How Fish Became Irish

Written May 23, 2010

A critique of Stanley Fish’s “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White

This is the third, and last, in my trilogy of reviews of anti-racist narratives.Originally it was going to be a review of Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White“. I simultaneously read Stanley Fish’s collection of essays “There’s no Such Thing as Free Speech… and it’s a good thing too“, and decided to incorporate a critique of this influential work too.Valdas Anelauskas first introduced me to critical race theory. He is critical of it, to put in mildly. He sees it as an attack on freedom and the white race. I have a much milder view, despite attempts by dishonest critics to amalgamate he and I. My main concern is how ‘anti-racism’ as currently constructed makes a critique of Jewish racism difficult, thus hindering the advance of a movement against the most egregious form of racism in the Western world, Zionism. I criticise critical race theory for its internal contradictions, rather than just saying it’s wrong.I first encountered ‘How the Irish Became White‘ at a reading group.

The other people in the group were anarchists, interested in going beyond boring old class-based politics to a more modern (or post-modern) approach, informed by the perspectives of women, people of color, the transgendered, queers and other marginalised communities, opposing the racism, homophobia, ablism, patriarchy and heterosexism implicit in sexed discourses such as Marxism, fascism, and thermodynamics.Seriously, these anarchists wanted to incorporate historical perspectives other than Marxism into their view of the world, such as critical race theory and feminism. I am prepared to look at anything serious, all the way from Noel Ignatiev to Kevin MacDonald. Serious intellectual inquiry eschews censorship. If a statement is valid and scientific, its opposite is equally valid and scientific. If ‘the abolition of the white race‘ (Ignatiev) is a valid political goal, so is the defence of the white race. This does not mean either of them is a good idea. Personally, I don’t care if, in forty years time, North America no longer has a white European majority. But those who do care are entitled to care.

More to the point, these European anarchists were quite happy studying a Jewish communist who wants to abolish white privilege. When I suggested we study Jewish privilege, they went postal. In spite of their superficial radicalism, they had inside them the official story of World War II, and deep sympathy for the plight of Jews, even today, now that Jews are the only people with their own apartheid state.I gradually discovered that critical race theory is designed to tackle white racism, but not Jewish racism. Since the latter is much stronger than the former, this seems to me misplaced. It’s not just an academic dispute either. They teach anti-white studies all over the country (except Arizona :- ) and hordes of young people go around saying things like
its this idea that when I hear someone saying something homophobic (like that’s so gay) or something sexist, I need to confront them, I need to make it known that what that person said is not okay, and, like, when people make rape jokes or say bigoted things, we have to call them out, because, you know, if you take any sort of class in activism, women and gender studies, ethnic studies, etc., you learn this
and opposing freedom of speech, one of the greatest achievements of our great, Western, Anglo-Saxon society.

Stanley Fish is a major legal scholar. Unlike the authors of ‘Words That Wound‘, I find some of his arguments non-trivial to refute. I admit straight away I am going to answer the positions I feel able to answer, though I am aware that these are probably his weakest. His introduction is an intervention in the cultural civil war currently raging in America, and I am as entitled to get stuck in as he is. Whether I do as good a job is for the reader to decide.

There is one idea he puts forward which I both understand and agree with: his practical, instrumental approach to free speech. I support it because of its application (Popper) and not because of its intrinsic value (Mill and Madison). However, I am in favor of it. Fish isn’t.

I also admire Fish as a Milton scholar. I do think he is ahistorical when criticizing Milton’s politics. He uses an apparently contradictory defense of freedom by Milton as a model

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate” (from Aereopagitica, cited by Fish on page 103)

but misses Milton’s argument. Milton makes clear he opposes freedom for popery, because it is against freedom. Catholics had recently burned Protestants at the stake, and were conspiring with the French to overthrow Parliament and reintroduce theocracy. Milton’s intolerance of Catholicism is defence of freedom. Catholics are tolerated in Britain today, but they had to be crushed first. Some of them still don’t get it. Britain’s chief Papist recently denounced ‘multiculturalism’, unaware that he and his coreligionists were the first beneficiaries of this generous policy.

Fish says that “all affirmations of freedom of expression are like Milton’s, dependent for their force on an exception that literally carves out the space in which expression can then emerge“. In other words, he thinks he doesn’t disagree with Milton. But what he misses is that Milton wants to ‘extirpate’ the enemies of freedom. To what extent can freedom defend itself against its enemies? Most of us are as afraid of this question as we are afraid of Jewish supremacy – the very question reminds us of McCarthyism. The opponents of freedom at the University of Oregon – anarchists and Zionists – claim to be opposing speech with more speech, but that is not their real agenda. Some of them shout ‘fuck freedom of speech‘, some of them claim “it’s a safety issue”, some of them make so much noise you cannot hear the speaker, and others call the Forum a ‘hate group’ and try to get it barred from campus. What these people are doing is not freedom of speech. It is an attack on freedom of speech. Like Milton’s Protestants, we are entitled to defend ourselves.

On page 9, Fish makes it sound as if opposition to political correctness is usually the dishonest defense of pretendedly universal, but actually particularistic, values against honestly particular perspectives. In fact, opposition to political correctness is an attempt to defend freedom against its enemies. Fish refers to his conservative opponents as ‘neo-conservative’. He claims that neo-conservatives believe “any policy that takes race into consideration is equivalent to any other policy that takes race into consideration, Nazis equivalent to Israeli hard-liners…” (page 11). Real neo-conservatives don’t believe that!

On the contrary, the Jewish neo-conservative cult is happy to use political correctness when it serves its interests. Ignatiev thinks it’s so obvious that Israelis, even hard-liners, are better than Nazis, he doesn’t need to explain it. And he unthinkingly denounces those who equate the two. This is an example of how American left-wing political correctness serves Israeli interests.

The most important insight I gained from Fish is the explicit link to Zionism. Whereas Matsuda, in “Words That Wound“, merely says that Zionism isn’t always racist – “to the extent that any racial hostility expressed within a Zionist context is a reaction to historical persecution, it is protected under the doctrinal scheme suggested in this chapter” – Fish bases his theory, that you can only end discrimination by means of discrimination, on a defense of Zionism by president George Bush Senior. At the beginning of essay 4, on page 60, Fish spells out the link between Zionism and critical race theory better than I could have dreamed:

I take my text from George Bush, who, in an address to the United Nations on September 23, 1991, said this of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism: ‘Zionism… is the idea that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people… and to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and indeed throughout history‘.

Fish agrees with Bush, and he extends this special pleading into the advocacy of affirmative action against white people (affirmative action is always against someone). Most of the world says Zionism is a form of racism, period. The United Nations has tried to help the Palestinians, based on this insight. The USA sabotages these efforts. George Bush had learned his place – when he said the Lobby is powerful, he was called ‘anti-semitic’ and forced to apologize. The above speech is a further example of his grovelling – but it wasn’t enough – he still lost the election of 1992. And Stanley Fish adopts this logic, and its conclusion, uncritically – in fact he decides to use it to explain how, if Zionism isn’t racist, well, undermining white privilege isn’t racist either. If you look at history, he says, you can see that the Jews were more sinned against than sinning, and from this, he deduces discrimating in favor of black Americans is good.

I don’t care whether affirmative action is ‘racist’ or not. I don’t mind if a black student gets a college place instead of a white one. Compared with the plight of the Palestinians, what Jewish power does to us is insignificant. But its this power that sends our money to Israel. I care about opposing Zionism, the most explicit form of racial discrimination in the Western world today. I am interested in the Herculean task of cleansing society of the ideas promoted by Fish and co. by exposing the Jewish interests that lie behind them. I thank Fish for making that task a lot easier than I thought.

In the area where Fish is an accomplished traditional academic, the study of John Milton, he doesn’t take as postmodernist a view as he might. I would love to teach a critical studies approach to Milton. I would incorporate Paradise LostLolita and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. I won’t explain the connection – see if you can work it out.

Now Noel Ignatiev’s ‘How the Irish Became White‘.

Again, I don’t follow Valdas Anelauskas’s critique. Ignatiev has a group called ‘The New Abolitionists’ which advocates the end of the white race: ‘treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity‘. Anelauskas takes ideas too literally – he thinks this nonsense is some kind of threat. My point, to reiterate, is not to oppose anti-racism per se, but only inasmuch as it helps Zionism.

He starts by defending the leftist view on race: “no biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of ‘race’“. Never mind that Darwin’s great work was originally called “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life“. He didn’t mean it, of course. At least, not with regard to human beings. Finches might have races, or sub-species, and they might compete, but not humans. Humans are special. But hang on – wasn’t Darwin’s greatest insight that humans are not special? OK, let’s try something else: the idea that human beings are divided into different races which might compete is extremely dangerous, therefore it must be factually wrong. Oh, but isn’t that a logical fallacy? OK, if I write this and publish it on the internet I’ll be called a ‘racist’ and this might put me in danger. That’s a logical argument I can understand!

Ignatiev uses a sleight of hand to de-biologise the concept of race, and make it a social construction. He says no biologist has defined it. The exact boundaries of a ‘race’ are always vague, but this does not make it a meaningless concept. The boundaries of a ‘family’ are vague too, but most people identify with people closely related to them. They may also identify with people not quite so closely related to them. That’s race. Exactly where you draw the line is a difficult question, depending on circumstances. But race exists, and ethnic identity is adaptive. This does not mean it is the right thing to do – but it does mean it should be discussed rationally, not pathologised. Those who seek to make one particular identity pathological should be regarded with suspicion. Notice that I don’t try to pathologise Zionism. That would be dishonest.

Ignatiev doesn’t need to worry about logic and biology. He can rely on our paranoia about ‘racism’, embedded in us by our culture, promoted by him and his predecessors, since, at the latest, the end of World War II.

Promoted, not just by self-serving Jewish leftist ideologists such as Ignatiev, but by brilliant scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, putting science aside when necessary for the political agenda.

The time has come to bring Darwin back into respectable society, to make race and the Jewish question legitimate areas of discussion.

Ignatiev’s thesis depends on contrasting the position of white Irish immigrants with black slaves in Africa. He could also contrast them with the Cheyenne, or the English upper class. It all depends. By contrasting their fate with that of black people, he makes it look like they accepted ‘privilege’. They were better off than they were in Ireland, and they were better off than some people in America.

Most Irishmen were in the Northern states. Why should they care about slavery, which to them, was a world away? It’s like saying I should be concerned about what’s going down in the Sudan, otherwise I’m privileged.

This consideration became particularly acute in 1861, when South Carolina seceded. Soon the other Southern states joined it, Lincoln assumed the presidency, and the civil war began. If I was in New York in 1861, I would first try “working men! don’t fight for your bosses!”. If that didn’t work, I’d say “white men! don’t fight for the interests of slaves!“. It’s not true that all’s fair in love and war, but all’s fair when it comes to avoiding war.

Progressives from Marx to Ignatiev have meataphorically sacrificed innocent white people for the ideals of capitalist progress.

At a meeting in Boston in 1842, an Irish-American agitator announced that “slavery strikes at the interests of every working man“. Well, yes, but not as much as war.

It’s a great history book – one of the best of its kind on 19th. century Irish America, and how Irish Americans travelled from being a doubly-oppressed class in Ireland – poor and Irish – to just being poor. It reminds me of E.P. Thomson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class‘, a masterpiece of history used to promote a reformist agenda.

The oppression of the Irish by Britain is a terrible story, but the British and their Protestant allies in Ulster were not being completely irrational. Their fear of Catholics had a real basis.

Underlying his argument is the assumption that poor whites ‘ought’ to oppose slavery. Well, yes. I ought to oppose whatever is going on in the Congo right now, and I could probably have more influence on it if I dedicated the rest of my life to it than an Irish-American worker could have abolished slavery if he had done the same. But I don’t. So I can’t be as moralistic as Ignatiev.

Some of the Irish politicians compared the abolition of slavery with the campaign for Irish independence, and said they didn’t want ‘blood-stained money’ from the slave states (page 29) – is there any other kind?

Like Tim Wise in “White Like Me“, he admits that the British abolished slavery in 1833, but then he describes the debate within the transatlantic Irish leadership about whether to support abolition or not, depending on whether it would help Irish independence. Slavery was an absolute evil, whereas Irish independence is a rearrangement of the political structure of the British Isles. It is self-indulgent to put them on the same level.

Like most Americans, Ignatiev whines about the persecution of Catholics in Ireland by Protestants without noticing its historical background; the persecution of Protestants by British Catholics.

Ignatiev notes the similarity between two legal rulings (page 41)

    “the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic” 

and, a century later in the USA,

    “the Negro has no rights a white man is bound to respect”

but the difference is enormous. The judge writing the first case knew there were Catholics, but gave them no rights. The second was implementing the idea that a section of humanity is not fully human. To be on the receiving end of these extreme forms of discrimination must have been horribly humiliating and even fatal, but they have completely different origins and aims. Ignatiev condemns ‘Papist’ as a discriminatory tern, without considering any rational basis to it.

This brings me to Stanley Fish and Milton. Fish is a Miltonist, and I admire him for this. But I have to challenge his political attack on Milton for stating it is obvious that papacy should be persecuted. All Milton is saying is that freedom has to defend itself.

Ignatiev’s whole discussion is underlain by contempt for racial identity. He invites us to sneer at 19th. century opponents of race-mixing, and praise those who transcended this idea. But he doesn’t explain why.

There is a debate about teaching Huckleberry Finn. The great novel by Mark Twain contains the n-word, so some teachers have argued that, rather than having to explain the context to year after year of concerned African-American parents, its better to drop the book and find others that are just as good and not as offensive.

Ignatiev reminds us of the passage in the book where Huck Finn decides to go to Hell rather than betray his black friend back into slavery. Pretty good for 1885. Enough white guilt already!


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