March 24th, 2004

Stealing Liberalism

One of the most pernicious ideas to enter political discourse in modern times has been the allegation that anyone who ever changes his mind on any issue is a "waffler" and lacks character and conviction. We are lead to believe by some politicians, essentially, that everything they need to know they learned in kindergarten, and they haven't been required to change their minds since entering adult life. This is supposed to be good thing. I disagree. I much prefer to have persons in office who can be persuaded. Such people have enough confidence in themselves to be able to admit that they might have been wrong, or that someone else's idea might work better with the facts and applicable principles. Senator Kerry, for example, has been in the Senate long enough for various issues to come around more than once and to be re-examined in different lights, according to conditions that prevailed at that time. It is no shame to have examined different evidence and to have come to different conclusions.

On the other hand, Mr. Bush argues that he is "steady," and so he is-steady as rock, about as flexible, and about as sensitive. And when he gets one of his fixed ideas-such as making war on Iraq, or that any tax cut is a good tax cut-he's just like a big rock rolling downhill-just as hard to divert, and just as likely to do damage. I find his persistent refusal to listen to reason and expressed preference not to be bothered with facts the absolute worst facet of his administration and the source of innumerable evils.

The March 13th Milwaukee paper had a good article analyzing John Kerry's decision style. This is the kind of thing I like to envision a President doing, not being so set in his ideas as to not even ask questions.

Altan, 03-04-04

Thursday night the 4th, we had tickets to the concert by Altan at the Milwaukee Irish Heritage Center. Altan is an Irish music group that's been around more than twenty years. They are from the Northeast of Ireland originally, and play a good bit of music that has Scottish influences as well as purely Irish. The band consists of two fiddles, gittern, button accordion, and guitar. Altan has played Milwaukee before, and is evidently popular as the event was a sellout.

Altan is rather unusual for Irish bands in that their chief spokesperson is a woman, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, but she holds up the usual tasks of doing folksy introductions and jokes, supported by guitarist Mark Kelly. Like any Irish band, they can play fast and hard, but actually played rather more relaxed and laid-back sets than other bands we've seen at MIHC such as the Tannahill Weavers and Suzanne Seviane. That did not hinder the audience's enjoyment in the least. The hall literally rocked on the fast numbers, and gave rapt appreciation to slow songs. We joined in a standing ovation.

One observation: For some reason, despite my roots and my appreciation for Irish culture, I cannot find Gaelic a beautiful language to listen to, even when sung and the singer has a good voice. I don't know why, but the tongue seems to me to be full of awkward consonants and combinations. Even languages like German that are often referred to as harsh-sounding strike me as more sonorous.

Music and Dance, 03-13-04

At the Altan concert, we noticed that the Irish Cultural Heritage Center was also going to be having a Post Parade Party after the Shamrock Club St. Patrick's Day parade on Saturday the 13th. It was in the afternoon from 1 to 6PM, and, at a six-dollar admission, looked like good value for the money, so we decided to show up. I picked up Georgie from the library at one, and we headed down, managing to find a parking space not too far away. Things were just starting up as we got there, and we checked it all out. The Irish Center occupies a sprawling old church, with the main hall (called "Hallamor") in the former sanctuary, a barroom in the basement, some function spaces referred to as the "parlors" in the back, and a large room used for dances and dance rehearsal upstairs over the parlors. All these venues had something going on. There was entertainment for children downstairs; music, food, drink, and vendors in the parlors; more music and food upstairs; and Hallamor was the main stage. We listened to the Shamrock Club pipes and drums. (Pretty good, although there were a couple errors in the solo parts of the obligatory "Amazing Grace"-which, by the way, we are really tired of, especially since 9/11. I can think of several equally good hymn tunes that would translate to bagpipe well-why can't anyone else?) They were followed by the Blackcastle Irish dancers, a new group who showed good style and spirit. I only wished their "cheerleader" teacher would talk less. After that came Milwaukee Irish band Leahy's Luck, whom we enjoy. We were particularly pleased to find that they've added "Donal McGilivray" to their repertoire. They were followed by the Irish Center's resident dance group, Cashel-Dennehey. Cashel-Dennehey is a very good group, and will be sending several people to the upcoming world Irish dance championships. We were pleased to see our young friend Kelly Lowrey in her first public performance. She did well!

Between main stage performances, we snatched bits from the other rooms, including local stalwarts Blarney upstairs, and a Madison group called Stone Ring in the parlors. There were others as well, but for some reason there were no programs so I can't tell you now who they were.

Cashel-Dennehey was to have been followed by the Trinity Irish Dance Company, the most famous area group, but we were tired by then and leaked out about 5PM.

After a few hours rest at home, we ventured back out to Barb and Richard Letterman's house for a filksing and had a very good time there as well.

Hildalgo, 03-14-04

On Sunday the 14th we went to our local movie house to see "Hildalgo," the new film starring Vigo Mortenson. This is Mortenson's first film since "The Lord of the Rings," and first solo starring vehicle. He plays Frank Hopkins, one-time military courier and endurance race rider. He is half-Sioux on his mother's side, and leaves military service after witnessing the sickening massacre at Wounded Knee. He takes alcohol-sodden refuge working for the Buffalo Bill Wild West show, and finds it no refuge at all as the elderly Indians in the show and its "reenactment" of Indian raids and Little Big Horn continue to haunt him. One half expects to see him sharing a bottle with Captain Algren (Tom Cruise's character from "Last Samurai") although, unlike Algren, Higgins was a real person. The story of his race against the flower of Arabian horse breeding is based on his own story, although historians tend to consider it may be a tall tale.

Tall tale or not, the film works out as an old-fashioned story of high adventure. Hopkins accepts the challenge of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) to join the world's longest and toughest endurance ride, the "Ocean of Fire" which runs three thousand miles from Aden to Damascus, across some of the world's most hostile terrain. Along the way, he encounters Arab princesses, disdainful Arab princes, Bedouin bandits, sandstorms, locust plagues, and, of course, cheating and treachery. To describe it as Indiana Jones Meets Seabiscuit would not be far off the mark. Critics have derided the film as being too slow, too crudely plotted, and too unbelievable, none of which I agree with. The film could have been shortened a bit in the early going before the race actually starts, but the conflicts laid out there are important to what happens after.

I enjoyed Mortenson's performance as the laughing but spiritually wounded "cowboy". Omar Sharif repays my respect in his role as the Sheik. Zuleika Robinson was very good as his "wayward" daughter, Louise Lombard effective as the obsessed Lady Anne Davenport, and a very nice cameo by Elizabeth Berridge as Annie Oakley.

All in all, we did find it a good old-fashioned movie: no sex, (not that I mind a little sex--) no remarkable profanity, and no excessive violence or gore, lots of virtue, honor and decency. Definitely worth seeing.

"Touch not your country's flag," she said.

Today's argument in the Supreme Court on the Constitutionality of the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag," prompts me to write on a couple of philosophical points. First, does the addition of the words "under God" to the pledge constitute an establishment of religion contrary to the First Amendment? The historical context of the addition makes it clear that the answer is yes. The two words were added to the Pledge at the height of the McCarthyist Red Scare when "Godless Communism" was America's chief enemy. When Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the act into law, he said: "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty." That makes it pretty clear.

The second issue I have is the whole "Flag" thing, which is also related to the recurrent push to amend the Constitution to except "flag desecration" from the protection of the First Amendment. While I have the greatest respect for the feelings of those to whom our flag is a holy icon, it is, in fact, no such thing. At bottom, any flag is just a piece of colored cloth. My allegiance is not pledged to any gaudy rag: my allegiance belongs to the Republic of the United States of America. The days are gone when carrying a standard into battle had a practical value, and bearing it was a post of both honor and danger. In those days, dozens of men could be killed in the field for the honor of rescuing or capturing the colors. In those days, such valor often had very tangible rewards as well, but no more. I believe that if you called up the ghost of any American soldier killed in battle and asked him, "did you die for the Flag?" He or she would say, "Hell, no! I died fighting for my freedom, my home, my family and my friends, my own life and my way of life." I think the Flag intrinsically would be way down the list. It is only as the symbol of freedom that our flag has any value. The American Flag is the symbol of our democratic Republic. The Constitution is the substance of that Republic. To weaken the substance in order to protect the symbol makes no sense to me.

9/11: Asleep on Duty

Besides the fact that Richard Clarke's testimony dovetails with that of Paul O'Neill about the behavior of the Bush administration in the months prior to 09/11/01, the thing that gives the man great credibility in my eyes is the fact that he took the time to apologize to the country and to the victims for his own and the government's failure to protect them. He is the first government official to say anything of the kind, and it shows great character to have done so.

Let me say that I do not think the attacks could have been prevented. Even had the various intelligence agencies corellated all their data effectively, I do not think they had enough to put it together. Even hunting Osama Bin Laden intensively since then, he has not been found.

That said, I think that the real question here is, was the Bush administration nevertheless doing all that could have been done? Were they effectively asleep on duty? The answers here are clearly no, they weren't doing all they could have, and yes, they were negligent, and therefore they are at fault. If you are aleep at your post you are still guilty of dereliction of duty, even if the enemy attacks in another sector and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it or give the alarm. You are still at fault. Nero didn't start the fire that burned Rome, nor could he have prevented it, but it was still his choice to play the fiddle rather than do anything more constructive.

Love and Marriage go together

Today the news reports that Congressman Barney Frank spoke out before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the proposed Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage, and posed in very eloquent terms the question I have also been wanting to hear an answer to. He said: "When I go home from today's work and I choose because of my nature to associate with another man, how is that a problem for you? How does that hurt you?" The Republican proponents of the Amendment made no answer.

Indeed. Has anyone posed, seen or heard a coherent answer to this question? How, precisely, does allowing homosexual couples access to the same sorts of legal protections and entanglements commonly known as "marriage" in any way diminish, dilute, or degrade the "institution"? There is no answer.

I propose that we should "divorce" the body of civil laws that have grown up around marital unions from the sacrament called "marriage." Doing this, all persons who wished to join in a legal partnership would get their licence, or sign up at the registry office, homo- or-heterosexual. Those who wished could then have their union sanctified by their church, synagogue, temple, coven, meeting, or what have you as a matter of choice. If those same congregations chose NOT to sanctify the particular union in question for whatever reason, that would be matter of choice as well, but would not affect the legality of the partnership.

I am bemused by those who inevitably argue that "marriage is ordained by God," and the Bible. The same arguements of course were made in favor of slavery as an institution, and with as much justification.