The ones who stayed behind - One Less Robot
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The ones who stayed behind

The ones who stayed behind

I’ve always had an idea of myself as a liberal, open minded person; but like many good ideas, what seems good in theory has proved somewhat difficult to put into practice.

In fact, I’ve come to realise that there are two very distinct aspects to my liberal nature. Though in principle, discrimination and hatred are obviously wrong, everyday life very rarely presents in such a black and white way, so to speak. It’s difficult having the energy and courage to constantly pursue what we feel to be right, every minute of every day.

The best of intentions quite often do not survive the assault of reality, and such seems to be the case with even the best intentioned Irish liberal. I consider myself among that number, on more than one count. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour or nationality is totally reprehensible, but … it is so easy to slip into bad attitudes towards our new arrivals while convincing ourselves we have good reason, and most especially that we are not racists.

As a people, we are very good at discrimination, but downright expert at persuading ourselves that we are not racists. Our strategies for justifying the way we think of immigrants are many and varied. We make all sorts of simplistic generalisations based on no actual evidence. Everyone has a story to tell about the schemes and nefarious activities of immigrants, though nearly always anecdotal; it happened to a friend of a friend, or whomever. Credit card fraud, insurance scams, organised crime of all sorts, various schemes to defraud Social Welfare, and pretty much every other act that can thought of in a pub or broadcast on prime time radio shows.

Recently, one of my flatmates had to move out, a guy called Tom. A couple of girls came to look at the place, and Tom showed them around. I wasn’t there when checked the place out, but they wanted the room, and handed over the deposit there and then.

When I got home later that evening, the other lad in the house told me that a pair of foreign girls had looked at the house, and he thought they had been interested. According to him they were also very attractive, and foreign looking, possibly Spanish. Sounded good to me. When I caught up with Tom later on, he said they had taken the room, told me the girls were sisters, and they were Romanian.

Now when I thought my future flatmates were two Spanish lovelies, I was perfectly happy. As soon as I knew they were Romanian, my whole attitude changed. Though I had not met the girls, had not talked to them, the only thing I knew about Romanians in this country was that they were beggars and fraudsters. I say ‘knew’, but of course I was going on purely anecdotal stories and unsubstantiated rumours. I knew nothing at all about these particular people, and since the landlady would not let the room be shared by two people anyway, I never would.

Tom had to phone the girls and tell them they could not move in, and he would have to return their deposit. I’m heartily glad that circumstance took the matter out of my hands, because otherwise I’m depressingly certain that my feelings of unease about Romanians in general would have meant I would have said no to their moving in.

There is a small epilogue, in the form of a visit from the girls’ father. He turned up on the doorstep later that night, and ranted and raved at Tom for a good ten minutes. I don’t blame him one bit. He did say one thing that just goes to prove that everybody needs somebody to feel better than. Tom was told by the father that he had been trying to find a home for his family for months, and that they were treated worse than Jews.

So I had not wanted to share a flat with Romanians, however gorgeous, not on the basis that I was a racist. Of course not, it was solely because I wanted to protect myself and my possessions from trouble, and I had equated trouble with Romanians. It’s at this point in convincing ourselves we’re not racists that it’s easy to get confused. Follow the logic on this argument, and see if you spot the obvious flaw. Some people are criminals, therefore all people are criminals. Well, of course that’s not true. So what about this then: some immigrants commit crimes, so all immigrants are criminals.

I’m not seeing the logic in that one either, but maybe if I take it a step further, and make that connection that us liberals are so studiously trying to avoid, we can recognise our racism and do something about it. Here goes: some immigrants commit crimes, and those immigrants are black, therefore all immigrants are criminals, and so it follows that all black people are criminals.

I hope you see the flaw in that kind of lazy thinking, and why it is so easy for us all to fall into it. Not only does it absolve of us of our guilt for being racists, we also have a lot of practice applying the same sideways thought processes in other areas of Irish life.

We’ve been giving each other those same labels for years, the residents of council housing estates are all drug addicts and thieves, travellers do nothing but steal from the settled community and feud at funerals. Always it’s easier to assign imagined wrong-doing to those we deem somehow less human than ourselves, and to spread that blame across whole groupings. Otherwise we have to deal with the complicated and messy reality of real individuals and their awkward tendency to avoid handy pigeon-holing.

Our attitude to those who come thousands of miles to make their home in Ireland is based as much in our own history as is it in our insular dislike of foreigners. Take a moment and examine why you are so convinced of the ill-intent of newcomers to this country. Does it perhaps seem unbelievable to you that anyone could possibly want to come here? Even more unfathomable, they are actually willing to undergo terrible hardships, travelling thousands of miles to reach what they apparently see as the Promised Land.

For a very, very long time, there has been only one direction of travel for Irish people, and that has been away. Nobody came back, they left, and that was it. More than that, when Irish people arrived on foreign shores, they did well. It was quite amazing really, in Superman fashion, once away from our home land, our full potential revealed itself. The Irish abroad literally had super powers, despite and maybe because of the racism we ourselves encountered.

So for hundreds of years the Irish left this country and spread themselves around the globe. This we did in times of famine, in times of conflict, and also when times were just plain tough. Irish men and women made the United States of America what it is today, both as formers and defenders of the law, and as breakers of it. The Irish Mafia may be a light-hearted joke now, but in the 1920’s it was deadly serious.

We left, and only recently has the even more recently deceased Celtic Tiger drawn a few of our emigrants back to the home of their birth. So maybe we can forgive ourselves for not comprehending how anyone in their right minds would want to come to Ireland, when all we have ever known is the leaving of it. That’s not the whole of it, there’s one more wrinkle in our own inbred introspectiveness, and this might be an even thornier point to grasp than what’s come before.

This Ireland has been made by the ones that stayed behind.

I made that sentence a whole paragraph of its own because it is such a glaringly obvious concept that no-one ever seems to mention it, and I want you to think about it. Even when times were hard, when there was no food, or no work, in a conquered land, the people who made this Ireland stayed. Whether that was an act of courage or cowardice, the fact remains, we are totally unsuited historically to understand these current immigrants, when we ourselves are the ones that stayed behind while others left.

I try to put myself into the shoes of people who leave their homeland for a better life, and it seems fair enough to draw a comparison between their journey and that of the millions of Irish men and women who travelled the same road to the US, and Australia, and a hundred other countries. The comparison will not hold though, because I am one of those that stayed behind, and behind me all my ancestors down the generations. Those of my fellow citizens who have left the green, green fields of home for greener pastures over the centuries are as foreign to me as the present day Nigerians immigrants.

I have no common ground with either, and regardless of any across-the-board judgement based on their ethnicity, really the root of it is a lack of respect that they couldn’t stick it out, they gave up. Are they truly brave for uprooting their entire lives and taking an almighty chance, or are they cowards for not staying and making things better? I can’t answer that, and really none of us have the right to ask the question. We think that these newcomers are dangerous because they have come through danger; they have lived through tougher times than we have ever seen, and survived.

Our complacency is threatened, and our principles put to the test. It’s easy to profess to be a liberal and open minded, but so much harder to pursue in practice. I’m obviously not talking about the waste of space who shouts out ‘Nigger go home!’ to a black woman taking her baby for a walk. It should not need saying that a frontal lobotomy is the best cure for that kind of hatred. Rather I’m talking about the majority, who have a vague and untested idea of equality, as I’ve said before, myself included.

I had the disturbing and unpleasant experience of being regaled by a neo Nazi several years ago, and even though what I really wanted to do was tell him what a nutcase he was, I just sat there for nearly an hour making non-committal noises at the appropriate points in the totally one-sided conversation. He was the most frightening man I have ever met, not because he was intimidating, or physically threatening, but because of the completely matter-of-fact way he told story after story of the terrible things he had done.

I’m quite polite when I meet someone new, nodding in all the right places, and that gives the impression I’m a good listener. People often tell me more than they intend to because they assume I am totally in their camp, so to speak, and this guy was no exception. In the same way as you would tell a story about a funny incident at work, he told me of bashing black and Indian people in London.

Casual as you like, he spoke of him and some like-minded mates wandering around Hyde Park looking for ‘foreigners’ to beat up. And worse than anything, he told me about one young black couple they had come across, out for a walk on a pleasant summer’s day with their child. After following the couple for a few minutes, this so-called man and his companions attacked the child’s parents, first beating them to the ground with their fists, then kicking their victims around the head and stomach.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, along with the story being recounted with a chilling lack of emotion or guilt, this low-life had the audacity to cast himself as the hero of this tale. When his companions made to beat the young child, maybe four or five years old, he walked away, because he doesn’t believe in hurting children. He walked away, by which I assume he ran, because he did not think it was right to hurt children. Thus his conscience was clear, though he did not say whether his companions did indeed beat the child, as I’m sure they must have.

There was more, but I think he told his own story with that one, and it said everything about his own view of his actions and chosen lifestyle. He was a ‘reasonable’ racist; he had limits, standards if you will. Children would not be involved in his war, but women were seemingly fair game. There was even a reason given for his antagonism towards other races, but it was so feeble as to be not worth recounting.

The greatest lesson I learned during that whole terrible hour was not about him, it was about me. I was in my own house, and I should just have to told him to leave as soon as he started telling me he ‘didn’t like blacks.’ It will forever be one of those experiences in my life that I will wish I had handled differently, or been a different person to handle it better. Too late in retrospect, I strike a blow for sense and reason, throw him out of my house with a pithy comment that causes him to reconsider his entire life and repent his actions. That did not happen, and while the whole event was soul-crunchingly depressing, it was more depressing that I failed to act as I should have.

When I reacted that way towards the possibility of Romanians moving in to the flat, it shocked and shamed me to behave in the same way as that deluded neo-scum. It really is only a matter of degree and motivation.

A person can only be judged on their own actions, not those of anyone else from the same country, or roughly the same skin colour, no matter how easy it is to tar everyone with the same brush. I hope the irony of that expression is not lost on you either.

What is it to be open-minded? If for you it means not pre-judging someone based on their skin colour, where they come from, their religion or age, then perhaps you might wonder if you are as open-minded as you think. Should you really be giving yourself a big slap on the back for what is surely such a basic part of being humane and a human being?

“For so many years we have been exhorted to help the black babies in far away Africa, but now the babies are here, where is our oft trumpeted generosity now?”

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