Bundoran Strand Co. Donegal, with surfers, on the Atlantic west coast of Ireland, June 2010. (Credit: Osioni / Wikimedia Commons)
(Bundoran, January 2017) George Bernard Shaw first led us to the National Gallery of Ireland, where a statue of the Irish sage (the very semblance of the ghost that haunted me) welcomes visitors. In his last will, Shaw donated a third of the royalties from his plays to the Gallery, “to which I owe much of the only real education I ever got as a boy In Eire.” I had always expected that if one were to meet the ghost of Shaw it would be in London, where he spent so many years, rather than in Dublin, which he left behind in his twenties and about which he would write:
To this day my sentimental regard for Ireland does not include the capital. I am not enamored of failure, of poverty, of obscurity, and of the ostracism and contempt which these imply; and these were all that Dublin offered to the enormity of my unconscious ambition.
When we boarded a bus to the seafront town of Bundoran in the eastern coast of Ireland, I thought we had left the ghost of Shaw behind. (more…)
General Post Office, Dublin, Ireland. (Credit: Kaihsu Tai)
(Dublin, January 2017) Weathering under the foul winds of the Trump Apocalypse, I have been improving my soul by a visit to the Land of the Saints. One never comes to Ireland for the first time; one merely returns to a place as familiar as the fading memories of your grandfather’s or grandmother’s house.
At the airport the cabdriver greets you with a welcome and a broad smile. You have been told to mistrust the joviality of the Irish; it is a caricature—you have been told—used to control foreigners. But you cannot help to respond agreeably: when was the last time you were greeted by a cabdriver in the States with anything but a surly expression?
After pleasantries the talk inevitably turns to the recent US election. In gentle terms, the cabdriver expresses his unbelief at the fact that we spurned a candidate as intelligent and prepared as Hillary Clinton and elected a “crazy man” as president. I heard the underlying tenor of his words: it was the same one yelled indignantly by W.B. Yeats at the rioting crowds in the Abbey Theatre upon the premiere of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars: “You have disgraced yourselves—again!”
I couldn’t agree more, and therefore hung my head in shame. (more…)
“The Conjurer,” oil on canvas, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1496-1520. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There is a lot not to like about the new president. His boorish persona and proclivity to wreak havoc are a major source of stress, unless you are one of his joyful supporters. Trump the President is a polarizing figure, but his political clownery is also a distraction from the deeper challenges facing the nation and the world at large.
Trump’s circus act gets all the attention. Rome built the colosseum to distract plebeians from the empire’s economic and political problems by entertaining them with bloody displays of gladiator combat. The famous Tivoli amusement park was built in mid-19th century Copenhagen to divert the people’s attention from politics. Billion dollar football stadiums in the US are venues for mixing blood sport with patriotic display. Entertainment, often fused with military ritual (Roger Stahl calls it “militainment”), sidetracks the deliberation of public policy. (more…)
White House lawn, 30 May 2008. (Credit: Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons)
Three impressive political lies came out of the White House during the first weeks of the Trump administration: 1) there was the summary affirmation, against all photographic and professional evidence to the contrary, that Trump’s inauguration was visited by “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”; 2) there was the illusory claim that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the past election, making Trump a loser in the popular vote, even though he won the presidency; 3) there was an Executive Order imposing a Muslim ban (which the White House denied was a Muslim ban), accompanied by an affirmation that we were in peril of terrorist attacks from seven Muslim countries, the citizens of which have never committed acts of terrorism against the United States.
To this we must add the coining of a new political concept by presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway (one missed by George Orwell in 1984): “alternative facts.” If this avalanche of fabrications continues unabated, Donald Trump will make Richard Nixon look like a paragon of virtue. One is tempted to shout, along with Big Daddy at the end of Act Two in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “CHRIST—DAMN—ALL—LYING SONS OF—LYING BITCHES!”(more…)
A warmonger, by definition, is someone who promotes war—urges it, stirs it up. Warmongering is especially foreboding when it comes from a person who is the Commander-in-Chief’s political advisor, chief strategist, senior counsel, and foreign policy guru. Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief, observes that, “Trump considers Bannon a savant and is allowing him to shape his presidency and especially his foreign policy.”[i](more…)
“St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre,” oil on panel, by François Dubois, circa 1572-84. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I recently came across a striking depiction of the dominant Western worldview, which underlies our conventional way of thinking about violence, especially our assumption that war is natural and inevitable. It is our present-day mythos—our deeply embedded conception of humanity—rendered so starkly that it startles one momentarily into a state of recognition.
I found this remarkable depiction in a book about the history and vitality of peace movements, specifically a chapter on psychology and peace. The authors, Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, observe that we live in a world we have created, both a physical world we have significantly changed and “a symbolic world of mental images that define what we assume to be true.” Our prevailing myths are our most comprehensive symbols for identifying our place and purpose in life. They constitute social and political entities, such as nation-states, that “exist only because we believe they are real,” that is, “because we invest them with sovereign powers and sacred attachments” and “willingly kill or die for them.”[i](more…)
Why should I be civil to them or to you? In this Palace of Lies a truth or two will not hurt you. Your friends are the dullest dogs I know.
Don Juan speaking to the Devil, in George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell
To face the Apocalypse we must fix squarely in the mind what Donald Trump is and what he’s not. These days I have frequently revisited George Orwell’s dark fable Animal Farm as an emblematic text from which much can be learned. “Animal Farm,” said Orwell, “was the first book in which I tried … to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
Among the animals of Orwell’s dark fable—the heroic cart-horse Boxer and the “motherly mare” Clover, Muriel the goat, Benjamin the donkey and Moses the Raven—none stands out for me more than Napoleon the Pig. (more…)
Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:
What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]
Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.
Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii](more…)
Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)
Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.
Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.
This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)