Nothing to Bragg about as the times, they ain’t a changin’…

Bob Dylan - still freewheelin' at 70.

So the voice of the 60s American counterculture turns 70 today, and is still as cantankerous as ever.

Bob Dylan almost makes a point of not giving people what they want in concert or in his later recordings, and in doing so remains relevant  when his contemporaries (like the risible Rolling Stones) have long since ceased to matter.

How we could do with an Irish Bob Dylan, or a Billy Bragg or a Bill Hicks in these turbulent times, as our politicians whistle past the economic graveyard and our people vote for more of the same.

The passing of Garret Fitzgerald gave us plenty of time to reflect on Irish politics over the last half-century, and it’s not a pretty sight. Irish political life is essentially made up of a whole bunch of people who all believe the same things arguing over who’s right.

There is, as we have seen with the happy-clappy visits of the Queen and Obama over the last few days, not much room for dissent.

As Dylan blows out the candles on his cake, Obama and the Queen have left, but astonishingly our banks are still broken and the recession hasn’t gone away.

The relative silence of our artists, poets and songwriters is disconcerting, as from my far-flung Scandinavian perch I cannot think of too many of them who have stuck their heads above the parapet to engage in any meaningful criticism.

There has been some tremendous satire and comedy (not least by illustrator and cartoonist Alan Moloney, and Dermot Carmody and the creators of the Emergency), but serious protest songs are noticeably absent. And you can’t have a revolution without music.

Instead, economics has become the new Irish rock’n roll, with David McWilliams, Morgan Kelly and Constantin Gurgdiev playing a role previously filled by punks and folk musicians. In a country famous for its “rebel songs” the social critiques of Christy Moore have been replaced by op-eds in the Irish Times, which although often well-written, are a damn sight harder to hum along to.

Given the seeming absence of an intelligent Dylanesque social commentator on the Irish music landscape, our best hope lies with our comedians and satirists, for whom these should be times of plenty. There is an endless supply of original material being provided by the buffoons that claim to be in control of all aspects of Irish life.

Just as Billy Bragg could never have existed without Thatcherism, the legendary Bill Hicks was assisted in his breakthrough by American foreign policy in the early 90s – it didn’t make him popular back home, but it would be hard to find a more respected and influential comedian. For Irish comedians, are politicians are the gift that keeps on giving.

But the Bills, Hicks and Bragg, operated in a much wider marketplace. Their home countries have populations much larger than our island, increasing the likelihood that they would find people prepared to pay to share their opinions – besides, who cares if a million people hate you, out of an audience of 250 million?

Our singers and comedians operate in a smaller, much more rarified environment, and not just in terms of audience size. Criticising anyone in public life might lead to a TV appearance getting cancelled or a gig slot getting pulled, or a grant being denied – the scrapping of Scrap Saturday and the banning of “They Never Came Home” are a good barometer of just how free speech in Ireland really is.

But if our journalists and commentators are to continue to abdicate responsibility by not asking the hard questions, someone else will have to step into the breach.

Though we are under no obligation to agree with what our songwriters, satirists and artists say, we should support them if and when they decide to do so.

Even more so, we must support their right to do so – without their being punished, ostracised or silenced.

“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” – Bob Dylan, 1985.

“My theory is this; I’m not a political songwriter. I’m an honest songwriter.” – Billy Bragg.

Bill Hicks- the War.


The lies that won’t die

President Obama has some friends over to play video games.

I’m not sure what debt this administration feels to the previous one, but Obama is making good on a lot of their promises.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s handing out political pardons to beat the band.

The most insidious of these came yesterday, snuck into the details of the raid on bin Laden’s compound and designed to excuse the most grievous wrong of the 21st century so far.

We were told that the US learned the names of bin Laden’s couriers as a direct result of the methods used at Guantanamo Bay, the implication being that, without torture, they never would have got him.

This, of course, is nonsense. Fanciful rubbish designed to go some way towards repairing Obama’s failed promise to end the torture and close the base, and to excuse the horrendous crimes that were committed there.

This single snippet of information is supposed to be the proof that it was the right thing to do – to deprive simple farmers of their liberty, fly them halfway around the world and then half-drown them. To arrest people on trump-up charges and ritually humiliate and abuse them.

It wasn’t, and it isn’t.

But given the amount of information being released, it should come as no surprise that lies creep in, mostly because we or others desperately want to believe them.

The White House has now retracted the allegation that bin Laden used a woman as a human shield in the moments before his death, but it’s too late and well they know it.

The release of official White House pictures leant a huge gravitas to the event, as president Obama engaged in what amounted to a high-stakes online game of Counterstrike.

But aside from the craven, clumsy attempt to justify Guantanamo, surely the biggest lie of all is that Pakistan knew nothing of his whereabouts – despite the fact that he was living among their military when discovered. It’s like they and the Americans are competing for the biggest lie.

For despite their protestations, they knew full well where he was. bin Laden and his failed ideology still enjoy a good deal of support amongst the hard core in Pakistan, and the government and judiciary have been all to accommodating as they tried to keep the nuclear nation on an even keel.

It’s called realpolitik, and no matter how much we press them, they will still claim innocence.

Next up of course will be the pictures of the corpse of bin Laden, the man who became infamous on September 11 2001 and remained firmly stuck there.

The US will claim that the pictures of his broken face will bring closure to the rumours that he remains alive, but they will be more for the enjoyment of the American voters than the “Arab street”.

The “Arab street” (what an awful term, attempting as it does to assign a single consciousness to the Arab world) is too busy with its own – secular –  uprisings to be bothered by the death of someone who ceased to matter a long time ago.

The US administration would have been better served by sticking to the truth and not attempting to tie up all the loose ends in one fell swoop.

For if the events of September 11 and the subsequent ten years of turmoil have taught us anything, surely it is that the world is not black and white – no matter how much the likes of bin Laden or the Americans try to convince us of it.