"This is whataboutery with a TARDIS"
January 19, 2015 3:15 AM   Subscribe

It was with a heavy heart and no small amount of anger that I decided it was necessary to write a public refutation of the insidious myth that the Irish were once chattel slaves in the British colonies. The subject of this myth is not an issue in academic circles, for there is unanimous agreement, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Irish were never subjected to perpetual, hereditary slavery in the colonies, based on notions of ‘race’. Unfortunately this is not the case in the public domain and the ‘Irish slaves’ myth has been shared so frequently online that it has gone viral.
For OpenDemocracy, Laim Hogan writes a short article on the myth of Irish slavery, extracted from his larger essay 'The myth of “Irish slaves” in the colonies'. This has become relevant again in the wake of Ferguson as white supremacists and others use it to disparage and minimise African-American history and suffering: "the Irish don't ask for reparations and they were slaves".
posted by MartinWisse (97 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dammit, MartinWisse, I was totally going to post this and you beat me to it. :)

I feel quite fortunate that my first contact with this idea was via Hogan's longer essay, though I've since seen it pop up on Twitter (and my social media habits are not such that I'd expect to see this sort of guff frequently). I'm glad he's written a shorter version and hope it gets some traction.
posted by daisyk at 3:29 AM on January 19, 2015


I first encountered this whole Irish slavery concept on reddit's /badhistory (hatereading is a guilty pleasure) and it was just amazing. I have never heard this brought up as a subject of discussion in Ireland and yet there it was, so frequent a topic* that the mods classed it as a perpetual misconception alongside shit like the historicity of Jesus and christianity causing the dark ages.

Of course it's easily ripped to shreds but Hogan's twitter essay in particular really hits home how the myth is not just annoying 'me too!' paddywhackery but an active tool of white supremacists to delegitimise black history and suffering.

* As a sidenote, the question of if the Great Famine can be considered genocide is also a perennial topic on /badhistory, albeit one which has received extensive attention in Ireland.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 3:35 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The long, long list of things stolen from African-Americans has looped around on itself. It's not even enough anymore that they were stolen, now being stolen is being stolen.
posted by Etrigan at 3:46 AM on January 19, 2015 [26 favorites]


[One comment deleted. From the beginning of the first link, please note reference to "a false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery," and not pursue that conflation here. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:03 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Wow, those tweets are depressing. I've never ever heard the argument that Irish people were slaves in the sense that Black people were. I remember being told of the horrors of the slave trade at a young age, and not in any way in a "same goes for us" sense. I don't know a single person who would say Irish people were the "first slaves" or make any of the gross claims made in those tweets. Is this an Irish-American thing? I have met some Irish-Americans who were all "Up the IRA", and it's frankly embarrassing to listen to from people who think they know the context and facts when they don't have a clue. But this is a whole other level of "What the fuck are you talking about?"
posted by billiebee at 4:39 AM on January 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's not an Irish-American thing. It's an insane racist thing.

Tho to be correct I think the sort of arrangement being conflated with slavery was more of a scots-irish thing rather than the much larger Irish Catholic diaspora.

I grew up in a part of the northeast where everyone is Irish, Jewish, or Italian and I've not heard this nonsense before today. And to put that in context I know lots of people in the "up the IRA" cohort.
posted by JPD at 4:54 AM on January 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hearing an assertion or argument only through the act of its refutation is one of those phenomena that there should be a long German word for.
posted by sobarel at 5:00 AM on January 19, 2015 [36 favorites]


Hogan seems rather at pains to show that indentured servitude was "freely" chosen...
posted by ennui.bz at 5:02 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I saw this sort of thing show just the other day on a friend's FB feed but it was from his brother who, while Irish American, is also more than a bit of a racist (though he would never admit it, so I think its more of an attempt to wrap up some old -fashioned White Power bullshit in some blarney and call it history.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:11 AM on January 19, 2015


Hogan seems rather at pains to show that indentured servitude was "freely" chosen...

Not at all. From the first link:
The vast majority of labourers who agreed to this system did so voluntarily, but there were many who were forcibly transplanted from the British Isles to the colonies and sold into indentured service against their will. While these forced deportees would have included political prisoners and serious felons, it is believed that the majority came from the poor and vulnerable. This forced labour was in essence an extension of the English Poor Laws, e.g. in 1697 John Locke recommended the whipping of those who ‘refused to work’ and the herding of beggars into workhouses.
The point isn't whether it was freely chosen. The point is that 1) it was time-limited, 2) it was not an inherited status (Irish servants had free children/spouses). You put in your seven years and then you were free! In the meantime, you retained certain basic human rights--killing you could be prosecuted as a homicide. That's why Irish indentured servanthood and black slavery don't compare.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:14 AM on January 19, 2015 [35 favorites]


From a class-based perspective, treating the races at the bottom differently was a brilliant (if unintentional? or was it?) tactic for permanently dividing the lower classes along racial lines to prevent them from uniting along economic lines. Making poor whites virulently racist against blacks by treating them much-better-but-still-shitty was the cleverest thing the British and American upper classes ever did. It's still working even now 150 years after slavery ended.
posted by clawsoon at 5:24 AM on January 19, 2015 [44 favorites]


I received what might have been the worst and most cursory classes in US History in middle- and high-school, and yet even the appallingly bad textbooks we used covered the obvious difference between white indentured servants and african slaves (as well as the differences in later discrimination against ethnic whites, compared to that faced by blacks in the same era). I don't know many details about my family history, but based on when one branch arrived and how poor they were (and how they stayed in the south only a generation or two), it wouldn't surprise me if some of them had arrived in that status -- but to exagerate that into the mantel of slavery would be simply bizarre.

Being both willfully ignorant and choosing to reshape history in ways that are both false and offensive is shameful, but it's not a new phenomenon. There really is a pattern recently of privileged people adopting the language of oppression (and in this case adopting the historical facts of oppression, too); it's a phenomenon I really dislike and wish would cease but probably we will be seeing a lot more of it over the next years.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:27 AM on January 19, 2015


I've never ever heard the argument that Irish people were slaves in the sense that Black people were.

You're lucky. I've heard the Irish slavery bit asserted in passing a couple times over the years by relatives. Disputing it usually has resulted in a surly standoff of, "You believe the liberal propaganda you want to believe, I know what's true." I have always figured they got it from Fox News or right-wing web sites, like much of the other verbal diarrhea that comes out of my various poorly-educated far-right-wing cousins.

Sometimes the argument I've heard is just that the Irish and the Italians suffered horrible racism when they came to the U.S. just as bad as blacks did, that there were once signs everywhere saying "No Irish" or "No Italians" on stores and bars and so on you know, only they sucked it up and endured until it went away, while the blacks are still whining about it. (The latter assertion from even closer relatives than the out-and-out slavery nonsense, sadly.)

Ugh. All of these racist revisions to history are disgusting and among the reasons I moved away from my hometown and rarely go to extended family functions (racism, tea-partyism, smug anti-intellectualism, etc.).
posted by aught at 5:37 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Indentured servitude was a labor system whereby young people paid for their passage to the New World by working for an employer for a certain number of years. It was widely employed in the 18th century in the British colonies in North America and elsewhere. It was especially used as a way for poor youth in Britain and the German states to get passage to the American colonies. They would work for a fixed number of years, then be free to work on their own. The employer purchased the indenture from the sea captain who brought the youths over; he did so because he needed labour. Some worked as farmers or helpers for farm wives, some were apprenticed to craftsmen. Both sides were legally obligated to meet the terms, which were enforced by local American courts. Runaways were sought out and returned. About half of the white immigrants to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries were indentured. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries poor children from England and France were kidnapped and sold into indentured labor in the Caribbean for a minimum of five years, but most times their contracts were bought and sold repeatedly and some laborers never attained their freedom.


Following the emancipation of slaves in 1833, and the period of unpaid apprenticeship that followed, many liberated Africans left their former masters. For the owners of sugar-cane plantations, who required a regular, docile and low-waged labour force, this appeared to spell economic disaster. Britain was forced to look elsewhere for cheap labour and turned its attention for a brief period to China, and then to India.

The solution came in the form of a new system of forced labour, which in many ways resembled enslavement. Indians, under an 'indentured' or contract labour scheme, began to replace enslaved Africans on plantations across the British empire, in Fiji, Natal, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad.



Its all very murky, but it wasn't the Irish that the British used.
posted by infini at 5:44 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


From a class-based perspective, treating the races at the bottom differently was a brilliant (if unintentional? or was it?) tactic for permanently dividing the lower classes along racial lines to prevent them from uniting along economic lines.

One hundred percent intentional. "You think you've got it bad, well, at least you're not those people..." is as old as humanity.
posted by Etrigan at 5:47 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm a white southerner. I know that I'm descended from some Scots-Irish folk (i.e., they were such jerks about being Presbyterian that they got run out of two different countries), some Huguenots (same deal, but France), some English prisoners used to colonize Georgia, and undoubtedly a few indentured servants in there, but I've never heard this particular lie. It's fascinating the lies people would rather believe than admit the truth about how badly black folks have been treated in this country.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:02 AM on January 19, 2015 [10 favorites]


The point isn't whether it was freely chosen. The point is that 1) it was time-limited, 2) it was not an inherited status (Irish servants had free children/spouses). You put in your seven years and then you were free! In the meantime, you retained certain basic human rights--killing you could be prosecuted as a homicide. That's why Irish indentured servanthood and black slavery don't compare.

first off, even if there were Irish chattel slaves it wouldn't change the issue of racism towards black people today.

But, if you read his longer essay he also talks about how the indentured servants (who weren't sold into... servitude) knew about differing conditions in different colonies... as if those going into indentured servitude were rational actors making free choices.
It is important to note that potential servants in Ireland did not board the transport ships without some knowledge of the conditions on the various colonies. Anchored in Kinsale in 1636, Capt. Thomas Anthony found that the Irish labourers had a surprising amount of knowledge about the different conditions on the islands.
The system of poor laws in England, as Hogan notes, was designed to force people into labor that they wouldn't otherwise perform. But, the ideology that Hogan is implicitly invoking doesn't really acknowledge how unfree "Liberal" England was. I mean, if the indentured Irish were so free, why were the plantation owners afraid of revolt:
They were also paranoid that the poor Irish would connive with the African slaves to foment rebellion. But this fear was never realised; as Rodgers put it “in the last resort the Irish did not make common cause with the slaves..[...]..they were white and wished to exercise the advantage it conferred upon them.”
Nevertheless in Barbados in 1685, this paranoia spilled over into arrests. Twenty two slaves and eighteen Irish servants were interrogated on suspicion of being involved in a plot to revolt. All the slaves were executed and all the Irish walked free.
You can see here exactly how "race" becomes a way of sustaining a system. Again my point isn't that indentured servitude and chattel slavery are the same, or that the Irish were "black," but that Hogan ends up reaffirming that servants and masters really were on the same level playing field as a result of their white skin... which is almost as pernicious as the stormfront garbage he is trying to refute.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:06 AM on January 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


There really is a pattern recently of privileged people adopting the language of oppression (and in this case adopting the historical facts of oppression, too); it's a phenomenon I really dislike and wish would cease but probably we will be seeing a lot more of it over the next years.

Was just reminded of this sentence by an argument being held over Charlie in the African timeline. The usual tonedeaf internet troll whining about being told off by an African while refusing to consider the Other's experience. This be whitemansplainin' now.

oh hooray global village meets social media in your pocket computational device.
posted by infini at 6:09 AM on January 19, 2015


The distinction between two operations that were part of the same globalist strategy is lost in me. Pretending that the early commonwealth didn't make Ireland their first modern colony, complete with an onerous economic structure and draconian land ownership and agricultural laws (themselves honed over years in Scotland) is disingenuous at best.

The similarities outweigh the differences by orders of magnitude with the African slave trade because it was part of the same structural violence.

I'm not sure why this person has a hard on for pretending the differences are meaningful in any modern discussion of US race relations. But you ain't gonna change the minds of anti reparations dorks with shit arguments like this.

Those same academics he relies on for his appeal to authority would be first to tell him to feck off, already.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:10 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


In the spirit of the lisbon treaty, to whom do I apply for reparations?
posted by fistynuts at 6:13 AM on January 19, 2015


I think this misconception may be compounded by well-intentioned attempts to show that older conceptions of "race" were even stupider than ours. It's probably easier to believe that Irish servants were slaves when you're aware of older texts that talk about "the Irish race" as distinct from, e.g., "the English race". If both Irish and African people were each thought of as being racially distinct then it stands to reason that they were both treated similarly. Well ... not really.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:15 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


The long, long list of things stolen from African-Americans has looped around on itself. It's not even enough anymore that they were stolen, now being stolen is being stolen.

It is the most bizarre kind of appropriation, isn't it? The thinking seems to go like this:

1. Black people assert: we had to deal with [barrier/oppression], it was really unfair and continues to have ramifications for us.
2. Many other people: Wow, how terrible!
3. Racist white people, panicking: [BARRIER/OPPRESSION] HAPPENED/HAPPENS TO US TOO! IT'S ACTUALLY EVEN WORSE, LET ME TELL YOU WHY (insert insane racist hogwash).
posted by emjaybee at 6:23 AM on January 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


I come from a long line (OK, only 3 generations in America) of bitter Irish-Americans and I have not once heard of this bullshit slavery thing.

It not like we, as a people, don't know how to hold a grudge either...
posted by Mick at 7:04 AM on January 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


The distinction between two operations that were part of the same globalist strategy is lost in me.

Ah yes. Well the distinction happens to be that in one, people were actual property to be bought, sold, traded, inherited, abused, branded, exploited or killed freely by the people who owned them, and in the other they weren't. Pretty fine point huh?
posted by Quilford at 7:10 AM on January 19, 2015 [29 favorites]


I come from a long line (OK, only 3 generations in America) of bitter Irish-Americans and I have not once heard of this bullshit slavery thing.

It not like we, as a people, don't know how to hold a grudge either...


I come from an even longer line (dating back to the potato famine diaspora) and the only people who get into this sort of thing are those who discovered their love of the police at the time of the Ferguson protests.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:13 AM on January 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Ireland has been mistreated by the English plenty. There's no need to exaggerate.
posted by michaelh at 7:29 AM on January 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


I know that I'm descended from some Scots-Irish folk (i.e., they were such jerks about being Presbyterian that they got run out of two different countries), some Huguenots (same deal, but France),

Not in the history I read. Way I was taught, James I moved Scottish protestants into Ulster after the Flight of the Earls as a buffer against Irish Catholics. (English protestants were the first choice, but were disinclined, so poor lowland Scots went instead.) Over time the new Scots Irish prospered and eventually threatened English trade, resulting in anti-competitive restrictions against Irish goods. Between that and the Test Acts which barred nonconformists (i.e., non Church of England) and Catholics from public office and other good things, they felt it a good time to move on, this time to America where their good works might be better appreciated.

As to the Huguenots - okay, they denied the Catholic church, which, given their numbers, was not so good for the Catholic church, but they were otherwise hardworking and industrious citizens. Theirs is a tangled history, but certainly they were not deserving of, e.g., the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre or the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which latter outlawed their faith and compelled conversion to Catholicism. Far from encouraging emigration, Louis XIV did everything he could think of (short of granting freedom of religion) to keep them there.

Run out, indeed.

They left anyway, these craftsmen and artisans, and did wonders for the countries they would up in (England, America, South Africa). So too the Scots Irish, of course. Not jerks, in other words. (Though no doubt you could find others who disagree with this greatly oversimplified version.)

Like just about everyone else on this thread, I'd never heard of Irish claiming slave status, so I'm guessing the threat of this particular bad history is pretty trivial. Which is good, though clearly even trivial misrepresentations must be met and contested.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:45 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think that part of the reason some people equate these two situations is a lack of scale. Their personal badness scale only goes from "dropped my cookie in the mop bucket" thru "death in the family" to maybe "3000 people dying in a single event". Anything worse that the latter can't be nuanced by them. It all gets lumped into "really bad stuff".
posted by Mitheral at 7:53 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


emjaybee: (insert insane racist hogwash)

The pernicious part of this is that it isn't completely insane hogwash. Indentured servitude happened, and it was horrible. Slavery was much more horrible. So when you say that talk of indentured servitude is insane hogwash, people that you might've otherwise started to convince know that you're ignoring actual history that happened, and it destroys your credibility with them. It's a way of giving up on any chance of a conversation that might lead to, "We were all treated shitty, so let's help you most since you were treated the shittiest, and let's all work together to change things." Instead, the conversation remains at the level of both sides ignoring politically inconvenient facts, simply yelling what they think are their own most convincing facts at the other side.

And nothing works better for keeping things exactly the way they are than that. You have completely bought the meta-framing that Fox News et al. have provided for this issue: If you accept that indentured servitude was bad, you have to accept that reparations for slavery are stupid.

Don't buy it.
posted by clawsoon at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Like just about everyone else on this thread, I'd never heard of Irish claiming slave status, so I'm guessing the threat of this particular bad history is pretty trivial.
I don't know that it's trivial, but it sounds like it may be concentrated in corners of the internet where I don't usually venture for all sorts of other reasons. It's a white supremacist movement thing, but overtly white supremacist things do sometimes make their way into mainstream discourse.

I have heard versions of this, although they don't usually center on slavery. They usually center on the idea that the Irish were not originally white and earned their way into whiteness, and that shows that racial prejudice can be overcome and it's black people's fault that they're still subject to racism. I can explain several reasons why that's bullshit, but sometimes it seems more productive just to repeatedly bang one's head against the nearest wall.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:58 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


You have completely bought the meta-framing that Fox News et al. have provided for this issue: If you accept that indentured servitude was bad, you have to accept that reparations for slavery are stupid.

I am not seeing this at all. Accepting that indentured servitude was bad (I do) in no way changes the fact that slavery was much, MUCH worse (it was).
posted by billiebee at 8:05 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


In Jim Goad's Redneck Manifesto, he invokes both Irish indentured servitude and racially-minded "divide and conquer" of the underclass as explanations for racism and attitudes towards racism. His conclusions are crypto-Marxist, telling white rednecks that liberal guilt trips about racism are a continued, if unintentional, part of this divide and conquer strategy. I'm not condoning his views, but it is more or less a live example of what this article is responding to, even if Goad himself does not IIRC say that the Irish were ever in chattel slavery.

Either way, even if it really were true that Irish-Americans had also come from a background of chattel slavery, it wouldn't change a whole lot about racism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:15 AM on January 19, 2015


This may be a better way to illustrate what I'm trying to say in my second comment, from a conversation with "America's most dangerous Neo-Nazi".

Watch it until the end. It's worth it.
posted by clawsoon at 8:16 AM on January 19, 2015


reddit's /badhistory

This has also come up on r/askhistorians (where r/badhistory goes when it's sober!) enough times to merit it's own FAQ section, though sadly it looks like one user who wrote some great answers has since deleted their account.

My subjective feeling is that this furor over this has died down a bit, but I see that one of the tweets references that fucking globalreserach.ca article which I have a visceral learned reaction of disgust everytime I see it. Because despite having a background which has granted me a name so Irish I'm sometimes suprised my parents didn't just name me Whisky Potato, I have never seen anyone who was not a flaming pile of dogshit racism offer up that article for consideration. Moreover, the piece is really nothing more than the most slavish review of *White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America. Which. Is. Terrible.

Seriously. It is a terrible book and I'm pretty sure the ink was made entirely from the shavings ground from an ax. Like a lot of pop-history books, it weaves a great narrative at the expense of reality; it is the Menzie's China Discovered Everything of Irish/Americas history. So when the NYT says it is "meticulously sourced and footnoted," I roll my eyes, because a review in an actual peer-reviewed historical journal (as always, memail me for a peek behind the Ivory Firewall) points out that "the narrative is backed by a slim notes section and a short bibliography" and that it " fails to engage fully recent historiography on the Atlantic world and colonial America" while is "deliberately conflates indentured servitude with slavery."

The whole How Can Black Slavery Be Real If Our White Slavery Is Real nonsense isn't helped when an actually well-written and well-research book on the topic of Barbary Slavery, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800, has a press release which not only misconstrues the author's point, but actually contradicts what the book says. The OSU press release said:
Pirates (called corsairs) from cities along the Barbary Coast in north Africa – cities such as Tunis and Algiers – would raid ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as well as seaside villages to capture men, women and children. The impact of these attacks were devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. At its peak, the destruction and depopulation of some areas probably exceeded what European slavers would later inflict on the African interior.


That bolded part was of course touted by racists who simply love love love to make the argument that White people had it as bad (worse even!) than Black people, therefore any current failures of Black people is because they are -- I can't even finish this sentence. My fingers just keep typing out farting noises.

Here's the problem with that quote though: It's not actually from the book. The author, Robert Davis, is an actual, respected history professor, who employs such rare perspectives as "nuance" and "understanding the topic" in his work. As such, what he actually says about the comparison of the Barbary and Atlantic slave trades is:
Certainly [the Barbary raids'] cumulative devastation fell far short of that produced by the slaving wars that were even then beginning to ravage the interior of West Africa; nor did they provoke anything like the net population decline that would later afflict the African states. (p. 24)
So basically the person writing the OSU press release just made claim up, it got repeated on wikipedia, and racists took it up as yet another erroneous flag to wave about how anyone paler than Nigel Farage is basically just a shaved monkey. For a group of people that love to go on about how much smarter White people are than everyone else, racists are fucking terrible at critical thinking and, you know, reading.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2015 [22 favorites]


I think that part of the reason some people equate these two situations is a lack of scale.

No doubt. But there's also a huge disconnect between what scholars have discovered and today widely understand, and then what the average person believes is true. There's all sorts of reasons for this, the biggest being that academics don't write for the public. In academia, "popular"-style writing is actively looked down upon (though some get away with it), and academic presses create small print runs of expensive books that often don't enter the wider commercial channels at all. It doesn't help that the media isn't interested in presenting their unadulterated views, not out of any sort of grand conspiracy, but because exacting nuance on a topic is often as boring to listen to as the profs who are talking about it.

The result is that you often have a public literally decades behind the current scholarship. You see this a lot on discussions about the Imitation Game, where the scriptwriter obviously used forty-year-old academic sources to fill out the script, and people talking about it in comments sections are recommending forty-year-old popular books on the topic, all of which have substantial holes in them by now (missing info being the simplest, but there's outright falsehoods as well). For more along the lines of what this thread is about, you can see this sort of thing in action in a lot of discussion about various tragedies suffered by smaller, oft-ignored nations. Talking to a Ukrainian immigrant about the Holodomor (the terrible 1932-33 famine), who at best might have read Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow, is going to get you a very different story than the one resulting from someone who's examined the Soviet archives. It doesn't help when the sources you rely on to refute the more dramatic popular narrative come from the party that is responsible for the cruelties in the first place (the English, in the case of the Irish example here, or the Soviets, in the case of the Ukrainians) - then you face accusations of working for Them. I've been literally accused of working for Putin just for participating in studies on the planning aspects of the Holodomor. When you challenge someone's beliefs you often challenge their identity, and while you can reach some, you often get histrionics rather than any desire to plunge into an intimidating and hard-to-locate academic scholarship.
posted by Palindromedary at 8:17 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I will also point out that, on the topic of indentured slavery vs. slavery, we can see racial bias in what would become the United States as far back as 1640. A trio of indentured servants ran away, 2 Europeans and 1 African. When they were caught and brought back, all were whipped and the 2 Europeans had their terms of indenture extended. The African man was sentenced to servitude for life.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:23 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


> Ireland has been mistreated by the English plenty. There's no need to exaggerate.

Indeed. One of the many eye-opening passages in Alan Taylor's American Colonies is about how English brutality in Ireland paved the way for their brutality in the New World:
The sixteenth-century conquest of Ireland contradicted the English pretensions to "faire and loving meanes" as colonizers. Indeed, the illusions of the English lowered their threshold for brutal violence when frustrated. Convinced of their own benign intentions and superior civilization, the English regarded Irish resistance as rank ingratitude by stubborn barbarians. One West Country leader concluded that "nothing but fear and force can teach duty and obedience to such rebellious people." Treating the Irish as treacherous beasts, the English waged a war of terror and intimidation, executing prisoners by the hundred, including women and children. The English commander Sir Humphrey Gilbert decorated the path leading to his tent with human heads. His publicist boasted that the scene brought "greate terrour to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolke, and friends, lye on the grounde before their faces, as they came to speak with the colonel." Dispossessing many of the Irish, the victors obtained great estates that they colonized with Protestant settlers from England and Scotland.

Contrary to the Black Legend, the English treated the Irish no better than the Spanish treated the Guanche, and they offered no prospect of fairer play for the Indians of Virginia. Indeed, the conquest and colonization of Ireland served as the English school for overseas empire, the English equivalent of the Spanish invasion of the Canaries. In Ireland, the English developed both the techniques and the rhetoric of colonial conquest. In Ireland, the English learned to consider resisting peoples as dirty, lazy, treacherous, murderous, and pagan savages, little if any better than wild animals, and to treat them accordingly. In Virginia, the English employed the same language and meted out the same treatment whenever Indians violated the initial role cast for them: grateful innocents eager to submit to their superior benefactors. Unwilling to play along, Indians faced the formidable fury of their uninvited guests.
(As you can see, it's a very well-written work of history.)
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on January 19, 2015 [18 favorites]


This may be a better way to illustrate yt what I'm trying to say in my second comment, from a conversation with "America's most dangerous Neo-Nazi".

Watch it until the end. It's worth it.


Was that the clip you meant to link to? Only I watched it until the end and I am no wiser as to what point you were trying to make. It's just a racist doing his thing - telling the Black woman he'll take her to the Zoo to demonstrate how "really black" people are "Simian-like", for example. What were you trying to illustrate?
posted by billiebee at 8:34 AM on January 19, 2015


The Me generation is now the "Me Too" generation.

I'm a boomer and all my life, I've watched my cohort enjoy the fruits of a vastly expanded public infrastructure and social safety net. Instead of being thankful, they've taken in all the stories of family hardship they ever heard from their parents and grandparents and now pass them off as their own. Bullshitiest generation ever.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:39 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I come from a long line (OK, only 3 generations in America) of bitter Irish-Americans....
posted by Mick


Eponyirishman
posted by nevercalm at 8:42 AM on January 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


The people who try to work out anti-reparations arguments are not actually looking to refute reparations. They aren't even seriously on the table. What they are trying to refute is a reality for which they share some guilt and they don't even want to acknowledge that never mind apologize for it or horror of all horrors work to repair.

They are trying to put some lotion on an itchy psychic rash
posted by srboisvert at 8:58 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The point isn't whether it was freely chosen. The point is that 1) it was time-limited, 2) it was not an inherited status (Irish servants had free children/spouses). You put in your seven years and then you were free! In the meantime, you retained certain basic human rights--killing you could be prosecuted as a homicide. That's why Irish indentured servanthood and black slavery don't compare.

Moll Flanders is a perfect example of this: the character is convicted, then transported, but freed after seven years and even marries a rich planter.

From a class-based perspective, treating the races at the bottom differently was a brilliant (if unintentional? or was it?) tactic for permanently dividing the lower classes along racial lines to prevent them from uniting along economic lines

This is the thesis of Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom - that anti-miscegenation laws and other racist laws grew under slavery and especially after the mixed race rebellion of the 1690s to improve the status of poor whites versus black slaves, and divide them.

What people need to realise is that race was a hierarchy. Irish people were discriminated against due to racial perceptions (especially starting in c1600), but in the hierarchy of races in both the UK and the British colonies they were a low-status white race, which put them below the English, but far above African or Native Americans.
posted by jb at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


billiebee: What were you trying to illustrate?

What happened at the end of that video was the very first step in a typical conversion process. An admission that "it's just business" and a hug. People's beliefs and actions generally aren't ultimately changed by arguments, but by conversations that start with sympathetic listening and hold the promise of a sympathetic community to join. Here's another video that you might not enjoy that illustrates the further progress of changing someone's mind. :-)
posted by clawsoon at 9:31 AM on January 19, 2015


...which is why putting as many troll-tastic soundbites into the mouths of Freepers is an important part of maintaining division. Most MeFites are blinded by the trolling. As a result, we can't even see the possibility of sympathetic conversation that might lead to political change. From the point of view of keeping things the way they are, it's a very useful rage-blindness to induce.
posted by clawsoon at 9:39 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is definitely a narrative of "we came here as slaves" in contemporary Irish-American discourse -- for examples, this article from IrishCentral from last year, Irish are 'the forgotten white slaves’ claims expert, which, in turn, borrows from this article, The Irish Slave Trade – The Forgotten “White” Slaves.

And, I mean, there is a history of Irish political prisoners and criminals functionally being traded as chattel, although this wasn't something universal in indentured servantdom, nor, I think, enormously common.

I think there is a sort of frustration among some Irish-Americans that the early experience of the Irish in America, which was rife with abuses, is often minimized or forgotten, because Irish-Americans have been mostly absorbed into the privileged white majority. You know, there are posts every now and then pointing out that there were no actual signs saying "No Irish Need Apply," which may be literally true, but neglects ads that made demands that effectively excluded Irish-Americans, and forgets the Know-Nothingness, the anti-Catholicism, the "Irish as ape" images that were enormously common in the 19th century.

Obviously, the Irish are hardly unique in having come to this country and having been met with institutionalized prejudice, and being seen, at best, as cheap labor without essential rights. But it doesn't really matter of the Irish were alone in this -- Irish-Americans who know their own history know that there was terrible mistreatment, and want that mistreatment to be recognized.

But there is very limited value in comparing it to the slave trade. There are some useful historical parallels, and I would agree with the posters who have pointed out that the treatment of the Irish helped pave the way for colonial oppressions elsewhere, helping forge the roots of the slave trade. This is useful history to know, but, as I said, of limited value when trying to create direct parallels, such as pointing out the status enjoyed by Irish-Americans as compared to the status denied to African-Americans. It's always hard to compare oppressions, but it's especially tricky when it is being done in a chastising way, with this weird historical fiction that the Irish were treated so much like the Africans were, and yet have accomplished so much more regardless.

It's bad history, and it is self-serving history, because it makes black people somehow responsible for their own oppression. I'm not surprised to hear it shows up in racist places on the internet, but I'd rather it didn't. I'd rather my Irish-American heritage weren't absconded with by racists to make grotesque, hateful points. Both the history of Africans in America and the history of the Irish in America deserve more respect.
posted by maxsparber at 9:40 AM on January 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


Sometimes the argument I've heard is just that the Irish and the Italians suffered horrible racism when they came to the U.S. just as bad as blacks did, that there were once signs everywhere saying "No Irish" or "No Italians" on stores and bars and so on

I can't speak for the Irish at all, and I want to stress that I 100% agree with the overall point of TFA and this FPP in general.

However, Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans in 1891. (Fun fact: the police chief in New Orleans at the time was Irish-American!)

I don't think that gives Italian-Americans any kind of equivalence with the African-American experience, but you can't really extrapolate that because the Irish Slavery thing is racist pseudohistory, therefore no immigrants were ever discriminated against meaningfully. (Also "but we sucked it up" is just straight racist bullshit.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:46 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Obviously, the Irish are hardly unique in having come to this country and having been met with institutionalized prejudice, and being seen, at best, as cheap labor without essential rights.
What essential rights do you think were denied to the Irish in America?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:57 AM on January 19, 2015


At one point, the Irish were chattel slaves in Sweden, but you can't exactly blame the English for that.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:05 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


What essential rights do you think were denied to the Irish in America?

If they were poor, the right to vote, same as for all poor people. Once again, though, blacks were treated worse, helping to maintain the divisions between different groups of poor people.
posted by clawsoon at 10:07 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


What essential rights do you think were denied to the Irish in America?

Institutional denial of access to politics, denial of fair housing rights, right to practice religion without discrimination, job discrimination. Those sorts of thing. Why do you ask?
posted by maxsparber at 10:07 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are some useful historical parallels, and I would agree with the posters who have pointed out that the treatment of the Irish helped pave the way for colonial oppressions elsewhere, helping forge the roots of the slave trade.

While Ireland was certainly a schoolroom for English colonial practices elsewhere, it is hard to place the roots of the Atlantic slave trade in Ireland. By the time that English slavers became heavily involved in West Africa they were breaking into a Portuguese monopoly that had been in existence for a hundred years. Although significant participants in the 1600s and 1700s, the English played only a small role in the early years of the Atlantic slave trade.
posted by Thing at 10:07 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


While Ireland was certainly a schoolroom for English colonial practices elsewhere, it is hard to place the roots of the Atlantic slave trade in Ireland.

I wasn't clear. I meant that the Plantation of Ulster was one of England's earliest experiments in organised colonisation, creating a lot of the institutions of the English colonial world and establishing many of the elements that we would see in later colonial experiments, such as the mass relocation of people, that would eventually lead to a colonial America with a slave population, not that the Atlantic slave trade was somehow created in Ireland. So more the "schoolroom of colonialism" and less the "birthplace of American slavery."
posted by maxsparber at 10:15 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Institutional denial of access to politics, denial of fair housing rights, right to practice religion without discrimination, job discrimination. Those sorts of thing. Why do you ask?
I'll grant you that the Irish were certainly subject to discrimination, but I need some concrete evidence of institutional denial of access to politics. And not being institutionally denied access to politics, the way that racialized people were, gave the Irish a lot of tools to overcome the other stuff, which is why it's not helpful to equate the Irish-American experience with the experience of people who were systematically denied the rights of citizenship.

I ask because before I dropped out of grad school I was working on a PhD in Irish-American history, and your description of the Irish-American experience sort of flies in the face of most modern scholarship.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:19 AM on January 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I have to say, I don't really understand what you're asking. If you take issue with one piece of my entire comment -- whether or not Irish-Americans were denied access to politics -- fine. I'll defer to your expertise, although it was my understanding that this was precisely why Irish-Americans developed counter-institutions, such as the Irish Catholic Democratic groups that Joe Kennedy came up through.

My larger point was that Irish-Americans have a memory of institutional oppression that they sometimes feel is ignored, but that this shouldn't be used to pit the early Irish experience of discrimination against the African-American experience, as they are not useful comparisons. I suppose you can go through and fact-check every single element of the Irish experience of oppression in America if you like, which seems an odd thing to do, but it's orthogonal to my point.
posted by maxsparber at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Kevin Kenny writes:
"Unlike African-Americans, the Irish could become citizens, vote, take legal suits, and move freely from place to place. In the end, then, images such as "The Wild Beast" tell us more about the middle-class creators and consumers of political cartoons than about how the Irish actually lived their lives."

Other then the "usual poor tax laws" NINA type attitude, I can't cite a specific anti-Irish law or ordinance.
anyone have a cite?
In comparison, the Anti-Chinese laws are specfic in language.
posted by clavdivs at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


And I have to say, the "I dropped out of grad school but I was studying Irish stuff and the stuff I was studying that I won't link to disagrees with you" seems a weirdly shitty way to discuss the subject. Please don't argue by authority with me when we don't even have an argument.
posted by maxsparber at 10:31 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


So when you say that talk of indentured servitude is insane hogwash, people that you might've otherwise started to convince know that you're ignoring actual history that happened, and it destroys your credibility with them.

The hogwash is the part where we are asked to believe that whatever a white group has suffered (a temporary period where some members of one group suffered servitude in this case; not being able to say the n-word while holding public office in many other cases) is equivalent to even the smallest part of what black people have endured in this country.

I mean, I'm not into the Oppression Olympics, but I am not going to accept ludicrous claims of equal amounts of suffering here, especially as it's a blatant attempt to sidetrack legitimate discussions of inequality.

It's the historical equivalent of white people sniffing "All Lives Matter" when they see Black Lives Matter anywhere. An attempt to seize the role of victim from the very people you are victimizing.

So yes: hogwash. Offensive, racist, hogwash. And the people who peddle it are not acting in good faith, and I really don't believe that I have any "credibility" to lose with them.
posted by emjaybee at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


you can't really extrapolate that because the Irish Slavery thing is racist pseudohistory, therefore no immigrants were ever discriminated against meaningfully

No one is doing that, though. Of course immigrants were - and are - discriminated against. But the argument is that while the Irish may have faced discrimination, even indentured servitude, they were not slaves in the way that Black people were, and to claim that their situation was the same is offensive.
posted by billiebee at 11:24 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


emjaybee: I am not going to accept ludicrous claims of equal amounts of suffering here, especially as it's a blatant attempt to sidetrack legitimate discussions of inequality.

I am going to suggest that this ludicrous claim is a troll, and that it has worked on us, too.

And the people who peddle it are not acting in good faith, and I really don't believe that I have any "credibility" to lose with them.

The problem with that response is that in any group there are generally a small number of people who are doing the peddling, and a large number of people who are going along because they're part of the group and want to fit in. If you want to make change, it's the second group that you have to worry about losing credibility with, because it's those people whose minds can be changed.

Keeping you separated from those people by successfully trolling you helps keep things the way they are. We are being as successfully manipulated in this whole thing as are racist whites. Cleaving intellectuals from blue-collar whites was a brilliantly successful part of the Southern Strategy. All it took was a few rage-inducing distortions that neither side was able to have the sort of mature conversation about that you learn about in marriage classes.

The hogwash is the part where we are asked to believe that whatever a white group has suffered (a temporary period where some members of one group suffered servitude in this case; not being able to say the n-word while holding public office in many other cases) is equivalent to even the smallest part of what black people have endured in this country.

This is hyperbole - not even the smallest part? - and it's a sign of successful trolling.
posted by clawsoon at 12:03 PM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


although it was my understanding that this was precisely why Irish-Americans developed counter-institutions, such as the Irish Catholic Democratic groups that Joe Kennedy came up through.
Ok, that's an excellent example.

So it is absolutely true that Irish-American political institutions were a response to discrimination and exclusion. Irish-Americans were not welcome in the institutions of the political elite, and their response to that was to create their own political institutions and then harness Irish-American voting power so that the political elite had to pay attention to their interests. So in one sense, yes, Irish-American political institutions were a response to exclusion.

However, it was a response that was not open to African-Americans or Chinese-Americans, to name two groups who were subject to racial exclusion, because they were systematically denied the right to vote. An Irish man who immigrated to the US in 1866 would probably be encouraged by his local political machine to naturalize as quickly as possible so he could vote. A Chinese man who immigrated to the US in 1866 couldn't become naturalized, because only free white persons were eligible to become citizens and therefore to vote. The Irish were classified as white, and the Chinese weren't. Black immigrants could naturalize after 1870, but it remained true well into the 20th century that most black people were systematically deprived of the right to vote, serve on juries, and otherwise exercise the rights of citizenship. That was never done to Irish people in the US because they were Irish. Never. Not, as far as I can tell, even once. And for that reason, the experience of the Irish in America is categorically different from the experience of racialized people in America. It's a difference of kind, not just of degree. And that's important to acknowledge because, as the linked articles point out, denying it serves the interests of white supremacy.
And I have to say, the "I dropped out of grad school but I was studying Irish stuff and the stuff I was studying that I won't link to disagrees with you" seems a weirdly shitty way to discuss the subject. Please don't argue by authority with me when we don't even have an argument.
Sorry. I was reacting to the "people forget about the Know-Nothings, anti-Catholicism, etc." thing. I promise you: I don't forget about those things.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:12 PM on January 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Not long ago, I thought of this issue when I found out about this boy. He was about sixteen. He had come from somewhere in Europe, according to analysis of his bones. His entire life had been one of hard labor and poor nutrition. His death was probably a homicide. When he died, he was buried hastily in an earthen basement, and forgotten. It is doubtful anyone was ever called to account for him.

And yet his life was better than an African slave's. Had he survived and served out his time, he might have become a smallholder, might have owned his own indentured servants or African slaves -- and no doubt he would have been a hard master. Men who have to climb up in this world often find their first foothold on the skulls of others. The suffering of his life was vast, and yet there existed suffering that was worse.

We must stand in mute awe of the fractal horrors of human life. Understanding privilege analysis requires this of us. It's no wonder that it's hard for us to grasp. We're wired for a fallacious zero-sum analysis in these matters -- "if my ancestors suffered and we made it, well why didn't yours?" No one who poses such a question is prepared to accept an answer. You have to gaze into the abyss of history for a while first. It's a lot to ask of your cousin in a Facebook argument.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:43 PM on January 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


But the argument is that while the Irish may have faced discrimination, even indentured servitude, they were not slaves in the way that Black people were, and to claim that their situation was the same is offensive.

Did you not read any of the rest of my post?

I was not making an argument about the Irish at all, and agree with the overall point of TFA. But, yeah, let's not lump all immigrant groups to the US in with the case of Irish-Americans.

One of the first instances of racism I ever observed was someone using the slur "dago". I wouldn't in any way call the Italian-American experience the same as the African-American experience, but institutionalized discrimination toward Italian-Americans absolutely happened, up to and including lynchings. Whereas the claim about Irish people is simply untrue.
posted by Sara C. at 1:03 PM on January 19, 2015


However, I'll also say that ArbitraryAndCapricious' post just above mine is 100% spot on when it comes to the differences between being an immigrant of any white ethnicity vs. being non-white. So while there was discrimination against various ethnic groups, it doesn't really hold a candle to what it meant to be Chinese or Black in 19th century America.
posted by Sara C. at 1:09 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: trying to put some lotion on an itchy psychic rash
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:09 PM on January 19, 2015


i think the truly disingenuous part about this irish slavery/oppression argument is that although the irish were starved to death in their homeland and ruthlessly oppressed by the english to the point of genocide, although some of them were bound as indentured servants for a few years in america, although american society discriminated and excluded them, what does a modern day irish american suffer from the historical injustices that did happen?

nothing - except of course, the slight outrage that bud light with some green food coloring in it is some kind of irish beverage to be consumed on st patrick's day

it's a hard thing, but i've managed to live with it somehow

look, when kennedy got elected president, that was that - irish americans had arrived - my dad was so proud he hung up jfk's picture next to the pope's

we're fine - maybe my grandfather could claim discrimination and the bitter legacy of history, but i sure can't

but jesus, mary and joseph, will you guys learn what a real irish beer is?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:10 PM on January 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


institutionalized discrimination toward Italian-Americans absolutely happened

I'm not seeing anyone deny this so I'm not sure who you're arguing against?
posted by billiebee at 1:11 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Panjandrum: "I will also point out that, on the topic of indentured slavery vs. slavery, we can see racial bias in what would become the United States as far back as 1640. A trio of indentured servants ran away, 2 Europeans and 1 African. When they were caught and brought back, all were whipped and the 2 Europeans had their terms of indenture extended. The African man was sentenced to servitude for life."

I have little doubt that the race of the men was the determining factor but this is the sort of unsourced (and essentially unsearchable given no information but the sex and race of subjects of the story) anecdote that gets used by the bigots in their sound bytes all the time. There are hundreds of reasons why three people committing the nominally same crime would get treated different when caught (eg: repeat offender, other crimes committed, nepotism, age, desirability of worker (IE: someone had special in demand skills), corruption, etc.) and any nuance gets tossed out. The reverse or similar must have happened at least once just like how rich white people sometimes go to jail today and the bigots will use that to drive their position forward.
posted by Mitheral at 1:14 PM on January 19, 2015


billiebee, my first post was in response to the text I quoted in that post:

Sometimes the argument I've heard is just that the Irish and the Italians suffered horrible racism when they came to the U.S. just as bad as blacks did, that there were once signs everywhere saying "No Irish" or "No Italians" on stores and bars and so on

While stories of discrimination against Irish-Americans are mostly false and are used as dangerous racist dogwhistles today, it was incorrect of aught to suggest that all discrimination against immigrants was equally fabricated.
posted by Sara C. at 1:28 PM on January 19, 2015


irish americans had arrived - my dad was so proud he hung up jfk's picture next to the pope's.

My great grandfather was from Quaker parents, call him a lapsed Quaker but he revealed voting for JFK, the hush was like a minute and he was asked "Why Father you know he is a catholic?

"Well, I'm not going to hold that against him"

He was 94.
posted by clavdivs at 1:52 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


While stories of discrimination against Irish-Americans are mostly false

No one but you is saying this. No one is saying immigrants didn't face discrimination and aught didn't say that. What they were saying, by my read, is that this discrimination does not equate with slavery. The point of the FPP is that people are using a specific case - that of Irish people being sometimes forced into servitude - and claiming (falsely) that therefore the Irish were "the first slaves". The post is not about discrimination in general but about this particular instance of it, and how it's being wilfully misused by racists.
posted by billiebee at 2:39 PM on January 19, 2015


Mitheral, there is plenty more evidence of the way in which landed white folk use the developing category of "race" to distinguish between white indentured servants and those from Africa; there is in fact documentation of the case cited by Panjandrum; you'll want to watch the excellent PBS series called "Africans in America" for a nice summary of the timeline, or read Audrey Smedley's Race in North America... I think it's also in the PBS 3-hour documentary "Race: The Power of an Illusion."

The story is well-told, with enough cases that wacky hypotheticals won't stand against it.
posted by allthinky at 3:23 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Growing up in an Irish American family, I remember reading about Daniel O’Connell, “The Liberator,” in one of the Irish history books on my parents’ shelves. O’Connell was a 19th century advocate for the Catholic poor in Ireland and made common cause with William Lloyd Garrison and others in the American abolitionist movement. He wrote eloquently and repeatedly about the need for the Irish in America to agitate for the end of slavery, and he did so in ways that explicitly tied Irish-American identity to the cause of racial equality. From his Address From the People Of Ireland To Their Countrymen and Countrywomen in America:

“Irishmen and Irishwomen! treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren. By all your memories of Ireland, continue to love liberty—hate slavery—cling by the abolitionists—and in America you will do honor to the name of Ireland.”
posted by reclusive_thousandaire at 3:44 PM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Indentured servitude happened, and it was horrible. Slavery was much more horrible. So when you say that talk of indentured servitude is insane hogwash, people that you might've otherwise started to convince know that you're ignoring actual history that happened, and it destroys your credibility with them.

This a million times.

There are some people who interpret the word "slavery" to include only chattel slavery as practiced in America for 2/3 of its existence. There are others who interpret the word "slavery" to include all kinds of slavery - including slavery by conquest of defeated tribes/nations, slavery in the ancient world, bondservants, and yes indentured servitude. It is not crazy to talk about the latter, nor is it "a false conflation." While racists may hide behind the latter being a broad category, it does not mean everyone who talks about a broad swath of history is a racist.

I also wish that people could accept that we can have a thing be horrible without having to make it the first or biggest or worst In History. Like, who the fuck really cares who the first slaves in history were? What the fuck is the point of a competition to see who the worst treated slaves in history were?

I mean, seriously - it's not like if it turned out the worst-treated slaves in history were, say, Persian, we would stop talking about chattel slavery in the Americas. So why do we feel like the awfulness of American chattel slavery is somehow undermined by acknowledging other forms of slavery existed?
posted by corb at 5:27 PM on January 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


How did we get from

[BARRIER/OPPRESSION] HAPPENED/HAPPENS TO US TOO! IT'S ACTUALLY EVEN WORSE, LET ME TELL YOU WHY (insert insane racist hogwash)

to

you say that talk of indentured servitude is insane hogwash

when the clear implication of the first bit is that the first comment's caricature's talk of indentured servitude (or whatever) is carried on in the manner of insane hogwash, as cued by "It's actually even worse"?

There are some people who interpret the word "slavery" to include only chattel slavery as practiced in America for 2/3 of its existence.

When they cough, straw comes out. The argumentative failure of a person clutching for the indentured servitude of European colonists to minimize the chattel slavery of Africans is not that they have taken a broader view of slavery than these scarecrows, but rather that they have taken an excessively narrow one that treats all forced labor as equally oppressive, which is, if you pay attention to the facts at hand, obvious nonsense.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:28 PM on January 19, 2015


The hogwash is the part where we are asked to believe that whatever a white group has suffered (a temporary period where some members of one group suffered servitude in this case; not being able to say the n-word while holding public office in many other cases) is equivalent to even the smallest part of what black people have endured in this country.

I don't think that indentured slavery is equivalent to chattel slavery, but I also don't think that saying that Irish were slaves is particularly offensive or inaccurate, as they are both types of slavery. When people talk about "modern slavery" (i.e. slavery happening right now in 2015), debt bondage is uncontroversially considered a "type of contemporary slavery", so what's wrong with labeling historical indentured servitude - which is exactly the same thing - as such? I actually think your comparison of indentured servitude to not being able to say the n-word is far more ridiculous.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:40 PM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


So why do we feel like the awfulness of American chattel slavery is somehow undermined by acknowledging other forms of slavery existed?

The OP is about conscious attempts to minimize the horror of American chattel slavery using ignorant or dishonest appeals to the horror of American indentured servitude, not about whether acknowledging the existence of the latter inherently minimizes the former. Though it may be an interesting topic, we're not talking about the effect of the simple acknowledgement of other kinds of slavery at other times.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:48 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Perhaps a more constructive approach is to contradict the minimization, not the acknowledgment that no group has a monopoly on mistreatment.

Instead of getting sidetracked by a misery-measuring contest about whose people suffered the most, why aren't we instead talking about ways to educate people to stand up and say plainly: "Chattel slavery, indentured servitude, colonialism, indentured servitude -- all that stuff sucked and the parts of it that are still with us today continue to suck. Maybe we should make common cause and do something about it."

I'm of almost 100% Irish-American ancestry. I'm mindful of the history that that entails. But the values that were passed down to me aren't even close to "We got over it, why can't {other group}?" They're much closer to "Never again."

In fact, on behalf of myself and my family: fuck anyone who wants to use the experience of the Irish in America to advance the cause of white supremacism -- they aren't speaking for me, nor, despite their pretensions, out of any respect for the history of the Irish.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:30 PM on January 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


When people talk about "modern slavery" (i.e. slavery happening right now in 2015), debt bondage is uncontroversially considered a "type of contemporary slavery", so what's wrong with labeling historical indentured servitude - which is exactly the same thing - as such?

The Wikipedia entry you're linking to there uses the term "slavery" after it talks about cases of debt bondage becoming not only life-long but hereditary.

Is there any limit to this? If a 2-year indentured servitude where the servant is paid the "freedom dues" at the end as mentioned in the 2nd OP link qualifies as slavery, and as it says later on in the article it was not uncommon for indentured servants to be freed from their contract early, then can we say that any sort of employment contract of a two-year duration is slavery? Maybe serving a two-year term as a U.S. Senator is a form of slavery.

I would say that the salient difference is that as an institution indentured servitude was not slavery, even if individual indentured servants in some cases experienced conditions identical to the conditions of some chattel slaves. And that difference in the natures of the institutions is a difference of kind, as well as in most individual cases being a difference of degree of misery, and it really actually is significant when people being reduced to the status of property is given societal sanction and mandate without even a pretense that anything else is happening.
posted by XMLicious at 12:02 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Wikipedia entry you're linking to there uses the term "slavery" after it talks about cases of debt bondage becoming not only life-long but hereditary.

It's not a necessary condition of slavery that it be hereditary (e.g. sex trafficking), although obviously hereditary slavery is worse. What makes indentured servitude in New World colonies several hundred years ago have more in common with modern day debt bondage in places like Pakistan as opposed to normal employment contracts is that employers had the ability to physically detain their servants, and also that initial terms of debt agreed to were unscrupulously extended (or servants' belongings were confiscated, forcing them to agree to more debt) once the indentured servant arrived in the colonies, extending the period of servitude well beyond the original period. Many labourers were worked to death before their terms expired, and once they were there they had no escape. I mean, all this stuff was abolished for a reason, it's absurd to compare it to a term in the senate or a modern employment contract with legal means of address for mistreatment available to the worker.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 2:46 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean, all this stuff was abolished for a reason, it's absurd to compare it to a term in the senate or a modern employment contract with legal means of address for mistreatment available to the worker.

It's similarly absurd to compare it to a system where the worker was literally property.

But this is the problem here -- people are using the most liberal versions of "the s-word" in obvious attempts to minimize not only the evils of chattel slavery as practiced in the antebellum United States of America but also any modern reference to the continuing effects of not only the Peculiar Institution but its legacy of segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, the war on drugs, DWB, etc.

The absurdum did not start with XMLicious's reductio.
posted by Etrigan at 4:21 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's similarly absurd to compare it to a system where the worker was literally property.

Frankly, no it is not, as they are both forms of slavery under normal (not "liberal") definitions of the word, even if one is worse. Indentured servitude is far closer to chattel slavery than it is to normal contemporary employment contracts, so the two comparisons are not similar. Bear in mind that indentured servitude was not unique to Irish in the American colonies, it was also practised by the British during colonial times in the South Pacific and Africa (e.g. Indian workers in Fiji and South Africa) and by the Japanese in WWII, and there are many other examples. And of course no-one should minimize what is happening to debt-bonded workers in places like Pakistan even today.

It should be possible to object to people bringing up indentured servitude for racist reasons without trying to minimize what indentured servitude actually was. But apparently people can't help themselves.

The absurdum did not start with XMLicious's reductio.

There is no reductio to speak of because acknowledging indentured servitude as a form of slavery does not logically lead to believing that modern employment is also.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 4:37 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, before this terminology-appropriaton slugfest gets fully underway, thankfully it at least seems that everybody here agrees that the people on twitter that Liam Hogan (not "Laim", perhaps mod can fix that) is responding to are indeed shamefully trying to use this issue to minimize the racism that African Americans still face today, so there's some common ground there. And historically amongst my very large extended Irish-American family, I've never heard of anybody pushing the "we were slaves" line. Yes treated poorly, and yes, the brits and then the nativists here were a shower of pricks to us, but not "we were slaves". And as remarked upon by several commenters above, there's no doubt that those in power usefully set the oppressed against each other as a means of control. Consider the distance travelled to the oh-so-common racism I've seen in the (now) older generations of Irish-Americans from the possibility of solidarity available when mass Irish immigration began, as expemplified in this anecdote from Frederick Douglass's autobiography:

I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a scow of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished, one of them came to me and asked me if I were a slave. I told him I was. He asked, "Are ye a slave for life?" I told him that I was. The good Irishman seemed to be deeply affected by the statement. He said to the other that it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life. He said it was a shame to hold me. They both advised me to run away to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I should be free. I pretended not to be interested in what they said, and treated them as if I did not understand them; for I feared they might be treacherous.

"For I feared they might be treacherous" ... what a perfect encapsulation of the separation and fear that the violence of slavery instilled. And "are ye a slave for life?" at least anecdotally illustrates that while the Irish had (if not necessarily personal) knowledge of slavery-for-a-term, chattel slavery-for-life was another level of abhorrence to them.

That said, I don't think we should allow a small number of racists on twitter and Stormfront et al to define terminology for us. Indentured Servitude does not equal Chattel Slavery does not equal Sex Trafficking and so on, but surely they all fall under the slavery umbrella. For those who would argue that only chattel slavery qualifies, then I direct you to a book that should be mandatory reading for all schoolchildren, Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. If that esteemed work doesn't convince you that "slavery" exists in formats other than chattel slavery, well, then I despair for this thread.
posted by amorphatist at 9:05 AM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


> We must stand in mute awe of the fractal horrors of human life.

What a great line. Thank you for putting it so unexpectedly and so well.

> If that esteemed work doesn't convince you that "slavery" exists in formats other than chattel slavery, well, then I despair for this thread.

This thread is not about abstract discussions of various possible definitions of "slavery" among which various historical and contemporary phenomena might or might not fit. (Was Russian serfdom equivalent to slavery? A perennial topic of heated discussion.) This thread is about the myth of Irish slavery, as used to disparage and minimise African-American history and suffering. If you can't understand and assimilate that and respond appropriately, well, then I despair for your ability to contribute meaningfully to this thread.
posted by languagehat at 9:26 AM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


While I agree that slavery encompasses many forms, for me the distinction between chattel slavery and other forms is that a chattel slave is by definition a "thing", less-than-human. It's this sub-human treatment of slaves in America - the wholesale and systematic ownership, use and abuse, and consequence-free destruction of their bodies - that separates their treatment from that of the Irish indentured servants. And it is this viewing of Black people as objects, and dangerous ones at that, which is still having repercussions today in terms of situations like Ferguson. The legacy of slavery is that Black people are still seen by some as less-than, and that's why I don't think direct comparisons are possible.
posted by billiebee at 9:29 AM on January 20, 2015


To further address what you're pushing languagehat, this thread doesn't only have to be purely about condeming those pushing the Irish Slavery meme on twitter for nefarious purposes. Undoubtably some of these people are animated purely by racial animus, but as other commenters have noted above, there are probably others who are all "but the famine! one-million-dead, we suffered too!" i.e. people who subscribe to the Lump of Oppression fallacy, and may not grasp the negative consequences of this meme. By trying to understand the structure of their misconceptions (and that includes the scope of the 's-word'), which is what most of the commenters seem to be trying to do in good faith, we will be better equipped to constructively engage with some of these people. Some will of course be irredeemable, but others may not. So, I strongly disagree with your trying to dictate the discourse here, this thread can also be about analysis, and terminology, and constructive engagement, and I don't think this particular anti-intellectual sentiment of yours is a good fit for the blue.
posted by amorphatist at 10:25 AM on January 20, 2015


By trying to understand the structure of their misconceptions (and that includes the scope of the 's-word'), which is what most of the commenters seem to be trying to do in good faith, we will be better equipped to constructively engage with some of these people.

That sort of thing always sounds good in your own head, but what other people see is "No, slavery = slavery, so the rest of the nefarious Irish Slavery meme must also be true." It's true when people discuss whether Shanley Kane is just a little too angry, or whether Ava DuVernay really got snubbed because of racism -- arguing the intricacies of a word looks an awful lot like accepting the premises of the entire rest of the argument. Yeah, it would be nice if we didn't have to stipulate on every comment, "Yeah, the people pushing the 'Irish = America's First Slaves' crap are morons who are trying to minimize the very real legacy of African chattel slavery in the U.S., but...", but here we are.
posted by Etrigan at 10:38 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


While stories of discrimination against Irish-Americans are mostly false

They are? As (I think) many in the thread are arguing, this kind of "Who had it worse" book-keeping is a problem in human nature. Suffering sucks and when someone talks about their suffering or their group's, the response should be, "I'm sorry, how can I help? If I can't, just know I wish it hadn't happened" instead of trying to construct a slide rule.

All of that said, how the hell did you get to the point where the Irish had a glorious ol' time o' it in Amerikay? I'd cite family anecdata (because Lord knows we Irish Catholics do love a suffering measurement contest), but you can just Google Image Search "Thomas Nast Irish" if you think it's all made up.

Specific to the post: 1. I wish this derail hadn't happened because F the nonsense in this story. 2. This seems a pretty awesome example of Irish Alzheimer's.
posted by yerfatma at 10:55 AM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


That sort of thing always sounds good in your own head, but what other people see is "No, slavery = slavery, so the rest of the nefarious Irish Slavery meme must also be true."

I understand the point you're making, and I agree, yes, some morons will run with that. However, this thread isn't exclusively a strategy session for combatting that meme, and I don't think members here are so dull that they'll be somehow contaminated if we talk about the abstract and meta-aspects of this topic.

arguing the intricacies of a word looks an awful lot like accepting the premises of the entire rest of the argument.

No it doesn't, or at least, no it shouldn't, not in this forum. We're better than that sort of simple-mindedness.
posted by amorphatist at 11:09 AM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


> To further address what you're pushing languagehat, [...] I don't think this particular anti-intellectual sentiment of yours is a good fit for the blue.

Yup, anti-intellectual, that's me; nice way to demonstrate your ability to contribute meaningfully to this thread.
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on January 20, 2015


If indentured servitude is a kind of slavery, then the material differences between it and chattel slavery, a much worse kind of slavery, make the claim that Irish indentured laborers were just as oppressed as African slaves at best ignorant and at worst dishonest.

If, as a result of the material differences between it and chattel slavery, it isn't a kind of slavery, then there isn't even a nominal equivalence between the two.

In both cases, an appeal to the material circumstances rebuts any attempt to draw a substantive equivalence between the two kinds of forced labor.

In this context, I don't think the value of arguing over pinning the word "slavery" to the indentured servitude of Europeans as practiced in colonial America is very high.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


I mean, all this stuff was abolished for a reason, it's absurd to compare it to a term in the senate or a modern employment contract with legal means of address for mistreatment available to the worker.

There are many institutions and practices that have been abolished and they aren't all forms of slavery. I'd be willing to bet that indentured servitude as described in the OP much more closely resembles employment throughout history, and particularly in the contemporary times we're talking about, than chattel slavery does. Even just a century ago Edwardian shopkeepers could be required to live on-site in their companies' dormitories, would be confined under curfews, and could be fined and have their pay docked for breaking any rule constraining personal behavior their employer saw fit to make.

Of course being in hock to the company store is a familiar phenomenon in other occupations, and sailors were certainly confined on a ship and could have that confinement extended unexpectedly, could be beaten on their captains' orders, and could die in the course of a voyage.

I'm having trouble Googling good sources further back in time at the moment, so I'm entirely open to being refuted with citations, but I would expect that the conditions and abuse being singled out here as proof that indentured servitude was slavery weren't all that exceptional compared to employment in general at the time.

And hence, if the standard experience of an indentured servant within the institution of indentured servitude was a form of slavery, then so was the experience of every other laborer and employee of the time, which would serve as the OP asserts to dilute and diminish the significance of the institution of actual chattel slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade and thereby facilitate white supremacists claiming that their own ancestors' lot was no different from that of the people who were actually called slaves.

(Not saying this is the intention of anyone making arguments here, of course, I'm just saying that this is why it's a bad idea to abet stretching the term "slavery" ever further.)
posted by XMLicious at 12:12 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


And as an aside, as far as discrimination against the Irish all you need is to know to evidence its existence is the term "Paddy wagon" and to read a Civil War diary or two. It was genuine and material discrimination, it just wasn't slavery.
posted by XMLicious at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2015


If indentured servitude is a kind of slavery, then the material differences between it and chattel slavery, a much worse kind of slavery, make the claim that Irish indentured laborers were just as oppressed as African slaves at best ignorant and at worst dishonest.

Nobody here is making that claim that the Irish were "just as oppressed as African slaves".

And hence, if the standard experience of an indentured servant within the institution of indentured servitude was a form of slavery, then so was the experience of every other laborer and employee of the time, which would serve as the OP asserts to dilute and diminish the significance of the institution of actual chattel slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade and thereby facilitate white supremacists claiming that their own ancestors' lot was no different from that of the people who were actually called slaves.

That's a very good point that hadn't been brought up here before, and I basically agree with you (though to nitpick, surely not with the universality of "so was the experience of every other laborer and employee of the time", there must have been some employees somewhere enjoying their work). I agree the Irish Slavery meme is pernicious and should be resisted, and that while modern indentured servitude or, say, sex trafficking, are today typically considered to be slavery by activists (or "modern slavery" I suppose), African-American chattel slavery in its scale, duration, and effect, is of another degree entirely to those two examples. The point you make is an excellent one and one that I could imagine engaging with a few cousins of mine with; this is the sort of thing that the blue is great for, and I hope others engage on the topic as well, and not feel put off by "arguing the intricacies of a word looks an awful lot like accepting the premises of the entire rest of the argument" and other similar sentiments.
posted by amorphatist at 12:32 PM on January 20, 2015


Nobody here is making that claim that the Irish were "just as oppressed as African slaves".

No, and I didn't say that anyone did. My point was that, because that claim is rebutted the same way whether or not you call indentured servitude a form of slavery, the debate over applying "slavery" to indentured servitude is, at best, not very valuable.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:47 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's been mentioned on Metafilter before, but Noel Ignatiev's How The Irish Became White (synopsis in the link) is a good book on race relations between Irish-Americans and African-Americans.
posted by reclusive_thousandaire at 1:36 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


there must have been some employees somewhere enjoying their work

Yes, I'm just phrasing it that way because a contention seems to be that the institution of indentured servitude was itself slavery even when operating as conceived as a contract between two or more individuals, i.e. to say that someone was an indentured servant is to say that they were a slave, because of more harsh and abusive cases we can point to that the links in the OP appear to be saying weren't the standard. (Note that in the second link, the full article, Hogan says that indentured servants in some cases had enough agency and foreknowledge of the conditions the work would entail that ships had to reroute to different destinations based on the preferences of their indentured servant passengers.)

So, if a minority of cases were enough to define indentured servitude as slavery, a minority of exceptionally abusive and exploitative cases of general employment would also be sufficient to categorize general employment as a kind of slavery, even though we might find many other cases of employees and indentured servants who enjoyed their work and were satisfied and accepting of the conditions under which they worked.
posted by XMLicious at 3:21 PM on January 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


If indentured servitude is a kind of slavery, then the material differences between it and chattel slavery, a much worse kind of slavery, make the claim that Irish indentured laborers were just as oppressed as African slaves at best ignorant and at worst dishonest.

Yes! The claim that Irish indentured laborers in the early 1700s were equally as oppressed as African slaves in America is, in fact, ignorant or dishonest. But we can say that without having to hide what indentured servitude was.

The problem is, once you start denying or eliding the truth just to make sure that racists don't use it, you have already lost. Don't believe indentured servitude was slavery? That's a fine viewpoint to have. Believe it? Also fine. One of those, or somewhere between, is probably the truth - which is important for some of us, to find out and discuss, regardless of how other shitty people might interpret our words. It's not our job to close our mouths so shitty people don't open theirs.
posted by corb at 9:13 AM on January 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


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