Sunday, April 22, 2007

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair where I sit:
There isn't any other stair quite like it.
I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top:
So this is the stair where I always stop.

Halfway up the stairs
Isn't up, and isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town:
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head:
"It isn't really anywhere! It's somewhere else instead!"

(A A Milne)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Gwen Ifill slices through the fog

I was a fan of Gwen Ifill before yesterday. She's got a straightforward way of cutting through the rhetoric that would make her a good mediator and makes her a terrific interviewer and anchor. Yesterday, she brought that talent to "Meet the Press" for a discussion of the Don Imus flareup with two of the good old boys of the media -- Tim Russert and the NYTimes' David Brooks, as well as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal.

The transcript of that session is here (The conversation starts at the bottom of Page 2.)

Here are some samples of what she brought to the discussion:


There’s been radio silence from a lot of people who’ve done this program who could’ve spoken up and said, “I find this offensive” or “I didn’t know.” These people didn’t speak up.

Tim, we didn’t hear that much from you.

David, we didn’t hear from you.

What was missing in this debate was someone saying, “You know, I understand that this is offensive.” You know, I have a seven-year-old goddaughter. Yesterday, she went out shopping with her mom for high-top basketball shoes so she can play basketball. The offense, the slur that Imus directed at me happened more than 10 years ago. I like to think in 10 years from now that Asia isn’t going to be deciding that she wants to get recruited for the college basketball team or be a tennis pro or go to medical school and that she’s still vulnerable to those kinds of casual slurs and insults that I got 10 years ago, and that people will say, “I didn’t know,” or people will say, “I wasn’t listening.” A lot of people did know, and a lot of people were listening, and they just decided it was OK. They decided this culture of meanness was fine until they got caught. My concern about Mr. Imus and a lot of people and, and a lot of the debate in the society is not that people are sorry that they say these things. They’re sorry that someone catches them.

When Don Imus said this about me when I worked here at NBC, when I found out about it, his producer called and said, “Don wants to apologize.” Well, now he says he never said it. What was he apologizing for? He was apologizing for getting caught, not apologizing for having said it in the first place. And that, to me, is the debate that we need to have. David’s right, about the culture of meanness, about the culture of racial complaint, about the internal culture in our community, about the way we talk to one another. But this week, just this week, it was finally saying “Enough.”


MR. RUSSERT: (quoting the concept) “If you don’t want to watch it, you turn him off. It’s the marketplace that should govern.”

MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing—you know what, that’s—there’s something to that. But here’s the thing, for parents of kids, like your—like John, here, he needs to know what these, what these kids are listening to. He needs to hear what the words are. You need to make your judgment. I don’t completely turn it off, I watch it just to know. Now, I don’t watch it for long, because I find it so offensive, but I need to know. And that’s what everybody — people can’t say, “Oh, I had no idea.” Especially when you’re trying to raise a generation of right-thinking kids.


MR. ROBINSON: But back up, back up a step. I mean, we should have the discussion about, about rap music, about gangster rap and, and, and that language, and, and I—and that’s a discussion, for example, those are issues that Al Sharpton has raised, that Jesse Jackson has raised. And, and, by the way, I got a lot of mail on—when I wrote about the Imus situation as well, and, and one strain of it was, was, “Well, who appointed Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to, you know, to be spokespeople?” And my answer was this business did. You know, we’re, we’re the ones who call them up every time anything happens and kept going back and kept going back. And what does he think today and what does he think tomorrow? So...

MR. RUSSERT: And it was fair to ask Jackson about Hymietown, and it was fair to ask Sharpton about Tawana Brawley.

MR. ROBINSON: Of course, it—of course it’s fair, but, but the idea that, that, in this case, they were self-appointed is not really quite right because that was certainly abetted by, by a news media establishment that, that went to them, you know, 50 times a day.

MS. IFILL: And it, and it should be added that it wasn’t just Jesse and Al—Reverend Jackson and Al Sharpton talking about this. It was C. Delores Tucker, who took this. It was Calvin Butts, who steamrollered CDs. It was, it was, it was Essence magazine, which did an entire series of articles about what was happening to girls. Now, everybody who’s suddenly so concerned about what Ludacris and Timbaland have had to say, they weren’t concerned two weeks ago. So if this means we’re going to have this conversation, that’s fine. But let’s not pretend that certain elements in our community haven’t been trying to have this conversation with much less success.


MR. BROOKS: I think if you’re Howard Stern or Bill Maher or Glenn Beck or Michael Savage, you got to watch out. I mean, I mean, this, what happens is people change their standards. The only caution I’d, I’d, I’d say there’s comedy. A lot of this is comedy. And when you look at “Borat,” for example, Frank Rich....

MS. IFILL: Doesn’t comedy have to be funny, David?

MR. BROOKS: Well, it, it tries to be funny. But, but there is a, there is sometimes, like, for the example of Borat. Borat’s a guy who spews anti-Semitic stuff. Everybody knows he doesn’t mean it. And I’m not comparing Borat to Don Imus, but there is a carnival atmosphere, and that if we judge everything by the standards the comedians, the carnival people in our culture, by the standards of politicians, well, then we’ll have no comedy because all of the stuff that they say is, is nonliteral.

MR. HARWOOD: Well, exactly, and “Saturday Night Live” last night begins the show with a send-up of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Do people, you know, flyspeck a presentation like that for what, what kind of stereotypes are they playing to? Yeah, it’s hard to know where you draw the line in the entertainment realm.

MS. IFILL: You know, except that it’s really not hard to know where you draw the line. We know where the offense is. We know what’s acceptable and what’s not, and the best way to dilute the argument in the moment we’re in is to say, “What about this? What about this? What about that?” The fact is, we have a moment where we can talk about the things which have been bugging us. I know a lot of people who aren’t really crazy about something—about, about “Pimpin’ All Over the World” or about what—something that Snoop Dogg would say. And you know what they do, they’ve been doing? They swallow it. They just turn off the TV. “I got—I don’t watch these shows. I don’t listen to these videos. I, I just don’t watch it.” But somewhere deep inside these girls becomes this little—you’ve heard what the Rutgers basketball players said when they were asked about this. They didn’t say, “Oh, well, yeah, I think it’s fine.” They don’t think it’s fine. And after a while it builds in them. And that’s what we saw happen this week. So if we want to—you know, we can, we can say it’s not a big deal because it’s happened all the time or it’s been happening for a long time. It’s precisely because it’s been happening a long time that...

MR. HARWOOD: But I’m not, I’m not saying it’s not a big deal. Look, Gwen, it’s harder than you think. And take the example of “Borat,” which David mentioned. I’ve not seen that movie, but I’ve heard people intensely on both sides of that issue. Some think it’s hilarious and fun, and some think it’s grossly offensive and racist and all sorts of things.

MR. BROOKS: Right, and I mean, I’m not saying, I’m not comparing “Borat” to, to what Don Imus said. What Don Imus said is so obviously over the line that it’s not worth debating. But the hard choices come further in, and “Borat” is a good example. I thought it was a very funny movie, extremely cruel. He is picking on people who aren’t good on TV or in the movies. And so I think those are the hard cases. And I don’t think it’s unfair to ask the question of this case, of that case, how much of it is just make believe. Human beings are extremely good at separating make believe from reality.

MS. IFILL: Yeah, unless they’re the targets. And when you’re the target, somehow it seems a lot more real.


She also had an Op-Ed in the New York Times on the topic, and on Imus's slur against her. Not sure how long it will be available there, so I've linked to the Houston Chronicle's reprinting. And here's a quote:

Every time a young black girl shyly approaches me for an autograph or writes or calls or stops me on the street to ask how she can become a journalist, I feel an enormous responsibility. It’s more than simply being a role model. I know I have to be a voice for them as well.

So here’s what this voice has to say for people who cannot grasp the notion of picking on people their own size: This country will only flourish once we consistently learn to applaud and encourage the young people who have to work harder just to achieve balance on the unequal playing field.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Cathleen ni Houlihan
and other reflections on Revolutionary Ireland

"It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer
the most who will conquer"
—Terence MacSwiney

Oh, father why are you so sad
On this bright Easter morn’
When Irish men are proud and glad
Of the land where they were born?

Son, I see in mem’ry's view
A far off distant day
When being just a lad like you
I joined the IRA.

Where are the lads that stood with me
When history was made?
A Ghra Mo Chroi, I long to see
The boys of the old brigade.

From hills and farms the call to arms
Was heard by one and all.
And from the glen came brave young men
To answer Ireland’s call.

‘T' was long ago we faced the foe,
The old brigade and me,
When by my side they fought and died
That Ireland might be free.

And now, my boy, I’ve told you why
On Easter morn’ I sigh,
When I recall my comrades all
From the dark old days gone by.

I think of men who fought in glen
With rifle and grenade.
May heaven keep the men who sleep
From the ranks of the old brigade.

Where are the lads that stood with me
When history was made?
A Ghra Mo Chroi, I long to see
The boys of the old brigade.

My friend Sherwood has compiled -- he doesn't just write, but researches and illustrates -- a wonderful blog reflecting on the Easter Rebellion, in light of the astonishing rapprochement in Ireland today. The very notion that Ian Paisley, for decades the face of violent, racist Unionism in Ulster, would sit down peacefully with Sinn Fein leader (and thus, ex officio, a member of the board of the IRA) Gerry Adams was absurd. To see it happen was stunning.

I was going to post a comment for him, but the number of associations it touched off was too much to confine to a "me too" and so here we are.

As Sherwood notes, I had said to him that, for Irish nationalists, the urge, the instinct, to bury guns against a future need must be overwhelming, it is such a part of the political memory. In fact, the Howth guns he writes of were memorialized in a ballad about a fellow burying his "old Howth gun" after the truce, knowing "a day will come again, O my old Howth gun, when I'll join the fighting men, O my old Howth gun. With some brave determined band, proudly there we'll take our stand, for the freedom of our land, O my old Howth gun!"

The song I posted at the top is a Republican ballad that emerged during the recent Troubles and which neatly encapsulates the sense of historic memory that has been part and parcel of Irish nationalism for at least the past 175 years or so.

As is the case with much of political art, it is sentimental and ahistorical, because there really wasn't that large a turnout for the Easter rising, which gained 90 percent of its impact not from the stirring declaration read by Padraic Pearse but from the brutal overreaction of the British government in executing the leaders of the rebellion.

And yet, as is the case with much of political art, that hardly matters. Unlike those Vietnam revisionists who continue to insist that the Tet Offensive was a stunning defeat for the communists, historians on both sides of the Irish question accept that, military significance aside, the Easter Rebellion was a landmark event that helped make Irish independence inevitable.

One of the advantages the Irish revolutionaries had was a wealth of artists capable of transforming relatively minor events into popular ballads, combined with a British opponent that insisted on executing people it didn't need to, thus turning minor figures like Kevin Barry into major heroes, and upon enforcing blindly foolish policies like the one that allowed Terence MacSwiney, the mayor of Cork, die on hunger strike.

They wrote a song about MacSwiney's death -- "Shall my soul pass through old Ireland" -- set to the same traditional tune as was used in "Kevin Barry," but I can't find the lyrics on line and barely remember them. His words at the top of this page, however, sum up not just Ireland but Algeria and Vietnam and, now, Iraq.

Part of that suffering, that enduring, lies in remembering, which is best done not through dry history but through living art. The fact that so many world leaders have studied history and learned nothing from it is proof enough of that.

As for the beautiful woman at the top of this post, she is Maud Gonne MacBride, one of a number of English citizens who fell in love with Ireland and its revolutionary cause. She was married briefly to John MacBride, who was later executed for his role in the Easter Rising, and their son, Sean MacBride, won the Nobel Peace Prize and founded Amnesty International.

Sean MacBride also instituted the MacBride Principles which helped, through fair employment and investment practices for US firms doing business in Northern Ireland, to pave the way for peace there. It should be noted that Ireland's hearty economy is very much responsible for the current peace: People find other ways of dealing with political issues when they have meaningful employment and decent day-to-day lives.

Who Maud Gonne never married was William Butler Yeats, who, though they were great friends and he proposed to her several times, was too much of an artist and idealist to ever appeal to such a committed revolutionary. He immortalized Maud Gonne in his idealized symbol of Ireland, "Cathleen ni Houlihan," but the two never connected on the level he wished they would.

Hardly surprising. There have been a few revolutionary artists -- Pearse, for one, and Jose Marti and others -- but for the most part there is a gulf between them, so that the artist ends up memorializing rather than joining them. And, of course, Yeats typified this with his own reflection on this day, an admission that he never quite understood those who were so "full of passionate intensity." (The woman is not Gonne, who was in France at the time, but Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markiewicz. The lout, however, is MacBride, an abusive alcoholic Gonne had left some 12 years earlier. But even he is, if not forgiven, reassessed.)

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Chapter CVI
in which I say to hell with it

April 5, I woke up to discover 18 inches of snow in the front yard. And the back yard. And what in Maine they call the door-yard.

So, of course, when I came home from work, I discovered that all the snow on the roof had slid off and was piled in front of the door.

The guy who plows had just done the first 20 feet or so, enough so that I could pull off the road. I guess he saw that, with the ground no longer frozen, he was pushing up as much dirt as snow.

What this meant, aside from my having to walk back to the house in my footprints from the morning, was that nothing had been added to the snowbank at the side of the house. So, if you look to the right, you'll see that I just said to hell with it and walked around to the back porch and came in that way.

Which I will continue to do until lilacs next in the door-yard bloom.