In June 2016, my wife and I headed to Ireland for a week-long vacation. It was my first time on Emerald soil, despite my unabashed affection for my cultural heritage. While I certainly wish I’d had the chance to visit earlier, there was also something poetic about making the trip during the centennial celebration of the Easter Rising, the first major conflict in the struggle for Irish Independence.
For those who don’t know their Irish history, the Easter Rising was actually kind of a massive failure. But that horrible defeat is also what made the rest of the soon-to-be-Republic wake up and realize that their sovereignty was no longer optional. In a way, it was also the beginning of the end of the British Empire — Ireland was the first major colony since the United States to fight for its freedom, and over the next half-century or so, the crown would its relinquish its rule on pretty much everywhere else.
My wife and I did not intentionally plan our trip around this centennial celebration, but it did add a certain heft of historical importance to the whole thing. On that same note, we didn’t expect to hop on a plane to Ireland the day after the Brexit vote, either.
Ireland is now comfortably a part of the European Union, of course, so Brexit didn’t impact most of the people we met on our journey across the southern half of the island; indeed, most of them heard our American accents and immediately asked, “Are yourselves from the States? Sure, sure. What the fuck is up with Donald Trump?” to which we both replied with eyerolls, shrugs, sighs, and “I’m gonna need another pint for this.”
But the talk radio and newspaper headlines told a different story: Brexit had the potential to radically change the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, since they share the only physical land border between the UK and the EU. See, while the Easter Rising was a crucial moment in the fight for Irish Independence, the battle wasn’t “officially” over until 1923, and though tensions in the British-controlled North continued to rage through 90s (there are some who are still fighting war today, too). The border there was heavily militarized until 1998, when the Good Friday agreement was signed, marking an endpoint to a long and complicated peace process —in which, coincidentally, the Clintons played a small but not unsubstantial role.
Also coincidentally, that trip to Ireland was the first time I listened to “Hamilton.”
We spent 2+ hours in the car every day, alternating between “Hamilton” and The Pogues because relationships are built on compromise (but it was mostly “Hamilton” because I understand and accept that Shane MacGowan’s toothless drunken ramblings don’t appeal to everyone in the same way).
Between “Hamilton,” Brexit, the Easter Rising centennial, and all of the other stunning history we saw as we made our way across the Irish countryside, this got me thinking about politics and revolution, and the roots of where we today—which of course is the kind of stuff I tend to think about anyway, but especially as we enter the third month of Donald Trump’s presidency and celebrate Irish heritage along with St. Pádraig’s Day here in the United States.
As someone who has spent their life in liberal New England, “State’s Rights” had always seemed like something the South made up in order to pretend the Civil War wasn’t about slavery (it was).
More recently, “state’s rights” have been used to block any efforts to curb gun violence, and also to punish trans* people for having to poop (yet somehow not weed?). But listening to the story of our nation’s founding as so eloquently rapped by Lin-Manuel Miranda while driving around Ireland, I came to realize that perhaps the original intention of “state’s rights” was to essentially create 13 separate countries on American soil that had pre-established trade, border, and immigration agreements.
In that context, states like Massachusetts and North Carolina could be as radically different as Germany and France, each with their own unique culture and language or dialect. State identity would not just be an arbitrary moniker; Rhode Islanders and Virginians would almost be separate nationalities, with their shared label of “American” being almost as vague and non-committal as it is on, well, any other continent. The United States would be less of a “country,” in the sense that we know it now, and more of an economic union.
The US then would have been what the EU is today.
An EU citizen can live, work, or travel in any EU nation. They share the same currency, and observe the same charter of fundamental human rights, but other than that, each country is pretty much free to do what it’s going to do, with culture and traditions and other specifics of living that remain unique to them and them alone.
That’s pretty much what Thomas Jefferson argues for in “Hamilton” when the eponymous immigrant first tries to establish the national bank. But it’s not at all what happened — for better, or for worse. Our governors today are not at all comparable to European Presidents, and the power that is currently yielded by Donald Trump is vastly different from Donald Tusk’s authority and influence.
The question of state’s rights could have changed our trajectory 250 years ago. But that didn’t happen. If the United States had actually been setup to recognize the cultural autonomy of each individual nation-state, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. We probably wouldn’t have grown as fast as we did (also for better or for worse; remember, our early growth and success was also intrinsically tied to slavery), and the distribution of our wealth and economy would be even more radical than it is right now, reshaping the domino chain of events that we currently know to be the foundational moments in the story of our nation.
Because of this, it’s almost impossible to imagine what this alternate history version of the US would be like today, with 50 separate nation-states working together while also forging their own paths (assuming that we still “collected” those nation-states the way we’ve done with our current spread of states, which may or may not have happened).
And that’s the thing: that divisive tension of potentially-50 different countries, and the fractured state of our collective national identity, are intrinsic parts of America. When Trump supporters opine that we need to “come together as country,” they’re willfully ignoring the fact that we’ve never been together as a country. And that fact has shaped everything about the United States. (To be fair, Trump supporters tend to willfully ignore all facts in general. Ba-dum-tisch!)
How much time, energy, and resources have we spent trying to define and lock down a singular vision of “America the Beautiful Abstract Concept?”
Guns. Religion. Marriage equality. Whiteness and race in general. Immigration, and the overall influx of Spanish language and culture. Taxes. Welfare. Healthcare. Crime, Free Speech, and Policing. Education and “choice.” Basic science. Environmental issues. Land rights. Public or private services? Innovation! Are we a society that looks out for each other, and the individual choice embodiment of everyman-for-himself? Do laws exist to protect the people, or to serve businesses? What would my personal sense of abstract identity be then, as a Nutmegger by birth and a Masshole by choice (and soon-to-be-New Yorker)?
American identity is intrinsically fractured, because it’s always been fractured, because that’s how our country was formed, regardless of the original intention. By this point, we’re too large and unwieldy to steer ourselves smoothly as we bumble towards the future. And so these divisive socio-political issues are trapped in a constant state of tug-of-war, and it’s only made worse by the fact that our cultural obsession with binary thinking (perhaps the only thing we’re unified on) has forced us all to conform to one choice, or the other, jerking back and forth forever. Whichever side you’re on is socially expected to dictate your concept of American identity for you.
There are two ironies to this situation that both stand to sting the most adamant Trump supporters:
According to that traditionally reductive left-right spectrum of America, liberals are the ones who are supposed to favor centralized or “big” government. This is demonstrably untrue, but I digress. Because now under President 45, Blue States are finally reaping the residual benefits of the same state’s rights that we once found futile, for perhaps the first significant time in US history.
I’m still not sure how I feel about that, though it certainly makes me appreciate the Devil’s Advocate arguments I’d been hearing from my Libertarian friends for years. For the most part, I’ve always thought that those who most adamantly insist on flying the standard of “state’s rights” were fighting a losing battle, and only ever using it to hold onto power. I certainly don’t think US states will ever enjoy the same autonomy as the countries of the European Union; but I still think it’s something worth noticing, and thinking about.
The other irony is of course the overlap of Brexit and Trump campaign in their shared appeals to economic strife and xenophobic philosophy. Despite the fact that the British Empire literally ruled the majority of the world—and thus, that any immigration or cultural mix that they might be facing in the UK is their own doing—Nigel Farage and company were somehow still able to convince people that the European Union (and by extension, all countries outside of the British Isles) were bad, evil things.
Trumpers share a disdain with their Brexit Brethren for “The Establishment” and “New World Order,” as embodied by NATO, I guess, and the UN as a whole (and also Muslims, and false flag psyops, or something). And yet, for Trumpers, particularly in the South and Midwest, the autonomy of the European Union actually represents everything they’d supposedly desired for years: cultural autonomy. Except that the EU also expects all of its member-nations to uphold the same respectful standards of equality for all people regardless of race, religion, gender, creed, or sexual orientation—which, sadly, is not an agreement that half the US would be willing to uphold.
This is not to say that all Trumpers and Brexiteers are homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic jerks, of course; just that the politicians at the forefront of their respective campaigns capitalized on these qualities and fears, and that even in the absence of any conscious intent of discrimination, it’s not hard to follow the path from all their other rhetorical arguments and end up right smack in the middle of Bigotry Road.
(Best case scenario, it was an appeal to their basest, animalistic instincts to preserve the self at the sake of others, and they all fell for it.)
And that brings me back to 1916 Ireland.
Pádraig Pearse was among the men who fought and died in the Easter Rising. He was a poet and a thinker, who believed in democratic socialism and feminism, and who struggled to retain his indigenous tongue in the face of colonial oppression.
He also had a gun. (It didn’t help him, but still.)
Hamilton had a gun, too. So did George Washington. Hercules Mulligan had pants and some dopeass rhymes, and presumably a gun as well.
As we drove through Ireland last June, I was reminded of how these revolutionary leaders were all philosophers, sensitive souls who still fought physically for freedom because they saw it as their only choice. It’s not unlike the great Sioux leaders such as Sitting Bull, who walked with a chanunpa in one hand and a skullcracker in the other, always offering the peace pipe first, but keeping his club handy, just in case.
Suddenly we’re debating whether it’s okay to punch Nazis. Antifa is starting to get the same news coverage as the alt-right, and gun sales are up among liberal women and minorities, but down across the rest of the country (it’s almost like…all those right-wing gun sales were previously driven by irrational fears of crime and racial paranoia?).
Now the same people who used to tout their Second Amendment rights are more upset about property damage than human rights violations. Now they’re willing to outlaw the rights of the people to assemble and subject citizens to arbitrary purity tests before those same people are allowed to defend themselves from violence, all because they think it helps to uphold some semblance of “order”—or at least, order as it serves them.
The implicit message here is that our American exceptionalism is the central rule of the land.
It’s as if to say that the fight for Civil Rights was won some 50 years ago, and now things are totally different and will still that way forever so every historical example of self-defense or armed insurgence is irrelevant. It’s okay for “real” Americans to stand their ground, but everyone else is just disrupting the “natural” order of things, just like they have at every other point in history.
Except that sense of status quo order has only ever worked to keep a chosen few people in power. Or, as Sinclair Lewis once prophetically said, “It can’t happen here.”
But it can happen here. The only thing exceptional about America is that it hasn’t happened recently in our collective cultural memory.
Europeans understand the serious dangers of fascism, violence, and war, because they’re constantly surrounded by reminders of its horrors. In the United States, anything that predates World War II is practically ancient history. Our American grandparents went off to fight in Europe, then came back to unprecedented levels of prosperity—because Europe was ravaged, and not for the first time, either. By the time the US was born, most European countries had seen their centuries-old landmarks ransacked and destroyed several times over.
Barring a few horrifically tragic but isolated attacks, the US has not.
So what seems so distant to us is a natural part of their lives. The ruined remnants of feudal castles dot the Irish landscape with little preservation or oversight, for example; the woman we stayed with outside of Dublin had a grandfather who was killed in the Easter Rising, and kept a photo of him hanging over the stairs next to a copy of Forógra na Poblachta.
Sure, we have American Civil War re-enactors. But that’s all about false sense of nostalgia (a distinctly American psychosis, to be sure). In Europe, on the other hand, the wounds are genuinely more fresh, the historical damage all within eyesight.
Yet for some reason, here in the States, we think history is settled; that any seemingly-important moment will be remembered and preserved forever, even though we can barely remember what happened when our parents were teenagers. Our political system is great and all, but that doesn’t make it the One True Way that perseveres without question or conflict.
The only thing exceptional about America is our size, and that we’ve had the same identity crisis for 250 years, taking two steps forward and one step back.
Our insistence on being so “exceptional”—on being naive enough to think that we’ve somehow evolved to the point that we’re immune to the same failings of every empire and revolution that came before—is exactly what prevents us from seeing the patterns of history staring back at us.
But “The past isn’t past; it isn’t even over;” “As above, so below;” “This has all happened before;” et cetera, et cetera. Basically this is all a long-winded way of quoting a 30-year old Billy Bragg song:
“The cities of Europe have burned before, and they may yet burn again. But if they do, I hope you’ll understand that Washington will burn with them; Omaha will burn with them; Los Alamos will burn with them.”
None of this is to say that I’m condoning (or condemning) insurrection of any kind. This is all just to say that we should not ignore history.