Monday, May 19, 2008

Folding Up "The Blanket"

I wrote this valedictory article (see below) that was included in the last issue of "The Blanket." In 2001 it began as a grassroots on-line journal for debate on the Northern Irish "peace process" and its implications for republican, socialist, and unionist activists. No ads, no sponsors, no grants. Just two people who needed to give their point-of-view against the spin doctors. Soon, others joined them. Despite smear campaigns, muttered intimidation, police raids, and outright thuggery, the editors soldiered on. They invited contributors from across the Irish spectrum, branched out into coverage on those who challenged censorship from either state, religious, or ideological factions, and encouraged discussion fairly and engagingly.

I'd been involved with Irish republicanism in various ways over the years. The internet sites that sprang up over a decade ago (ones where I had met one of the editors of "The Blanket," in fact) kept devolving from initially free speech venues into ones where the silliest slogans, the crudest propaganda, and the manipulation by ringers and plants from more than one opposing force soon overwhelmed those of us of better nature and higher standards. Even those Irish republican discussion lists that tried to stay true to their principles drifted off into irrelevance or ideology as they were, in shades to me of Stalinism, contorted into cadavers of Marxism I'd thought long interred. Never one for any organization to confine my mind, I leapt at the chance to join those who at "The Blanket" sought to keep their liberty along with their ideology, and never to let the latter devour the former.

As an eager reviewer in many of its issues of books on Irish and related subjects, I will miss reading and writing for it dearly. Yet, as Carrie and Anthony, its editors, and first among equals who filled its issues, express in their own 18 May, 2008, entries, the growth of the Net from what it was in 2001 (were their even blogs then? Not for me!) ensures that its archives will inform future scholars and present readers, and the ideas that it expressed from so many perspectives continue to provide us with a spirited example of integrity and honesty. Its causes remain relevant, even as the times shift. There's always a need to remember that no party, no manifesto, or no tradition should manacle one's own right to inquiry. Please visit it and join what I'm delighted to find have been 25 million visits logged on at The Blanket, May 18, 2008

My article for the final issue:

When Carrie and Anthony sent me the e-mail today that they’d be ceasing publication of ‘The Blanket’, I was not surprised, but should I be saddened? Looking at my shelves of books yesterday, I had been contemplating those ranked rows of books related to Irish history, to the Troubles from past centuries as well as more recently, and to the fictional and factual representations of the conflict published for decades now. What did all that accumulated pulp—often being issued by small presses or academic entities gouging me at great expense-- add up to? Many of the bindings I’ve not cracked for ten years, at least.

A decade on since the GFA, the presses now issue few titles on the Movement; dissertations and monographs diminish; the relevance of the North trickles into the backlist and the out-of-print realms nearer the Algerian, Vietnamese, or Nicaraguan conflicts. Turning to the Syracuse University Press’s catalog, I notice how many titles appear under 'Peace & Conflict Resolution' and how Iraqi and Arab writers dominate in the promotion, while 'Irish Studies' gets relegated deeper into the background. I wonder how my children will regard the fading Irish tumult— perhaps with the distance that already has blurred what appeared not too long ago had been powerful images of the Berlin Wall, the moon landings, or Fidel. The Northern Irish have had their place on the world stage, or so scholars or pundits recently have criticized such concentration on a fringe squabble on the European fringe. Pluto Press or Field Day will doubtless drift on to finding more globalised concerns to address in their marketing seminars. The media’s attention, if not ours, has wandered off to argue over global warming and jihads. The parochialism that many disdain in the Irish uprising may overshadow its vital impact.

‘The Blanket’ adds a recent, electronically archived collection of rage, reactions, and reason from contributors around the world. This, unlike the fickle decisions of the presses, ensures its perpetuity for all (as long as the domain’s registered!), free and unhindered. The Internet allowed the broadcasting of voices beyond Belfast or Derry. Loyalists, Sinn Féiners (a couple, perhaps), constitutional nationalists, and physical-force advocates could all add their opinions. The editors allowed and encouraged this discussion in the noblest example of how thoughtful suggestions might advance a more equitable version of republicanism than the one offered to the island’s voters.

In this respect, I believe ‘The Blanket’ represents a significant step forward in how we and the generations to come will understand the post-GFA political conversation among and about the Northern contingents involved in the silence after the shouting. And, the bursts into anger that continued to erupt sporadically in the years since 1998. 'The Blanket', unfurled in 2001, marked a pivotal shift. The Irish example served as a comparison with other conflicts in the world. While the Irish republican struggles appeared to have been compromised; the Cause had been taken over and co-opted by its canniest strategists, and the Long War shortened into an uneasy stalemate as alternative, dissenting, or opposing viewpoints were shunted aside, perverted, subsumed into the mainstream almost beyond recognition in double-speak or cant, crushed, warped, or ignored. Still, ‘The Blanket’ kept reminding us of this need to raise our voices. Who listens now? The time, one of the editors had explained to me last summer, had ended. Structures were shakily in place for ensuring rights would be protected. The personal cost of standing up to the thugs in suits meant that dissenters needed to be similarly sheltered from uncaring and brutal forces that no longer necessarily wore uniforms in the North. Without official or clandestine support for free speech against oppression and censorship, a few principled opponents can only endure so much. The effort had been made with integrity and enthusiasm. When the headlines no longer raged with the latest assault or last night’s atrocity, perhaps ‘The Blanket’ had, however indirectly, done what it had meant to do: get people to act more civilly in their efforts to move forward into a fairer society. Organisations existed, programs funded, and chances offered those who chose.

Vandalised playgrounds and littered housing estates still stand, but perhaps less as testimony to a sectarian discrimination and more to individual initiative, or the lack thereof. With the army withdrawn, and the arms decommissioned, other foes lurk, but these may be more difficult to rouse marchers against. Teen motherhood, indifferent students, criminal pursuits now loom as threats to local communities. The enemies may, uncomfortably for some who cling to blaming all woes upon on Stormont, Six or Twenty-Six Counties, or the Crown, lurk within the island among one’s neighbours. Many Irish men and women refuse to take charge of limited but essential opportunities to move forward out of ignorance and poverty into a difficult, but necessary, culture of initiative. Immigration, job creation, and contention for these positions by states and employers eager to divide and conquer for international capital all present, certainly, formidable opposition to advocates of ‘Eire Nua’ or decentralised socialist programmes. The parties who manipulate the underworld and the bureaucratic structures continue to collude in complex ways that the average resident may or may not suspect. But, this political and economic infrastructure, it seems, demands less rhetoric and more realism for those who choose to call themselves-- in today’s harsh world of tax breaks, chainstores, outsourcing, and 24-7 work schedules--heirs to 1916’s Irish republicans and socialists. No, I don’t have all the answers either for this altered if not alternative island.

Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet, as ‘The Blanket’ prepares to roll up, releases this spring his latest collection, ‘For All We Know’, a verse novel about two lovers whose first meeting occurs when a bomb goes off down the corner. In one selection, ‘The Shadow’, Carson gives what I borrow not as an epitaph for ‘The Blanket’, but an injunction that we its contributors and readers take from its energy a renewed commitment to put its idealism into activism, no matter where in the world we may be, no matter the medium.

The truest lesson from the Irish cause must be its universality wherever people suffer. Liberation takes inspiration from our words, thoughtfully chosen, intelligently applied.

You know how you know when someone's telling lies? you said. They
get their story right every time, down to the last word.

Whereas when they tell the truth, it's never the same twice. They

Blog P.S.: Nice to think that my very blog only ten days ago underwent a remake thanks to talented Carrie. In such ways, the journal's generosity continues; my own halting if verbose efforts to write not by word count but what matters and when, as Anthony notes, gain inspiration from their own commitment. "North" has her poetry. His own "Pensive Quill" blog continues to reflect in like-minded if rhetorically distinctive manner in ruminative style-- you can link to both blogs on the right side of mine.

Image: "Cell 2"-- this appeared as the "masthead" for "The Blanket"-- named in honor of the political prisoner H-Block protests, and like it, as its co-editor and ex-Blanketman notes in the last issue, its necessity has come and gone. But, as the tributes to Brendan Hughes, "The Dark," keep flowing into this final issue, not the impact of its brave manifestation.

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