Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Where do you start?

As if I couldn't be less enamoured with aspects of academia than I already am, this corker comes along to put the cherry on top. 

It's akin to to sort of stuff that was being pumped out around the turn of the 20th century, like this one, to counter the growth in awareness of Scotch-Irishness which was developing on both sides of the Atlantic. The early publications of the American Irish Historical Society had that as a stated aim (see here and search for 'Scotch'). Theodore Roosevelt's very carefully worded letter on page 27 is worth reading.

Today, added to the old familiar prejudices which are all too common on the island of Ireland, are the new-fangled issues of 'intersectionality' and 'critical theory' which manifest themselves in what some have called the 'oppression Olympics' – a race to the top of a kind of victimhood tree. Because today, if you can show that the group you identify with has been historically denied power and influence and status, at the top of that tree all of these and more will now be granted. It's a social justice beanstalk with a great big golden egg laying goose at the top.

The piece is peppered with loaded terminologies - 'so-called "Scotch-Irish"', 'Scotch-Irish myth', 'whiteness', 'racial constructs', 'domination', 'exploitation', 'imperial expansion', 'conquer and colonize' - you get the picture.

It must come as a mighty shock to Appalachians of Scotch-Irish descent, having been scorned and marginalised by élite whites as an underclass for nearly three centuries, (as Meredith McCarroll's fascinating new book Unwhite explores in terms of stereotypical film portrayals - link here) – to suddenly now find that some of today's élite whites have decided to do a complete 180˚ turn and insist that in actual fact the Scotch-Irish have been mighty oppressors all along. Scotch-Irish identity is apparently a construct of 'English colonialism'. A stunning article. And not in a good way. Where do you start?

The common thread is that it in both cases it is the privileged élites that get to do the defining, and their subjects who get to say nothing about these newly-acquired labels. Suddenly it's Rev Charles Woodmason in 1766 all over again – "the most lowest vilest crew breathing, Scotch Irish Presbyterians from the North of Ireland".

It is impossible to keep on top of today's campus madnesses. Our middle son, aged 16, is keeping a watchful eye on university antics as he is potentially heading to one in two years' time. He asked me recently if, as well as getting good A level grades, he should also become a communist to be accepted into one.

Ulster-Scots / Scots-Irish / Scotch-Irish studies remain pretty much a hobbyist interest. There is no 'sector' as is normally defined, but a small number of people are doing the best they can with limited resources. There is no climate of mainstream institutional respect even within the natural Ulster-Scots areas of Northern Ireland. Many local Councils even in those areas avoid the subject or give it a merely tokenistic acknowledgement. You'll look long and hard to find any significant mention within museums here. There is certainly no global infrastructure of well-funded university staff capable of thinking, writing, publishing, and making the case. There aren't even authoritative core texts which summarise the overall story. Meanwhile this is a particularly bizarre example of how the story is being selectively mined and misrepresented.

Apportioning fashionable early 21st century notions of guilt and blame to a selectively caricatured presentation of some ‘other’ people group, who are conveniently voiceless (whilst one's own people group is only ever pure and noble) is in itself an ironically colonial and imperialist endeavour. Academic privilege writ large. Punching down.