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Go West

June 22, 2018

In the 1991 film The Commitments, band manager Jimmy Rabbitte (played by Robert Arkins) makes the following observation:

Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.

Although this scene is intended to be comical, there’s more than a hint of truth to this statement: Ireland was the testing ground for British colonialism; and in the Protestant-dominated USA, Irish Catholics for many years were considered “white Negroes.”


Ireland, geographically speaking, is about as far west in Europe as you can get; but for many years, it was considered an outlier, compared to its near neighbours: a backward, impoverished theocracy, only useful for providing labour to the Anglosphere. Irish society has changed rapidly in recent years, to become more in line with current “Western values” — but what does that phrase even mean?

I concur with the proposition that no such thing as “Western civilization” exists; there are only memes, which have a varied history and origin.

Consider the meme for ‘tolerance of homosexuality’. This has a very short history, and is still unevenly applied. One of the greatest minds of the modern world, Alan Turing, was hounded to his death by the supposedly civilized English.

Another candidate would be ‘religious tolerance’, but that would be hardly true of the British monarchy (which, unfortunately, still provides Australia’s Head of State). The British king or queen must be a member of the Church of England, and until recently forbidden to marry a Catholic. So much for the tolerant royals.

‘Democracy’ and ‘freedom of the press’ are also much touted, but once again we find unevenness and contradiction. The USA was founded as a slave State, while voter suppression of Blacks continues to this day; Switzerland didn’t give women the vote until 1971; and Franco ruled Spain until 1975. If you want to talk about press freedom, look at Australia’s defamation laws.

The Western mind has no monopoly on rationality. While the Charvaka school of Indian philosophy was arguing for skepticism and empiricism, Plato was demanding the execution of atheists. Medieval Rome was a scavenger’s village compared to medieval Baghdad.*

The temptation to simplify narratives is a strong one — we all want easy answers. When it comes to the analysis of history and culture, it must be resisted.

*Robert Hughes, ‘Culture of Complaint’


From → Mind

One Comment
  1. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons [user “Alexrk2”]

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