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The Blood Lust of Identity

Another reason for a European sense of impotence is the utter dependency for its security on the US. This, and the huge success of US commercial enterprise, makes Europeans feel more and more peripheral. As is true in the non-West, this doesn’t affect the average consumer of Coca-Colonization so much as artists and intellectuals, who see it as their role to define, guard, and express “identity,” be it regional, national, or spiritual. This is why Hollywood is seen as such a threat, especially in France; it has swamped our markets and invaded our histories. It has, in the words of a character in an early Wim Wenders film, “colonized our minds.”

In a way, non-Americans are in the position of Germans at the time of Napoleon’s greatest victories. France was dominant not only in arts and culture, but in military affairs. What was most annoying to German poets and thinkers was France’s claim to universality. French values were universal values. Similar claims are being made for America today. There are several ways outsiders can react. They can follow alternative forms of universalism, such as communism or Islamism. They can retreat into romantic nativism, celebrating the national soul, and so on. Or they can boost their confidence by expanding their political freedoms, and taking more responsibility for themselves. There are instances of all three in recent history. But the last decade has shown how often believers can switch their creeds without losing any of their zeal. Some revolutionary socialists began as fervent Catholics, only to become rabid nativists. Amin Maalouf may not have all the answers to such dangers, but he is a rare voice of sanity in this murderous discord.

2.

Maalouf does not go into this, but some of the worst instances of romantic nativism and identity chatter occur in the heart of the metropole itself. Tom Hayden was born in Wisconsin. His great-grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. His parents craved and achieved conventional, midwestern, middle-class American respectability. They attended the Catholic Church but only because it was what they were expected to do. Hayden reacted in the manner of some other sons of respectable American folks: he became a 1960s rebel, was a founder of SDS, led protests against the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights, was one of the Chicago Seven, became a California legislator, and married a movie star. He was far more prominent than most, but, apart from marrying Jane Fonda, his life path was not all that unconventional for a man of his generation.

Then, in 1968, roughly twenty years before the Soviet Empire collapsed and former Communists, such as Slobodan Milosevic, became nationalists, Hayden, in his own phrase, had “an epiphany,” and “discovered that [he] was Irish on the inside.” The moment of revelation came in Northern Ireland, while he was watching marchers sing “We Shall Overcome.” Epiphany developed into a case of full-blown blood-and-soil nationalism, precisely the kind of thing German poets and thinkers adopted to resist the preeminence of France. All the clichés of the genre are there in Hayden’s account. He quotes various Irish sages to the effect that Irish culture is very ancient, older in fact “than the English or even imperial Roman cultures.” The Irish soul, filled with mysticism and “otherworldliness that challenge modernity,” is “like an ancient forest.” (Such woody imagery is always a giveaway for neo-Wagnerian passions.)

Hayden’s inner Irishman is particularly stirred (“my blood still heats involuntarily”) by the poets of national soul who celebrate violent rebellions. One such, Patrick Pearse, wrote a famous funeral ode to O’Donovan Rossa, leader of an armed campaign against the British in the 1880s. Hayden writes: “I was touched by Pearse’s summoning of a mystical courage, rooted in an ancient heroic tradition, so lacking in the world I inhabited.”2 The subject of Hayden’s admiration, Pearse, was a religious fanatic, who saw Ireland’s fate in messianic terms: ancestral ghosts had to be appeased with bloody sacrifice.3 As it happens, Pearse was the son of an English father and Irish mother; so much for Maalouf’s confidence in the natural tolerance fostered by multiple identities.

The unheroic boredom of American affluence drives the reborn Irishman to the old sod once more, where, haunted by ancestral traumas, Hayden sits at the feet of hard men from the IRA, whose every appearance in his book is a cue for haloes to glow in the dark. There, in the glass-strewn streets of Derry or Belfast with the smell of cordite in his florid Irish nose, Hayden feels he can finally live up to his name. Hayden, we learn, is from Ó hAodain, which means “the person of the flame.”

Now, why would a successful American wish to become an Irish fanatic? Or, put in another way, why would an activist of the New Left adopt all the romantic clichés of the Old Right? Perhaps there is a parallel here with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Socialist communitarianism, never a winner in the US, was an utterly lost cause by the 1980s. After 1989 the dream was dead. Identity politics, which began with Black Power in the 1960s, began more and more to replace it. Assimilation was the enemy now, the domestic version of US imperialism. Hayden claims that non-WASPs who aspire to become mainstream Americans are self-hating and in deep denial about their “stolen identities,” like colonial subjects trying to be like their white masters. Much of the book is about his own efforts to shed the “trauma” of assimilation, and to convince himself and his readers that to be Irish is to be nonwhite. Already by page twelve, Hayden has yoked the fate of the Irish to those of the Jews and African-Americans. They had the Holocaust and slavery. The Irish had the Famine. Hayden lobbied to get the Famine included in Californian social science textbooks, for then “our trauma would be recognized alongside those of African Americans, the Jews, the Armenians, and others who had demanded a place in classroom texts.”

The history of the Famine should be among the subjects taught in school, but this jockeying for a place in the charts of victimhood is not only unseemly but also deeply narcissistic. It is really all about “me,” the Person of the Flame, drinking alcohol “to fill a void in my soul that assimilation had caused,” and “me” recovering my “Irish (or racial) identity” from “forced amnesia through the experience of suffering.” Hayden, in his vulgar Freudian angst, actually sounds more like a bored Californian than a poor, suffering Irishman. He also does precisely what Maalouf deplores, which is to give absolute priority to just one aspect of his personal identity. When Hayden applies it to others, this tendency is even more extreme. He claims that Che Guevara had an “Irish soul” because of his Irish great-grandfather. As Conor Cruise O’Brien said: “Irish cultural nationalism is a rum business: probably the rummest form of cul-tural nationalism that has ever existed anywhere.”4

What does Irishness mean in this peculiar fantasyland? This is where things get seriously muddled. Not only does Hayden reduce complex identities to an Irish soul, but he jams his Irishness into a very narrow box. He becomes “painfully aware that all my innermost thoughts and verbal communications were in the language of my colonizer.” So he has a stab at Gaelic: “How could one fight for ‘Irish identity’ without including the ancient language…?” Well, indeed. Alas, however, this was a battle already fought and lost more than a hundred years ago. And Gaelic was in any case too much of a bother for Hayden to learn. So thank goodness that the greatest Irish writers of the twentieth century all wrote in the tongue of the oppressor.

Hayden’s Irish soul really comes down to two things: the trauma of the Famine, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, which, in his view, is simply a continuation of the heroic war against the ancient English foe. The historic Irish sages and rebels who fired Hayden’s imagination are reincarnated in the likes of Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams. Irishmen such as Conor Cruise O’Brien, who hold more skeptical views of the sectarian battles, are dismissed as “self-hating” patsies of the colonial power. Irish-Americans who have similar doubts are also deemed to have trampled on their Irish souls. Hayden, then, is like those Jewish Americans who denounce every Jew with reservations about Ariel Sharon as a self-hater. Or, conversely, like those bigots everywhere who believe that Jews cannot be patriots, since their only loyalty is to God’s chosen tribe.

I wonder, also, where this leaves the rest of us, especially in the US? If our true selves are shaped by ancestral traumas and ancient feuds, what about a person whose veins contain Scottish, English, and Polish blood? Should he or she mourn the dead of Culloden one day, curse the Russians on the next, and toast the Queen on Sunday? Is a Roosevelt only true to himself if he remembers the Spanish oppressing the Dutch? Should Donald Rumsfeld be celebrating his German soul, with Fichte and the Meistersinger providing a chorus against the French? And I had always thought the main reason so many people flocked to America was to be rid of such nonsense.

To reduce a nationality (for what else can Irishness be, except to a racist?) to a sectarian political cause is grotesque. But it is Hayden’s use of Northern Ireland as the playground for his own psychodrama that is truly revolting. Much of the book is devoted to several trips to the windy battlefronts of the North. One of his aims is to show his young son, Troy O’Donovan Garity, his “roots.” Troy, named after an Irish rebel and a Vietnamese who plotted to kill Robert MacNamara, is taught to fear the British enemy as part of his education. Approaching an army checkpoint, he cries out: “Dad, don’t call me Irish because the soldiers will shoot me.” His proud dad notes: “He was learning that his roots could get him killed.”

And consider, for a moment, the following sentences from Hayden’s account of his identity tourism. It is 1976. Hayden and Troy are in Belfast:

There were 180 shooting incidents that month in Belfast, according to the Republican News…. At the same time, my own personal war with assimilation was going well. West Belfast was where Irish identity was being contested and reclaimed. Troy was face to face with his heritage.

My own personal war…,” Troy’s “heritage”…Adams and McGuiness may be hard men with a violent past, but they deserve better than this. There is more at stake in Northern Ireland than “identity.” If it were only about identity, the conflict really would be insoluble, for if the republicans should be true to their Irish roots, why should the Loyalists not be equally true to their British roots? Or is Hayden suggesting that they go back to the land of their ancestors, which for many of them would be Scotland? In fact, the conflict is as much about social discrimination as it is about religion or political rights. How to find a political solution which safeguards the interests of the Catholic minority as well as the Protestants is extremely difficult. To see it as a colonial war, as Hayden does, which would be solved as soon as the hated enemy goes home, is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. But one doesn’t have to be a Sinn Fein sympathizer to regard the treatment of their battles as a form of personal therapy for American visitors as an insult.

If the main problems with Hayden’s brand of romanticism were bad history and woolly politics (he contrives to enlist his battles over the Irish soul in today’s fashionable struggles with multinationals and globalization), this would make the author look foolish, but that would be that. In fact, his thinking, or rather, his feeling, is more lethal. It is exactly what justifies violence in the name of identity. Like his hero, Patrick Pearse, Hayden is haunted by bloodthirsty ghosts. He is not alone. There are Sikhs in Toronto, Muslims in Britain and France, Jews in Brooklyn, and many others in far-flung places who seek to sooth ancestral voices by encouraging barbarism far from home. Some are prepared to die for their causes. Most are content to let others do the dying, while they work on their identities at home.

  1. 2

    All this talk of soul, mystical heroism, and higher causes smacks of what Avishai Margalit and I termed “Occidentalism” in an earlier article in these pages; see The New York Review, January 17, 2002. It is one more indication that Occidentalism has no geographical boundaries.

  2. 3

    Before an anti-British rebellion in 1916, Pearse wrote that Irish suffering reminded him of King David’s aspiration: “That thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and that the tongue of thy dogs may be red through the same.”

  3. 4

    Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994), p. 87.

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