Today begins the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A year ago, almost to the day, I did what I normally do on the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; namely, ditch work at noon, head to the basement, turn on the television and watch basketball games until deep into the evening.
Michigan State had the first game of the day and they were a #2 seed playing a #15 so in my mind, I’d calmly sit there and maybe even grade some papers and catch up on some emails. There were a couple of loads of clean laundry on the floor and I figured I do some folding during the second half. Instead, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the television, reading frantic texts from my MSU friends and staring wild-eyed at the screen.
By 2 pm the game was over, MSU was out of the tournament and the laundry remained scattered across the floor.
I walked upstairs, put on my shoes and went to collect the kids at school. When they came bounding out of the schoolyard, I leaned down and delivered the news as if a favorite pet had died. They looked up at me a bit incredulously but then shrugged their shoulders and asked, “Can we go play?”
I, on the other hand, didn’t take it so casually. I sulked for the better part of the weekend and I couldn’t bring myself to watch another game of the tournament. It wasn’t until the beginning of the NBA playoffs that managed to go back downstairs to watch television.
Over the course of the spring and summer, I’d occasionally check the MSU Athletics website and ESPN to read about the latest recruit and to check on the pre-season rankings (okay, I check it ever week). This, by the way, is really depressing because ESPN keeps the scores from the previous year’s tournament on the NCAA Men’s site so every time I check in about the latest news I’m reminded of last year’s fate. By October, though, I was feeling optimistic: the Spartans were ranked #12 in the pre-season coaches’ polls and they picked up a number of strong recruits.
When we were in Romania this past fall, the first thing I did was sign up for a VPN service so that I could watch college basketball while I was in Europe. MSU played its first preseason game against Arizona at the end of November–the game started at 2:30 am Romania time and I stayed up and watched the whole thing.
They lost at the buzzer.
We are in Ireland now. Last time Michigan State won the national championship was 2000 and I was living in Dublin then. This was before satellite television and the internet so I couldn’t watch the game. That still hurts. I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I’m hoping for some magical, symmetrical turn of events where every time I am on Irish soil, the Spartans win the national championship.
Michigan State is a #9 seed this year and they play Miami at 3 am Ireland (GMT) time tomorrow. I’m telling myself now that I won’t watch it, but I probably will.
Anyway, I feel like maybe last year’s curse is lifting. Last night, my sister-in-law’s UC-Davis Aggies won their first ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament game. I stayed up to watch it and we were texting back and forth during the whole game.
I realize that this magical, obsessive thinking about sports in general and my alma mater in particular can seem ridiculous to most well-functioning adults, especially among my academic tribe. God knows, I’ve been on the receiving end on more than a few eye rolls and face palms from Sujata.
But this is as much about memory and personal history as it is about anything else, and memory can cut different ways: it can haunt your present or it can help you feel safe and connected to your past. In that regard, then, my passion for Michigan State basketball is the better part of memory.
It reminds me of those cold winter afternoons when I was a boy in the 1970s and I’d huddle in front of our black-and-white television to watch the Spartans and then go outside and try to shoot jump shots like Greg Kelser and drive to the bucket like Magic Johnson.
It reminds me of those short winter afternoons or long, bitter cold nights in East Lansing when we’d meet in crowded bars where everyone was watching the game together.
It reminds me of watching MSU games with my children back in Denver and it reminds me of the three of us, after the games, heading up to the neighborhood basketball courts to shoot jumpers like Denzel Valentine and box out like Matt Costello.
It’s your life, man, so turn on those games this weekend . . . and remember.
I’ve always had a kind of lover’s quarrel with the American university and it seems to flare up in times of national crisis.
During the fall semester of 2001, I was teaching in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State University. The day after 9/11 I walked into class and stared at a class of dazed 20-somethings. We did our best to try and make sense of what happened the day before but mostly, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Toward the end of class I asked the students what professors in their other classes were saying about the terror attacks. Most of the students replied that their classes were going on as if nothing happened and most of the students were disturbed that some of their professors pressed on with their lectures in the face of the attacks. I know that wasn’t true for all classes across American universities, and I’m not judging the professors who chose not to discuss the attacks.
I think it’s pretty clear, though, that as a whole, the American university did basically nothing to deal with the national trauma of 9/11 aside from capitalize on the billions of federal dollars dedicated to the construction of the surveillance state by launching programs in Homeland Security and National Defense. There’s a legitimate argument, of course, that those efforts have paid off. Still, beyond some bells tolling on campuses every 9/11, can we honestly say the American university effectively responded to the crisis (and its aftermath)? The current generation of college students know virtually nothing about what happened on 9/11, why it happened nor the subsequent war(s) America has been waging in the middle east.
And it does raise the question about the role of the American university in times of national crisis.
Like the one we’re in right now.
I’ve been teaching abroad for nearly a year now, but I keep wondering what it’s like to be in a university classroom in the States. Are professors changing the content of their courses in order to reflect the seismic shifts taking place in American politics and culture?
Are the shelves of university book stores filled with Orwell, Huxley and Hannah Arendt? (To my mind, science fiction is the only thing that really speaks to what’s happening right now.)
Are there newly-formed ‘task forces’ and ‘steering committees’ charged with developing university responses to the threats to the republic or even just helping ordinary people understand that it’s the rich white billionaires and not the blacks and the Indians and the Muslims and the Mexicans who are the problem?
Or, are things pretty much as they’ve always been, aside from some sarcastic remarks at the beginning of every class about the latest tweet?
I love my academic ‘interests’ just as much as any other professor. Reading and talking with young people about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lincoln’s speeches, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and the songs of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie is an abiding privilege and joy for me, and I never take for it for granted. But I realize, too, that my work in particular and the work of the American university in general is a part of something much bigger than narrow academic specialization and knowledge production. As a professor in American higher education, I have, in other words, a duty and an obligation (however ill- and nebulously-defined) to write and educate for the common good. I know that sounds idealistic (forgive me!) but I also know that most of my colleagues feel the same way, more or less.
I don’t, however, know how to move forward with my teaching and scholarly life in this new American any more than I did in the aftermath of 9/11.
If you do, or even if you disagree with that premise, I’d love to hear about it.
We were somewhere in southeast Asia last September–I think it was Cambodia. I was perusing the U.S. section of The New York Times when I looked up from my computer and said to Sujata, “You might want to see about getting a job abroad, just in case.” She looked at me slightly incredulously and said, “Are you kidding? He’s not going to win,” but then she thought better about it and said, “Okay. I’ll look into it.”
A few weeks later, Sujata called a headhunting firm that places American doctors in New Zealand hospitals. There were emails and phone calls and then family conversations about what it would be like to live in New Zealand for a year.
New Zealand was our first stop after we left the United States in July of 2016. We spent a week there hiking and cycling on the North Island. To my English major mind, continuing and extending our journey where it began felt apt. Returning to the beginning to assess the past and move forward into the future made sense and felt right to all of us. “We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Still, New Zealand remained a poetic abstraction until we woke up in Budapest on 10 November, the day after the American election. The political and cultural unravelling of America quickly accelerated. We didn’t like what we saw, so Sujata put her foot down a little harder on the New Zealand pedal.
One day, the headhunting firm called to say there was a position open in Whakatane, a small beach community on the North Island’s Bay of Plenty.
Was she interested?
The interview was conducted, a contract was sent and signed and, just like that, our year-long adventure turned into a two-year expatriation.
I thought the children would chafe at the thought of being away from home for another year. They have thrived this year, but they miss their friends and their life in Denver. At the same time, they have embraced the excitement of life on the road. They especially love the freedom of living in Ireland where they can walk to and from school or the public library on their own or wander around the estate gathering up their friends for a soccer match on the nearby pitches. No matter how or when we broached the issue, they consistently said they wanted to keep rolling and landing in New Zealand for a year was quite alright with them.
Of the four of us, I was probably the most ambivalent. I have enjoyed traveling and teaching abroad for the year, but I was looking forward to getting back to Regis, getting the band back together and picking up our life in Denver.
That said, I’m looking forward to slipping into a lower gear for a year. Preparing for and then actually accomplishing the Fulbright and the semester in Ireland has taken the better part of three years, so for my part, hanging out on the beach in New Zealand seems splendid. Regis gave me a leave of absence and there aren’t any universities near Whakatane so, unless Sujata is keeping something from me, I’ll have a relatively unencumbered life. And, I’m not at all worried about feeling bored or isolated: I think I secured an unpaid internship at the local newspaper in Whakatane, so it’s shaping up to be a year of writing, reading, swimming, cycling, and running on the beach.
We may very well have packed up and gone to New Zealand apart from the results of the American election. Our year abroad has been organized around my professional life and Sujata, who is a talented physician, has been Travel Guide In Chief. I’ll let her write about how she feels about going back to work, but I do know that the prospect of working in Whakatane where she will be primarily working with the local Maori community felt like a professional opportunity that she couldn’t pass up.
Still, when I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that our decision to go to New Zealand is as much a political decision to stay away from the United States. I realize that despite the political and cultural turmoil, things go on as usual for most Americans. Ordinary Americans wake up every morning, kiss their partners and children goodbye and walk out into their communities to do their work and to live their lives. At the same time, it’s hard to read news reports of white Americans shooting and terrorizing Indian Americans, defacing Jewish cemeteries and threatening people of color and feel excited about returning.
Why would we bring our kids back to that if we didn’t have to?
We have every intention of returning to the States in July of 2018. I’ve got a job that I love, we all miss our friends and even though we’ve travelled all over the world for the past eight months, Denver still feels like our home and we miss our life there.
That said, it’s strange to think about being away from home for the space of two years. And it’s even stranger to realize/admit that a significant reason for not returning has to do with the political and cultural dynamic back in the States. Since we left the States in July of 2016 we have been ‘traveling abroad.’ When we leave for New Zealand, though, on 1 August 2017 we’ll be expatriates, a romantic and provocatively ambiguous word.
Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly harbored fantasies of leaving the States, but even now, as those fantasies become a temporary reality, I feel more American than ever. I hate what’s happening in my country and I am appalled by the level of vitriol, duplicity and arrogance that is emanating from the Twitter account and executive orders of #45. At the same time, I realize, more than ever, that American ideals are worth keeping and fighting for. My America is still the America of compassion, beauty, plurality, moral bravery and imagination. It’s the America of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. There’s serious damage being done in the States right now by low-minded people, but they will never overshadow the people and the work of the greatest American minds.
My college friend, Andy Devos, recently published a lovely Facebook post on LPs and it got me thinking about my record collection and how I lost it.
When I was a boy, we lived across the street from the Gray family. The Grays had two boys, Richard and Jim. By the time we moved to the neighborhood, Rich, the eldest, was out of college so I never really got to know him. The younger boy, Jim, was about 10 years older than me. I was around eight when we moved into that house on Lilac Street and Jim was a junior or senior at a boarding school in the upper northeast. Jim was tall and lanky, and he played on his school’s basketball team so when he came home on the weekends he’d often be outside shooting hoops in his driveway. I had a basketball hoop in our driveway as well and I spent an inordinate amount of my time out there so when Jim was home he’d often wave me over to his house and we’d shoot hoops together.
I was in awe of Jim Gray. He was a good basketball player, he got to go to high school away from home and he treated me like his kid brother. Jim nicknamed me “Star” and even now forty years later, I recall how proud I was when he’d saunter over to our driveway and casually say, “Hey Star, take some shots and I’ll rebound for you.”
Jim was also into rock and roll, big time, and when we weren’t talking about the 76ers and their chances of winning the NBA championship, Jim was introducing me to the depth and breadth of rock and roll music.
Jim had a pair of three-foot tall Altec Lansing stereo speakers that he nicknamed “Allison.” He’d haul the speakers into the garage from his bedroom, plug them into his parent’s hi-fi in the living room, place the speakers in the middle of the garage and then crank up the volume! With the garage doors open the sound shot outside so that it almost blew your hair back. Some of my fondest memories growing up took place out there on Jim’s basketball court shooting layups and jump shots to “My Generation,” “Born to Run” and “After the Goldrush.”
Jim’s tastes were slightly off the mainstream of 1970s FM rock and roll. His favorite band was Santana so, naturally, Santana was my favorite band as well. For my ninth birthday, Jim gave me the first rock and roll record I ever owned, Santana III, and that record, then, became a touchstone for my future musical tastes. The deeply percussive polyrhythms, the Latin claves, the singing and chanting in another language (!), the long, ecstatic guitar solos–I had never heard anything like that before. I spent hours sitting cross-legged in front of my record player watching the record spin, reading the lyrics and the liner notes over and over again and studying every inch of the album cover.
From Santana III I steadily began to build up a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll LPs. When my mom would go to the mall, I’d sidle over to the record store and look for the albums I was hearing on the radio. The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, The Beatles’ The White Album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Graham Parsons’ Grievous Angel. If I had a bit of money in my pocket, I’d stand there in the middle of Sam Goody’s, a record in each hand, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy.
By the time I graduated from college, I had a sizable collection of LPs that included a first press of REM’s Gardening at Night, the UK pressing of The Clash’s first album, a special edition (purple vinyl!) of The Pogues’ Red Roses for Me, just about every Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan album, a collection of English folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Strawbs and a small collection of Philadelphia new wave bands like The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and the Hooters.
I lived at home for two years after college so I kept my LP collection on a shelf in my bedroom. When it was time to pack up my things and move to Michigan for graduate school, I needed something to transport my albums so I made a large wooden box from white pine board. I neatly arranged the albums according to genre and artist, lifted the box into the car and drove off to Michigan.
At Michigan State I became a regular customer at the local used record store, Flat Black and Circular. This was the early 1990s so cds were a relatively new technology and everyone wanted them so they were expensive (at least relative to my graduate school stipend). Records were cheap so my LP collection grew significantly over the course of my graduate school years. My musical tastes, happily, evolved during this period as well. My jazz collection expanded to include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s Blue Trane and I spent many a late night reading nineteenth-century literature and history with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and Maurice Ravel’s piano concertos spinning on my turntable.
I left Michigan State in 1995 to take my first teaching position at a college in Iowa, and the wood box full of my LPs was the last thing I put in car before I optimistically slammed the trunk and drove west. CD prices fell significantly in the late 1990s and the town I lived in in Iowa was without a record store so my record collection stagnated and my turntable became a place to pile the new plastic jewel boxes. Five years later, I was packing up again. After a series of failed relationships and what seemed at the time like a failed career, I was heading back to Michigan State to pick up the pieces. The LP box came along, but as I lifted it into the trunk of the car, I felt like I was picking up a succession of losses.
I rented a crappy apartment in a crappy apartment complex and quickly realized that I was broke. I sold a couple of pieces of furniture and then one day I looked at the box LPs, loaded it into the back of the car, drove Flat, Black and Circular and sold the whole box for $150.
So it goes.
I sometimes wonder what became of all those records. I like to think that they went out into an LP diaspora, scattered and dispersed across the country and tucked up alongside other people’s records. Some of them, I’m sure, gave people the same kind of wonder and joy that they brought me. Others, like the LPs from the obscure Philadelphia bands, probably ended up in trash bins. It’s hard to make it through half a century and not have any regrets. You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, they were just records and what were you going to do, carry them around with you the rest of your life?” I mostly wish I had them so I could share them with the children, but, what’s to say that they’d be interested?
In his FB post, Andy writes eloquently about some of the albums that had an influence on his life. He mentions Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? and Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (LPs all I had in my collection) and he writes movingly about listening to these records as a young man and what they have come to mean to him over time. One of his friends asked Andy if he still had the albums and if he still listened to them. Turns out he does and that his son and his friends listen to them on their turntable.
There are few civic and cultural institutions that bring Americans of different stripes together anymore. Places of worship, schools and neighborhoods are largely divided along lines of race and class and there are, unfortunately, very few public spaces where Americans gather to share a collective experience that isn’t inscribed by partisan politics, narrowly-defined notions of culture and sectarian belief.
If there are any such places left in America where people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs come together to share common experiences, it’s on the playing fields. Swivel your head at any professional sporting event and you’ll see a wide range of races, ethnicities, classes and political persuasions. In fact, American sporting arenas are the few public spaces left where a supporter of #45 and might sit shoulder to shoulder with, well, someone like me.
As a lucrative business, American sport is, of course, deeply influenced by politics and economics–think of the millions of taxpayer dollars the U.S. military pays the NFL, NASCAR and the NBA to put on the surprise homecomings and the military tributes at the beginning of any given professional sporting event. You didn’t really think those military homecomings and tributes were free public service subsidized by the professional teams, did you?
Given its 800-year conflict with the British Empire, Ireland is infused with political and cultural tensions on a level that most Americans (Native Americans and blacks, aside) simply can’t understand. An example: last week in my American literature class, I was writing the names of some of the students on the board. There’s a young man in the class whose name is Eoin, a common Irish name that’s pronounced, to an American ear, “Owen.” I have spent enough time in this country that I should have known this, but I started writing “Owen” on the board and before I had gotten to the N, Eoin sang out, “Oh, that’s not my name. You spell it E-O-I-N. You’re spelling it like the English made us spell it after they came over here and screwed everything up.”
That brings me the topic of this post, namely, politics, identity and Irish sport. In the United States, sport is mostly connected to memory and place; that is, the professional athletic team you follow and whose jerseys you purchase is probably a team that you loved when you were a kid or your local team. For instance, I followed the Philadelphia 76ers when I was a kid because I grew up outside of Philly but now, I follow the Denver Nuggets because I live in Denver. Additionally, American professional sports leagues, especially the NFL, have undergone successful long-term marketing campaigns that have cast pro sports as family-oriented, family-friendly activities. That’s to say that if you go to a professional sports match you are very likely to see entire families sitting together or sitting in the “Family Night” discounted seats. You are also likely to see just about as many women as men in attendance.
This wouldn’t be the case in Ireland where attending sporting events and talking about and playing sports are (for the most part) dominated by men. One of the best ways to strike up a conversation with someone at an Irish pub is to nod up to the television screen and ask the bloke you’re sitting next to how the hurling (or soccer, rugby or Gaelic football) lads are doing. You wouldn’t ask that of an Irish woman for two reasons: one, it would be rather uncommon for an Irishwoman to sidle up to the bar in any given pub and two, Irish women, for the most part, are not interested in sport.
There’s also a political complexity to Irish sport and it has everything to do with Britain’s colonization of this island. In other words, sport in Ireland falls out according to the political fault lines of the nation and since the end of the nineteenth century, sport in Ireland has been attached to and used as a way to emphasize national identity.
Hurling, a sport played on a pitch with wooden sticks, is probably the Irish sport that is mostly closely connected to Irish national identity. To the uninitiated, hurling looks like a mash up of field hockey, lacrosse and golf.
The Irish claim that they invented hurling, but I think the historical record on that question is unresolved. Nevertheless, the Irish claim as the progenitors of hurling is sound: in the Ulster Cycle stories the great warrior of ancient Irish mythology Cu Cuhulainn is known for his proficiency on the hurling fields and even uses his hurly in one of the stories to kill a fierce dog who attempts to bite his head off. As the dog approaches, Cu Cuhalainn, tosses the hurly ball in the air and bashes the ball right down the gullet of the animal, killing it instantly. Cu Cuhulainn is only seven years old when he accomplishes this feat and when the high king discovers what Cu Cuhulainn has done, he immediately brings the young boy into his service.
We know that hurling was played in some form or another throughout Ireland for centuries. But following the Tudor conquest of the seventeenth century, the English embarked on a process of systematically dismantling just about every bit of ancient Irish culture, including Irish sport. By the middle of the nineteenth century, then, hurling was a dying sport that was enthusiastically played in Wexford and Cork but not many other counties on the island.
It makes sense then that Irish sport, especially hurling, is closely associated with national identity. This is evident in The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), an Irish film about the Irish War for Independence (1919-20) and the consequent Irish Civil War (1922-23). The film begins with a local hurling match in County Cork just before the Irish Civil War. After the match, British Black and Tan troops descend into the community and execute one of the players who refuses to comply. In the violence that leads up the execution, one of the British soldiers is seen pummeling one of the local players with a hurly and the message and iconography here is unmistakable: the hurlers, many of whom will end up joining the IRA in the film, are associated with Ireland and Irish national identity and the British soldiers’ brutality against the hurlers is there to remind us of the colonial efforts to eradicate Irish culture.
It was at the end of the nineteenth century, though, that Irish sport became highly politicized. In 1884, a gentleman by the name of Michael Cusak formed the Gaelic Athletic Association or, the GAA. For readers of Joyce’s, Cusak is The Citizen from the Cyclopes episode of Ulysses. The GAA is still very much alive in modern Ireland–just about every town and village in the Republic (and many in Northern Ireland, too) has a GAA club that teaches Irish sport to young people and organizes Irish sport leagues for all ages. If you go into the local sport stores you will find county-specific GAA gear. For instance, we live in Kildare County so Everly’s, the local sports store, carries all kinds of Kildare GAA hoodies, sweatpants, beanies and t shirts.
At the end of the nineteenth century, though, The GAA pretty much single-handedly saved hurling from evaporating into the historical ether and it was also responsible for creating a nearly new sport, Gaelic football.
I think Gaelic football is one of the most exciting sports I’ve ever seen. To me, it looks like a cross between soccer, basketball and rugby. It’s a super fast game–the players, dribble, run with, kick and pass the ball and they fly up and down the pitch like sprinters. There is some contact, but it’s not nearly as violent as American football or even rugby. I was chatting with a guy in a pub a few weeks ago and he noted that the Gaelic games (hurling and Gaelic football) are by and large aerial games, meaning that they are focused on the ball being kicked, tossed or thrown through the air and the play is primarily focused on moving the ball through the air as opposed to pushing it down the field on the ground.
That’s not to imply that the GAA is a pure and entirely wholesome idea. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a precursor to the IRA) infiltrated the GAA and began using it as a way to connect sport to its nationalist goals. This blending of sport and politics had some very nasty consequences. The Brits, understanding that the IRB was using sport to recruit members to forward its mission of an Ireland liberated from British rule, targeted the GAA and even mounted a violent attack at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park on 21 November 1920.
So what you have here in Ireland is an athletic culture that is divided according to “native” and “foreign” sports. Soccer and rugby, sports imported from Britain are played here in Ireland but they are, generally speaking, still associated with Ireland’s colonial past. In fact, there was a time when the GAA banned its members from playing ‘foreign’ sports (read: rugby and soccer) and it wasn’t until 2000 that members of the British security forces were allowed to join GAA clubs.
That’s not to say the Irish don’t love their rugby and soccer. The Six Nations Rugby tournament has been going on for the past month and on any given rugby Saturday, the pubs are full of lads (and some lassies) cheering on the Irish national team. This would be true in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland as the Ireland Rugby team is and All-Ireland team, meaning the club is made up of players from the North and from the South so on rugby match days, you’ll find people in Belfast, Derry, Dublin and Galway packed in pubs and cheering on the Ireland team.
From Guinness to Yeats and Joyce and to the Book of Kells and even St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish have given us so much, but I think it is a great shame and loss that hurling and Gaelic football, two excellent and incredibly skill-based and interesting games, have never made it across the pond.
I love going to the pub or propping my feet in front of our television on a weekend afternoon and watching a hurling or Gaelic football match.
Most of the Europeans that I’ve talked politics with over the course of the past five months want to know how I feel about the Trump ascendency. The Romanians typically took a kind of schadenfreude position–slightly gleeful in the face of Americans’ political anxiety which they (rightly) perceived as just a fraction of the kind of suffering they lived under for most of the twentieth century. The Irish are a bit more cautious–they will suss you out before they make any proclamations, and they seem genuinely worried and concerned about the current state of the American republic.
The logic and the rhetoric of Trump’s world view, though, has been a long time coming and is deeply engrained in American thought. America is, as Ralph Ellison wrote, a “land of maskers and jokers” and in this regard, the 45th president is just one of a long line of Americans who have set out to bilk the public.
In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe published a short piece in the New York Sun that described a singularly odd occurrence. Poe reported that the famous European balloon artist, Thomas Monck Mason, boarded a gas balloon and floated across the Atlantic Ocean in the space of three days. The descriptive details of the piece as well as the fact that Mason was indeed a famous European balloonist led most readers to take Poe’s account as genuine. It wasn’t, of course, and in a short period of time, Poe was found out and his story became known as “The Great Balloon Hoax.”
Poe went on to carve a name for himself in the halls of American letters, spinning weird, gothic tales that still scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting school children today. But many other Americans made a professional career of conning the American public and in that regard, P.T. Barnum was the nineteenth century’s prince of hoaxes.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Barnum stage-managed hoax after hoax on the American people. He sewed the torso of a monkey to the hind end of a fish and called it the Fiji Mermaid. Barnum wrote marketing material alleging the article was genuine, displayed it in his museum and enjoyed handsome profits from the display.
Later in his career, Barnum bought a slave (yep) by the name of Joice Heth and passed her off to the public as George Washington’s nursemaid. This assertion would have made Heth over 160 years old, but that didn’t stop people from paying money to hear stories of how she would sing and take care of Washington when he was a wee baby. When Heth died, an autopsy revealed that she was no more than 80 years old. Barnum, in turn, professed that he was duped by Heth.
Most of Barnum’s hoaxes traded on ideas of race, ethnicity and difference to confirm to white Americans that they were separate from, and better than, the black and brown and foreign bodies that he displayed on public stages. In his American Museum in New York City, Barnum displayed a group of native Americans billed as “The Living Aztecs.” He exhibited a black woman with albino children. He displayed a mentally handicapped black man and called the exhibit “What is it?” inviting patrons to guess the race and origins of the man. In Barnum’s exhibition halls, blacks acted out aboriginal roles, often being represented as ‘missing links’; Native Americans hooted and hollered and performed rituals and dances that confirmed to white America their primordial type and Roma and Bohemians (usually women) were represented as lusty, exotic creatures. If they were deformed, exotic, disproportioned in any way, or simply inclined to be transformed into one of Barnum’s ‘freaks,” Barnum found a way to make money off of them and to remind Americans of an unofficial caste system that separated them from each other.
Hoaxes of this nature were common currency in nineteenth-century America. It seemed that anywhere you turned, a gullible public was being duped by some confidence man in one way or another. And before you condescend to the naiveté of nineteenth-century Americans who fell for the balloon hoax, turn on Fox News.
But, hoaxes are generally based in some kind of reality. The nineteenth-century culture of hoaxes was the by-product of real economic and social forces sweeping through American society; it wasn’t just a case that Americans were stupid and would believe anything. In particular, a burgeoning capitalist economy made nineteenth-century America an upside-down and confusing world: people and goods moved much more freely and much more quickly than humans were used to, and while that brought some excitement and possibility to American life, it also destabilized social relations and opened up opportunities for confidence men (and some women) to play tricks on unsuspecting minds. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the characters of the King and the Duke, for instance, are classic confidence men who play on anonymity and public trust to dupe small-town Arkansans. (They eventually get their comeuppance, though.)
The hoax that is currently being played on Americans is also rooted in real economic forces and it makes sense, to a degree, that the slice of the electorate who have been negatively affected by globalism voted in large numbers for the current president.
The new American hoax is not entirely dissimilar from Barnum’s public exhibitions of black and brown people. Barnum’s patrons were led to believe that non-whites were strange and abnormal and set apart from ‘normal’ Americans. Under the current regime, Americans are being led to believe that brown and black people are violent threats to the republic and are thereby different from white, hetero-normal, law-abiding Americans. Of course, demonizing blacks for their lawlessness, yanking Muslim Americans off of airplanes, denying brown American citizens re-entry to their country and failing to express national remorse and outrage over brown and black people summarily shot or beaten up because of their race is different from exhibiting non-white ‘freaks’ on a public stage. Barnum confined his racism to the exhibition halls. Now, we are watching the apparatus of the State enforce and delineate racial, ethnic and religious lines.
Hoaxes are so deeply engrained in the American mind, that, sometimes, we incorrectly anticipate them. Shortly after the election, I heard some progressives remarking that Trump didn’t actually want to be president and that he’d resign from the post before or shortly after the inauguration. He was just playing a trick on us, in other words. One fine day, he’d appear before us, explain the ruse, doff his cap and then sally off to Mar-a-Largo or the set of The Apprentice. This kind of wishful thinking is, of course, the product of a mind that is used to and even expectant of the public hoax and it’s just as naive as the idea that a balloonist crossed the Atlantic in three days in the middle of the nineteenth century.
A hoax is funny up to a point and as long as no one gets hurt or excluded. In this regard, Poe’s Balloon Hoax was harmless, Barnum’s hoaxes were nasty and #45s hoax is beyond egregious.
I don’t know what’s better (or worse): understanding that Americans have a large and historical capacity for hoodwinking each other or seeing the current regime as an isolated incident that will magically disappear in four years.
Either way, I hope that you, like me, are doing all you can to reveal the twenty-first century’s Prince of Humbugs for what he really is and for what he really stands for.
If you came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, like I did, Belfast is one of those cities that probably raises images of people running down burned-out city streets, chased by British security forces. Or maybe you remember Belfast as the site of the 1980 hunger strikes that took the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish republicans. Either way, Belfast, when I was growing up, wasn’t a place that your folks took you on their European vacation nor even a place you dreamed of visiting one day.
That’s because from 1969 to 1989 Belfast was the epicenter of a period of Irish history that’s known as the Troubles. In 1920, the British government agreed to partition the island and twenty-six of the counties were allowed to break from the British empire and govern themselves. The remaining six counties remained with Britain and became the state of Northern Ireland. For its first 50 years, Northern Ireland was a simmering cauldron of political and religious discontent and then in 1969, after Catholics (and some Protestants, too) started a civil rights movement that was based on the American Civil Rights movement, Ulster loyalists grew restive and violent against people participating in the civil rights marches and then, ultimately, against ordinary Catholics. The minority Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry became targets, and in this charged and violent atmosphere the IRA emerged (to some extent) as the perceived defenders of the Catholics against the vigilante violence of forces like the Ulster Volunteer Force. Both sides committed atrocities and horrors, and by the time the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in April of 1998, over 3,000 people had been killed.
Throughout the twentieth century, while much of the rest of Europe was shucking off centuries of religious thought and practice, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remained mired in religious narratives and fueled by ancient religious prejudices. It makes sad sense, then, that the Irish would find a religiously-inflected name for this dark period of their history: to be troubled is to be overcome with fear and dread and to go through trials and tribulations like Christ did in the lead up to his death. Placid waters are troubled by dark forces and the act of being troubled means there’s no quick solution and there’s no easy way out.
I visited Belfast for the first time in 2000, just two years after the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. I was living in Dublin at the time, and while the Good Friday Agreement was still very much in the news, you couldn’t really feel the effects of the 30 years of communal violence that had just (mostly) ended. Aside from being quite a bit wealthier, Dubliners in 2000 went about their lives pretty much like they had throughout most of the twentieth century, and the Troubles felt like a distant and fading echo.
This was decidedly not the case when I took the train north and visited Belfast one late winter weekend in 2000. The place felt like a boxer who had been knocked down, bloodied and battered, and was wondering if it might be a better idea to just stay down and take the count. I stayed in a dingy hostel near the Europa–a hotel in the city centre with the infamous distinction of being bombed out more than any other European hotel (29 times over the course of the Troubles). The manager at the hostel recommended I take a black cab tour, so I booked a cab and spent the better part of Saturday riding through the burnt-out streets, looking in awe at the ‘peace lines’ that divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, the murals telling stories of the ancient hurts that each community had suffered at the hands of the other and flags, emblems and painted kerbs, all marking loyalties and flashing warnings. I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure that I ate alone and drank more than I should have that evening.
Seventeen years later, I returned a changed man to a changed city. In 2000, I was, as they say, alone as a stone, and troubled by what seemed a certain fate. Then, Belfast city felt like an eerie reflection of my own life, present and future, and when Sunday finally rolled around, I couldn’t wait to board the train and beat it back to Dublin.
In 2017, I arrived in Belfast with Sujata, my children, my dear friend Andy Auge and 12 bright and curious students from Regis University. Like me, the city had changed for the better. Belfast seemed to have risen up through its rubble. We found an Indian restaurant that served some of the most delicious chana masala I’ve ever had. We drank cappuccinos and espressos in an cozy Italian cafe. We rubbed shoulders with locals in Belfast’s oldest pub, The Crowne, and we walked up and down streets with passersby from all over Europe and the world.
Here are some photographs of our weekend in Belfast.