Oh, you’re Irish?

 

This blog has mainly been my thoughts on American politics and issues so far, but I feel the need to address something that isn’t necessarily an ‘American’ thing. I certainly haven’t experienced it in New York, or DC. I’m talking about meeting people who hear ‘Irish’, and react in ways that are… puzzling.

I’m sitting in a bank manager’s office, opening an account. As I don’t have a social security number, I need to fill out one or two extra forms. “I’m actually from Ireland, I just got married to an American”, I say by way of explanation. The manager’s eyes widen slightly, followed by a conspiratorial grin. I know what’s coming, and I mentally prepare my frozen rictus smile. “I know someone Scottish, you know. He’s been here years”.

In the post office, I’m sending a package home to my mother. The woman behind the counter glances at the package, and smiles. “I thought I heard an accent! I spent a summer in London.” I resist the urge to reply that some of my best friends are Canadians, and nod with a smile.

I have to return to the bank, I need to sign another document. It’s a different person this time, necessitating a quick recap of my situation. A quick businesslike nod, and the new manager goes to collect the form for me to sign. I have a palpable sense of relief. Too soon. The manager pops her head back around the door. “My brother married a welsh woman. They have a daughter. She has elf ears”. This is a new level. I’m not sure the blank, vaguely indulgent smile will cut it here. She’s waiting for a response. “… ehh, whereabouts in Wales is she from?” I spend the next 5 minutes avoiding my wife’s ‘you brought this on yourself’ face while the manager navigates her Facebook profile to pinpoint the exact town. (It was Brechin, you’ll be relieved to know. Brechin is in Scotland.)

My wife had a conversation with a pastor just yesterday who was absolutely adamant that Dublin was part of the UK, as it was in the North. Eventually he asked my wife ‘Where did you go to school?” “Dublin”, she replied.

These are all absolutely true stories. I’m leaving out the multitude of responses that are variations on “You’re Irish? I LOVE the UK!”, which is unquestionably going to be a contributory factor in the massive stroke that’s in the post for me.

Outsiders

Protest

In many ways, I’m an outsider in America. People are confused by my accent, I’m left baffled by certain customs and turns of phrase.

However, in a vitally important way, I am not. I can see police, talk to police, indeed have been stopped by police, without fear. This week has brought home in stark and sobering relief how this is not an assumption that millions of Americans can share. How can large swathes of the black community feel like anything other than outside the much lauded American justice system, with its notions of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and a ‘jury of your peers’?I have had conversations with people, black and white, who in response to Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown, have said some variation on ‘well he was no choirboy- you have to see it from the police officers point of view’.While I don’t agree with these arguments, I understand the urge to give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt. There is no video footage of the altercation, and people do seem to want to believe the best of those who are sworn to protect them- even though the benefit of the doubt is something not routinely offered to victims. But I cannot fathom how anyone looks at this case, and then at Tamir Rice, and then at Eric Garner, and fail to see that black lives are judged as less important than white in America. Search for the hashtags “crimingwhilewhite” and “alivewhileblack” to see the disparity in experiences, and ask yourself who isn’t showing ‘respect for the law’. Remember Jared Lee Loughner? Remember James Holmes? White men who committed murder, yet were subdued on the scene without being killed. They were arrested, processed, and availed of the help and protection offered by the American Justice system. Just to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that should be the procedure for everyone, as far as possible. Conservative websites and Fox News twist themselves into knots to simultaneously dismiss race as a factor (this is not a black/white issue, this is a thug/ police officer issue, one commentator said) while blaming Obama and Eric Holder for stoking racial tension. This may have been a useful strategy to demonise legitimate outrage and protest in Ferguson, but there is video footage of Eric Garner. He is agitated, but obviously not a threat to anyone, certainly not  the armed police who surround him. And how thuggish was Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy with a toy gun? These are not isolated cases; although official statistics are not kept. At what point do people start giving the victims the benefit of the doubt? At what point does a militarised police force who face no sanction for the murder of black children lose the benefit of the doubt? Peter Beinart in the Atlantic compares the case of Eric Garner with the summer’s conservative cause célèbre, Cliven Bundy, who was flouting the law for more than a decade, was heavily armed, and openly hostile to law enforcement. Try to find how many right wing commentators referred to Cliven Bundy as a ‘thug’.

The hypocrisy and double standards across media are not unique to America, and have long since ceased to be a surprise. But the lack of empathy people exhibit, the presumption that the overwhelming power given to police is not being abused, and the urge to shift blame onto the victim is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully wrap my arms around. In this, I want to remain, in my own safe and nonthreatening way, an outsider.

Black Friday Matters

Watching News Nation on MSNBC the morning after the no indictment for Darren Wilson, and Tamron Hall is interviewing one of the many nondescript newsbots who I’m sure jockied for position in front of the most picturesque smouldering building. Gesturing to the shell of the building behind him, he says “And this is the real tragedy here”. I paused, rewound, and played again. And again. I had heard correctly. A police officer killed an unarmed black teenager with what turned out to be impunity, unleashing an anger both understandable and justified, but property damage is something we can all agree is tragic.

I understand there is an argument that a venal media will naturally focus on the few instances of property damage, and that the protesters have to be effectively a hybrid of Jackie Robinson and the idea mainstream Americans have of MLK, but if there appears to be simply no sanction for the murder of black people, why should they expect a fair shake from any institution? There has been no let up in peaceful protests in Ferguson, although the violence has subsided. I watched MSNBC again this morning. Wall to wall Black Friday shopping stories and the arrival of the White House Christmas Tree.

The least bad option.

As I waited for the polls to close on November the 4th, on both MSNBC and Fox News, talk was turning to the impact these elections would have on the 2016 race. I mean, why not extrapolate to to 2020? How will this affect Chelsea Clinton’s daughter’s run in 2064? More evidence, not that it was necessary, that American media has utterly abdicated its responsibility, and what we have instead of actual information is simply the 114th season of congressional idol. (Perhaps big brother? See who gets voted out of the house next? Perhaps not). I turned off the television, and I admit, tuned out for the next fortnight. The notion that elections matter beyond whether the blue or red team win is becoming increasingly divorced from coverage, and people’s lived experience. However, the executive actions announced by Obama this past week show that, even if it’s only at the margins, even if it’s piecemeal, even if it was cynically postponed to mitigate the damage at the midterms, elections do matter. As someone who considers himself of the left, Obama has, to my mind, been a predictably centrist disappointment, but it’s worth remembering he has probably been the least bad option on every ballot.

Campaigning in small town America

As the American mid-term elections come to pass, every second advertisement in Maryland seems to be attacking Republican Larry Hogan or Democratic Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown. I was more interested in down-ticket campaigns and candidates, so I went to an NAACP-sponsored candidates forum in the town of Havre de Grace.

I walk into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. An unreasonably dapper man in a bow tie extends a hand, smiling- “Are you a candidate?” I glance down at my jeans, converse and frankly shabby t-shirt, and I immediately revise my expectations of the of the standard of candidate downwards. “No no, just an observer (without a vote, I neglect to add). I amble past tables of election literature, and notice that from these flyers, you would be utterly unable to discern what party any candidate was a member of. In fact, if you walked into the hall without any prior knowledge, you might reasonably assume these people were supporting two candidates, one called ‘Main Street’ running against the equally popular ‘Small Business’.

Ten minutes before the first panel is due to begin, I take my seat in the most comfortable church pew ever made. I look around, and I am the 4th person in the room. Judging by the amount of election pamphlets in the other room, candidates are going to comfortably outnumber voters, and I start to wrack my brain for the suitable bowling alone comments. By 6.30, however, there is a respectable, bordering on large crowd, and the NAACP chapter president opens procedings. The Pastor leads the room in prayer. I quickly stifle my knee-jerk First Amendment indignance; I am, after all, sitting in a church pew, surrounded by hymnals. There’s a time a place for the high horse, and I suspect this isn’t it. I look instead to the first panel, candidates for Sheriff, the Council, and County Executive. It could be a national piety contest. A row of furrowed brows, clasped hands, and eyes closed in fierce concentration on the pastors voice. As we move from the prayer to Pledge of Allegiance, there is a just barely dignified scramble as chairs are pushed back the flag is faced. No candidate wants to be seen as the last to press their hand over their heart. It would appear that Harford county residents have to make their electoral choices from a pool of the most devout, patriotic citizens in the entire country.

The event itself is nondescript, which in itself is perhaps a testament to the pull of the NAACP. Even with a hour for each panel, the sheer volume of candidates means that beyond a simple two minute stump speech, there is no real time for questions, certainly not for follow-up. The platitudes are as anodyne as they are predictable, and although some candidates mention their party affiliation, it remains difficult to tell Democrats and Republicans apart. In the introduction, the merits of a well informed electorate was touted, but it seemed to me that this forum did very little to inform the audience, save to put into stark relief the lack of real choice available. The only moments that deviated from orthodoxy came from fringe candidates, greens and libertarians. No coherent left (or indeed right) wing position was laid out. There is some token resistance to NSA programs, but the largest round of applause comes from a stout defence of the right to snoop on ill-defined ‘terrorists’. Everyone is against taxes, for job creators, and abhors ‘partisan politics’. Indeed, one of the most common refrains is “I’m not a politician”. Really? Because you’re sitting at a candidates forum, asking people to vote for you to hold elective office. Seems… political to me.

The forum ends with the school board panel. I submit a question- Do you believe in evolution, yes or no?- but it isn’t asked. Instead, a question about getting greater church involvement in schools is asked, and again, the candidates line up to display their love and commitment to erasing the barrier between church and state. Not one suggests that perhaps it’s inappropriate. A final prayer rounds out the evening, and I leave, wondering who a left wing atheist could possibly vote for. I’m still wondering.