When Homer insults us it's only friendly slagging
CULTURE SHOCK: ONE OF THE signature pieces of the lovely Ulster singer Len Graham is a 19th-century ballad called Do Me Justice.
It might, in fact, be called a meta-ballad. It is a song about representation. While we tend to think of a media-saturated culture as a specifically post-modern experience, Do Me Justiceis a fully clued-in commentary on, and protest against, media images of the Irish: “Oh, here I am from Donegal, I feel quite discontented/ To hear the way that we’re run down, not fairly represented . . ./ There’s Mr Punch with his literature, he tries to hurt us sadly./ Whene’er he draws our caricature, he depicts us rather badly . . ./ When on the stage I do appear, with a thundering big shillelagh,/ With tattered hat and ragged coat, you’d think I’d stepped out gaily.”
There are probably very few cultures that produced so early popular folk songs commenting on the politics of representation in print and on the stage. But then, there were few cultures that were in the same position as the Irish – on the one hand literate enough in the mainstream language to be acutely aware of a range of representations and, on the other, sufficiently outside the mainstream to be subject to constantly abusive caricature. From that combination we acquired a highly sophisticated, but also highly contradictory, sensitivity to the politics of insult.
One of the responses to organised prejudice was undoubtedly a tendency to see insults everywhere. A story told by James Joyce’s father that finds its way into Finnegans Wakeis the comically exaggerated tale of an Irish solider in the Crimean War who shoots a Russian because the latter, after defecating, wipes himself with turf – an obvious insult to Mother Ireland.
There were complaints in the Dáil in the 1970s about BBC horse racing commentators allegedly deliberately mangling the Gaelic names of Irish racehorses – just to hurt our feelings.
At one level, if the general reception for this week’s St Patrick’s Day episode of The Simpsonsis anything to go by, Irish culture has shaken off these sensitivities. The episode was a stampede of cliches – potatoes, drink, leprechauns, diddly-eydle music, Riverdance,drink, stupid Irish-American cops, the Giant’s Causeway, the Guinness brewery, drink and more drink. (Oddly, but perhaps tellingly, the one cliche it avoided was religion – Americans have their sensitivities too.) Yet neither media coverage nor (anecdotally) public response rose even to low dudgeon.
We were, if anything, tickled a shade more pink by Homer’s Irish odyssey than by Brian Cowen’s welcome at the White House. Part of this response may have to do with the sophisticated nature of the episode itself. Even while drawing on the cliches, it turned them on their head. The underlying gag was that the Irish have become disastrously sober and hard-working, while it was the Americans (Homer and Grampa) who wanted to indulge in “Irish behaviour”. In its own way, the episode was a version of George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, with the same comic reversal of stereotypes. In Shaw’s play, there’s the hard-headed Irishman and the sentimental Englishman; in The Simpsons we got the Americanised Irish and the nostalgically “Irish” Americans.
Yet even this cleverness doesn’t explain our refusal to be insulted. After all, previous episodes of The Simpsonshave kept up a stream of anti-Irish jokes. Remember the float in the St Patrick’s Day parade in Springfield carrying “drunken Irish novelists” who proceed to dismount and start fights with random passers-by? Or someone being told that they’re going to be shown something they’ve never seen before and musing, “A sober Irishman?” Or a shot of a book on a businessman’s desk with the title When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, You’ve Just Been Robbed?These jokes (mostly written by the Irish-American Conan O’Brien) didn’t have the comic reversals of this week’s episode. We laughed at them anyway.
It’s tempting to conclude that Irish culture has entirely lost its traditional touchiness. It is certainly true that a combination of confidence, a post-modern sensibility in which everything is viewed ironically and a degree of realism about ourselves (we do drink a lot, after all) has changed our ideas of insult. But it is clearly not true that our shoulders are now chip-free zones.
Last year, for example, the Government, via our consul general in the UK, formally protested to the Scottish administration over the singing by Glasgow Rangers fans of a song that includes the line, “The Famine is over, why don’t you go home?” The “you” are the fans of the rival Glasgow Celtic club, and through them, the descendants of Irish immigrants in general. A Rangers fan was subsequently prosecuted for breaching the peace for singing the song.
The Famine Songis actually relatively mild by the standards of some of the sectarian bile that pours out from the stands, but it was evidently judged to be especially outrageous because it mentions the Famine. What was forgotten is that it was Celtic fans who brought the Famine into it in the first place, by adopting the ersatz Famine balled The Fields of Athenryas their anthem.
Why is The Famine Songa matter of state, while The Simpsons is a good laugh? Because the point about the politics of affront is that what really matters is not who’s being insulted, but who’s doling out the insults.
This has always been the way on an intimate level – a friend making fun of you is slagging; an enemy saying exactly the same thing is an assault. We choose whether or not to be offended, and that choice, in a culture where accusations of insult are so damaging, is a kind of power. In our sophisticated mode Homer and Bart are friends of ours and can say what they like.
In our tribal mode, Rangers fans are not, and therefore can’t.