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“History Is A Nightmare”: Why The Conversation About Race Can’t Be The Only Conversation

From sea to shining sea, college students seem determined to make us argue about race to the exclusion of all else. So here’s something I learned in college: Virtually every ugly stereotype applied to African-Americans by white racists was applied to my Irish-Catholic ancestors as well. Their English oppressors caricatured Irish peasants as shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey-strong but mentally deficient.

The Celtic race was good at singing, dancing, lifting heavy objects, and prizefighting. Red-haired women were thought sexually insatiable. We Celts also had an appalling odor.

Little historical imagination is required to grasp why slave owners needed to call their victims subhuman. Yes, I said slaves. During the 17th century, many thousands of native Irish were transported to the Caribbean and North America and sold into indentured servitude. During the Potato Famine of the 1840s, England sent soldiers to guard ships exporting food crops from Irish farms while the native population starved or emigrated.

Feeding them, it was believed, would compromise their work ethic.

But here’s the thing: At no point was I tempted to wonder if my ancestors were, in fact, inferior. Not once, not ever. Nor did I see any point in holding it against the Rolling Stones or The Who (although my grandfather Connors pretended to). It was ancient history to me, fascinating but of little import to my life as a first-generation college student.

My father, a donkey-strong man of fierce opinions, had a slogan he’d often repeat. It was his personal credo, a bedrock statement of Irish-American patriotism.

“You’re no better than anybody else,” he’d growl. “And NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.”

It’s become my personal motto as well. You see, I don’t believe it of you or your ancestors either. That they’re inferior (or superior, for that matter). Never have. I used to joke that being Irish, I only looked white. But hardly anybody gets it anymore, so I quit saying it.

“History is a nightmare,” said James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “from which I am trying to awake.”

I understand that it’s easier to resign from being Irish (in the political sense) than it is to resign from being black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever. But to me, the freedom to redefine yourself is the essence of being American.

We used to sit around in our freshman dorm at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, all us first-generation college boys with immigrant ancestors, comparing notes about the crazy stories our grandparents told us about the old country. Me and Czyza and Finelli and Sussman and Piskorowski and Sugarman and Grasso and Maloney… Well, you get the point.

Hardly a WASP in sight, although I’d actually dated one in high school.

So no, I won’t apologize for my “white privilege” either. Nor will I turn myself inside-out trying to prove my good faith to somebody who doubts it. I’m no better than you, and you’re no better than I am. If we can’t agree to meet in the middle, then maybe it’s best we not meet at all.

It will be seen that I’m temperamentally unqualified to be a college administrator, compelled as they are to remain solemn, as impassioned nineteen-year-olds demand — demand, no less — an immediate end to not only “white supremacy” but to “heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”

That’s from a recent list of grievances presented to the president of Amherst College. Somehow, they left out the designated hitter rule.

Writing in The Nation, Michelle Goldberg complained about “left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea…that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression.” She met fierce resistance from Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper in (where else?) Salon, who countered that “[T]he demand to be reasonable is a disingenuous demand. Black folks have been reasoning with white people forever. Racism is unreasonable, and that means reason has limited currency in the fight against it.”

No it doesn’t. Quite the opposite.

My view is that they’re being intellectually defrauded, all these idealistic kids who are being taught their race is destiny, and destiny is race.

Better by far that they should study entomology, urban planning, or 18th-century French literature — anything that fascinates them — rather than waste their college years pondering the exact color of their navels and compiling lists of fruitless demands.

End xenophobia? Wonderful. Tell it to ISIS.

However, the way it seems to work on many campuses these days, is that a tenured commissar like Cooper gets to make both ends of the argument: yours and hers. Needless to say, you’re wrong by definition.

Anyway, here’s what I’d tell her students if they asked me:

Yes, race can still be an obstacle. However, most Americans want to be fair. People will meet you more than halfway if you let them. As President Obama has shown, bigots no longer have the power to define your life.

Unless, that is, you give it to them.

 

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, December 2, 2015

December 3, 2015 Posted by | College Campuses, Race and Ethnicity, White Privilege | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Ryan’s Rhetoric Has Consequences”: First, One Must Understand His Own Culture And History

Reflections upon the recent holiday: The first time my wife saw tears in my eyes was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, at the tomb of Jonathan Swift. The brilliant 18th-century Irish satirist was my first and most enduring literary hero, a towering figure who Yeats thought “slept under the greatest epitaph in history” — composed by Swift himself.

I knew the Latin by heart, but seeing it engraved in stone moved me, although Swift had been dead since 1745. “It is almost finer in English,” Yeats wrote, “than in Latin: ‘He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more.’”

Reading Swift taught me more about Ireland and my Irish-Catholic ancestors than I ever learned at my alcoholic grandfather’s knee, I can tell you that. An Anglo-Irish churchman who considered himself exiled from London to the city of his birth, Swift condemned British misrule of Ireland in the most memorable satires written in English or any other language.

His 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents” retains the capacity to shock after almost 300 years. Impersonating the ever-so-reasonable voice of a public-spirited reformer of the sort who might today issue proposals from the Heritage Foundation, the narrator advocated genteel cannibalism.

“I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife,” he suggested, “as we do roasting pigs.”

It’s the laconic “rather” that chills to the marrow, precisely revealing the pamphleteer’s inhumanity.

Swift was certainly no Irish nationalist. A Tory by temperament and conviction, he’d have been appalled by the idea that the island’s Roman Catholic majority could govern itself. Even so, Professor Leo Damrosch’s terrific new biography makes a compelling case that both his voice and his personal example were instrumental to an evolving Irish national consciousness.

I thought of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” the other day, listening to the ever-so-reasonable Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) explain that America’s poor have only themselves to blame. “We have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” Ryan explained, “of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Any question who he was talking about? As several commentators have noted, this business about “inner city” men not working isn’t so much Republican “dogwhistle” as GOP air-raid siren.

Ryan has since alibied that he’d been “inarticulate” and wasn’t trying to implicate “the culture of one community.” This came soon after a speech in which he’d told a heartfelt tale of a small boy who didn’t want a “free lunch from a government program,” but a Mommy-made lunch in a brown paper bag that showed somebody cared about him.

Coming from a guy busily trying to cut funding for school lunch programs and food stamps, this was pretty rich. Also apparently, apocryphal. The witness who’d told Ryan the tale in a congressional hearing had not only swiped it from a book called The Invisible Thread, but reversed its meaning. Which wasn’t so much that government assistance, as Ryan warned, threatens to leave children with “a full stomach and an empty soul,” as that sermons mean very little to hungry children.

Delivered just before St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan’s disquisition upon the undeserving poor earned him the scorn of the New York Times’ Timothy Egan. Taking note of Ryan’s great-great grandfather, who emigrated to the United States during the catastrophic Irish famine of the 1840s, Egan pointed out that Ryan’s words echoed the rhetoric of Victorian Englishmen content to let his ancestors die lest they become dependent upon charity.

It’s not always understood in this country that the mass starvation of Irish peasants — more than a million died, and another million emigrated — resulted not from the failure of the potato crop but English government policy. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout, with British soldiers guarding shipments of foodstuffs as they were loaded.

Rhetoric, see, has consequences. From Swift’s time onward, the native Irish had been depicted in terms justifying their subjugation. Virtually every negative stereotype applied to our “inner city” brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan’s (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad.

Understanding that history is exactly what makes Irish-Americans like Timothy Egan, Charles P. Pierce and me — if I may include myself in their company — so impatient with a tinhorn like Ryan. If he wanted to understand his own ancestry, it’s authors like Swift, Yeats and James Joyce that Ryan ought to be reading, instead of that dismal ideologue Ayn Rand.

Nobody should let ethnic groupthink determine his politics. But if a politician like Paul Ryan hopes to be respected, it would help if he showed some sign of understanding the past.

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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