On February 10th, 2003, a day before I turned 16, my dad took me to a meeting with other men of our race to become a member of a secret society which has roots going back several centuries. The men of our race were not determined by their white skin, but rather by being Irish ‘by birth or descent’, and most minutes of the secret meetings were mundane disagreements over how to spend money for charitable donations or the best way to organize cultural or political events. These suburban working and middle class men I was surrounded by were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH is an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization which was formed in the 19th-century in an atmosphere of intense anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant discrimination and violence sweeping the country. This came from a deep cultural foundation of secrecy and rebellion in Ireland, where English landlords who had implemented an apartheid style of government over Ireland which disenfranchised and marginalized the Catholic majority of the population to be ruled over by a wealthy Protestant elite known as the Penal Laws. Through centuries of oppression, secret agrarian societies, distrust for the state, a folk-religious form of Catholicism and violence became deeply ingrained into Irish culture, and was readily accessed and mobilized throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by Irish-Americans to react to hostile forces under which they saw themselves as besieged.
But where Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of genocide in Ireland, or the Know-Nothing Party or KKK’s nativist lobbying and riots failed, middle class success seems to be succeding in eroding a sense of Irish-Catholic identity. Quoting Robby Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, Emma Green notes in a recent article for The Atlantic that in the US, ““Churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement”. She goes on to point out that “White working-class Americans of all ages were much less likely than their college-educated peers to participate in sports teams, book clubs, or neighborhood associations—55 percent vs. 31 percent said they seldom or never participated in those kinds of activities.” This notion of civic and community apathy was apparent to me when I joined the AOH and noticed the huge age gap between myself and the other members (at 15 years and 364 days old the nearest man in age to me was my own dad who had been almost 40). I was part of the first generation in my family to not be educated by Christian Brothers with Irish brogues in New York City parochial schools, and instead went to public schools in the DC suburbs of a small blue collar town famous for a Civil War battle and Lorena Bobbit. But just as we had a sense of Irish diaspora, we also had a Northeast diaspora. The fact that it was my great-grandparents who’d come to America during a time of tremendous political and sectarian violence in the 1920s didn’t matter. Ireland was not a far-off abstract notion, when our AOH divison’s ranks were filled with other men my father’s age from New York, Boston, Baltimore and Philly who had Irish grandparents, peppered in with older men who had immigrated in the 1950s, or men and women my parents age who had been brought to us as a much needed infusion of fresh Irish blood thanks-be-to-God for the economic recessions in Ireland of the 1970s and 80s. And of course the Summer I joined the AOH was the same year it seemed a month couldn’t pass without hosting a pack of young twenty somethings living down the street working construction jobs in DC from all over Ireland on J-1 visas.
But through all of this sense of manufactured ethno-religious identity, I was still painfully aware of one thing: we were working against the tide, and this sense of community was fading in the modern, individualistic, middle-class world. Perhaps Tony Soprano said it best in the pilot episode of the show when he bemoaned to his therapist that, “I think about my father, he never reached the heights like me. But in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people, they had their standards, and pride. Today, what have we got?”. The idea of loss of community and traditional institutions in the modern world has not gone unnoticed by the seers and sages of the culture, and perhaps are being paid attention to too late, with head scratching over where we went wrong. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Emma Green observes that the decline in civic and religious involvement has lead to a political landscape in which, “More and more white Americans are being pulled toward isolation, away from the thick knit of civic and religious life that has long defined American political culture”.
By every possible metric, Catholics in America are what the left likes to call a historically marginalized group. Within the study of anti-Catholic thought, there is a divide between old and new anti-Catholicism, with the former being linked to Protestant nativism and theological differences and the latter tending to focus on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. The left ironically inherited much of its anti-Catholic prejudices from conservative Protestants who to this day think that my praying to statues of the Virgin Mary amounts to nothing more than pagan idolatry to a Goddess figure, and my reading of Genesis as a metaphor for evolution makes me a blasphemer. They don’t seem to apply the same reservations about sweeping Catholic marginalization in the United States under the rug of American history because of the Church’s teachings on sexuality the way they do with the equally, if not more so, conservative theology of Islam. This inability to fall on the traditional left-right balance of American politics lends way to a sense of perpetual alienation, perhaps best illustrated by the famous Catholic Buddhist beatnik Jack Kerouac, who wrote in letters to friends that he’d probably been the only person in America smoking marijuana while watching the McCarthy hearings on TV and cheering for the iconic Irish-American Joe McCarthy against the Communists.
Whereas many on the right feel it is okay to ask Muslims today if they are American first, or Muslim first, they forget that all of these and much more were trotted out against us first. While Donald Trump’s executive orders banning entry to people from 7 (then 6) Muslim majority countries were seen as one of the greatest acts of oppression since 9/11 by many on the left, it pales in comparison to the widespread levels of violence against Catholics which went on for entire generations, well into the 20th century. Of course, as a society we tend to focus on the sensational illustrations of the results of larger demographic shifts and movements than we feel comfortable addressing, whether they be post-truth travel bans, or nativist anti-Catholic riots in the streets of Philadelphia. My middle name is Roosevelt because my grandfather and namesake was born to Irish immigrants on the day FDR was elected. Tammany Hall may be remembered as a corrupt club of cronyism to many, but to my people, it was a source of refuge, sanctuary. Like the opening lines of Scorses’s fictional tale of the Irish Mafia, The Departed, “In the beginning we had the Church. But that really just meant we had each other”. And with popular depictions like those below defining a paranoid nation’s perception of Catholics even until the 1920s when Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for president it’s easy to see how he lost in a landslide, being the first Democrat to lose the South since the Civil War. And it’s easy too, to see how our places of sanctuary, whether they are gangs, civic clubs, political machines, fraternal Catholic societies, brought up the same kind of social anxiety then that so called ‘sanctuary cities’ bring up today.
Perhaps it may seem counter-intuitive for me to bring up prejudices of the past century which we have as a society largely moved on from. Just as it was the losing side of the American Civil War which clings most fervently to the past, so too I at times feel like I am living under the credo of Faulkner’s that ‘the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past’. But perhaps my search for answers in the shallow grave of the past is the perfect place to search if you view the current atmosphere of political division in America as a manifestation of a conflict between the forces of modernism and tradition which strips human beings of their value. Since I read that sales of George Orwell’s dystopian sci-fi novel 1984 had spiked since Trump became president, I kept coming back to a book I read back in 2006, before I enlisted in the Army at the height of the Troop Surge, when I had long hair, listened to loud angry music, and took Philosophy electives at my local community college. The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World, by theologian Richard L. Rubenstein is considered one of the seminal works of what has come to be known as ‘Holocaust Theology’.
In examining several humanitarian catastrophes from the 19th-century on, Rubenstein explores the role played by modernization and its consequences. In the 19th-century it went from the enclosure movement in England which overnight rendered virtually all English shepherds unemployable and destitute, to the Irish potato famine which if not an act of genocide, was certainly ‘genocide-adjacent’. He then explores 20th-century genocides from the Holocaust to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Through all of these, Rubenstein traces a steady and predictable form of ethical rationale based solely on what he termed ‘the Revolution of Rationale’ which reduced human beings to ‘redundant populations’. This revolution of rationale was rooted in the final stages of the Enlightenment, a darker side of the same revolution against the shackles of medieval feudalism and religious fundamentalism which also produced the Renaissance, the American and French Revolutions, and the notion of modern Western constitutional democracy. The title of the book comes from the ways in which systems treat the populations made redundant by modernizing forces, that is, those who are triaged to survive, and those slotted to be left to their own devices. Written in 1983, Rubenstein closes on a darkly prophetic note, musing over a future in which ‘surplus populations’ are reduced by poison-laden drugs, and working class populations of all skin color and creed have their humanity reduced by factories replacing their labor with automation.
I knew as a young man joining the AOH that I was seeking a sense of belonging with something from the past that was vanishing rapidly. Maybe it was my Catholic tendency towards drama, tragedy, and theater, like Oscar Wilde, perhaps the world’s most famous deathbed-Catholic, that made me want to pin my own destiny so inextricably to the sinking ship which is Irish-America. Perhaps the allure of tradition to me was in fact not so different to that of my immigrant great-grandparents, who had the Church as a sole source of community and social support, as it must have filled some gap in my youth left from being frequently suspended and expelled from schools. Perhaps that left me nostalgically romanticizing my own father’s young education at the hands of Irish Christian Brothers in New York at the height of white flight, crime and urban decay. Maybe that quest for belonging led me to enlist in the Army National Guard at the height of the Iraqi Troop Surge in 2007, where I would joke with buddies that if I’d been made a recruiter, I would have made my annual quota in a single weekend at a hardcore punk show in some dingy basement or run-down VFW or Knights of Columbus Hall full of similarly angsty and angry young men.
But all of those things, those clubs, and institutions, and scenes that’ I’ve once counted myself a member of, are healthy outlets for normal and understandable emotions. When I was young, the world was full of optimism for a brief time, that World War Three had been averted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The seers and sages wrote of “The end of history” and video on the news of laser-guided bombs over Baghdad and Bosnia ordered by Bill Clinton made the horrific ground wars of the past seem like relics of a bygone era. Only on 9/11 was this optimism replaced with the fear and besieged mentality of a nation that has realized that in the place of the Soviet Dragon was now hundreds of smaller snakes, which could lash out with small bites instead of belching flames at any time. The world became less predictable, and more violent. So too, I feel that the optimism of people feeling like the culture wars of the 80s and 90s are all but over, is being replaced by the fear that what will replace it will be far worse. As Peter Beiniart of The Atlantic recently wrote:
For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were.
The secular shift is just as prevalent in the left as the right, just as America seems more divided than it has been in most people’s memories. This increasingly secular and viscous type of division reminds me of what Rubenstein wrote of in Triage as the rise of racism as we know it today, which was the logical progeny of previous sectarian tribalism. It nonetheless had profound differences shaped by the radical changes in scientific understanding, most notably Darwinism in an era of rapid industrialization and colonial conquest by a small number of Western nations. Rubenstein writes that:
Racism or Neo-Tribalism…was an attempt to establish a basis for community on the foundation of shared archaic roots. The exclusion of the alien was intrinsic to its very nature. Racism can be seen as a thoroughly modern response to the phenomenon of population superfluity and the fragmented affiliations of atomized bourgeois society. Racism was also an expression of the trend toward homogenization, centralization, and leveling that is a feature of modern bureaucratized society. Racism sought to establish an ideological basis for affiliation and community after all of the lesser units of community, such as the village, the Church, and even the nation, had proved unable to meet the challenge.
Today, just as some in the political left in America are calling for there to be ‘no platform’ for debating the policies of Trump, others seem to also be looking back wistfully at their former nemesis George W. Bush as a once worthy adversary the likes of which Trump can’t hold a candle to. In the same way, the scientific racism used by fascists in the 20th-century and mass murder by atheist Communist regimes can leave one looking back to our tribal, linguistic, and sectarian division in the pre-modern era as somehow less traumatic. It was, of course, but more so due to technological ability to blood-let which corresponded to the rise of racist tribalism. And perhaps this sense of looking towards the failures of the past to bring Utopia to earth can help explain how and why Irish-American and Catholic-raised Steve Bannon has reportedly cited the virulently anti-Catholic fascist Julius Evola.
Oh if only we could go back to when having a name like Bannon and being even nominally Catholic made you a pariah in America, then maybe he could commiserate with different cultural others more easily.
Rubenstein points out that throughout the 20th century, the populations which were often rendered redundant were not always the poor, but often they were often the doctors, lawyers, and academics within religious or political minority groups who overnight found themselves on the wrong side of rapid demographic shifts. In a time of dichotomy being drawn between people who are white, and people of color, with no debate over the imperialism of non-westen nations such as the Ottoman or Japanese Empires, this is one of the reasons that I am looking back to the anti-Catholic bigotry of previous centuries. Because I know that we are just one hyper-inflated currency or war away from it being me in the crosshairs. Because I know, as a Catholic distrustful of Heaven-on-Earth Utopian ideas of society, that history does not end. And as a combat veteran who in my early 20s drove through once-beautiful suburbs of Baghdad which had become hollow bullet-riddled slums after just a few years of neglect and violence, that no affluence or education can keep our darker human drive towards survival, or Original Sin if you want to call it that, out of us us completely.
In Triage, Rubesntein posits that the solution to the revolution of rationale is a spiritual, rather than political one. Rather than advocating an idealistic and naive return to Eden of destroying the machines which have produced the efficiency that has rendered so many people redundant, Rubenstein makes the argument that because the Revolution of Rationale was made from a religious movement in the Enlightenment, that the way to re-humanize the most vulnerable of society is to have a societal self-examination and new sort of religious revolution, which shifts an emphasis on policy making from rationale to humanity. It would be impossible to return to Eden, he argues, and abandon technology, just as it is impossible to look at the genocides of the 20th century and lay their blame at the feet of any one ideology, as none have bloodless hands, be they fascist, communist, capitalist, liberal, conservative, religious or secular. It would be impossible to recreate the large demographic and historic trends which led to my being raised with the quirks of a sense of Irish-Catholic ethnic identity, rooted in empathy towards immigrants, the oppressed, and equal parts love for the working-class and distrust of Communism. Just as most middle class-heavy societies throughout history have generally been formed by catastrophic cataclysms like war or plague which no politician seems in a rush to mimic, my New York, Irish-Catholic identity was forged by immigration, famine, secret societies, faction fighting, public service, and urban political machines.
But in a world which seems past its peak, in which populist angst seems to be stemming from a sense of people losing their long held economic security rather than struggling to gain any for the first time as my grandparents had, perhaps a collective spiritual introspection is what is needed. Perhaps Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin is right to call out his own Church for being in need of a ‘reality check’. Perhaps religious institutions, like political ones, grew too comfortable for too long, and the resurgent rise of both far left and far right ideologies is because of this. And perhaps, as Richard Rubenstein concluded hopefully in The Age of Triage:
“There is nothing radical about insisting that no human being ought to be considered surplus. On the contrary, the real radical are those who do not know the difference between a genuine human community and a jungle. Survival of the fittest may indeed be the law of the jungle, but a human community is not a jungle”
With automation on the horizon, it’s easy to blame immigrants, or anyone who isn’t you. In times of upheaval, it’s easy to revert to the law of the jungle. I’ve seen it myself, I’ve lived it myself. But the efficiency of automation and rising economic inequality doesn’t have to make us all don a mullet and inherit the world of Mad Max, the Road Warrior, and it isn’t radical to say that we deserve better than that as a species. So please, run, don’t walk, to your nearest book store (before it gets turned into an abandoned ramshackle by online shopping and drone delivery) and buy yourself a copy of the Age of Triage.