Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea in the tidal basin

I noticed a fascinating article in the paper the other day that discussed the intensive efforts Tea Party activists have been making to organize grassroots volunteers. Meanwhile, at least 300,000 (according to NBC News) and perhaps as many as 500,000 (the organizers' estimate) citizens have gathered in Washington, D.C. this weekend to listen to a series of speeches by Tea Party-affiliated luminaries ranging from Sarah Palin to headliner Glenn Beck.

The mainstream continues to characterize the Tea Party-related groups as a fringe movement.

I'm not so sure.

My own political beliefs are not aligned with the Tea Partiers. As outlined in previous posts, I deplore the current tendency in our political society toward demonization of the other, and I find much of the rhetoric coming out of this movement to be rife with the emotionally charged, factually-selective discourse that poisons American political life. (That does not mean the Tea Party alone is responsible for this... far from it.) I have a particular problem with the perception that, as one attendee interviewed at the Beck-led Washington rally put it, Jesus would not have agreed with welfare, bank bailouts and the economic stimulus package. She can hold her religious beliefs and I can hold mine (and isn't that the beauty of the United States?), but it strikes me as presumptuous to argue that the man the Gospels clearly portray as concerned with the least of these wouldn't entertain the idea of welfare programs, even if He might perhaps prefer something rather less bureaucratic. (The bank bailouts? Well, He didn't care much for money changers... but it is worth mentioning that this all began BEFORE a certain demonized chief executive took office. That happened during the regime of a previously demonized chief executive... sigh. Can't we all get along?)

However: regardless of one's position on the Tea Partiers, they are doing one thing very well. Politics work differently than they did in 1960, but they don't work that differently. Effective political organization depends upon motivating and mobilizing citizens to follow your lead. That requires footwork. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen over time with sufficient organization, grassroots effort, patience, and willingness to continue trying new things. My 2009 book (shameless Amazon link) outlines the ways in which as early as 1960, conservatives were working to establish efficient, effective grassroots efforts. These efforts paid off big-time over the course of the next couple decades.

Is it happening again? Too soon to tell. Also, conservatives in 1960 were working to counter an entrenched liberal establishment. I would argue that current conditions are far different, with no one political persuasion exercising such overweening control. However, politicos of all stripes would do well to note what is going on, and exercise their own political will accordingly. Long-term influence cannot be won in the pages of the New York Times, especially in our world of information explosion. Influence comes through relationships. People need fellowship, and they're going to gravitate toward places where they can find it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I'm dreaming of a civil society...

There was an interesting column in The Oregonian this morning about the decline in civility in the U.S. Senate. Former Oregon senator Bob Packwood, who clearly had his own extracurricular problems but was, nonetheless, a longtime Senate stalwart -- and a Republican -- traced the origins of this decline to 1992, when then-Representative Newt Gingrich began a take-no-prisoners campaign for GOP control of Congress. Oregon's current junior senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, related that his experiences as an intern for former Senator Mark Hatfield -- a Republican! -- in the 1970s included a conviviality sadly lacking in today's U.S. Senate.

A lack of civility is not a necessarily partisan quality. As syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts aptly described the other day, it is a condition that has infected a growing percentage of American society. Speaking of politics specifically, it's equally possible to be a Republican jerk or a Democratic jerk. The problem lies in the fact that it appears to have become acceptable to be a jerk of any political stripe.

We are a country that is at war. We are a country experiencing a significant economic recession. We are a country with essential choices to make about the way we handle weighty matters ranging from immigration to education, foreign policy to caring for the most needy among us. And our elected national leaders cannot even have a civilized discussion on the Senate floor?

Something is seriously wrong here. As voters we have a responsibility to move beyond our own petty grievances and elect national leaders who appeal to what is best in us, not what is worst in us.

All Republicans are spineless obstructionists? Um, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham voted to approve Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court.

All Democrats are godless heathens? Well, Jeff Merkley happened to be in Yamhill County on a Sunday morning the fall before last when he was running for the Senate. He's Lutheran. He attended the morning service at my own church, Joyful Servant Lutheran -- a small church with a statistically insignificant number of voters in a fairly conservative town. Not, in short, a politically motivated meet-and-greet.

So: let's get over it. Political opinions are fine, and working on behalf of political ideals is not a problem. Incivility, lack of dialogue, and disregard for the essential humanity of the other side? That really, really is.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Irish spoken here

Among the many interesting experiences we had in Ireland was a visit to Inisheer (Inis Oírr in Irish... that will become important in a minute). This was interesting in part because it involved a short voyage on a ferry (read: little boat) that nearly did myself, my child and my parents in -- as my father commented, "the Ritchies are not seafaring folk" -- and in part because it demonstrated what a dedicated population can do with a bunch of rocks and several thousand years. See photo in previous post. Another fascinating aspect of life on Inisheer, however, is that it is not, primarily, carried out in English.

The Aran Islands, you see, are an Irish-speaking region... and they don't mean Irish for cutesy purposes. The people actually speak it. We heard many locals having conversations in Irish, from the horse-and-wagon-tourist coach drivers waiting for customers to a group of young boys who appeared to be discussing the coming Premier League season. ("Irish words-Irish words-'Blackpool'-Irish words," etc.)

Experiencing an actual "An Ghaeltacht," as Irish-speaking regions are termed, brought into stronger relief just why the Irish are so concerned with preserving their language. From Irish-language schools to a network channel devoted entirely to Irish-language programming (if not content... the kid watched "Dora the Explorer" in Irish one day), preservation of spoken and written Irish is a significant preoccupation of the Irish state.

The Aran Islands are remote, rocky outcroppings off the Galway coast. One could make an argument that given the peripheral nature of these and other Irish-speaking regions, preservation of the Irish language is a misuse of scarce government funds. Rather than peripheral outposts, however, perhaps it would be more instructive to think of the Aran Islands as the last, vital center.

Ever heard the term "beyond the Pale?" This doesn't refer to pasty skin; rather, it is a historical reference to Ireland outside the centers of English colonial influence, largely in the southeast, from about the 1500s. The "Pale" was civilization; to be "beyond the Pale" was to be Irish in culture and in language -- and by extension, a lower class of being, treated in a manner that we would later see afflicting the Native Americans once England made contact with them.

English is the primary spoken language in Ireland, yes; it is also a colonial language. A flawed heritage does not necessarily render the thing itself unsavory, or most of us could hardly look ourselves in the mirror. However, the Irish preoccupation with an Irish language is a commitment to remembering that Ireland's heritage is something unique. Preserving and encouraging Irish preserves and encourages independent identity. For a country less than 100 years removed from colonialism, that is an important thing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A temporary distraction

It's been way too long... wonderful travel experiences and heart-rending tragedies. Big Questions to ponder and relations to tend. Sounds like a movie, but alas, that's just life. Back to the historical observations soon, but meanwhile, perhaps I can provide a nice distraction... hence, here are a few photos from Ireland! Enjoy...

Offspring in front of one of three ancient high crosses at Kilkieran. Cross in question is over a thousand years old. (Child = far younger.)

Detail of the high tower, Rock of Cashel. Dates from approximately 900 AD, if I recall correctly.

Pigeon. Holes in side of cathedral structure originally supported beams used as scaffolding for construction. Sometimes these were filled in later; sometimes not. And sometimes, over 500 years, stones simply fall out.

Inisheer, Aran Islands, with Inishmaan in the distance. They have rocks and they know how to use them...

Offspring eating Pringles on Inisheer.