Despite my name (and as far as I know barring furtive inroads in the night), I have no Irish blood or ancestors. However, I married a man who’s 100% American-Irish and soon I became steeped in the history, literature and outlook of the bold Fenian men and women who once struggled for independence and still support republican principles. St. Patrick’s Day, that annual reminder of all Irish, invites everyone in the US to become part of the fest, as I did. But what, really, are we celebrating?
Not green beer or rowdy parties. Neither fist fights nor silly hats. From St. Patrick and down through the centuries, the Irish struggled to break from traditional and abusive powers to establish new, sometimes radical, systems of government and society. They took centuries to create a separate government for a part of their island and homeland, at times educating their children under bushes because they were prohibited by the Brits from sending the kids to established schools. They were passionate about preserving their culture, their freedom, their self-determination.
Accomplishments accompany passion. History, indeed life and people around us now, support this idea. Many other qualities, too, such as hard work, creativity, and vision may be important. But passion drives the whole kit and caboodle. Those with passion might ignore the limitations of law, tradition, even human biology (think of Edison and da Vinci, notorious for short sleep cycles) to pursue their dream.
If we translate this passion into fervor behind a social movement, we see similarities. Those committed to their vision ignore deprivation, poverty, separation from families and friends, violence, imprisonment, even death. St. Patrick certainly did. And people can legitimately feel this decision is justifiable. The caveat: can this commitment cross the line from positive to destructive?
Terrorists are driven by zeal, but most of us agree they go waaaaay too far. There is a line beyond which violence and coercion usurp whatever good might occur from supporting their beliefs. A passion for what’s right, however that’s defined, a group’s protectiveness of its people and principles presents a quandary for any social or political unit working for change. Including the Irish. The IRA promulgated thousands of deaths and injuries while pursing their goal of an independent Northern Ireland.
I’ve pondered the question, “How far should someone go in defending his beliefs?”and decided I deplore all violence and coercion. Instances like 9/11, Sandy Hook, Isis attacks, Charlie Hebdo should not occur. Obvious? No. “The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is a matter of perspective: it all depends on the observer and the verdict of history,” said Finnish environmentaist Kaarlo Pentti Linkola. And US Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater said in 1964, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
I disagree. This St. Patrick’s Day I’ll be ready to swap spit with those passionate about their principles, but not those willing to fall into violence and terror. I think Saint Patrick would be of the same mind.
Science fiction is a genre chock-full of stereotypes. Doesn’t take much imagination to throw in an alien monster or launch a barrage of special effects through images or words about explosions, fires, and destruction.
Then there are the few thoughtful works that hold a mirror up to us and show us the real horror we are or could become. Such is the case with Parable of the Talents, the second book in Octavia Butler’s duet of the near-future. The time is about 2035, the society is ours, gone slowly and terribly astray, like TS Elliott’s vision in The Hollow Men. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Published in 1996, the book comes sooooo close to many happenings today. Slaughters in Africa and the Middle East; hidden concentration camps of low-income workers and their families tacitly approved by governments; discrimination against the poor like we have in our country; pronouncements by rich or powerful individuals blaming the powerless for their own situations; disappearances of people that challenge the system; arming of the citizenry; ambitious individuals who bend the truth, even lie, as they set up tar-babies as objects for hatred, using politics or religion as the excuse; brutality against women and helpless. While all these evils don’t occur in any one location, they are present in the world today.
Protagonist Lauren Olamina has moved, escaped, from LA with her doctor-lover, to establish a tiny community in northern California. There they struggle to raise crops, build homes and businesses, and occasionally fight bad guys and rescue a few from the huddled masses. But they can’t escape the evil of authoritarian—or greedy?—do-gooders who want to wipe them out. Lauren’s husband, friends, and neighbors are killed, her infant daughter snatched from her.
Fortunately, steeped as the novel is in religious ideas of one sort or another, one holds some promise. Lauren’s vision of spirituality is a philosophy called Earthseed. It preaches acceptance, tolerance, and community purpose. Despite a vision of the future so close we could turn the corner and be living it, optimism is possible.
Butler, an African-American woman who won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant, was unusual in the scifi field. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Although she’d planned additions to the series, none were published, as far as I can tell. I keep thinking, wondering, what she would have thought about Obama’s election, about the mouthings of politicians who think (or at least claim) they have all the answers, the attacks of some against public education and tolerance. Equally, what would she have thought about wave after wave of extremist, violent terrorism launched in the name of God, regardless of the affiliation or country of origin of proponents.
I’m sure she would have laughed about the popularity of zombies, vampires, robots, and other easy-to-sketch villains. She knew that the real horrors of the future lie within humans themselves, and she warned us as best she could while she encouraged us to think about the consequences of our actions. . .and inactions.