Two St. Patrick’s Days ago, I was going to write about Gangs of New York, having just seen the film for the first time. Its dramatization of the Irish American immigrant experience percolated in my brain, in combination with contemporary political developments. While I decided not to write then, events of recent weeks have mingled with my impressions of the film enough for me to put pen to paper (and then finger to keyboard).
Gangs of New York has its inaccuracies, but its portrayal of Irish immigration and struggle is fantastic. Like many subsequent waves of arrivals, they escaped oppression and poverty in their home country, struggled in the face of fierce native resistance, and worked their way over generations closer and closer to the American mainstream. The depiction of these noble struggles in this and other films, combined with my reading of American history, and my knowledge of my ancestors’ arrivals from Poland, Germany, and Ireland, combine to give me an instinctive sympathy for immigrants. They also affect my politics. My attitude toward immigration policy is unswervingly liberal. In my view, America has been at its best when it has welcomed newcomers, and some of its worst moments have come when immigrants and their descendants were either mistreated — signs reading “no Irish need apply,” interning Japanese Americans, separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border — or kept out entirely — the Chinese Exclusion Act, turning away Jewish refugees from Nazism. While I do not support open borders or the abolition of ICE, and while I want my government to ensure that those who arrive enter the country legally, I can never support reduction of immigration as a policy goal. My conscience will not allow it.
That said, I do not share the belief of many of my fellow highly educated, metro-area Democrats that resistance to immigration is tantamount to racism. It is a sad truth that human beings are instinctively more sympathetic to those who are similar to them than those who are different. This is an instinct people and societies can and should work to limit — we are at our best when we accept and include rather than reject and exclude — but it would be naïve to assume that rank bigotry is the only reason a person could have for being wary of new arrivals. And resistance to immigration in the United States is not limited to whites — many Hispanics, particularly working class Hispanics, would rather see immigration decreased than increased. What’s more, while criticism of illegal immigration may sound racist to progressive ears, as Graeme Wood of the Atlantic wrote about sociological research on the subject in 2018, “Some people who seem racist might just be extremely legalistic.”
The middle and upper class blue American assumption that racism motivates immigration resistance reminds me of a particular scene in Gangs of New York. When a middle class, Protestant, social-reformer orator laments the squalor of the Five Points neighborhood, pointing to local children as its victims, Amsterdam Vallon, the Irish Catholic main character, tells the audience, “Every year the reformers came, every year the Points got worse, as if it liked being dirty.” The reformers may have good intentions, and they may genuinely see it as their Christian duty to save the destitute, but their ability to affect change is limited by how out of touch they are with the people they claim to be helping. They might have fared better with the Irish Catholic poor had they listened to them, and gotten their input on what the neighborhood really needed — a void that was filled by cynical politicians like William Marcy Tweed.
The analogy is not perfect, but watching this scene, I can’t help thinking of many modern, progressive-minded, highly educated Americans presuming to know what is best for others. The kind of disconnect I have in mind is less condescension toward the poor (though that happens) and more an insistence that what bourgeois progressives want for others is actually what those others really want for themselves, but just don’t realize it yet. And this is not only a problem related to class, but also to ethnicity and race.
Whenever I hear progressives lament that white working class people vote Republican “against their interests,” I want to scream at them, “who the hell are you to tell people what their interests are?” The assumption that some people should be motivated by economics, while others can vote on social and cultural issues, is utterly condescending. I doubt such people would make the same lamentation for rich people who vote for Democrats who plan to raise their taxes. While I don’t share the views of blue collar whites whose social conservatism leads them to vote Republican, I don’t blame them for being angry at the arrogance of middle and upper class Democrats.
This kind of class and ethnic conflict shows up in another part of the film: the draft riots. During the American Civil War, while some of the North’s (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite were fervently abolitionist, when in 1863 the Union began a draft to fill the ranks of the Army, they availed themselves of a deeply unjust loophole: a man could pay $300 to have another man take his place in the ranks. Only the rich could afford that sum in those days, and so low-income Irish Catholics fought a war that the WASP aristocracy could avoid. By that point, with the Emancipation Proclamation announced, the Union’s goal was not only undoing secession; it was beginning to fight a full-on antislavery war. While many Irish Catholics had been eager to enlist at the start of the war — in part to prove they were just as patriotic as the Protestants who distrusted them — they feared emancipation would mean Southern blacks moving north and taking their jobs.
Whether their fears were justified or not, they combined with the unfair draft loophole to produce horrific riots. The one that struck New York City in July 1863 killed more than a hundred people, including eleven black men who were lynched. While their resentment at the draft may have been understandable, there was no justification for turning to such violent fury, and it was absolutely right for the Union Army to crush the riot. Similar to the riots that struck many American cities in the 1960s, a simmering resentment rooted in racial and class inequality took a tragically destructive form.
All these thoughts ran through my head last week, as I enjoyed a concert by the Irish folk band Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones. The songs reflected not only deep Irish pride, but also a profound sense of the scars left on Ireland and its people by centuries of English and British control. The Irish and Irish Americans have every right to be proud of their struggle for freedom, the toughness they developed from it, the beauty of their music, and what they’ve achieved on both sides of the Atlantic.
The last song before the concert’s intermission was The Foggy Dew, an old standard written about the 1916 Easter Rising. Taking place in the middle of World War I, Irish fighters rising against the British contrasted sharply with soldiers from across the British empire — including many Irish — being killed at Gallipoli a year earlier. The lyrics include lines referencing Gallipoli:
“‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar.”
One of Britain’s rationales for fighting the war was the “freedom of small nations” like Belgium and Serbia. While I agree with Britain’s decision to go to war with Germany when it invaded and terrorized Belgium, it is not hard to see the irony of such an exhortation to the Irish. It’s quite similar to black Americans being asked to fight against foreign oppressors in both World Wars while they endured brutal racism at home. And while it was completely necessary and just for the Union to fight and win the Civil War — and to quash the draft riots that got in the way of victory — there are certainly similarities between the Irish resentment of 1863 and that of 1916.
Before he and his band played The Foggy Dew, Derek Warfield compared the Irish struggle against Britain to Ukraine’s fight against Russian invasion. He lamented how easy it is for powerful nations to believe they have the right to conquer and control smaller, less powerful nations, as in Vladimir Putin’s belief that Ukraine is not truly a nation, but rather is part of Russia. The Irish who fought and won their independence from Britain — and the Algerians, Angolans, Indians, Vietnamese, and others who forced out European colonizers in the 20th century — deserve our admiration as much as the Ukrainians who today fight for their country against Putin’s delusional brutality.
At a time when Americans are so often deeply divided by race, class, religion, culture, and politics, the Irish story can be an inspiration to all of us. It is an example of how people mistreated for centuries can stand tall and achieve great things. It is also a warning for those among us who would presume to know what is best for those less fortunate than ourselves, and would presume to preach to them — don’t you dare trample on people’s dignity.