Purchase The Culture of Make Believe
Read more

Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Pretend You Have a Choice (p. 396)

From chapter "Competition"

Pretend you have a choice. You are a son or daughter of Ireland. You know the history. You know that the Council of Armagh in 1177 prohibited Irish trade in English slaves. You heard both your mother and father boast (with only slight exaggeration) that in seven centuries no slave had set foot on Irish soil. Abolitionism flows in your veins, not only because it is part of what Ireland has always stood for, but because you have experienced in your own body the British “policy of extermination,” as Lord Clarendon, viceroy in Ireland, called it. You have experienced what Arthur Young observed in 1780, that “A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottier dares to refuse. . . . Disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness, he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift a hand in his own defense.” You have overheard landlords speaking one to another that “many of their cottiers would think themselves honored to have their wives and daughters sent for to the bed of their master,” and you have experienced the simultaneous shame and honor that marks this degree and form of servitude. Even before the famine, you knew that Ireland was, as Frenchman Duvergier de Hauranne wrote, “two nations,” the conquerors and the conquered: “There is nothing between the master and the slave, between the cabin and the palace. There is nothing between all the luxuries of existence and the last degree of human wretchedness.” You have experienced that wretchedness, and your response to it now is No, thank you. Your response to it for your children—those still alive—is No, thank you. Your decision to seek a better life came with the Poor Law Act of 1847, which stipulated that no peasant who owned more than a quarter-acre of land would be eligible for relief. Because access to land means the possibility of self-sufficiency, and denial of that access means denial of that possibility, the purpose of this law was to place the conquered even more at the mercy of the conquerors. To this, you said, No, thank you. You left.

And now here you are. And you’re hungry. Your sons and daughters are hungry. You have no more access to land here in the States than you did in Ireland. You’ve never heard of John Henry Hammond, and couldn’t care less about the land-ownership conditions under which he would, without a word, resign his slaves (providing, of course, that he could properly dispose of them) but you know in your bones the meaning of his highbrow language about population denseness forcing people “to hire for the smallest pittance that will keep soul and body together, and rags upon his back while in actual employment.” It means if you and your children are to survive, you need a job. You’re not the only person who knows this. You compete with German immigrants for jobs. You compete with Italian immigrants, Ukrainian immigrants, Scandinavian immigrants, Slavic immigrants. You compete with people from other parts of Ireland. You compete with blacks, and you compete with Chinese. Your children are hungry.

This isn’t a game. This isn’t political theory. This is not about purchasing “comforts and elegancies.” It’s about food. Lives depend on your paycheck. This is true whether you are father or mother, sick or healthy, blind or sighted. You need the money.

Fuck abolitionism. Fuck revolution. Fuck working-class solidarity. If my life and the lives of my children are involved, I’m going to use every advantage I can. If I happen to have white skin, and happen to be in the middle of an economic, governmental, social, and psychological system in which white skin conveys to me any number of advantages, and if my children are hungry—remember the six-year average life span of Irish immigrants—would I not be even a little tempted to do everything in my power to emphasize the differences between myself and those who are not white? And once this habit has been established, once I’m no longer quite so hungry, would it not be possible for me to maintain that privilege just long enough for me to get a taste, just a taste, of those comforts? And how about some elegancies? Nowadays, baby doesn’t so much need food as she needs new shoes. Nice ones. And a car. And a vacation home. Political power wouldn’t hurt either. Of course, by this time, it has become a game, for those, at least, a little on the inside. But for those on the outside, it remains life and death. This is one of the ways our system propagates itself, by depriving people of the option of self-sufficiency, forcing them into competition with others with whom they should by all reason be in solidarity, then reifying this competition, turning it into racial and other hatreds that mask the real sources of the people’s misery, then capturing these people with promises of material goods if only they will not look at those they are exploiting, not look at the exploitation at all.