An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Obama: beats January blues with lilac

Posted in US politics by Frieda on January 28, 2010
Lilac aplenty at the SOTU speech

Lilac theme dominates at the SOTU speech*

More than a million people tuned in to the Whitehouse website to watch Obama’s State of the Union address tonight. The president was like a benign Santa Claus, doling out tax cuts to the middle class, and scolding naughty bankers (that’ll be coal for you guys!).

Although I’m a true fan of Obama, I could see some of the traits that the Republicans have been picking on. He started his speech by referring to history, and took us through occasions in the past when America has endured trouble. It really was a little like listening to a professor in college. (One rightwing pundit, S. E. Cupp, today criticized him as a “Harvard-educated, memoir-penning intellectual and oratorical genius” who could never be a populist — that may be, but I just don’t see much wrong with having an intelligent world leader).

The text of his speech was already online as he gave it; and I’m sure it will have been analyzed to death by morning (I’ve found this site an excellent source of analysis). But a couple of things stood out.

“I’ve been told that addressing our largest challenges is too ambitious,” he said. “I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should we put our future on hold? Washington has been asking us to wait for decades.”

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King dealt with the issue of waiting:

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

Obama’s speech, of course, had lots of other rhetorical flourishes. The familiar term “hope” popped up numerous times, as well as, just once, the now-Bush-tainted word, “freedom.” And there was a poignant moment when Obama said of the famous Change: “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone.” He responded to attacks (on healthcare: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people”), and admitted it’s been a difficult year.

Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind Obama alongside Joe Biden, was constantly on camera, her glossy mauve lipstick matching both her own lilac suit, and Biden’s stripy purple tie. In the audience, Michelle Obama wore a long plum skirt and plum-coloured top, reflecting the Pelosi-Biden purple pairing. Isn’t it odd to imagine them co-ordinating their outfits? [Update, Jan. 28: My friend C. reminds me that purple = red + blue which (kind of) = bipartisanship. That would be ingenious].

The speech was 71 minutes long, and the first 30 minutes, at least, went by in the blink of an eye. Forget about rhetoric and academicism. As he warmed to his subject, which he perceptibly did about 15 minutes in, Obama was an engaging, personable performer. And there was no talk of anger, as my friend S. E. Cupp had foretold (“Expect the President to announce he (suddenly) hears you. Drink every time he says the word ‘anger'”).

The conservatives can go crazy about it, and who knows what liberals will say, but to me the speech hit its mark.

It was only on re-reading Cupp’s piece that I realized the SOTU is a party event, complete with drinking games. Another American custom I found out about, too late! I watched it on my laptop, alone, at home.

*The pic comes from an LA Times politics blog.

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Brooklyn pays tribute to MLK

Posted in Brooklyn, US politics by Frieda on January 19, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King jr.

NEW YORK* — It’s astonishing to think that Martin Luther King was just 39 years old when he died. Had he not been shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, he would be 81 this year.

Today is Martin Luther King day in the US, the only American public holiday dedicated to an individual. It falls on the Monday closest to January 15, MLK’s birthday. It’s designated as a “day of service,” the idea being that people use the holiday to volunteer to do good work of some kind. To mark it, I went with friend L. to a tribute to this brave man at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

L. had warned me to arrive early. In previous years, after the event featured in the media, it was impossible to get in. So I turned up at 9.45am, a good 45 minutes before it began, and joined the line outside. It was fascinating to see who was there — a small number of white people (why so few?) but mostly elegant African Americans in their Sunday best.

We were bowled over by the brilliance of the gospel singers from the New Life Tabernacle Mass Choir. The pastor himself was musically gifted, and he led the choir with a smooth warm voice. The singers swayed and clapped and sang their hearts out, while several in the audience stood up and whooped and sang along, including one adorable little boy in the seats in front of us. For some songs, a woman led the choir, wearing a short black dress, high heels (of course) and a delicate long coat that looked like a dressing gown. She was joyously over the top, urging the choir to sing out and at one point lying on the stage in a fetching pose.

One of the preachers summed up the mood perfectly. In his church, he said (in the underprivileged area of Bedstuy in Brooklyn), the congregation tell him they are “too blessed to be stressed.”

Actor Danny Glover was the keynote speaker, and he described America as living in the wake, not of MLK’s death, but of his absence. Glover wondered what questions MLK would ask if he were alive today. Wouldn’t he ask why Haiti had been treated so badly by history? Glover, who is 63, broke down, his voice cracking.

Brooklyn has the largest population of Haitians in the world outside that country. There must be many who are suffering here.

The district attorney, Charles Hynes, said that at any point in time, 25% of young African Americans are in prison or on probation or parole. This statistic was so shocking I wondered if I’d misheard it, but L. said that was right.

One of the last speakers was Dr. William Pollard, president of  Medgar Evers College, a historically black school. He too spoke of Haiti. A student from the college recently visited Haiti with his mother for a holiday and is still there now, trying to return. Pollard said the student had told him, over email, that US embassy officials had arranged a line at the airport. It was for journalists and caucasian Americans only.

At the tribute’s end, the choir-master preacher returned to the stage and said, “Let’s have some more church!” And the singing began again.

*I got back to NYC last week.

A quick “I told you so”

Posted in Irish, Relationships, Religion by Frieda on January 11, 2010
Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson

Not that you’re disagreeing with me, necessarily.

DUBLIN — I ended my last post with a suggestion to “watch this space” — the particularly Irish space where scandals are brewing this winter holiday. Within four days, a new scandal had broken: the Mrs. Robinson liaison between the 59-year-old wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and a 19-year-old boy.

It’s a complicated, seedy, and frankly fascinating affair and one that has been treated widely enough elsewhere (here, here and here to give a small selection). I will, however, direct you self-promotionally to a whimsical piece I wrote about Iris Robinson’s credentials (or otherwise) as a feminist icon.

I’m watching BBC news right now. The newscaster has pointed out that Peter Robinson’s temporary replacement, Arlene Foster, is the first woman to lead government in Stormont, and the second woman, after Mrs. Thatcher, to hold such high office in the UK. And she’s only 39.

I’m not really arguing that feminism has anything to do with this story, but it’s funny how the tawdry shuffle of power is playing out for women.

I promise my next post will be wholesome.

Atheists in Ireland?

Posted in Irish, Religion by Frieda on January 3, 2010

Blasphemy is now punishable by up to 25,000 euros

DUBLIN — It turns out, Ireland has its atheists, and they are a wily, rambunctious bunch. In the past three days Irish atheists have become embroiled in a tussle with the Irish government, when the Justice Minister Dermot Ahern brought in a law (see article 36) banning blasphemy. The law took effect on January 1 2010, and the activist group Atheist Ireland immediately launched a campaign website, where they published 25 blasphemous quotes in defiance of the law.

You could almost see it as a modern-day, digital version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses (themselves a protest against the corrupt Catholic Church.)

The matter has already had vast coverage (including a short piece by me), and Atheist Ireland’s website crashed several times because of sheer demand. I met Michael Nugent, chairperson of the group and a fascinating character, earlier today when I attended the monthly meeting of the Humanist Association of Ireland, in Buswells Hotel in Dublin. Nugent is articulate and seems immensely knowledgeable on legal matters. In the face of government folly and insult flinging, he seems all the more quick-witted and bright.

In the London Times today the Department of Justice announced — not a little offensively — that Ahern did not “have the luxury of time to deal with some crackpot sitting in an attic somewhere sending around quotes that are intended to be blasphemous.”

According to Nugent, the Department of Justice has let it be known that there is no chance someone could be prosecuted under the blasphemy legislation.

“They’re not taking seriously the act of enacting legislation,” Nugent suggested, when I spoke to him.

If this is true, Ahern’s apparent lack of respect for the judicial system is even more shocking than his decision to enact the law. If he really thinks his amendments are too trivial to land anyone in court, then why on earth did he bring them in? It’s enormously short-sighted too. Once the legislation’s in place, we don’t know how the judges in future generations will interpret it.

Here’s what the law says: “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding 25,000 euro.”

The legislation continues, in a statement I barely understand, but which I think puts artistic freedom in jeopardy and looks back to myopic mid-twentieth century censorship: “It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.”

And it adds some intriguing remarks Nugent says are meant to refer to Scientology:

“In this section “ religion ” does not include an organisation or cult—

(a) the principal object of which is the making of profit, or

(b) that employs oppressive psychological manipulation—

(i) of its followers, or

(ii) for the purpose of gaining new followers.”

It’s getting late in the evening now, but I want to give you just two other snippets before I leave off this subject.

1) Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association next want to delete from Irish legislation the need for the President, and for judges, to swear an oath asking God for help. “So up to a quarter of a million Irish people [ie. the atheists] cannot hold these offices without swearing a lie,” they argue.

2) ) Nugent & friends have set up a Church of Dermotology — worshipping Dermot Ahern — on Facebook. I believe they may take legal action if someone blasphemes it.

Religious debates and scandals in Ireland are a simmering, potent brew right now. Watch this space — more fireworks are sure to come.