Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Creeping Monarchism, but not today

by Bernie Quigley

I left home because of the Kennedys. It was nothing they themselves did personally. In fact, I admired the first of the brothers enormously. And here in New England, they belonged to us – us being the people of South Boston who came from Ireland in ships that still traveled under sail as my grandmother’s did. Indeed, when the original ancestor of Joe and Honey Fitz established a bar on Water St. in East Boston, he found a Quigley to open it with, and it was that which became the center of political power for working class Irish for a good long time.

When I was a child I’d be taken to political rallies to meet John F. Kennedy when he was still a local pol, dragged off by my parents against my will to smoky auditoriums in Providence or Boston. I thought it was ridiculous then that they saw this young Senator, who smoked less than the other men and was fair and fine like those of the Old Sod who had only recently arrived in the Land of the Free, would ever be President. Our people did not be President. We were small and provincial and said the rosary in a circle after supper in the evenings.

So it wasn’t something that they did. The Kennedys more than anyone brought us Boston Irish from Old World to New World and gave us true democratic sensibilities. It was a problem with the rest of us. Years later when Robert F. Kennedy was murdered the age changed dramatically. But the Kennedys kept coming. Some it seemed, were unfit for office, but just the same, we elected them. It was our Old World sensibility, from a European world of authority and monarchy which trusted in family and ethnicity rather than reason, conscience and citizenship, still active, still alive and dominating our New World sensibility. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, we would vote for anyone it seemed, so long as his name was Kennedy. We would even vote for someone who looked like Kennedy or had a name which sounded like Kennedy (who wasn’t even Irish).

I thought it was only us Irish, of the paternalistic church and the habits of the 19th century European. But recently journalist Joe Klein mentioned it in one of his essays. Now it’s a Clinton thing as well, and like it was with the Kennedys, Friends of Bill will vote for anyone named Clinton whether she has leadership qualities or not, whether she has political instincts or not, or whether she can be elected or not. One who merely represents them as a generation or a tribe (or a generational tribe). Klein called this a creeping monarchist tendency in American politics.

This tendency to vote ethnically (or generationally) is a monarchist tendency. It is why I left Boston. I left to experience America and the world. I was tired of every person I encountered being exactly like my family. And I left because I felt these people with their Kennedy obsession were not fully acclimated to the New World. I left and didn’t return for 30 years.

When I was a child, we, the ethnic Irish in a secular American world, seemed overly religious to our secular neighbors, and it had a political dimension. It was the way we defined ourselves as a group, in opposition to our local political adversaries. Irish Catholics were well aware that they had two sensibilities; one ethnic/religious, and one secular/political. In those days you would never see a Catholic with a bumper sticker announcing his religion. It was un-American and disrespectful to the Protestants, who were our political adversaries, but adversaries we respected as fellow citizens. But in the end, citizenship won out over ethnicity and religion identity and we became Americans. For which I say, Thank you Jesus.

Then in 1991, Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly for William Weld, a New York WASP, a Blue Blood Harvard man, the kind of man we Boston Irish had pitted ourselves against politically for 100 years. The times had changed. New World sensibility had finally succeeded. We the Boston Irish had lost our monarchist tendency which drove us to vote for only our own kind, and instead, voted overwhelmingly for Bill Weld, the best and the brightest candidate. We even abandoned Democratic Party identity as well as ethnic and religious identification, as Weld ran as a Republican, but called himself a Libertarian (and still does). Boston was ready for democracy. I started looking East again and eventually moved back.

That was before George W. Bush. Suddenly, Protestants were religious, and frankly, in a heartfelt and sincere way. And the Irish were no longer. Last year in Southie, the Catholic Church shut down dozens of its cavernous stone cathedrals to which millions came to worship a hundred years back.

Now the Republicans are getting monarchist. Klein mentioned that they now look longingly to Jeb Bush to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps. I must admit I was kind of shocked when I was on the road last year and stopping for coffee, happened to notice on CNN TV news Jeb Bush throwing himself at the feet of the new German Pope. Just like my old Irish aunties would do when the priest came to the house. Just as we Irish threw ourselves to the feet of the Kennedys.

I think it will happen one day that our democratic sensibility and our sense of ourselves as citizens and as Americans will yield to religious identity, to ethnicity, to tribalism and to monarchy. Regionalism will flourish and we will come to distrust our neighbors not of our own blood, as we did in Europe for millennia and back then in Boston. Perhaps it is nature’s way that we sleep and awaken and then go back to sleep, centuries at a time. But as Aragorn said in the recent The Lord of the Rings movie, now is not that time.

We are at the cusp of an awakening in America. The big, generic and monolithic press corp is becoming as irrelevant as the steam engine and is rapidly yielding to vital and imaginative blogs and independent presses like this one. Blogs, with their new voice and new vision will ascend the life force of a new generation. There is freedom, originality and vitality in these new venues, and in the perennial cycle of life, Those of the Old Ways are protecting their outmoded habits, obsolete ideas and their irrelevant orthodoxies. They are terrified of the young ‘uns. You can hear their complaint almost daily now in big press reports like I’ve seen recently in The Washington Post, The New York Times and on National Public Radio.

Today we are beginning to hear discussion of the Old Democrats (Clintons, Gore, Kerry) and the New Democrats (Mark Warner, Wesley Clark, Russ Feingold). The one is yielding and the other is ascending. Once again the snake is shedding its skin. And there is a new generation of vital new Democrats, many of them recent veterans of Iraq and some from previous wars. They are people like Jim Webb of Virginia, running for Senate and riding point for the Fighting Dems, who will soon bring a big noise to the world. And there will need to be some new blood because there is new batch of gifted Republicans as well who will be hard to beat – George Pataki, Mitt Romney, Arnold Schwarzenegger – these and others calling themselves Libertarians and Independents.

Recently we have been through a bad spate of leadership, but that happens every time the old yields to the new. What is new here is the new century, and those times are upon us.