Megan McArdle is just back from Ireland, home of her ancestors. It has given her second thoughts about cosmopolitanism — her own, and ours. She visited the Gaeltacht, a rural region of western Ireland which is the only place where the Irish language is still used. McArdle says this attempt to preserve the native culture and language is completely uncontroversial there. We have a habit of thinking of this kind of thing as “nativism,” and considering it to be bad. McArdle concludes that that is unjust. Excerpts:
Rather, the Irish are struggling to regain something lost to British cultural imperialism. They may not have succeeded in restoring Irish widely across the island, and even in the Gaeltacht, it’s an uphill battle against English-dominated Internet and television. But dammit, they’re trying, and you can’t help but admire their dogged determination.
I had spent the previous week in London, where I spoke with Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist whose most recent book, “Whiteshift,” tries to explain the other — bad — kind of nativism. One thing he told me was very much on my mind as I drove around the Gaeltacht with Donnchadh Ó Baoill, a development executive at Údarás na Gaeltachta, the government agency charged with the economic, social and political development of the Gaeltacht.
Too many critics of right-wing populism, Kaufmann said, paint their opponents as simply xenophobes, and in this they are fundamentally mistaken. That is, immigration skeptics are indeed frightened that mass migration will overwhelm — or at least substantially alter — local commerce, politics and culture. But looking only at what immigration restrictionists are rejecting misses the beloved thing they’re trying to preserve, which is a little like trying to appreciate a scenic landscape by looking at its photonegative.
That preservation impulse is something a certain kind of person — of which I am one — finds hard to grasp. The modern idea is for everyone to be a citizen of the world, a cultural gourmand, choosing a little bit from every menu and never eating the same thing twice.
But what I began to appreciate in the Gaeltacht is that many beautiful things cannot be enjoyed if you want them to offer a convenient stopping point so you can move on to something else. They can be appreciated only by making a deep commitment to them and thereby passing up other amazing things that are undoubtedly available somewhere else.
And perhaps that’s true of everywhere, though maybe we can’t see it unless some other group throws our own immersive culture into contrast. Every passionate embrace is in some sense an equally passionate refusal to grab onto something else; you cannot preserve Irish as a real language by getting folks to take it up as a school subject, or a side hobby. For Irish to survive, people must speak a lot less English.
And it was in the Gaeltacht that I finally began to grasp, emotionally, the appeal of that sort of commitment.
Read it all. No kidding, it’s a really good, thoughtful, challenging column.
She says that we can’t draw a neat, clean line between one one side, the kind of love of our people, our country, our religion, and the things that make us us; and on the other, a hatred for those who are not us, and a desire to do them harm. Sure, in theory we could — the fact that the people of the Gaeltacht want to use their own language does not imply that they bear animosity to those among them who don’t speak that language — but in real life, things get messy. This, McArdle says, is why liberals like her are always on the lookout for the point where love of one’s own turns into racism or some other ugly manifestation.
But it can’t be true, McArdle concedes, that people can only love their own in a decent, morally appropriate way, if they only go so far. A Christian would agree with that to a certain extent, saying that we cannot put people, places, and things where only God belongs; to do that is to be guilty of idolatry. I don’t think that’s what McArdle is getting at. Rather, she’s pushing back (as a liberal) against the cosmopolitan liberal habit of treating the world as if we were tourists, and culture as if it were not to be taken too seriously.
The late Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has a good essay about how the modern world has transformed people from pilgrims to tourists. I can’t quote easily from the essay because it’s in PDF form. Essentially, Bauman says that the pre-modern experience was that life was a pilgrimage, and we pilgrims were moving toward an ultimate, fixed destination. The meaning of life was to be understood in relation to the ultimate goal. Today, though, we are tourists. We move along propelled not by an external goal, but by our own desires. We make no commitments, because that could bind and hinder us.
St. Benedict of Nursia called the kind of monks who lived this way — yes, even in the 6th century — gyrovagues, and denounced them as “the worst kind of monk.” Gyrovagues could never experience spiritual growth because they were dilettantes, picking up and moving on to another monastery when they got bored. You can only really find joy if you accept stability — that is, commit to something greater than yourself, and the sacrifices entailed by it.
What McArdle experienced when she visited the Gaeltacht is the modern dilemma. She longed to be a part of something so beautiful, but she lacks the willingness to make the commitment necessary to gain access to its benefits. Sure, there are many practical reasons why an American journalists in early middle age would not throw it all away to move to rural western Ireland and learn Gaelic, if that were even possible. That’s not the point I take her to be making.
Think about religion. We know — or ought to know — that you cannot simply be a religious tourist. You can’t pick and choose and expect true religion to transform you. You have to submit to it. You have to live within the religion, and learn to speak its language, and indeed learn to use its language every day (I’m speaking metaphorically). This is a degree of commitment that forecloses other possibilities, but it opens doors too. When you commit to marriage, you close to the door to future romantic relationships with others, but that door-closing opens other doors that you would never have known about had you not submitted to the disciplines of marriage.
You can’t really know the beauty and worth of the Gaeltacht if you’re just passing through. You can’t know the beauty of anything if you’re just passing through. We are a just-passing-through people, though, and we have developed a reflexive prejudice against those who want to stay.
Why do they threaten us so?
We look with pity and nostalgia on the Gaeltacht, on Native American culture, and other older ways of life and thought and practice that modernity has neutered. They don’t threaten us anymore, in part because we don’t take them seriously as options for ourselves. To take them seriously as options would make them no longer an option, but an imperative. Sometimes I think that deep down, we gyrovagues want nothing more than to submit, while at the same time fearing submission like nothing else. Submission — real submission, not just play-acting — is the cardinal sin against secular liberal modernity. Yet there is something about human nature that will not be satisfied without it.
By the way, if these ideas interest you, I strongly urge you pre-order Michael Brendan Dougherty’s new memoir, My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home, which takes on these themes in a very moving way. It’ll be out on April 30. MBD is learning Gaelic, by the way.