Irish Americans: Follow the light of Biden’s lantern out of the darkness
By Tim Kirk
Special to Boston Irish
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme
- Seamus Heaney
DUBLIN – Joe Biden, the working-class kid from Scranton, PA, who traces his Irish family roots to counties Louth and Mayo, quoted Seamus Heaney and appealed to his fellow citizens to change course in his DNC acceptance speech. Prior to the speech, a moving video showed the former vice president helping a young man overcome his stutter by reading the poetry of Yeats aloud. These Irish poetic flourishes were played, and replayed, widely in Ireland as Joe laid out the case against Trump – “Trump has cloaked our country in darkness” and offered an alternative: “light, hope and love.”
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
– George Orwell
Joe is a compassionate centrist, a leader whom Irish people can understand. Ireland is a nation born of rebellion, a war of independence, civil war, and partition, but since its founding, the main political parties (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) have stayed in the center. Biden’s record and vision are not as progressive as many Democrats would like, but he represents a chance to bring the USA back into the community of nations. Doing so is not assured and will require winning Irish-American support, the perennial wild card in American politics that tipped the scales for JFK but also for Ronald Reagan. The appearance of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York at the RNC’s renomination of Donald Trump, whose cruel policy explicitly called for the separation of migrant children from their parents and incarceration, is a vivid illustration of the importance of Irish Catholics to both parties. The Irish in America have strong emotional ties to their ancestral Erin and should study Ireland’s recent history, position, and example.
Ireland is situated between two Anglo Saxon democracies, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, and so has a unique perspective and insight into both. As their economic hegemonies waned in different eras, the UK and USA have responded in surprisingly similar, and now simultaneous, manners. Both have withdrawn from the world community, botched their responses to the pandemic, elected vain, pathologically dishonest leaders with studiously unkempt hair in the UK and studiously coiffed hair in the US, and stoked racial division to drive major electoral decisions. The political symmetry between the UK and the USA goes back further and informs the present and future.
Let's consider the current elected leaders of the UK and the USA, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. In February 2016, after the date was set for the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson wrote two opinion pieces for the Daily Telegraph, one a passionate defense of the EU for the “Remain” cause, and the other a scathing critique of the EU and a call to arms to leave the EU. He slept on it, published the “Leave” piece, and joined that campaign, shocking his Oxford classmate and rival, David Cameron who, as prime minister, had called the referendum.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power...We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.
- George Orwell, in “1984”
Born in Manhattan, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson spent his post-Oxford career writing lazily researched and often entirely made up pieces from Brussels for the Daily Telegraph’s British audience that eagerly consumed his Euroskeptic articles comparing EU regulations – like restricting the use of toxic preservatives in prawn chips– as attacks on British sovereignty equal to the Nazi blitz. Likening packaging requirements for frozen fish to the battles of Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo, Trafalgar, and Dunkirk was all in fun and his readership lapped it up. Everyone knew he was lying about both the facts and the major concepts, but he delivered it with the posh accent, the occasionally drôle quip, and a punchable smirk that only an Eton and Oxford “red-trousers fellow” can master. It was all a joke over a few jars. Johnson lies so often about big and small issues, they are no longer a news story. His position on EU membership has changed many times over many years and it is accepted that he has no ideology other than the pursuit of power. His capacity for “Doublethink” is rivaled only by Trump.
The serial mendacity of the thrice-married, failed casino developer, and reality TV host, Donald Trump is known to all. His ability to attack women of color, insult Elizabeth Warren with a racial slur, pardon Susan B. Anthony, praise and demean women, even within the same speech or sentence, is astonishing in its multiple layers of contradiction. After four years of his lies and 7 months of pandemic and economic collapse, the American people are either nauseated or mesmerized, left deeply disorientated and confused.
“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
- Joseph Heller, in “Catch 22”
The similarity between the two once-dominant republics that trumpet “British Exceptionalism” to the east and “American Exceptionalism” to the west is easier to see from Ireland. Inside the USA, America feels like Britain’s antithesis, but stuck between them, the parallels are obvious to the Irish.
The similarity is not confined to the current leadership. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Barack Obama all share striking parallels. Busting the unions, confronting the Russians, loosening financial regulations, and projecting a bellicose image internationally were similar platforms for Thatcher and Reagan. Blair and Clinton were center left politicians who both crafted a “third way” – governing from the middle. Cameron and Obama were young, stylish policy wonks from their respective countries’ elite universities with young families. They looked like reformers, but reinforced neoliberal economic policies that doubled down on capitalist orthodoxy. The most tragic resemblance is the one between Boris and Donald and it is not just the goofy hairstyles. They are inveterate and unrepentant liars who seek power for power’s sake. Boris Johnson’s convincing win even after the Brexit calamity does not bode well for November in the USA.
Reacting to fading hegemony
In the 1870s, the British Empire had 23 percent of the world’s population as subjects, 24 percent of the planet’s land mass, and 38 percent of the global GDP. The UK now accounts for 2.2 percent of global GDP, and 12 percent of EU GDP. It is a rump state that no longer ‘rules the waves’ or ‘waves the rules.’ With three of its remaining four provinces (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) considering leaving the United Kingdom to remain in the EU, the United Kingdom looks shakier than ever. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland need look no farther than the island of Ireland to decide whether being in the EU would be better than the UK. At the time of the sectarian partition of Ireland 100 years ago, per capita income in Northern Ireland was twice that of the Republic of Ireland. Now the per capita income in the Republic is twice that of the North, according to the economist David McWilliams. Same people, same island. The only difference is that Northern Ireland has stayed under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.
The EU did not want Britain to leave the EU. Brexit is like a broken arm that needs medical care. If it were the only issue in 2020, it would likely have the EU's undivided attention and would give the UK more leverage to negotiate a trade deal closer to what the British want by the Dec. 31 deadline. But the EU has “d’autres chats à fouetter” (“other cats to whip,” i.e., “bigger fish to fry”). The pandemic, economic crisis and climate change, are like multiple organ failure. The “broken arm” is serious, but it can wait. Any hard bargain leverage Britain thought it had, has been swept aside by the pandemic.
In a similar way, America’s economy is still huge, but it is no longer hegemonic. After World War II, the US economy accounted for greater than 50 percent of global GDP and had 80 percent of the world's hard currency reserves, which gave it the power to dictate the rules of global trade. The US now accounts for less than 15 percent of global GDP, still important but not “indispensable.” Europe is a larger market in aggregate and China is set to surpass the USA as well. The days of economic dominance are over in an increasingly multipolar world.
In response, Trump has taken his marbles and gone home, abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, the WHO, threatening to leave NATO, launching a trade war with China, and multiple trade skirmishes with individual EU countries. The world does not want the US to abandon the world community, but just like the effect of the UK leaving the EU, America’s isolating itself further would be mostly self-harm. One important difference is that while the UK lost both its global economic reach and its military power, the US military has grown massively as its economic power has diminished. As the economist Jeffrey Sachs has noted, the US has doubled down on the military with 800 major bases around the world and 14 shooting wars currently. No country wants to get on the bad side of the bully, but acquiescence does not necessarily mean agreement, and obedience should not be confused with leadership.
As the November election in the United States approaches, we should take no comfort from what has happened in the UK over the course of the last four years. Immediately after the Brexit vote, many who had voted for “Leave” in the simplistic and poorly conceived referendum fueled by nativist, anti- immigrant sentiment said that they regretted the vote and wanted a “do over.” The currency was pummeled and companies like Bank of America publicly announced plans to leave London for Dublin, Frankfurt, Berlin, or Paris. Manufacturers like Honda decided to relocate plants and jobs. The negative effects on Britain are already significant, but after the grace period, will get worse. Failure to conclude a trade agreement with the EU by the end of the year will be devastating to the UK. This fact did not stop Boris Johnson from endangering these negotiations by announcing plans on September 8th to break international law by introducing domestic legislation that would vacate the Northern Ireland Protocol signed less than a year by Johnson himself. The arm of ‘Perfidious Albion’ might just get amputated.
After the Brexit vote it was clear that it was a con job that would hurt the very people who voted for it, and that it was heavily influenced by a Russian/Steve Bannon disinformation campaign and Cambridge Analytica. And yet the people of Britain (mostly England) voted convincingly for Boris Johnson whose slogan, “Get Brexit Done,” was about as inspiring as scheduling a colonoscopy.
In the USA, in the days after the 2016 election, many expressed similar regret for voting for Donald Trump or for not voting at all. He was a laughable candidate but with a combination of racism, Russian assistance, and greed from our moneyed classes, he became an accidental president. In 2020 he is not a laughable candidate; he is a laughable but malevolent president, and a president, laughable or not, has tremendous power to shape events.
In Steve Martin’s 1979 classic movie, “The Jerk,” there is a memorable scene when Navin Johnon (Martin) loses all of his new-found wealth when a side effect in his Optigrab invention (crossing people’s eyes) is discovered. Suddenly re-impoverished, his wife Marie, played by Bernadette Peters, laments:
“We’ve hit bottom,” to which Martin’s character replies, “No! Maybe you’ve hit bottom, but I haven’t hit bottom yet! I’ve got a ways to go. And I am going to bounce back! And when I do, I am going to buy you a diamond so big it's gonna make you puke.”
This is mindful of the conversation between Democrats and Republicans this year. Trump’s 90 percent-plus approval rating among Republicans indicates that his supporters “have not hit bottom yet. They have a way to go.”
Both Irish and American
The Irish came in great numbers to the United states in the mid-19th century spreading across the country, making their way in communities dominated by the established cultures of the original British colonies. Unwelcome, the Irish “found shelter in each other,” and in their faith. With growing numbers and influence, William Henry O’Connell, the first Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, built his archdiocese in the image of the triumphant Catholic Church he witnessed in his years of study in Rome, famously saying, “The Puritan is gone, and the Catholic remains.” While true, the cultural foundations laid by the Puritans in Boston are as strong as ever. Immigration did make New England more Irish, but the Irish were also deeply imprinted by the host culture and became New Englanders.
At John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, the poet Robert Frost privately and enigmatically advised the new president: “You’re something of Irish and something of Harvard. Let me advise you, be more Irish than Harvard.” What Frost meant has long been debated, but maybe he wanted the new President to approach his job with the humility, compassion, and humor of the Irish in addition to the striving for excellence and erudition that a Harvard education conferred.
Kennedy spoke of the ‘shining city upon a hill’ with as much fervor as the Puritan John Winthrop, who coined the term, and John Adams, who used it. It is a particularly Puritan expression, connoting an exacting, competitive spirit, a striving for excellence, and also the unmistakable British sense of exclusivity. In Ireland, where wealth and power are viewed with suspicion, the Irish might envision a “tidy welcoming village in a valley” as the ideal society, but many Irish Bostonians eventually adopted the exclusive and exacting “shining city.”
Over time, America’s achievements obscured the similarity between politics in the United Kingdom and the United States and, growing up in the Boston area with an Irish-American sensibility, I resisted the coupling of the two as Anglo-Saxon countries as a misreading of history. The anachronistic UK had a silly royal family and a steep downward trajectory since the loss of an empire built upon looted lives and resources. England’s history of brutalizing the people they colonized, pitting local factions against each other in their dominions (Hindus against Muslims in India, Protestants against Catholics in Ireland, Sunni against Shia in the Middle East) to maintain their privileged position at the top of the pecking order was contrasted by the USA’s becoming a nation of immigrants, a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious society forging a nation based not on ethnicity and class but on ideas, with no one above or below the law. Everyone enjoyed the freedoms and obligations of citizenship in this new experiment.
Well, not quite everyone. Women, Native Americans and African slaves were excluded but for the late 18th century, the American experiment was a remarkable achievement with great promise. Some 150 years later, two world wars had exhausted and dismembered the British Empire and the “special relationship” had evolved into the UK’s becoming a dependent of her rebellious and innovative colonial child. Still, America’s history and foundational culture are more similar to Britain’s than is immediately apparent or comfortable for Americans to accept. The dispossession of the Native Americans, enslavement of Africans, and the pitting of ethnic groups against each other are all methods of maintaining power taken from the British textbook on exploitation honed over hundreds of years.
Irish America: Still an electoral wild card
The political links in the Irish diaspora between Ireland, the UK, and America, are evident, particularly in the labor movement’s animated push for progressive causes over generations, oftentimes with Ireland leading the way. The Irish encouraged their American cousins to ally themselves with abolitionists. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 asserted, and ultimately secured, suffrage for both Irishwomen and Irishmen. Marriage equality and women's reproductive rights were secured in the courts in the USA, while in recent years they were won by popular referenda in Ireland.
“When power leads man to arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of this existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
In 2020 Irish America remains the wild card in American politics and has the power to shape our future. Joe Biden’s simple message proves the Irish economist David McWilliams’s observation that “what’s complicated is rarely important, and what's important is rarely complicated.” Irish America should look to Ireland’s example and elect Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat and practicing Catholic who quotes Irish poets to vote for hope over fear, light over darkness, and love over hatred.
Tim Kirk is a software professional who left Needham, Massachusetts, last year and settled permanently in Dublin.