“The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons” – Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game
The Black Hats and the White Hats
On the 23rd of January 2017, an article by Emer O’ Toole appeared in the Irish Times. It was titled Make Ireland Great Again: ‘Our culture has been under threat since those dirty Celts arrived’. One of several articles which appeared at the time, apparently in response to the rise of Nationalist parties in Europe. The basic premise of the article is clear even from the title. Paraphrased it amounts to, “Sure, haven’t we always been a nation of immigrants.” It is one of a handful of disposal arguments which Irish Liberals deploy when somebody brings up the question of Irishness, or of Irish identity, or the threat posed by replacement-level immigration. Most of these arguments are imported from elsewhere and recycled. Some of them are actual arguments. Some are just shell games. Some are trolls. Occasionally one does hear the withering put-down: “The sun will one day burn out. So it doesn’t matter anyway.”
While it is interesting enough to pick over Emer O’Toole’s debating points, there is something we first have to acknowledge. And unless we acknowledge it, there is really no point having a discussion. It is this. Arguments aren’t really that important in these kinds of debates. What matters is who is seen to wear the White Hat and who is seen to wear the Black Hat, who is seen to be the hero and who is seen to be the villain. In other words, what matters is who has the correct opinion and who has the incorrect opinion.
Having a debate suggests that one side or the other may triumph by resort to an argument. The problem is that even to broach certain topics puts one in the wrong. To a Liberal no argument about culture or identity can be logically defensible if it is not first morally defensible. It must first and foremost be morally correct. For no mere logic can excuse xenophobia or racism or any position which is contrary to the Liberal consensus. A Liberal presented with a more logical argument than his own, is unlikely to change his opinion on an issue like mass-immigration. After all, being logical can just as easily get one into trouble as pluck one out of it. And though Liberals will employ logical arguments when trying to prove or disprove notions of identity, they will ultimately rely on moral and emotional arguments when challenged.
The difficulty is not so much that Irish Liberals argue from absolutist moral positions but that those absolutist positions are ordained by Official Ireland. The Liberal morality is the official morality. Ned will argue that immigration has a certain benefit. Sean will argue that it does not, or that the benefit does not compensate for the cost. Whether or not Sean wins the argument is irrelevant. He remains the bad guy. He has taken an immoral position, that being to oppose mass-immigration. He may argue that his position is morally just, but Official Ireland will not recognise it as such. This is the difficulty facing Nationalists in this country. They are cast from the beginning as villains. And it doesn’t really matter how logical your position is, if people think you’re Hannibal Lector.
The Argument Between Nationalism and Globalism Is One About Territory
One of the accusations made by Liberals and directed at Nationalists, is that a rooted Nationalism depends on an unchanging and unchanged cultural identity which cannot exist and has never existed. One cannot defend what never was. They argue that there is no fundamental ethnic basis to an Irish identity, any more than there is a basis for a Dutch or an English or a Swedish one. The position of Nationalists is therefore indefensible. Nationalists seek to hold ground which cannot be held because no such ground exists.
One of the accusations made by Nationalists and directed at Liberals is that they purposefully caricature the Nationalist position, extrapolating it to a point where it becomes ridiculous. They also employ an ultra-constructivist view of the world which is itself open to ridicule. Their logic if applied consistently would make virtually all forms of social and self identification untenable. Including the ones that are currently fashionable. But of course nobody applies this kind of logic consistently, only to the service of their own narrow interests.
A classic example of this is Donal O’ Keeffe’s hilarious Journal.ie article from August 2015.
I have to confess a personal bias on matters of race. I am from what racists would call a mongrel race. You see, although I am very Irish, I am also of mixed race. I am the result of the interbreeding of countless generations of Celts, Britons, Bretons, Normans, Vikings, Romans, Tuatha Dé Dannan, Fir Bolg, Nemedeans and whatever you’re having yourself.
I am 100 per cent Irish. I am Irish right back to the savannahs of East Africa when first we came down from the trees and told stories around the fire, stories we shaped and stories which in turn shaped us, the fire of imagination expanding the architecture of our brains and making us human.
The argument is silly (if not borderline parody), but the author must think it has a certain intuitive logic. Because otherwise it wouldn’t work, even as a joke. It actually resembles the “Sun will one day burn out” argument. In the vast span of millennia what’s the loss of one’s homeland or the destruction of one’s culture? But overall, it relies on there being a Liberal apparatus there to back it up. O’Keeffe doesn’t have to worry about being demonised by the Establishment or challenged by his peers. His position is deemed morally correct. And that is enough.
On the whole, purely rational arguments about identity or nationality are as rare as they are self-defeating, unless one side can convert the other, or both sides can agree on a compromise set of definitions and premises. This rarely happens and in truth, neither side even speak the same language. More often than not, it will come down to a claim to moral high-ground. Which comes down to who holds the ground and who is prepared to fight for it. Like so many human conflicts, the issue is ultimately territorial. Whether that be physical, emotional, moral or intellectual territory.
Divorced from their assumed moral authority, Liberal arguments against Nationalism are not all that sophisticated and can generally be undone by attacking the starting premise. Naturally, if the premise is weak, the argument will also be weak. Writing about culture or identity is not an exact science (or any kind of science), so it’s usually quite easy to identify a weakness in somebody’s argument. Quite often one will find the author has actually rigged the argument in the first paragraph and is hoping nobody will notice. Sometimes they will refer to this sleight of hand as their starting premise or their working definition. For instance they may begin by saying:
Nationalists consistently appeal to an idea of purity which is historically romantic. We will demonstrate that such an ideal is flawed and unworkable. For the purposes of this analysis we shall define Nationalism as a belief in the purity of one’s own group and a general hostility towards people outside one’s own group.
Starting from this premise, the author will conclude that any attempt to defend an Irish identity or culture is idiotic and dangerous. Indeed, starting from these assumptions, it might be difficult to come to any other conclusion. That is well and good until one meets somebody who disagrees with one’s premise and one’s definitions. Once that occurs, the Liberal must either defend his straw-man or call his opponent a racist. In other words, defend the ground morally that he has otherwise lost.
A Nationalist would dispute the premise and definitions put forward. They might argue that most Nationalists do not propose a rigid, unchanging view of nationality or national identity, but propose an organic and therefore fluid nation. The nation or ethnos being a broadly homogeneous people who share a history, heritage and systems of meaning. A people who understand themselves as a people and who understand each other in ways outsiders find difficult to comprehend. Whereas the Liberal would employ a negative, fixed definition, the Nationalist would emphasise the positive, the organic and the contingent. The fact that something is fluid does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Nor does it mean that it cannot be destroyed. Any culture or any system or any environment can be overwhelmed from without. Indeed Irish history is replete with such examples and such attempts. Occasions where an Irish culture held fast and integrated invading peoples. Occasions where it failed and was all but wiped out. What comes down to us from the past is the wreckage of an Irish nation which the Nationalists of one hundred years previous attempted to reforge. They understood that Nationalism almost always contains the idea of rebirth. Rebirth of meaning, rebirth of destiny, just so long as a thread connecting us to the past remains.
By putting people in contact with their past, Nationalism seeks to instill a sense of collective trial and orientate a people meaningfully towards the future. The identification with past and future generations, invests a society with a certain communitarian ethos. A people who see themselves as a whole, are more likely to sacrifice for that whole. And for the greater good of a given society. They are less likely to sacrifice for a society in which they have become mere tourists.
Of course a Nationalist and a Liberal may look at the same evidence and draw different logical and moral conclusions. Liberals will point to Lebor Gabála, the Book of Invasions and say “Look, we were a nation of immigrants from the beginning.” And yet what the Book of Invasions teaches a Nationalist is that territory is everything. One series of invaders defeats and subjugates the last. He who holds the island holds his destiny. He who loses the island will be cast into oblivion. And will live out his days, a shadow in the landscape. And a fading spectre of what was.
The Liberal will roll his eyes at the very mention of territory. Territory is a dangerous word. Very dangerous in Ireland today. The Liberal understands territory very well when it’s a planning dispute between the Kennys and the Charltons or a case of bathers invading a private beach in Dalkey or Killiney. House prices make very good borders, after all. But beyond that, they consider discussions of territory to be vulgar. Not something civilised people bring up in everyday conversation.
Emer O’ Toole, Stewart Lee and “Those Damned Immigrants”
We return finally to Emer O’ Toole’s article, which can serve now as an example of what we have been discussing. The article sets out to be a clever parody of nativism, naturally full of wit and originality. The general thrust might be summarised as, “We’re a nation of immigrants. So opposing mass-immigration is just daft.” While the premise is weak, the moral force of the argument is very strong, because only a racist and bigot could conceivably object.
The great strength of a moral consensus is that it pervades the culture. It is familiar. The reader does not have to look too closely at the argument because he has heard it before. He has consumed it in a dozen different ways. He has even become bored by it. In the Irish media of late, we find more and more articles dealing with the subject of Irish identity, claiming often as not to debunk or redefine prior notions of Irishness. It gets dull after a while. But everyone gets the point. Reading these articles one is overcome by déjà vu. For years we have seen the equivalent articles appear in British and American publications. Was it six months ago in the Guardian or a year ago in the Huffington Post? Irish journalism as ever provides us, at one remove, with the fashions of New York and London. Usually with a suitable time delay. Likely as not, Emer O’ Toole is familiar with that purveyor of liberal comfort food, Stewart Lee and may have been regurgitating his “damned immigrants” routine.
“Those damned immigrants”
Performed circa 2013, the routine was ostensibly intended to lambaste UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) but really to comfort the egos of underemployed humanities graduates. Stewart Lee has been for many years, a court comedian of the London intelligentsia. The “thinking man’s” stand-up. A man persecuted by “right-wing Christians” for his Jerry Springer opera. His political convictions which were formed in the 1980s have not changed very much. His faith in the Liberal Arts compensates for his pessimism about British society. The essential contradiction in Lee is that he hates the modern world but loves Liberalism. He is the emptiest of reactionaries.
The Stewart Lee routine is a good example of a Liberal constructing an appealingly smug argument from an appallingly weak premise. As such it has almost no logical robustness. Any child could poke holes in it. But because it relies on the moral force of the argument, rather than the logical force, it passes. Or at least it passes with a Liberal audience. It is several years now since the “damned immigrants” routine first aired on the BBC. Seeing it at the time, it was clear that Lee had well and truly become jester to the court. The energy of the routine and its stylistic cleverness, could not conceal the basic weakness of the story he was selling. His observation that people had always railed against foreigners (“those damned Normans etc.”) was supposed to show that UKIP supporters were ignorant racists. He was rehashing the government’s asinine motto “We are a nation of immigrants” but validating it for a “sophisticated” upper middle class audience.
If the routine rings true at all, it suggests that human nature is consistent and that in-group distinctions are evergreen. Were Lee to be intellectually honest he would have to admit that this applies not only to “white British” people but to everyone. The image of an Englishman standing in Dover and screaming at outsiders, is appealing but limited. It ignores the ethnic and tribal fault lines which are emerging precisely because of mass-immigration. As an example, cities like Birmingham and London will continue to have tribal and ethnic tensions long after the category “white British” becomes irrelevant there.
The same dishonesty applies to Will Self whose remark on Brexit has often been quoted by the Irish intelligentsia. “Not all Brexiters are racists, but almost all racists will be voting for Brexit.” Most Liberals listen to such remarks and nod their heads. It strongly implies of course that only “white British” people can be racist. This is close to the position popular in Western academia where racism is linked exclusively to the “construct of whiteness.” Increasingly, this argument is being applied in Ireland, via the media and Liberal NGOs. The category “white Irish” is already in use as the version of Irishness against which other forms of Irishness will be symbolically pitted. In short there is a moral consensus, coming from the media, academia, NGOs and government which supports and subsidises these Liberal talking points. A Liberal can say almost anything and be in the right.
Like the Stewart Lee routine, the basic tactic of the Emer O’ Toole article is a kind of straw-man. She creates a rigid, absolutist caricature of a Nationalist position. And then she attacks the caricature. It’s a way of seeming logical and coherent when one is not. It’s much easier to attack an absolutist position than to grapple with nuances. By accusing everyone else of being Utopian or absolutist, one can play at being the sane person in the room.
A comedian one might say is a professional troll and it is people’s own fault if they mistake Stewart Lee for a philosopher or Emer O’ Toole for an objective critic of Irish culture. If the recent hysterics about fake news have brought to light one thing, it is that the biggest trolls in Ireland are the Fourth Estate. The troll, in this case, is a troll against all native cultures and against all coherent societies, for no society can claim to be immaculate or pristine. Nor needs to be in order to defend itself. No self-realised people has popped fully formed out of the earth. To mistake the fluid for the arbitrary is essential to her troll, and is in actual fact her ideology.
On occasion we get an article which touches on the downsides of mass-immigration. But even then written by some Globalist, who qualifies his or her concern. There seems to be no other category of journalist in existence. The author in this case quite evidently favours dislocation and rootlessness. A brief survey of other articles O’Toole has written is evidence of this. Globalism is her Nationalism. The idea of rooted, organic societies is anathema to her. They are in fact a form of violent heresy. It follows that any claim to national identity or unity, must be extrapolated to the point where it becomes ridiculous. It must be systematically caricatured and distorted. This is easy to do when there is no sanctioned opposition. There is no Liberal Arts machine churning out generic Nationalists, whereas there is a Liberal Arts machine churning out generic Globalists. The arguments for Nationalism, for integralism, for organic societies are not taught in academia and are not made by the media.
Theatrical style cannot compensate for a weak argument. And satires by the Establishment are never as funny as satires of the Establishment. There is no “brain drain” of foreign journalists taking over the Irish Times one may be sure. The construct of “mythical Irish purity” here serves the narrative of the transnational-progressive writing the article. It is transparently self-serving and class-interested. The only thing that carries it, is the underlying moral riotousness.
One final thought on O’Toole’s article, is how superficial the rhetoric of multiculturalism really is. One has to admire the breeziness with which a Liberal will list off half a dozen historical invasions and tell us to sit down and accept the current one. The idea that Irish history is a sufficient justification for pursuing (to greater extremes) a more multicultural society is a flaky argument indeed when the blood has not dried on the multicultural experiment known as the Ulster Plantation. But O’Toole does not explore the long term consequences of her arguments or her ideology. She applies the same tactics used by neocons to pull the rug from under the Palestinians. “You never existed, therefore you don’t exist.” “My interests have a basis, yours don’t.” As was pointed out earlier, this logic if applied consistently would make virtually all forms of social and self identification untenable. But of course nobody applies this kind of logic except to the service of their own narrow interests. The Israelis certainly don’t and neither do Liberal journalists. If on Monday we get an article telling us that there is no basis for an Irish identity, then on Tuesday we get an article telling us that Irish identity is defined as “open, tolerant and welcoming”. The sleight of hand is always the same. “My claim on Ireland (that claim being ‘openness’) is absolute. Your claim on Ireland (that claim being ‘rootedness’) is relative.”
It was the humanist filmmaker Jean Renoir who once told us, “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons”. But as we see today, Liberals have reasons and everyone else has prejudices. That in short is the moral consensus of our time. The superiority of the Liberal consensus never has to be proven. Emer O’Toole gets to play the hero and not the villain, regardless of whether her argument is any good or not. And since the target of her satire is not a power structure, she risks nothing. The same goes for Stewart Lee or Donal O’ Keeffe. On the other hand, the Nationalist must skirmish on two fronts, the logical and the moral. For he cannot rely on his moral premises being taken as a given. He may find that his logic is dismissed as immoral while his morality is dismissed as bad logic. Liberals have their reasons. Everyone else must fight for theirs.
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