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Fellow Travelers and Other Strangers

You’d think experiencing hardship and prejudice due to your ethnic identity or nationality would make you more tolerant or sympathetic to a group of people in your midst encountering these. Especially if the differences between you are slight — so that the world sees you as sharing more similarities than differences.

The Irish have had more than their share of hardship and tragedy — from invasion by Cromwell in the 18th Century to rebellion and the more recent Troubles. As Yeats wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.1

Ironically, now the Irish themselves – some of them, anyway — lack sympathy with a group among them who call themselves the Travelers.

The Travelers are not Gypsies, or Roma. They are a distinct group that has existed for hundreds of years throughout Ireland and Great Britain. (One group made its way to South Carolina.) They have strong family connections, and have made their their living traditionally as itinerant tinkers, traveling from town to town repairing small items. Sometimes by stealing. They are a small group, ethnically distinct by one definition; maybe not so much by another. They use their own language, Cant, which at times their hosts proposed to outlaw, as was tried with Welsh and Gaelic. Given their small numbers, the Travelers seem not worthy of much attention by international groups and individuals (government officials, reporters, ‘advocates’). One thing’s clear: no one in Ireland seems to want them in their backyard.

Bridget O'Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

Bridget O’Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

In October the New York Times reported a fire that killed ten people in a Travelers’ encampment in Carrickmines, Ireland, near Dublin. The dead included five children and a pregnant woman. The town – with a name redolent of Irish labor and suffering – contains a fragment of an ancient castle built to protect the invading English from marauding Irish tribes. (It was subsequently used as a piggery.) Encampment, summons up associations ancient and more recent — from Celtic nomads, to the Irish monks setting sail to the Shetland Islands and Scandinavia and (possibly to America) in curraghs, to Famine ships carrying human cargo, and now Syrian refugees fleeing to Hungary and Germany.

Following the destruction of the fire in Carrickmines and shock of their fellow Travelers’ deaths, the survivors sought a new location to settle. Those in the surrounding community who at first expressed sympathy refused to extend that sympathy to allowing Travelers a place to live. Local residents in Dublin  blocked access to a temporary location being prepared for them.

No doubt the situation is complex. How do you create a inclusive community with those who stubbornly refuse to assimilate – who are in fact perceived as a threat? But this has always been the case. In America the dance of assimilation bred as much intolerance as tolerance as each group of immigrants made its way. The Irish showed little sympathy to Italian and Slovak immigrants. Neither group sympathized much with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality. 19th-century illustrations by Thomas Nast depicted Irish immigrants as violent, apelike savages.

Political cartoons during the Red Scare of the 1920s characterized Eastern European and other immigrants as bomb-wielding radicals and Bolshies. In the 1950s McCarthy-era rhetoric charged ‘fellow travelers’ as consorting with communists bent on the destruction of American democracy – which some were. It’s a short leap to the terrorists of today.

My own family, illiterate coal miners who ranged between Edinburgh and Belfast, arrived in the U.S. before the First World War. They traveled to Indiana to mine coal and then to Pittsburgh, where my grandmother was born in 1909. She was the first in her family to attend college and became an elementary school teacher – a vocation my own daughter follows.

The Irish have always been travelers, great fighters, and great laborers, willing to take the dirty, dangerous work that others would not, and live in dirty, dangerous places. I have seen their handiwork and witnessed their graves on my own travels cycling and canoeing the Erie and C&O Canals.

In 1844 I arrived upon the fateful shore.
I left the land that was no more
To work upon the railway2

Erie Canal Graves

Cemetery at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal (Photo by the Author)

The truth is we are all travelers, making our way existentially and physically through the world, seeking a home. It’s clear from recent events that some pursue their journey less benignly than others.

Articles in the Irish Times have highlighted entrenched attitudes about the Travelers: among these that they are antisocial criminals, that they are uneducated. Money allocated to create settlements for Travelers remains unspent to opposition from their fellow Irish. One resident near Dublin said, “They just don’t live the same way we do….That’s not a slant on them. It’s just a fact.” “We just don’t want them here,” and, “No one in the country would accept this.”

These 21st-Century words echo those heard and published during the 19th Century. The Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s, The Great Hunger – An Gorta Mor — killed thousands and sent millions fleeing to American, Canada, New Zealand and other countries. In Great Britain the general attitude was good riddance to their strange ways and tragic lives – contributed to by Britain’s own poor laws and policies of discrimination dating from Cromwell’s day.

inbusinessAs Cecil Woodham-Smith writes in The Great Hunger:

The wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English antipathy toward the native Irish. … “No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt.”

No doubt my ancestors and their acquaintances were among those discriminated against. In America they were met with political cartoons and rhetoric emphasizing their antisocial behavior, their ignorance, profligacy, religion, language, criminality and otherness.

Now we witness refugees fleeing Syria and the Travelers in Ireland seeking a home. Questions of Illustrated London Newsimmigration policy arise once again in the long-winded rhetoric surrounding the windup to the U.S. Presidential election, fanned by the horrific scenes perpetrated on Friday November 13th in Paris.

Nevertheless, I am struck by the minute degrees separation that alienate rather than bind us as human beings. In the 1840s The Illustrated London News published accounts uncharacteristically sympathetic to the Irish. One article quoted an eyewitness to their suffering who declared Everything has been tried but a little sympathy and kindness. But how do you maintain sympathy for someone you’re afraid, rightly or wrongly, is trying to kill you? — CDL

Our Institutions, Ourselves

Here at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies we examine the received wisdom of crowds and other presumed or self-appointed sources of authority. The news so far in the first month of this year reassures us that our mission is not wasted.

The congress convenes, prosecutors prosecute, politicians pontificate, the media mediate (but not much meditate) on the sublime and the ridiculous: church and state, small and great. Financial institutions gain rewards from damaging the economy. Businesses profit from outsourcing and layoffs, while claiming to engage and value their workers. Organizations of higher learning declare their noble mission and beneficence in educating and building the character of students, while refusing responsibility for paying taxes, raising tuition or their own employees’ depredations.

There is no lack of souls looking for a cause with which to identify themselves. There is no more zealous fanatic than a convert. Lost souls and gifted people alike (who are often the same) seek a cause greater than themselves to belong to. Ideally, this leads to the greater good.

But there’s a fine line between the faithful and the fanatic (from Latin fanaticus “mad, enthusiastic, inspired by a god,” also “furious, mad”). As we immerse ourselves in the tribal identity of Republican and Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, the right to bear arms or freedom from wanton death and mayhem, we may invoke the darker angels of our nature. The darker side of devotion leads else elsewhere. Soldiers for the cause, whether volunteers or employees, along with the defenseless and the innocent, come to be seen by their leaders merely as expendable resources, along with ethics and accountability.

A colleague grew up in central Pennsylvania where they worship American football. Every fall people there dress in blue and white and drive past the crisp autumn leaves to attend the games in Happy Valley. In America uniquely sport tends to drive institutions of higher learning (and their contracts with cable television). Six-six, two-hundred fifty pound halfbacks and running backs subsidize the study of computer engineering and post-modern cultural deconstruction. The size of the elephant in the room sometimes obscures the cost of its care and feeding, and the sacrifices made for someone’s presumed greater good.

Charitable, governmental, educational, or business institutions can become corrupted when their own perpetuation becomes an end, rather than a means, to fulfilling their mission. Communism culminated in the toppling of the Berlin Wall, after the loss of millions of lives. Fascism led to worse. Its mirror image, McCarthyism, prompted an elected government in a free society to betray ideals of free speech and democracy and destroy lives of its fellow citizens. Even in America, land of liberty and libertarian , there is subtle or not so subtle pressure to wear the right clothes, say the right words and think the right thoughts.

Thomas Paine insisted on promoting an Age of Reason over religious dogma in his later years. This made him the unacknowledged founding father, with little honor in his own nation. John Locke wrote about the social contract that guides relations between the individual and civil society. Thomas Hobbes wrote about the unruly mob’s need to be led by some single unifying leader, whatever the cost to individuals. Between these two orbits we seek the golden mean.

The goal of an institution formed to find homes for the homelessness, end hunger or find a cure cancer should be to eliminate its own raison d’être. But the poor, the unborn, the disenfranchised will always be with us – as will young boys needing protection in the locker room or sacristy, and women from rapists in their community. Where fund raising, administration, marketing and promotion for social and charitable organizations become ends in themselves, effective leadership may lie more in knowing what side their bread is buttered on than feeding it to the hungry. If your livelihood depends on making the case for the need that keeps you in business, you may not be inclined to make it go away or take accountability for flaws in carrying out your mission. Thus the justice of your cause easily becomes justification for a host of ills.

Thoreau, the poster child for the environmental movement, wrote the beloved Walden preaching a transcendent, personal connection with the world. But Life Without Principle, his lesser-known essay contains words that would be considered subversive to the children of any middle class school district today:

  • The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse…
  • Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient

And to those obsessed with the trivia elevated to significance now on Facebook:

  • I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. .. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember!

Thoreau was not an advocate of unbridled capitalism, nor for unthinking patriotism, that last refuge of scoundrels. The same man who argued for the love of nature pleaded for the life of a murderer and fanatic, John Brown, following the latter’s brutal murders in Kansas and insurrection at Harpers Ferry in the cause of abolition.

Rescuing puppies or ending global warming or electing a candidate depends on putting your cause in front of the right people and convincing them to ante up. More importantly, it depends on recruiting dedicated people and finding symbols who will support your cause through thick or thin, even at the expense of their own interests. Businesses and nonprofits have a host of ways now to reach out and declare their social conscience and how much they care. E-mail updates, Facebook invites and twitter feeds invite us daily to be part of of their communities and causes. But they don’t hold our hand in the middle of the night at the hospital or listen to us talk about what to do about our lousy jobs. And they quickly abandon us if we do not fit their agenda or prove a liability or embarrassment.

Thoreau died mostly forgotten at forty-five in the bedroom of his parents’ home surrounded by unsold books published at this own expense. Leon Trotsky, communism’s one time true believer and acolyte, was hunted down and murdered. Joseph McCarthy died a shunned alcoholic.

Human beings also aren’t merely icons for a cause, to be replaced by the new icon du jour. They don’t exist to promote brands or as algorithmic functions of their connections on Facebook. No man (or woman, or child) is an island. We are not merely our beliefs and needs devoted or subverted to the needs of institutions that do not mourn our passing or care about our true selves. As Nelson Algren, that troubadour of Chicago’s lower depths in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote in the Man with the Golden Arm, ‘We are all members of each other.’ – DA

David Abramoff, Ph.D., is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. Copyright 2013. For permissions and reprints please go to our Contact Us page.  We gratefully accept donations made through Fractured Atlas.

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