Friday, March 17, 2006

Green enough

On its St. Patrick's Day page, Yahoo describes the holiday as "Originally a day to honor the patron saint of Ireland, March 17 has become a worldwide celebration of all things Irish."

Okay, so what day do we celebrate all things Costa Rican? Or Turkish? Or Rwandan? I don't have any problem with the Irish celebrating the birthday of their patron saint, but I'm baffled by the pervasiveness of St. Patrick's Day. If you toured elementary-school classrooms today anywhere in the U.S., would you find many that weren't decorated with shamrocks and leprechauns? All greeting-card shops have been shimmering for weeks with the vernal glow of green foil. I did't notice—was Oprah wearing a shamrock brooch today?

It makes sense to me that St. Patrick's Day parades became part of the American landscape after the discrimination Irish immigrants experienced in the mid-nineteenth century (although Wikipedia argues that the prevalence of NINA signs—"no Irish need apply"—at that time is mostly an urban legend). The parades functioned as Irish Pride parades, like Gay Pride parades function now, to establish solidarity and improve the self-image of an underpriveleged minority. But I think the Irish are doing okay now in the U.S. Are parades still needed?

I have to assume that the branding of St. Patrick's Day has been so successful in the U.S. because beer is involved. Similarly, the branding of Christmas has been so successful because of the gift-giving custom and its impact on the economy. The branding of Valentine's Day has been so successful because chocolate is involved. The Wikipedia article on St. Valentine, however, was an eye-opener for me. Valentine's Day was removed from the Catholic calendar in 1969?? Nobody told me! I'm amazed that we still celebrate it. The story of Valentine, or Valentinus, was dismissed as almost entirely legend nearly four decades ago. But you'd never know that from the Valentine's Day displays in the stores.

Of course we could blame retailers for creating hype to increase sales. But that doesn't explain everything. If retailers in Santa Monica all got together and started hyping St. Monica's Day on August 27 because August needs a holiday, would the tradition catch on and spread throughout the Western world? Probably not. Why don't we celebrate St. Agnes' Eve on January 20? She's the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims and virgins, and "folk custom called for [young girls] to practice rituals on Saint Agnes' Eve (20th-21st January) with a view to discovering their future husbands." Retailers could come up with a decorating theme involving lambs and wool scarves and mace sprayers and diamond rings, and Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" could be set to music, if it hasn't been already, and played in stores the week leading up to the holiday. Would it become a mainstream holiday? Probably not. A holiday has to resonate with people in order for them to respond to retailers' hype. For some reason, Sts. Valentine's and Patrick's Days do and Sts. Monica's and Agnes' Days don't.

It seems innocent enough to decorate with shamrocks and leprechauns, doesn't it? It's cute, the kids like it, where's the harm in a green milkshake? The green thing celebrates the welcome approach of spring. A lot of us like Celtic music, at least in small doses. Okay, but is there equal time dedicated to celebrating Costa Rican, Turkish and Rwandan cultures? And is it okay that there isn't? In a multicultural environment, all religious holidays should be observed equally. And that, of course, would result in an overabundance of holidays and the need to change decorations every three or four days. Why not let now-useless religious holidays like St. Patrick's Day just fade into cultural history? Do we have a reason to continue celebrating them other than "[Shrug] It's what we've always done"? Is that a good enough reason to do anything?

Just say no to green beer.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A little catastrophe music

A recent email from mentions that Bush "campaigned, attended birthday parties and played guitar" while Hurricane Katrina bashed New Orleans, and I couldn't help but notice the parallel between Nero plucking the lyre while Rome burned and Dubya pickin' n' grinnin' while New Orleans sank. The differences are instructive regarding executive protocol: during a firestorm, play the lyre; during a hurricane, play the guitar.

The video revealing that Bush was briefed about possible levee breaches has been dismissed by Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke as "nothing new or insightful." He said that "most transcripts of discussions had already been made available to congressional investigators examining the response to Katrina." Dzzzzzzzzzz. Now, did a little warning buzzer go off when you read that? The investigators learned from the transcripts that Bush had been briefed, and they weren't concerned that, four days after Katrina made landfall, Bush said "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees"? Did the investigators actually read the transcripts? Or were they anticipating that the public would never find out how much the President knew? Surely the investigators would know how the public would react if we learned about the briefings. Move over, Downing Street Memo. Now there's the Crawford Briefing.

I expect that conservative bloggers' reactions to the video are uniformly "This is old news." Okay, you're right. The investigators learned nothing new from the video. But how did news like this get old? They thought it wasn't important enough to report? Based on what criteria?

I've actually reached the point where I'm no longer appalled by the amount of fibbing by the Bush administration. I've started feeling bad and embarrassed for them. They so are the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Even Condy Rice, a smart, smart lady, doesn't seem to know when it's not a good time to fib. Maybe if the Bush administration could start fresh all over again in 2001, with all of the knowledge they've gained since then, we would have an administration making much wiser decisions.