I tend to keep bookmarks in a lot of books at the same time. Maybe I have some academic version of ADHD, but I like shifting between multiple books and letting those books, as different as they are, have a conversation among themselves in my head. Sometimes, it allows for linkages between ancient and modern history, between anti-capitalist polemics and Elizabethan drama, between genocide studies and cognitive theory.
Well, two of the books I have going right now are Nancy MacLean’s Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994) and James M. Smith’s Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (2007). I picked up the latter at the local library on account of news this past week out of Ireland regarding the discovery of a mass grave of some 800 children at a former orphanage site. Apparently, the nuns who ran said home for children kept them in starvation conditions that resulted in a mortality rate far in excess of Ireland at the time. This, in part, stemmed from a sense that the supposed immorality of the mothers–unmarried women, “fallen” women, in many cases the victims of rape or reluctant prostitutes–carried over to the children. Home children were separated from “regular” children, looked down upon even by the nuns charged with their protection, and the only way out was to be adopted or to die. Nearly 800 died in this one location and were interred in the old septic tank.
The Magdalen Laundries were a part of the same church-run, state-sanctioned system. “Fallen” women were removed to the laundries, and there they were forced to work, unpaid (the word for this is “slavery”), all the while suffering the slings and arrows of these nuns whose ostensibly holier state allowed them to pass judgment–to wit, whip and starve these women. Some stayed in the laundries for life, and the state of Ireland only closed down the last of them in the 1990s.
(Please, please think about those slave systems and those 800 dead children the next time some pundit talks about how much Pope Francis is doing to change the image of the church.)
Anyhow, what Smith does is place the emergence of the Magdalen Laundries within Ireland’s immediate post-colonial experience, examining how a Catholic nation that just recently freed itself from the yoke of Protestant England felt rather compelled to “contain” ostensible exemplars of immorality so as to remain a pure, unsullied whole in the eyes of the world at large. Having a child out of wedlock wasn’t just a crime against communal standards–it was a crime against the image that Ireland had of itself, insisted upon after freeing itself from a colonial rule that denigrated its institutions, its people, its church. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls this the “fear of small numbers,” except the context for him is of genocide in the modern nation-state, the desire by collectives to eliminate those minorities who stand in the way of a nation being “complete” in and of itself. While the actions of Ireland’s various church institutions and holy orders may not amount to genocide, they are reflective of the same impulse of eliminationism.
But how does this book work in concert with MacLean’s now-classic volume on the KKK? You see, since the rise of what might arguably be called the “third” KKK with the American crisis of school integration, that organization has been linked especially to race hatred–KKK means anti-black, anti-immigrant, etc. But the Klan of the early twentieth century was reacting to much more than the black quest for civil rights. It was composed largely of middle-class white men who felt that their cultural, social, and political authority was slipping away with the rise of feminism and the ongoing growth of a capitalist economy that threatened small businesses even in out-of-the-way areas (shopping by catalogue came into its own around this time period). The Klan not only sought to regulate the place of African Americans in the social and economic hierarchy, but it also had its own misogynistic agenda, especially in its opposition to further female emancipation (in today’s lingo, we would say that the Klan “respected the traditional role of women in society”), including an opposition to birth control.
Do you see now where these disparate paths cross each other? I’m not at all trying to equate the Klan with Rome. After all, the Klan was perhaps more concentrated upon the supposed “Catholic menace” than it was upon the place of African Americans in the early twentieth century. Indeed, the Catholic church in Blytheville, Arkansas, had to post guards in order to protect its church from attempted attacks by the Klan. However, if these two groups could have set aside their different religious persuasions, they might have found more common ground than they imagined, especially in the necessity to relegate women to subservient spheres and punish them for any divergence from the divinely assigned path. The Klan saw itself as a moral organization engaged in community “regulation,” which sometimes entailed whipping adulterers or prostitutes, and it had a romantic view of slavery in America. Moreover, the Klan took root in the South (though it spread nationally) at a time when that region was arguably a colony of Northern capital, all those businessmen investing in cotton plantations and timber operations across the South, so much so that the Mississippi River Delta region was called the “American Congo.” So Klan and the Irish church both have that experience of colonization and a love of slavery.
Klan and Rome were just two sides of the same coin, though I’m rather glad that they failed to recognize this and insisted upon their differences, else American history might have wended its way to fascism that much earlier.