The Accidental Racist

A few weeks back, there was a big to-do over a letter by Mike McCormack, National Historian of the AOH (hopefully ex-Historian of the AOH by now, if that organisation has any respect for its good name at all!) in the magazine History Ireland. McCormack made a gratuitous, childish and entirely unwarranted attack on Liam Hogan, the Limerick historian who has done such excellent work in challenging the racist Irish Slavery Meme.

Bizarrely, McCormack characterised some of Hogan’s work as ‘Paddy-bashing’. Why? Well, Liam Hogan has been criticising the spread of the Irish Slavery meme among Irish Americans, and the way that racists and people who are ignorant of their own heritage have used this fake revisionist version of history to belittle the terrible injustices suffered by the African American community by saying that the Irish were slaves too and that they suffered worse than African Americans but they aren’t ‘bitching and moaning’. That this kind of racist nonsense has been spread far and wide, shared by hundreds of thousands of people of Irish descent, is undeniable. Go on line looking for Irish Slaves on social media and you will find plenty of hateful, nasty comments directed at groups like Black Lives Matter. Mike McCormack, in his absurd letter, claimed that Hogan is distorting the truth and exaggerating this racist presence on the internet in order to depict Irish Americans as racists. Apparently, because Mike McCormack doesn’t know any racists in the Irish American community, there aren’t any, and people like Hogan are being racist against Irish Americans by pointing out the spread of this racist poison in that community.

Liam Hogan isn’t a racist. Neither is Mike McCormack, judging by some of the articles he has written. The problem is that McCormack is refusing to look at the implications of the Irish Slavery meme honestly. There were no Irish slaves. There were Irish indentured servants, some of whom were involuntary (prisoners of war or effectively poor people kidnapped from Ireland). Their servitude was time-limited (even the prisoners, who were characteristically given servitude contracts of ten years). It was totally different from the slavery that African Americans were subjected to.

The problem with revisionist theories like the Irish Slavery Meme is that there are many people who don’t share the racist views of many of the people who spread them. They aren’t racists but the ideas they are spreading are clearly giving support to those who do hold racist views. To give just one example, one of the most popular Irish Slavery books is Rhetta Akamatsu’s book The Irish Slaves: Slavery, Indentured Servitude, and Contract Labor Among Irish Immigrants. Rhetta Akamatsu is presumably not a white supremacist, as her husband is of Japanese descent. But her book is badly researched and full of mistakes (for example, the Amazon Irish slaves of 1612, who didn’t exist), which is unsurprising in that she is not a proper historian but a writer specialising in books about the paranormal. One revealing article says that she often sits down to watch her favourite programmes, including Ancient Aliens! I’ll say nothing …

There are lots of these accidental racists. Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin ended up in hot water in 2016 with a badly-considered tweet about how three hundred thousand Irish were sold as slaves. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin is part of a media consortium which owns IrishCentral, which carried an appalling article peddling nonsense originating in the claims of a Holocaust-denier called Hoffmann. (I notice that the article is now no longer available on IrishCentral. Perhaps if they’re removing lies from that site, they could ditch the rubbish by Brendan Patrick Keane as well!) Neither Adams nor Ó Muilleoir are racists, and the policies of their party are clearly and unambiguously opposed to all forms of racism. The fact that they have found themselves on the wrong side in these debates is down to stupidity, not malice.

And it’s very interesting that, though Barry Fell was not a racist, the ideas that he spread about Europeans coming to the New World fit in well with a whole tradition about the spread of civilisation from the drowned continent of Atlantis, ideas which suggest that civilisation came from white people and wasn’t developed independently by Amerindians. (Norman Totten, a friend of Barry Fell’s, set up a straw man in his posthumous defence of Fell, which you can read here: http://www.equinox-project.com/esop81.htm In reality, none of the three comments quoted accuses Fell of being racist – they state, quite rightly, that Fell’s theories can have racist implications.)

It’s also interesting to note that while I’m sure Fell wasn’t a Maori-hater, he spent a long time in New Zealand and his ideas about white settlers in ancient times in the Pacific fits in with the ideas of 19th century writers like Tregear, whose beliefs were nonsense but were pro-Maori (author of The Aryan Maori: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tregear). Fell’s ideas and Tregear’s theories have given rise to a looney-tune far-right movement in New Zealand which has completely reversed Tregear’s respect for the Maori and claims that Celts went to Aotearoa in ancient times and that the Maori are therefore just blow-ins who have no prior claim to the land. This is probably the closest correspondence you could find to the use of the White Slavery Meme as a means of attacking African Americans.

In other words, you don’t have to be a racist to be an accessory to racist ideas. You should always check the accuracy of the ideas you are claiming. I don’t really care if Mike McCormack is a racist or not. But he should be as worried as I am about the spread of racist memes about Irish history. He should be doing everything in his power to stop such ideas in their tracks but because of his ignorance and lack of historical knowledge, he has helped to propagate the most vile pieces of nonsense and propaganda about the forced breeding of young Irish girls with ‘Mandingo warriors’, not because he is a white supremacist who hates black people, but because his sense of ancestral victimhood is more important to him than the truth.

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