My great-great grandfather, John “Jack” Foley, left County Waterford in the mid-1800’s. He was fourteen, alone in the world, and all but penniless. He didn’t have a lot of viable choices; his family was dead from the famine and he’d been turned off the farm they’d worked. So he took ship for America and landed in a cesspool of racism and discrimination.
Family tradition holds that he worked in Mississippi for a time, doing jobs that slaves were considered too valuable to be given. He married, fathered a son, and lost both wife and child to disease. He did a stint on the Pony Express, then joined the Army. Somewhere around Yosemite, after some—probably racial or religious—abuse, he left the military in rather a rush (when you fire on your commanding officer, consider yourself discharged, even if you miss the man and only hit the horse). He eventually married again and settled in San Jose, where he made his fortune (ironically) growing potatoes.
It was not an easy life, and though his descendants became lawyers and judges—respectable people—the family stories remain.
Of course, now Irish Americans are seen differently. The funny accents of our ancestors have become charming, their early squalor and destitution is now noble poverty, and that weird religion so many of us still follow doesn’t seem nearly as threatening after all this time. (It has other problems, but respected commenters rarely opine that we’re controlled by a foreign potentate). Almost all of the hateful figures of speech about us have faded from the language. There’s even a day a year when people who aren’t members of our diaspora pretend they are.*
I’ve seen plenty of commentary about how this is the American way, and a thing to be proud of. Immigrants come to the country, have a tough time of it, but eventually become accepted. Muslims, it is said, just need to be patient, and one day they too will be part of the fabric of the nation, like the Irish and the Poles, the Germans and the Russians, the Jews and the Vietnamese and the Koreans. It’s a bonding thing.†
But, you know, here’s the thing: this isn’t actually a very good way of running a nation of immigrants. If it is the destiny of each successive wave of incomers to eventually assimilate enough that it attacks the next set of arrivals, then we are not one of the great dreams of the Enlightenment made manifest. Indeed, we turn out to be nothing more than a glorified college fraternity. Upsilon Sigma Alpha. Go us.
And even the fraternities know better. They’ve been working to ban hazing, because it harms two groups of people: the victims, a certain proportion of whom are injured or killed every year; and the perpetrators, for whom the practice of tormenting and abusing other people is equally damaging. It’s a tradition that creates and strengthens bullies, valorizes cruelty (particularly carefully considered cruelty, the worst kind) and denies the value of compassion.
So why on Earth would we permit, and even celebrate, the same behavior at a national level?
Speaking personally, I can’t and won’t. The ghost of Jack Foley won’t let me, and he was always a ready man with his gun.
* It’s as if, in the future, everyone wore headscarves on Eid Al-Fitr. We’d get it all wrong (men would wear them too). The holovisions would show the parade sponsored by a major and unrelated mercantile empire. The Apple Eid Day Parade. Mark your calendars.
† Except it’s not, because the grudges against earlier bullies never really go away either. Ask the Irish about the English sometime.