Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Preferred And Dispreferred Discriminations

     Via InstaPundit, we have this fascinating article:

     In 2002, University of Illinois-Chicago history professor Richard J. Jensen printed “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization.” His abstract begins:

     “Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming ‘Help Wanted—No Irish Need Apply!’ No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or nonexistent.”

     In short, those famous “No Irish Need Apply” signs—ones that proved Irish Americans faced explicit job discrimination in the 19th and 20th centuries? Professor Jensen came to the blockbuster conclusion that they never existed.

     The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months. Explainer websites this year used it to highlight popular myths of persecution complexes that are, as Vox put it, “stand-ins for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America.” That’s from the lede of an article printed in March called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: the fake sign at the heart of a real movement.”

     Here, of course, is the problem: After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca [Fried], a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.

     The Irish were persecuted in the American job market—and precisely in the overt, literally written-down way that was always believed.

     All of this would have been written off as a myth if it weren’t for Rebecca Fried, a rising high school freshman—who one of the preeminent scholars on the Irish diaspora in the United States now calls a “hero” and “quite extraordinary”—and who simply couldn’t believe it, either.

     Please read it all before continuing on here.


     The history of anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries has been well documented:

     Ralph Waldo Emerson put it rather inelegantly: the Irish were “deteriorated in size and shape, the nose sunk, the gum exposed...[they clearly] operated with diminished brain” (Knobel 1986, 120).They were “black vomit,” useful as “industrial guano” but nothing else (quoted by Smith 1899, 72). E. E. Hale was more analytical but no kinder: “Their inferiority as a race compels them to go to the bottom; and the consequence is that we are, all of us, the higher lifted because they are here.” (Hale 1852, 52-53) In 1848, the exquisitely patrician George Templeton Strong noted in his diary that the Irish had “prehensile paws supplied them by nature,” which made “the handling of the spade and the wielding of the pickaxe easy and natural. They had congenital hollows on the shoulder wonderfully adapted to make the carrying of the hod a luxury.” (Nevins 1953, voi.1, 318) Strong may have been half kidding, but Thomas Carlyle, whose social acuity Strong much admired, was not kidding at all when he wrote that the Irishman, in “his rags and laughing savagery...is there to undertake all the work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back.” It was a willingness to work—and nothing else—that commended the Irish.

     The above is just one of many citations I could provide. But along comes Professor Richard J. Jensen, he writes an article claiming the opposite, and voila! “The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months.” Yet a high school freshman with not credentials was able to amass a great deal of contrary evidence, using only Google – a feat that appears to have incited the professor to a fit of rage.

     I have no idea how Professor Jensen was originally drawn to speculating that anti-Irish sentiment and the attendant occupational discrimination against them was historically less than so many other scholars had believed. Nevertheless, he advanced that thesis rather aggressively and got a lot of concurrence from other academics. Were those other academics also historians with an interest in the subject? Unclear. What is clear is that this particular instance of ethnic discrimination was being denied by a swelling number of voices.

     Why? Academia being as strongly left-aligned as it has been for some time now, discrimination of any sort would seem to be a subject that would draw professional scholars’ intense interest and enthusiastic investigation. Nor is the historical record at all ambiguous on the subject. Yet they were ready and willing to pooh-pooh this particular instance of discrimination on the representation of a single colleague. It’s worth one’s time to ponder the possible reasons.


     Among Leftists, “the narrative” determines all other things, including which facts they’re willing to concede. I’ve ranted about this on several occasions:

     If there’s a clash between Leftists’ preferred narrative and the recognition of past discrimination against Irish immigrants, it would be “in character” for a Leftist to maintain that anti-Irish discrimination did not occur, or perhaps has been wildly overblown, a “myth.” My quandary is that no such clash is immediately apparent. Hasn’t the Left been notably pro-immigrant, at least in recent years? What would countervail that preference in this particular case?

     Perhaps the question should be reframed: Does the Left harbor an animus against the Irish, or against Americans of Irish descent, that trumps – for them – the historical facts of this matter?


     Ideology can make its holders incoherent. Every ideology, as Clarence Carson has told us, is a partial model of reality. That’s not a slam against ideology as such. All human conceptions are partial things. We’re incapable of producing a conception that models reality completely; it’s too big for us. But when facts arise that test the boundaries of an ideology and demonstrate its limits, the holder must be willing to admit that however strongly he believes in it, it nevertheless has a specific domain of application outside which it’s useless or worse. Not to do so is intellectually dishonest and arrogant.

     Leftist ideology has proved hostile to certain facts. The prevailing tendency among Leftists has been to attempt to ignore those facts – in extreme cases, to shout them down and to conduct campaigns of denunciation and intimidation against those who cite them. The diagnosis could not be simpler.

     My problem lies in finding the aspect of Leftism that makes the recognition of anti-Irish discrimination unpalatable. Is this not just one more example of the xenophobia the Left has criticized? Is this not merely one more expression of our “othering” tendency, our need to see ourselves as somehow superior to others? Where’s the clash – and what makes it so important that whole reams of American history must be effaced?

     Might it be that the Irish and their descendants are predominantly Catholic? Or is it that we’re a wee bit too...white?

     Food for thought.

2 comments:

  1. From what I read at other sites and gathered from some of his interviews, he set out with the theory that it was exaggerated/myth and looked for "facts" to back that up. Its been over 24-hours since I looked into it (which really isn't that long, but it seems like months when you are raising four boy), but he seem to think it was a fabrication of White Privilege.

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  2. A couple of years ago, a black friend of mine and I went to New Orleans. On the way back, we visited a plantation. After about 10 very awkward minutes where the tour guide tried to talk about the history of the plantation without mentioning slavery, my friend said that it was okay to acknowledge reality. The guide relaxed and continued the tour. The best part for me was when she described how work that was deemed "too dangerous" for the slaves was given to the Irish. The look on my friend's face was worth the price of admission. I'm Irish.

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