Actually, we are not God's Own People in America
Sunday Independent, April 2nd 2006
KATHARINE Hepburn had it right: "Never complain, never explain." It's a philosophy all journalists should strive to emulate. If you're privileged enough to have a platform to communicate your views on various matters to readers, you shouldn't whinge if certain of them don't like what you say; and if you are wilfully misquoted or misread, then you shouldn't rush around trying to explain yourself to every howling detractor because, frankly, life's way too short and the world population of the perennially affronted much too vast.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and now I find that the Irish-born Dr Patrick Carroll of the University of California's Department of Sociology thinks I should be "fired, if not exiled from Ireland" for certain indubitably scabrous, sarcastic comments made recently in these pages about illegal Irish immigrants in the US.
Hang on, did I say illegal immigrants? Scrap that. If Nigerians and Poles come to Ireland without the proper authorisation, they're illegal immigrants. If we Irish do the same in other countries, then we are merely "undocumented". It makes it sound as if the lack of documentation is nothing but an unfortunate administration error.
Professor Carroll isn't the only one who wants to defend the, ahem, "undocumented" Irish in the US. The Irish Pastoral Center in Quincy, Massachusetts, not only wrote to this newspaper to complain, as is their absolute right, they also complained to the Irish Times as well. Barking up the wrong tree there, dears. Next time John Waters says something that annoys them, what are they going to do? Kick up a stink to the RTE Guide?
The details of the dispute are not necessarily significant. Basically, they're mightily offended at suggestions that Irish illegals are often racist, IRA-supporting, tax-evading scoundrels, and I think it's great fun to annoy the intellectual Murphia in Irish America by saying that they are, even if they aren't.
It's about delivering a much-needed kick up the pieties at a time when people back home are falling over themselves to show solidarity with this supposed lost tribe of our fellow countrymen stranded in desperate straits in . . . well, the world's most dynamic society and advanced economy, since you ask. Poor lambs.
A few points. If the illegal Irish in America already pay all their taxes, why did the Irish Government put its weight behind a proposal to let them gain legal status after six years once they paid their back taxes and a fine? And if the Irish in America were not a source of comfort and finance for Sinn Fein/IRA, why did republicans make such regular visits to the country for decades? It sure wasn't because they liked the taste of corned beef and cabbage.
The Irish Pastoral Center has a fair point to make, namely that "we can never forget our Irish abroad". We shouldn't. But nor should we expect everybody else to regard their situation with the same degree of sentiment and urgency.
That's the real problem with the whole debate on Irish illegals. It's the notion that somehow they are a class apart who should be treated differently from the other 11 million illegal immigrants in the US at present. Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, et al, have just as much or as little right to be in America as we have, and yet the tone adopted by the Irish when they talk about this is, as one American blogger remarked lately, "filled with a sense of entitlement, as if America is their spare country".
One reader immediately proved him right by responding that the Irish should be allowed to stay because we're "good, honest, hard-working creative, funny people and we deserve better". As if no other race on earth possesses any of these same qualities.
This is not about illegal immigration so much as the eternal Irish inability to stop thinking of ourselves as a race specially favoured by the Almighty. In Ireland, we may get away with pretending to be God's Own People with a wisdom and history and spirit unlike any other. In America, we just have to accept that we are one small stitch in a huge tapestry. The attitude that the other races should meekly take their places behind us in the queue purely because we are Irish and we built the skyscrapers and invented Guinness and sing such lovely songs and, sure, aren't we great crack altogether, irritates not just bloggers but other immigrants too.
The New York Sun was first to report the growing resentment of other ethnic groups at the political strings that are pulled by the Irish in an effort to get special treatment. You can hardly blame them.
Across the US, there are massive demonstrations by Hispanics, in particular, against plans to crack down on illegal immigrants. They see such measures as being aimed specifically at them. Many others resent illegal workers for, as they see it, pushing down wages. Many on the left think illegals, by being such easy fodder for the ruling classes, are inadvertently perpetuating an unjust social and economic system.
The arguments are complex and wide-ranging, but all we ever see is an Irish story. We seem to think "US" stands for "us" rather than "United States". This kind of solipsism is bad enough at home. In a country where so many other immigrants have fled to escape persecution, war, religious and political intolerance, and appalling poverty in search of a better life, suffering hardships and deprivations that we cannot begin to imagine, it's practically obscene to try to muscle to the head of the queue.
Thankfully, President Bush has so far remained unmoved by the entreaties of the Irish-American lobby, partly no doubt because he has little rapport with Irish America and also because so much of his support comes from the Hispanic community, which he is understandably reluctant to alienate by offering special treatment to illegals from one of the most prosperous nations on earth.
He also doesn't do that touchy-feely thing that Clinton perfected (Bill once punched the air during St Patrick's Day and yelled, "I feel more Irish each day!"), which, depending on one's taste, is either a shame or a relief.
I find it refreshing to have a US president who intends to treat the Irish the same as everyone else, and not get all misty-eyed just because his ancestors once lived in a cottage in Co Whatever.
That shouldn't be too hard for us to understand. It's in our own constitution: "All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law." The principle of equality should be no less precious over there than over here.
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