As you have no doubt read, Ireland’s population recently voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. The island that once upon a time was the largest source of Catholic priests in the United States, the very symbol of Catholic perseverance against oppression and poverty, rejected the teachings of Holy Mother Church and embraced the full personhood of womankind. And as I wonder how this came to be, my mind settles upon two significant factors:

  1. The primacy of the Catholic Church. Here in the United States, we are rather accustomed to our so-called marketplace of ideas, and it is not unknown for a person to switch denominations–or entire religions–several times during the course of one life. I was raised secular but joined a Baptist church in high school, found myself depressed with its limited intellectual engagement in college and became Catholic, found the Catholic Church an offense to my own conscience and joined an offshoot Ecumenical Catholic Communion a few years later, and then cycled around to my secular origins several years ago. Which rather raises the question–how much does the proliferation of options blunt rejection of the system that makes those options available? Here in the United States, disgust at the policies or theology of your particular congregation need not result in the rejection of the religious paradigm in its entirety. People who find their local congregation can always move to another church of the same denomination, and if the denomination upsets them, they can strike out for something similar–any number of Baptist varietals on the market–or something entirely different, depending upon their taste. It’s how people protest here in the United States. If Coke does something spectacularly offensive, drink Pepsi–you don’t call into question the reason a market exists for some fizzy beverage that tastes, as Berkeley Breathed once quipped, like malted battery acid. But in Ireland, there was one Church to rule them all. And so when the Church misbehaved, when its pedophilic past was revealed, when local historians discovered that nuns dumped the bodies of “illegitimate children” in septic tanks, well, the only protest available was the rejection of the one Church. Here in the United States, there are more flavors of churches than colors in the biggest crayons box, but they all hold to a similar general message, and so church-hopping or church-shopping keeps you still on a pretty tight leash. In Ireland, questioning the Church cuts the leash.
  2. James M. Smith in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment places Ireland’s Catholic obsession with purity within a colonial context, observing that British stereotypes of the Irish during their long rule of the island induced a popular demand for a culture of respectability as a means of regaining individual and collective self-esteem. Thus, women who became pregnant out of wedlock were offending not only religious tradition but also the nation itself, for they risked confirming to the British what sort of people the Irish were. Containing and punishing these women, therefore, was not only a Catholic project but a nationalist one. And so I wonder how much the decreasing salience of Irish nationalism has played a role in the nation, by popular referendum, signing off on gay marriage and now female bodily sovereignty. The tentative resolution of the Northern Irish “Troubles” in the 1990s, combined with the softening of the border due to the European Union, means that the British no longer serve as the ultimate bugaboo against whom propriety and purity must be maintained. And with the British as the enemy of all enemies vanquished, Ireland may now progress naturally, no longer reacting to the imagined prejudices of someone else.

Granted, there are no doubt many other factors that play into developments in Ireland, including a large Irish diaspora that is more comfortable with life outside the looming shadow of the Church, but these are two factors that, for me, deserve more attention in the popular and scholarly analysis of the recent Irish vote.


A Copernican View of American Racial Violence

We like to mark the moments of great paradigm shift, to make them singular occurrences sui generis, moments of brilliance that changed our perspective forever. For example, when it comes to the heliocentric model of the solar system, we laud Nicholas Copernicus and Galileo Galilei as the heralds of our new way of understanding the universe, men who, without precedent, broke through the superstitions of the era in order to bring humanity closer to the truth.  However, the truth is that there had been much observation during the centuries prior to the Renaissance that started to—if not crack the foundations of the geocentric system—at least required the implementations of any number of exceptions that, as they accreted, made said system more and more untenable. Mars occasionally moves backwards. We know the cause of this to be that Mars has a much longer orbit than the Earth and so, occasionally, the Earth “catches up” to Mars, which results in the latter planet sometimes appearing to move “backwards” in the night sky.

The Church decided that, while everything does in fact orbit the earth, the heavenly bodies also traveled in what were called “epicycles”—their own little orbits—while they continued to circle the sun. When the Church began undertaking the reform of the calendar in the sixteenth century, they asked Copernicus to help sort things out, and he was forced to employ as many as ninety of these Ptolemaic epicycles before he finally realized that everything would be much simpler if he just calculated as if the sun were at the center of the solar system. In other words, a system may be able to accommodate the occasional exception, but a wealth of exceptions ends up calling into question the very system itself.

The heliocentric system is a model, a story about how the planets move. But we have models about other spheres of our existence. Take history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American elites became concerned about the way in which people understood the country they inhabited and were determined to put forth a model that, they felt, would promise social cohesion and a proper attitude toward one’s betters. (As James Burke noted regarding those who rejected the Copernican revolution: “Belief in Aristotle and Ptolemy was the bedrock of social stability.”) After all, during that time period, the lower classes were becoming more engaged in politics and the economy and beginning the struggle for their rights under the banners of socialism or anarchism or syndicalism. African Americans like Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. DuBois were pointing out the violence at the center of white supremacy, while Natives and immigrants offered the threat of the un-assimilable. Thus, a story about America had to be concocted in order to make sure everyone was on the same page, in order to limit the potential for disruption. And that narrative located the true meaning of American within the experience of Puritans allegedly fleeing religious persecution and coming to these shores to found a shining city on the hill that would offer a beacon of freedom to the entire world. This narrative managed to incorporate the experience of the United States in both world wars quite handily and also provide an easy dichotomy during the Cold War in order to contest resistance to “the American Way.”

Earlier this year, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, opened a museum and memorial dedicated to the subject of lynching in America. The fact that this happened only in 2018, fifty years after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rather speaks to how much this nation has resisted coming to terms with its verifiable past. Aside from my recent book on lynching, or my forthcoming book on the broader context of the Elaine Massacre, I’ve been involved in some efforts to try to establish markers at the sites of lynchings here in Arkansas, and there is tremendous resistance to such efforts. But why? Olly over at Philosophy Tube has a great video on why people like flat-earthers reject science, observing that science consists of a rhetoric that goes beyond mere facts and thus seeks to persuade, and that some people are enculturated to be leery of those who seek to persuade, wondering just what their agenda is. And I think that plenty true as it applies to any resistance toward acknowledging—or even acknowledging the meaning of—racial violence in America. After all, if you are raised believing this story of America as the shining city on a hill, and someone starts preaching about racial terror and violent settler colonialism to you, you would no doubt wonder about their agenda, especially if you have been led to believe that your interpretation of American history of the source and summit of social stability.

But I wonder if there is not something deeper at work. Don’t forget, we have been raised with social and scientific change as part of our metanarrative—Copernicus and Galileo are not simply revolutionaries in our time but representatives of a long string of scientists whose work has overturned the existing order. James Burke was able to assemble ten separate episodes on the subject of The Day the Universe Changed, just hitting the high points of western history—today, we could probably add dozens more, including episodes covering developments just within the last decade. In other words, we have been reared with the unacknowledged knowledge that our worldview, the thing that gives us meaning, is inherently fragile and not at all likely to be valued and treasured by those who follow us. Thus the resistance we see not only to change but even to those facts that hold within them the threat of change. Ambrose Bierce famously defined radicalism as “the conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day,” but conservatism is no longer an evolving point of departure but a complete and total rejection of the morrow for the ostensible glories of yesterday. And if the facts threaten to drag us into a different way of viewing the world, ourselves, and our societies, then those facts must be dismissed out of hand, rejected, denied, and suppressed.

Because a lot of trouble can result from one person staring into the sky and observing that Mars seems to be moving backward.

They Will Deliberately Misunderstand This Post

So I am currently reading Två systrar(Two Sisters) by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, a book about a Somali-Norwegian family torn apart when the eldest daughters leave to join ISIS in Syria. It’s a heart-wrenching tale, especially as the father tries to follow them and bring them back, only to be captured by ISIS and nearly executed as a heretic. However, the author does more than just relate the immediate story surrounding this family—because she has access to the texts the girls have sent back and forth through the years and their friends and associates back in Norway, Seierstad is able to build a comprehensive picture of the radicalization process and thus give insight into why people reared in a relatively secular western environment suddenly depart for war-torn areas where they are often fighting more against their fellow Muslims than against the western world that is supposedly enemy number one. Moreover, Seierstad also does a fantastic job relaying exactly how ISIS operates in the Middle East, getting into details that are often overlooked in the sensationalized reporting typical of American media.

Here are some things I have learned from this book:

  1. While ISIS gets a lot of play as a non-state terrorist organization in western media, much of the underlying motivation behind people joining is the desire to found an actual state according to Islamic principles. Such a state is seen as the best guarantor of the virtues and values of Muslims everywhere. The two girls at the center of the book, Leila and Ayan, regularly discourse about how European states discriminate against Muslims, how one cannot live a truly righteous life in a place like Norway, and how Muslims need their own state in order to protect themselves.
  2. ISIS adherents often have both utopian and apocalyptic visions. The two girls regularly text back to their parents about the blessings they have received when they moved to Syria, selling it as a veritable paradise, a land of milk and honey, with free stuff available to them by virtue of their being devout Muslims—baby clothing, food, shelter, etc. (Granted, they are not free to move without the supervision of men and regularly have to change their abode due to rocket attacks—but they nonetheless maintain faith in the utopian project. Plus, so much of the “free stuff” they receive is that left behind by people forced to abandon their homes and lives due to the violence.) A part of this utopian vision is an apocalyptic outlook that sees this struggle as part of an end of days, the ushering of a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
  3. ISIS regularly sidelines native Syrians in order to advance immigrants through the ranks. I was not aware of this myself, but the foreign fighters who come to Syria are given better positions than the natives, even when those foreign fighters barely speak Arabic and have little actual knowledge of the Koran. In fact, ISIS had to hold religious indoctrination camps for incoming fighters, given the state of religious knowledge among those who swore fealty to the organization from afar.

Now, here is the part where I start treading on very thin ice, and the reason for the title of this post. Because, with these three aspects of ISIS’s project in mind, we can very easily walk back seventy years and discover some similarities between ISIS and the Zionist project that formed the foundation of the state of Israel. Let’s note the parallels:

  1. The need for a state to protect this religious minority from historical violence within European states. Yes, there had been Zionism before the Holocaust, but afterwards the equation of Holocaust ergo Israel was the predominant justification for Zionism.
  2. Many expected the state of Israel to be a state not like others, as the people of God were finally back in the land God had given them, and wasn’t it already so fruitful, with all the stuff left behind by fleeing Palestinians?
  3. A little-known aspect of the Zionist project was how Jewish Europeans worked to sideline natives, often bringing in folks of questionable Jewish background in order to secure an immediate demographic advantage while at the same time minimizing the power of those who could lay legitimate claim to the inhabitation of the land there (see Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race).

Now, readers ready to defend the state of Israel from all slights real or imagined will naturally take issue with this comparison, probably by reference to the beheadings regularly performed by ISIS, but the point of this post is not to impugn Israelis (and, by extension, Jews) by flippant association with some group that regularly generates atrocity on a grand scale. The point, instead, is to call into question the easy labels we apply to social phenomena and ask why disparate labels are applied to cases that exhibit quite stunning similarities. After all, the points made above regarding Israel could easily be applied to the United States: 1) Puritans and the protection of religious minorities in a Promised Land, 2) religious visions of Manifest Destiny, 3) the importation of European and other immigrants to minimize the collective power of Natives and African Americans.

In other words, ISIS exhibits all the characteristics of a settler colonial state. Does the fact that we insist upon the label of “terrorism” speak to how racialized that label has become, or does it pertain to our reluctance to employ colonial terminology in describing a radically violent group because it undermines the ostensibly benevolent nature of our own settler history, or both? If we began to acknowledge the settler colonial ideology underpinning ISIS activities, how would that change our reactions to the violence they perpetrate?