday and I cannot help but view it as somewhat of a funeral for the Will Shannon that a lot of people know. I hope that I do not change much, but who knows?

As I sit here in my quiet house, where I have lived since October 15, 1983, all the past here washes over me in an incomprehensible river of memory. Remember a few weeks back when we discussed history and memory. I am overwhelmed by memory at current even on the brink of the last step in my preparation for a career as a professional historian. I guess things can look different without the distance of the past to protect you from the feelings of your own. This place, this spatial reality, will forever be a part of me, as will the temporal occurences that happened here. How could I ever forget? My family will still be mine but never in the same way again. I am sure that this is good in a way, but I cannot help but reflect on the situation with some trepidation.

I am sure that I will not lose contact with this reality, but who doesn't say that upon leaving? What immigrant didn't promise to return home? What group of friends upon graduating said that they would keep in touch forever? In a sense, we are all moving foreward with the constant burden of the past guiding and biasing us. I am, in a certain sense, my past and it has not always been pleasant. I went through some rough years and some rougher times of dizzying highs and disturbing lows. I have come through it all and stand now at the threshold, looking back not out of want but of necessity. I can never forget, nor would I completely want to.

So, as I forge on, I try to make sense of it all. The one thing that comes to me over and over are the words of the old Irish folk tune "The Parting Glass." It is with these words that I conclude for now:

Oh all the money that e'er I had, I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e'er I've done, alas, it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit to memory now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e'er I've had, they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I've had, they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call good night and joy be with you all

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Your Life Sucks? Blame Science!

I have always been conflicted on the issues that emerged from the Enlightenment. Their defense of self-ownership, individual liberties and natural rights have always been a cornerstone of my thinking on politics, government, society and culture. I have always, however, sided with the Romantics in questioning the reach of science into our daily lives.

As a concession, I will admit that I enjoy many of the products of science. Who dosen't? They, for better or worse, helped to make the world what it is today with warts and all. I like my computer, my portable CD player (the MegaJam 3000) and all that happy crap.

It is many of the larger issues raised by the primacy of science that cause me trepidation. First off, the blind faith in science to produce all the answers that we need for any question. Science, said the brilliant Thomas Kuhn, is one of many ideologies with its prejudices and systems. In this summation, science becomes what it should be: one of many ways of looking at the world and solving problems. We should never trust anything that easily. It should have to stand up to questioning and doubt from the outside.

It was in the 19th century that we developed our faith in science and technology (which I believe are two very different things) and also the idea of progress as the goal of life. This was the birth of modern factories, government's interest in public health, science as a faith and a way of life. Since they could seemingly definitively explain everything, they seemed like gods. As I mentioned before, the Romantics were trying to react to this, but they were too busy chasing women around Italy high on opium and wearing a silly shirt. Science ruled the day with the help of the state and now it forms a two-pronged attack on our minds and society.

Science is seen as the benevolent bringer of gee-whiz goodies and also life-saving cures for killer diseases. While it is hard to argue with the use of curing disease, the technogoodies can take a hit and needs it badly. As I said, it is just the happy crap that keeps us too occupied and takes all our money and time. It is fun, but it (like all enjoyable things) can begin to have negative effects. This is part of the divide between science and technology. This is technology; science, in its pures form, is the deep, theoretical stuff that may never have a use. One never knows, but this sort of science seems more like philosophy than industrial production.

Where does this leave us? We need to view science (especially anything that the state has a hand in) with a critical eye and remember that this faith in science came about in a time when most people would be awed by canned food and the lack of killer epidemics. Always be critical, and don't let them off with confusing explanations. It can be explained so that anyone can understand.

If they truly want to help, they have nothing to fear, right?

Never let them go easy. Expect answers and get them.

They are not gods. Let's remind them of this.

Fighting With Yourself

Here are some thoughts about some acts of brazen punditry that I ran across recently:
  • Thomas Oliphant in the Boston Globe - The always perceptive and interesting Tom Oliphant has an good take on some of the growing noise on the 2006 midterm elections. Basically, he points out (and rightly so) that it is interesting that the GOP is pushing for a lot of outsider candidates, rather than their tried-and-trues. This, for me, shows that the GOP has no political capital left (thank President Bush for that), and their decisions in some of these races is questionable. Katherine Harris in Florida? I mean, come on. After the 2000 recount fiasco, no one should even take her seriously. The GOP would do well to find someone else. He also mirrors something that I have thought all along, that being that there could be a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Senate seat in New York (while I don't think it is Jeanine Pirro). It is such a state of contrasts: two Democratic Senators, a Republican governor and a two consecutive Republican mayors of NYC. With all of these people from New York wrapped up in possible national aspirations, there could be a more interesting race than anticipated.
  • Frank Rich in the New York Times - Rich is more opposition to President Bush than the Democrats have ever been, and he continues to prove it. He has an excellent point about the shifting of public opinion against the war and the fact that Bush has lost any capital that he earned with his re-election. Americans are unhappy about the lies and lack of strategy, or that is at least how it seems. I don't agree, however, with his use of analogies of LBJ and Vietnam. As a historian, I could not disagree more with the notion that history repeats itself. History can never really repeat itself; things that are similar happen because we are human and predictable and our systems are set up to react in certain ways. Vietnam was in a different time with different circumstances and different leaders. You cannot base your arguments on the fact that GWB and LBJ were both from Texas and they were president during wars that became unpopular. It ends there and Rich overstepped his rhetorical bounds in suggesting otherwise.
  • Jonah Goldberg in National Review - Ever think that the pundits on the left were the only ones who insult and deride regular people and tell them that they don't matter? Well, here is contrary proof to that. It is just this sort of talk that proves two things. Firstly, people don't care about the world around them and the bozos at the helm because people like Goldberg tell them that they don't matter. Secondly, and more importantly, it should anger people enough to make themselves matter. Share your opinions (after doing your homework, naturally). Start to take moves to make change happen. Some good old fashioned conciousness raising couldn't hurt. Don't let the haughty editors of National Review tell you that you don't matter and that your opinions are not important. Shout so loud that you CANNOT be ignored!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Let's Get Kinky (Elected, That Is)

In my endless trolling of the political landscape of Dick Cheney's America, I occasionally come across a person with different ideas. An innovator with real plans for change and a genuine concern for the citizens. In this one and a half party system that we have, it is good to find free thinking individuals who value people and want to make real change happen.

That is why it is crucial that Kinky Friedman be elected as Governor of Texas in 2006.

Read Kinky's contributions to Texas Monthly for even more information.

He has new and different ideas that will make the people proud of their state and involve them in the government in more ways than as taxpayers, cannon fodder and automatons turned out by government schools.

Unfortunately, I don't live in Texas. But if I did, I would be behind Kinky 100%.

In "red state" Texas, Kinky is throwing the red/blue (a further insulting simplification of the right/left, conservative/liberal divide) by the wayside and putting the people of Texas first.

Bravo, Kinky. Why The Hell Not, indeed.

Don't Want To Get Gas?

As a life-long supporter and rider of public transportation, and a person who has been car-free for the last three years, I watch the higher fuel prices with some amusement. I think that it is further proof that we need to develop more systems of public transportation, especially in suburban areas and smaller, regional urban centers.

Living in the suburbs is almost as bad as living in a rural area. You almost need a car. In the Chicago suburbs, the state of affairs is better than it is elsewhere with the PACE bus service. The schedules are, however, limited and they are worse on the weekends. To go long distances involves many transfers and the schedules are somewhat flexible.

I believe that it should be possible for people in urban, suburban and exurban areas to move around, attend to their obligations and live life without a car or the burdens therein. People work to support the cars that take them there. This is a waste of resources and time.

How can it be done? There are two cities of moderate size that have come up with an innovative solution from the past. The cities in question are Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin; the solution is streetcar systems.

Check out Portland's system here.
Check out Kenosha's system here.
Also, check out the website of Light Rail Now.

These systems operate in the same neighborhoods as busses, but at lower cost and with better utilization of energy through the use of alternative fuels or electricity which stretches all of the fuel budgets, providing safe, reliable transportation at a cost savings to the user.

Also, it would not be a bad idea to offer people incentives on taxes for regular use of public transportation (like they do with alternative fuel automobiles). It would give people reason to ride and not drive and pass on an incentive to the people.

This is not even accounting for cities with "legacy systems" that changed routes or equipment from old, pre-WW II systems. You see, my friends, most cities of any size had a streetcar system that served and was used by millions in the years before the Second World War. Some of these systems lasted until after World War II, but they slowly died until Pittsburgh ran its last line in 1999. That leaves only San Fransisco and Boston's Green Line (or portions of it anyway).

For more of this history, check out Jon Bell's wonderful page on light rail and transit systems, their history and future.

Leave the car at home. Take the train, bus, streetar, ferry or whatever. You can be confident that you are making a decision to help the earth, save some money, really get to know your hometown and encounter your fellow citizens in a meaningful and real way. Some of the most interesting experiences that I have had involve riding public transportation.

So, to quote the late great big rock star Wesley Willis, "Get on the city bus."

Monday, August 08, 2005

Things Aren't What They Used To Be

I knew that it would come, but it came as somewhat of a shock when the news broke of the death of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings.

Check out the official tribute site at ABC News.

Much of my observations I have already mentioned, as least as the future of the network news is concerned.

All three networks lost their evening news anchors this year: Tom Brokaw (NBC-retired), Dan Rather (CBS-said he retired, but probably asked to resign), and Peter Jennings (ABC-died).

Where are the networks going with their news divisions. As I have mentioned before, we all need to review Paddy Chaevsky's classic 1974 film Network. In this film, one of the central points is the conversion of the news division from the cornerstone and pride of the network into another arm of the entertainment division. In the earlier days of television, no matter how insipid the entertainment programming was, the networks always prized their news divisions as the jewel of the company. More than this, they saw that they were doing a service and serving a public trust to inform people and spread good news and reporting to every viewer. These were the days of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, days when you could actually count on television news to be accurate, reasonably well-written and possibly thought provoking.

Beyond this, the networks understood that the news did not have to be entertaining, and the viewers realized this too. It is an annoying tendency amongst Americans that they always want to be entertained and think that everything should be fun and easy. The news is neither of these things (if you care and you should). News is serious and can have global implications. Keeping yourself well-informed through conventional and alternative media is your responsibility as a citizen and a human being. If you don't, you don't have the right to complain when the unreality of your created world becomes invaded by the cold, keening sting of life on planet Earth.

What will happen? Well, there are two versions: what I want to happen and what will actually happen. First, my plan. Separate the job of reporter and anchor. Anchors should sit there in a nice suit and read the news. Reporters should be out in the field taking the pulse of the issues of the day. While they are at it, try being a little more critical in your reporting. Make politicos and other powerful forces afraid of you. Strike fear in the hearts of the likes of Scott McClelland who will dissemble and ignore your questions. Check your facts and never settle for easy answers. This will lend credibility and provide viewers with much food for thought and this, coupled with their other reading and consideration, should help people to think criticaly about the news content and the act of broadcasting it.

Now, what will really happen. This is simple because in a way, it is already happening. There will be no news on network television (FOX has never had national news), thus cutting those who cannot afford cable off from another source of information. The cable news networks will continue their attempt at a 24 hour news cycle, FOX leading the pack because people don't want to think too hard. It will become indistinguishable from the likes of Court TV in its sensationalism, talking heads of ineptitude, endless partisan shouting and the perversion of stories to fit their concurrent philosophies.

The worst part of all of this is that people will not care or not notice. People like things to be done to them rather than with their active participation. This is why no-one cares anymore. If it can't be pre-packaged, black-and-white with no ambiguity, then it will not sell ad time and should be eliminated.

We all need to shut up, do our homework and speak with a more informed voice with civility and reason for all.

If not, we are no different from these braying asses that call themselves journalists.

For shame.

Flotsam And Jetsam From The News Cycle

A few short items and observations before moving on to bigger issues:

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Where The Torture Never Stops

I almost forgot Amnesty International's resources on the deplorable state of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Now, back to work.

The King Is Dead. Now What?

It is really not much of a news item, seeing that King Fahd bin-Abdulaziz al Saud had suffered a crippling stroke in 1995 and the current king Abdullah has been ruling as a sort of a regent ever since then.

In a certain sense, the beat goes on in Saudi Arabia, the world's last absolute monarchy. It is a country that has always fascinated and confused me. It seems to be the place of such great contradictions. Wealth without freedom; the holiest cities in Islam and one of the greatest human rights abusers; modern Arab nation but with no voting for women (or anyone else).

It is a place worthy of further study, so why don't we do just that.

First, visit the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
Then, read this quite apologetic site about King Fahd's life.
Now, read this more balanced account of his life.
Next, study the family tree of the House of Saud.
Now, read this excellent PBS site for history of Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud.
For all other info, read this excellent country study at the Library of Congress.
Lastly, read the page from Human Rights Watch for the grave abuses of rights in the kingdom.

Read, learn, react and discuss. I may post again about security implications and the stability of the House of Saud. Before that, though, you have some reading to do.

Scholarship never takes a vacation.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Oglaigh na hEireann: On The One Road

By reading this space, and moreso for those who know me, I have always been passionate about the cause of Irish freedom from British rule. In my younger years, I blindly supported the IRA and the violent struggle against the Brits by any means necessary. Then, after the Omagh bombings in 1998, I realized that my definitions and positions needed to change. Innocent people were dying and violence seemed to be bringing us no closer.

It was with considerable encouragement that I read of the IRA's renewed promise to disarm and participate in the process laid out by the 1997 Good Friday Agreement.

Also, check Sinn Fein's website for other reactions and documents.

For the other side, read the statement of Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Is this a sign that the IRA is ready to lay down the Armalite and embrace the political process for good? This is certainly not the first cease fire (there were others in 1976, 1994 and 1997). This one is more significant, in my opinion, because of the timing and the content of the statement. As the U.S. led "global war on terror" rolls on, the IRA realizes that terrorists or even the illusion of terrorist activity are the bete noire du jour on the international scene. This will continue the process that began in 2000 whereby the IRA decommissions their weapons and finally, hopefully trade the Armalite for the ballot box.

This development interestingly mirrors the process by which the IRA transformed their planning in the 1970's and 1980's. The current incarnation of the Irish Republican Army came into being in 1969 after civilians in Catholic neighborhoods, participating in civil rights demonstrations, were harassed by the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). There was a split in the Ahrd Fheis (Army Council) and the Provisional IRA split from the Original IRA. It was the PIRA, or Provos, that were on active service (their term) from then until now (1).

Their original strategy and plan of action more reflected a military campaign with very little in the way of a political component. There were bombings, sniper attacks and intimidation. The same took place by Protestants in the north of Ireland and Protestant paramilitaries meted out terrible retribution. These years of violence, mainly in the mid-1970's landed much of the "old guard" leadership in jail or hiding and unable to lead to organization (2). The PIRA was in for a change of plans and leadership, and it was in these years that the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness came to rise.

The change in focus was toward more of a political struggle, focused on the rights of Republican prisoners. This was the early 1980's, the days of the Hunger Strikers in Long Kesh, Bobby Sands, and those men and women who went "on the blanket" to protest their status as criminal prisoners and not political prisoners (3). It was this "long war" that saw the assassinations of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 and the attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and the attempt on John Major in 1992. It was also the era of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, the cease fire of 1994, the negotiations between President Clinton and Gerry Adams and finally the GFA in 1997.

This long process is now at a crossroads. All parties must believe in the process, fulfill their obligations and in some way begin to trust the motives of the others. It is the distrust of motives that in many ways led to the years of violence and stonewalling. The next move is with Sinn Fein leadership and the British government in the north of Ireland and in London. These next years could be historic ones for the process. All must be heard and all must participate until devolved government is brought to the north.

Personally, I am still a Republican who supports the right of the north to choose its fate, something it was denied in the partition of 1922 that created a divided Ireland. This is the only way to solve the conflict. Devolved government is a positive step. Would a united Ireland be good, necessarily. The Republic of Ireland is fastly becoming one of the richest nations in Europe and an active participant in pan-European politics. I am not sure that they would want to take the north with its aging industry and smoldering sectarian violence. On the other side, there are the Protestant majorities in the north that want to be British and could care less what the Catholic minorities think. It is against this sort of thinking and the blinkered ignorance of Paisley and his lot that the process must work. It has never been easy.

Perhaps the Sinn Fein motto can be a rallying cry to all involved:

"Building an Ireland of Equals."

I sure hope that they mean it.

We're on the one road,
Sharing the one load,
We're on the road to God knows where.
We're on the one road,
It may be the wrong road,
But we're together now, who cares?
North men, South men, comrades all,
Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal.
We're on the one road, singing along,
Singing a soldier's song.
  1. Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, revised edition (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 365.
  2. Ibid., 402.
  3. J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA, third edition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Publishers, 1997), 511.

These are excellent starting places for in-depth study of the IRA. Coogan's account is a little more friendly to the beginner, but Bell's is by far the more robust and complete work of scholarship.

Daddy, Where Did I Come From?

(We shall return to terrorism later...the piece was getting rather ungainly and I need to work on it. I will also have something to say about King Fahd, the IRA and other topics of interest. Meanwhile, some personal reflections.)

For some reason, I have been thinking about my family history recently. Don't peg me as one of those ancestry nuts who scurries around archives looking for Grandpa's shoe size or a map to Uncle Sol's hallowed burial site. Nor am I a Mormon who does such things for religious (and creepy) reasons. When using archives, us professional historians make a point of saying that we are not geneaology people and please seat us on the other side of the room.

But Will, you ask, you are a historian. Isn't geneaology just a sort of history. Well, some yes and mostly no, and I will use my family as an example.

My family and any research I do therein is interesting and useful to, well, me and my family. In the larger scope of the histories of the United States and Europe (the two bases of operation for my forebears), we are just statistics and can serve as examples of larger trends, but nothing more unless some scholarly question was posited that involved the study of their lives to get at a larger historiographical assertion.

My father's family consists of Irish immigrants who came during the years of the Famine (1846-1853, approx.) and Germans who left after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. My mother's family is Polish immigrants who came in the late nineteenth century and Hungarians who came in the first decade of the twentieth century. That is most of what I know, there are assorted stories and memories of certain people and events, but on the whole, my grandfather was right. We were just not that interesting.

On the other side, however, it was a lot of these stories that started to pique my interest/obsession with the past. My grandfather's service as a B-24 pilot in World War II; my great-grandfather's career in the U.S. Navy and the Chicago Fire Department; my mother's parents growing up in Chicago in the 1930's and 1940's; Patrick Quinn, my ancestor who fought in the Civil War; the 375 year old house in Bellingen, Germany that is still in the family somewhere; my great grandfather who was a trolley motorman in Chicago. It was these tales, be they true, exaggerated or patently false that got me reading about the past and asking questions of the past. This is, in small part, what historians do.

How as a professional historian to I encounter this interesting and potentially flawed base of sources on the past and how do I make sense of it all. In many ways, memory is the enemy of history. Historians run on archives, sources, argument and footnotes (lots and lots of footnotes). Memories are sense-driven, changeable and often flawed or completely wrong. They are, however, a part of the past as well.

Perhaps you have asked these questions of your own past. Perhaps you couldn't care less. It is your right to do either.

This leads me to conclude with a recommendation for a wonderful book. It is Richard White's Remembering Anhanagran. White, a professional historian, encounter's his mother's stories of growing up in Ireland, immigrating to Chicago and marrying a Jewish army officer/Harvard graduate from Boston. It is one historian grappling with his past, his profession and where the two meet, argue and can even compliment each other. It is quite simply one of the best books I have read in some time.

Do roots provide strength or foster inflexibility?

How knowable is the past?

What is history and what is memory?

Where do we all fit in?