Obama's waffle feeds Irish taste for fantasy


The US president’s part in the College Green victims of colonialism pageant was galling

ONLY A fine line separates a great orator from a flimflam merchant. And much as I admire the man, Barack Obama proved the point with his speech the other week at College Green, Dublin.

So patronising was he that halfway through I found myself wondering what kind of brief his two Irish-American speech-writers had been given: “Let’s just tell these people whatever they want to hear?”

There has always been something rather pathetic about Ireland marketing itself as a casualty of colonialism and competing for victimhood status with former British colonies in the developing world. When in fact, as an integral part of the UK, Ireland was at least as much coloniser as colonised, given the role it played in helping establish and maintain the British Empire.

Excluding African-Americans, whose horror story is on a different plane altogether, this is nothing compared to the brass neck of an American claiming a role in a victims of colonialism pageant, as Obama did at College Green.

His Kenyan antecedents certainly qualify. But his American ones, those he chose to stress, emphatically do not. Simply put, only Native-Americans can legitimately claim to have suffered directly from colonialism in America; and how they suffered. All others – excepting slaves – were and are the interloping beneficiaries of it.

Aside from that, there was nothing Obama said about the Irish contribution to the US that couldn’t, far more accurately in many cases, be said about a host of other races: the Scottish, Welsh, Italians, Spanish, Chinese, French, “Germans” (a blanket term in early America for all those of Nordic extraction) and, most particularly, the English and Jews of innumerable national origin.

In large part, but not entirely, the problem with his speech lay not so much with Obama as with his audience. If he had made similar complimentary remarks in London, Madrid or Munich they would have been warmly applauded and then shrugged off as a typical piece of political hyperbole. But in Ireland – where history is little more than self-serving delusion at the best of times and where the very essence of a historian’s job, revisionism, is considered the greatest professional sin he or she can commit – they were taken as gospel.

Never mind the overblown rhetoric of Enda Kenny, the overwhelmingly gushing media commentary was proof enough of how eagerly Obama’s speech was imbibed as yet more testimony to the exceptionality of the Irish. How needy and fawning are we to crave this sort of nonsense? How lacking in self-awareness must we be to actually believe it?

Naturally enough, given our nature, no one thought to tackle the obvious question that Obama’s eulogistic meanderings raised: How come, if we’re so successful and wonderful abroad, we always manage to make such a pig’s ear of things at home?

Perish the thought, but might Irish exiles have been the major beneficiaries of immersion in other societies, rather than the reverse? Where Obama was severely at fault was in adding yet another piece of flannel to the “most oppressed, yet most talented and decent people ever” Irish self-view. Thanks to his well-meaning waffle about “finding common cause in repression”, the Irish now believe that their far-off cousins stood shoulder to shoulder with African-Americans in their struggle for civil rights.

A tiny few undoubtedly did, as part of a relative sprinkling of courageous white Americans from every background, most notably Jewish.

However, the overwhelming majority didn’t, and were as racist and bigoted as anyone else. Moreover, the idea that the Irish in America sat just one rung above African-Americans on the social scale, which is used to excuse such racist attitudes as are acknowledged, is truly risible.

Read about the experiences of the Chinese – or Jewish-Americans, or the treatment of the Native Americans, to discover just how ridiculous and downright insulting that proposition is – as a good starting place, I would suggest The American Future by Simon Schama, who like me is a big fan of the US.

The two American presidents of Irish origin who Obama’s speech-writers name-checked were an interesting choice, Ronald Reagan and John F Kennedy. There have actually been at least 12 or 13 Irish-American presidents, some of whom were first or second generation Irish, though usually only JFK gets the nod here at home. That all of the others were of Scots-Irish (ie Protestant) descent can surely have no bearing on their invariable omission – at least not with Obama’s speech-writers, raised as they were in the broad-minded “American way”.

My apologies to Obama for being so critical, but the sort of one-eyed historical/mythological mix that he delivered has done and continues to do enormous damage in Ireland.

Thankfully, just of late we seem to have embarked upon what will be a long tortuous journey towards accepting that we are no better or worse than any other race of people, and indeed have been a lot more fortunate than most.

Can we afford another flimflam merchant, however well-meaning, at this critical juncture in our trek to maturity?

Is féidir linn: we’ve already more than enough of them to contend with.

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