Late last year, a Bedford-Stuyvesant native and Brooklyn College teacher named Ron Howell wrote a New York Daily News op-ed column about how changing demographics in New York might solve the problem of cop-community tension.
“I am all but certain the Asians, Latinos, blacks and other so-called minorities on the force vote and think differently…from the Irish and Italian cops at the forefront of the union,” wrote Howell, at a time when an NYPD union leader with the ultra-Hibernian name of Patrick Lynch was regularly on TV screens defending cops and bashing Mayor Bill de Blasio.
People can disagree about the degree to which white ethnic cops are responsible for racially-charged allegations of police brutality. I have no doubt Howell, and many who think like him, are only interested in making sure police officers treat all New Yorkers with the respect they deserve.
I would add, however, that this is just the latest example of Irish Americans being presented as the repressive source of a serious problem. This is not to suggest that Howell is some kind of anti-Irish bigot. But we do see this kind of thinking again and again -- and I don’t just mean in the last few years. I mean in the last few centuries.
Again, this is not to suggest that all Irish Americans behave nobly. This is not to suggest that, when Irish Americans block progress, they should be excused.
But it does seem to me that Irish Americans -- in the news as well as in movies, TV and books -- are asked to shoulder an awful lot of blame for various social ills. In short, they seem to make easy villains.
Consider a new book that is just out by first-time novelist Atticus Lish, entitled Preparations for the Next Life.
In the New York Review of Books, Cathleen Schine calls the book “an astounding first novel,” adding that the book “has the boundless, epic exhilaration you expect to find only in a writer as mighty as, say, Walt Whitman.”
High praise indeed.
Preparations for the Next Life is about the unlikely love affair between two vulnerable souls. Zou Lei is an undocumented Chinese immigrant living in the shadows and working brutal, menial jobs. She meets and falls in love with Brad Skinner, a traumatized veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, who bears literal and figurative scars from that devastating war.
Skinner looks to rent an apartment from a woman named Mrs. Murphy. When Skinner first meets her he notes she’s missing a tooth, and Mrs. Murphy herself notes that she’s “raised two sons and a husband” and though “they’re good Irish men,” they tend to live as if it were still “prehistoric times.”
Mrs. Murphy’s husband is an Irish immigrant union plumber. When we first meet him, he is yelling at his daughter, Erin, “I don’t keep whores! I don’t keep whores!”
Mrs. Murphy later retorts, “All the rent is is another $400 a month drinking money for you.”
Now, I don’t think Atticus Lish is anti-Irish. He’s a storyteller and he’s got a harrowing story to tell.
But at times this reads like something from the 19th century. And we haven’t even gotten to Mrs. Murphy’s son, the real bad guy of this story.
Too often, to this day, the Irish are depicted as they were in the bigoted, 1870s cartoons of Thomas Nast: as enemies of progress. And the Irish are more than willing to do this to themselves.
Look no further than the Chicago novels of James T. Farrell, who depicted the environment he was born into as repressive and narrow-minded.
We see similar Irish villains in movies as varied as Blackboard Jungle and Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
Why the Irish -- in other contexts depicted as cuddly, plucky and lovable -- are such easy villains is a complex question. What can’t be denied is that this problem stretches back at least as far as the Famine.
That’s when the aforementioned Walt Whitman -- that lover of diversity -- wrote editorials for a New York newspaper, angry that Irish “foreigners” and “filthy wretches” were proposing changes to New York’s schooling system.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)