Less about the world, more about me.

Month: September 2013

Column: Winter Olympics in Russia

My column in The Kerryman. 25 September, 2013

Being from Kerry, the closest I’ve ever gotten to the Winter Olympics is watching Cool Runnings. This is a film about the Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Olympics in Canada. Based on a true story, the idea was still so farfetched it was written as a comedy. I now have a vague idea about how the sport of bobsledding works. That has been my entire Winter Olympics experience. Unfortunately I now have to add a place called Sochi to my tiny bank of Winter Olympics knowledge.

Sochi is the Russian town that’ll be hosting the 2014 Olympics. Something I need never have known until the Russian government decided to make the lives of its gay citizens that bit more scary and dangerous. It recently passed a law, to the glee of conservative Christians and neo-nazis, thats bans ‘gay propaganda.’ What does that mean? It means gay people are now officially second class citizens in Russia. It means gay couples with children must flee the country or risk losing their children. It means gay people who protest about this law will lose their jobs and be beaten up. Then they’ll probably be arrested.

The country that is hosting the Olympics (ok the Winter Olympics) doesn’t even allow gay people demonstrate on its streets. Not that we should be surprised by the International Olympic Committee’s behaviour. They did after all give the Summer Games to Hitler in 1936.

But why should we care? A gay couple still cannot safely walk, hand in hand, down a street in Tralee. Our laws still don’t treat gay people as equals and gay people still endure above average levels of mental ill-health due to their precarious place in society. How can we look down our noises on the Russians in that case? At least gay people do not face the death penalty here or in Russia as they do in many Middle Eastern and African countries. Things could be a lot worse in Russia, indeed they could be a lot worse here.

This is true. Things could be a lot worse, but our species is better than that. We feel empathy. I don’t know if we evolved as social animals because we feel empathy or that we evolved to feel empathy because we are social animals, but I do know that most of us can’t help feeling a pang of something, when we witness suffering. Many of us can’t even cope with seeing animals in pain. That is our nature, though we are also very good at deliberately not seeing the nastiness that surrounds us. And we are very good at claiming to be helpless. Sure what can we in Kerry do about the vicious treatment of gay people in Russia? Haven’t we enough to be getting on with ourselves?

We do have a lot to be dealing with in Kerry, but few of us are so badly stuck we can’t send a letter saying we don’t agree with people having to live in fear, just because of their sexuality. Write that down and send it to Ambassador Maxim Peshkov, 184-186 Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin 14 and to The Olympic Council of Ireland, Olympic House, Harbour Road, Howth, Co. Dublin. A boycott of the Olympics may not be appropriate, but expressing dissatisfaction most certainly is.

Kerry Column 18

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Column: Oh to be famous like John Waters

My column in The Kerryman. 18 September, 2013

It’s taken me 39 years to work it out, but I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be famous. Not necessarily world famous like Tom Cruise or the Healy-Raes. I’d settle for locally famous. Famous enough that everyone in Kerry knows who I am and famous enough to be allowed say or do anything I want, yet still be taken seriously.

I realised this was my dream after seeing the response to the jailing of Irish Times columnist and Eurovision Song Contest devotee, John Waters. He was put away for refusing to pay a parking fine. He was 16 minutes late back to his car so he received a ticket. No one likes getting a ticket, or so I’m told, I’ve yet to get one as I really can’t afford to pay fines, so I avoid getting them.

Mister Waters chose to fight the system. He didn’t plead poverty. Instead he called into question the ‘system’ itself. Truly heroic stuff. For this epic struggle he ended up having to serve two whole hours behind bars. Was he lambasted for being a ridiculous crank? Was he attacked for costing the tax payers silly money? Was he dismissed as an arrogant twit? No, he was given acres of newspaper space (and yes I am aware of the irony here) which will further his career and convince him he was right to become a nuisance to the State.

Would someone without a national profile have gotten away with this kind of behaviour? I doubt it. Fame insulates the famous from the reality of their silliness. Former child-star Miley Cyrus caused a bit of controversy last month by spending an inordinate amount of time rubbing her arse against a male performer, at an awards ceremony. It doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, but Ms Cyrus remains convinced that rubbing her behind against people, on television, is a career highlight. Oh to be famous.

That wasn’t even the most cringeworthy thing to happen recently. We had the spectacle of Ivan Yates pleading for martyr status. He’d been forced to live on over 15 times what someone on the dole must survive on, while serving out his UK bankruptcy in Wales. This sick making lack of perspective was made worse by him walking into a well paid, high profile job on national radio. Oh the joy of fame.

So I want to be famous. Not because I want to turn careless arrogance into a virtue. Not because I want to dirty dance with impunity. Not even because I want to live on €3000 a month and call it sacrifice. No, I want to be able to walk my dog down any street in any town in Kerry and have her empty her bowels to her heart’s content. Then I want to just leave her leavings there.

You see my dog is very pretty and often a good looking woman will stop to pet it, giving me the opportunity to flirt. But carrying a bag of dog poo often spoils the mood. If I was famous, I could ignore my duty to society and call it heroic.

So please get onto amazon.com and type in Paul WS Bowler. Make me famous so I no longer need care about any of you.  Kerry Column 19

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Column: Syria

My column in The Kerryman. 11 September, 2013

It’s hard to know what to do about Syria. The more one reads on the subject, the more complex it seems. Syria is a country of over 22 million people and has many different religious and ethnic groups. It’s ruled by a dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whose family has been in power since 1971. In 2011 the people took to the streets to demand democracy. The army fired on them. There were mass arrests. Torture and executions were rife. The demonstrations turned into an armed rebellion.

This is where it gets complicated. Most Syrians are of the Sunni version of Islam. Al-Assad and the entire upper echelon of the army, are part of a Shia sect called the Alawites. There are few places in the Arab world where Shia’s are not persecuted, and only in Syria are the Alawites in the ascendancy.

The two powers in this region are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is a Shia majority country and is backing their fellow Shias, the al-Assads. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni nation and is funneling arms and money to the rebels. Hezbollah, a Shia military organisation, based in neighbouring Lebanon and funded by Iran, is backing al-Assad. Al-Qaeda and its proxies are Sunni, so are backing the rebels.

Thrown into the mix are the Christians, who enjoyed a privileged status under al-Assad and are now being targeted by Sunni extremists. Finally there are the more secular groups among the rebels, who are possibly receiving covert help from the West.

Outside of the region, the Syrian regime is being backed to the hilt by the Russians. They were allies during the Cold War and Syria receives a great deal of military aid from Russia. This support is bolstered by Russian discomfort at calls from the West for a regime change anywhere. This feels threatening for authoritarian establishments in Russia as well as in China.

The US and its allies are backing the rebels, or at least the less religiously fanatical rebels. The US government is as always concerned for the welfare for Israel, which shares a border with Syria, but it is also under pressure to fulfil its role as the only global super-power to end the massacre of civilians. America’s allies are also experiencing moral pressure to intervene on the side of the civilians.

To date, two million Syrians have been forced to flee their country. Another four and a quarter million Syrians have been internally displaced. Millions of children have been left homeless and traumatised and now chemical weapons have been brought into play.

Many of us in the West want the Americans and their allies to get involved sooner rather than later. American military might is such that it could simply swat away the al-Assad regime. Of course we and the wounded prestige of America have learned, that defeating an army is the easy part of nation building. The disaster in Iraq has taught the more sensible, a bit of humility. But what of the surgical strikes on al-Assad military assets? These are already being moved into civilian districts and his money moved to safety.

We in the West have but two choices, an ugly compromise or a war fought in the teeth of Russian, Chinese and Iranian opposition. It’s hard to know which is the least worse option.

kerry Column 20

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Column: Fighting racism

My column in The Kerryman. 4 September, 2013

I saw a great clip on YouTube recently. It’s a sketch done in the style of a Nationwide report, about ‘Ireland’s foremost racist B&B.’ It was made by comedian Tara Flynn in response to her husband suffering racist abuse in her hometown of Kinsale. The best comedians say the things we mightn’t like to hear. When they warn that racism is on the increase in our communities, many of us prefer to look the other way.

Worse, some of us will look the other way even when we see the real thing, as happened to Kerry woman Una Minh Kavanagh when she was racially abused and spat on, in broad daylight. No one helped her.

I’m sure it must have been scary for the people who saw what happened to Ms Kavangh, not as scary as it was for her, but scary nonetheless. I can’t even be certain I’d have intervened, but I do know one thing; we were all told the same stories and watched the same films growing up. It is ingrained in most of us, that when we see someone in trouble, we help.

That’s how we are raising our children. I had Clint Eastwood films, today they have Harry Potter. Stories about heroes who prosper and stories about the terrible things that happen in this life and the next, to the villains who do not stand with or for those in distress.

No one stood by Ms Kavanagh’s side, but I know we haven’t lost the ability to be brave. Not the courage under fire, climbing Everest and winning Sam Maguire kind of heroism, but the bystander intervenes at great cost, kind of heroism. Not so long ago we read here about a man intervening to help a wedding party that was being attacked. In this cynical age, it’s inspiring to know that real heroes still exist.

Does that mean we should all be obliged to step up and step in, every time we see someone being attacked or abused? I wish it did, but who knows how any of us would react in the presence of real danger. But in the face of a rising tide of racism?

Our parents and grandparents endured ‘No Irish, No dogs, No blacks’ when they emigrated. Today our sons and daughters in Australia are already being accused by some, of overstaying their welcome.

It might be naive to expect us to be strengthened in our resolve to combat racism, just because we suffered it, but it’s not naive to take some simple steps. We can ridicule the racists, as Tara Flynn has done. We can call them out, as Una Minh Kavanagh has done. Easier still, we can raise our kids properly. We can correct our siblings, parents or friends when they say or do things which hurt the powerless. We don’t have to correct our neighbours, but we can certainly show disapproval. And if condemning a stranger is too scary, at least log onto www.iReport.ie to have it recorded. It’s not much, but it becomes useful information, which is better than doing nothing.

Ultimately racism will be defeated by telling our children very much the same stories we were told, but bigger and roomier stories. Stories with ever more characters. That’s a kind of heroism open to us all.

Kerry Column 21

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