National identities

I was thinking about the idea of nationalism after reading a post on Crooked Timber about the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916 – and in particular about what it means to be Irish, because it can be really confusing and contradictory once you get down to it. Nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender are all categories that we use to define who we are as individuals with respect to others. None of these are easily apprehended, nor are they static. But since I was thinking about national identities, I thought I would try to write a little something about them.

I have been much influenced on this subject by the book American Nations by Colin Woodard. He identifies eleven distinct nationalities, or regional cultures, present in North America: Yankeedom, New Amsterdam, New France, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, TIdewater, the Far West, the Left Coast, El Norte, the Midlands, and the First Nations. Part of the appeal of the book came from its explanation of the diversity of my home state of Ohio, which is itself contains three of these nations: Yankeedom, which includes Cleveland, where I grew up, the Midlands, which includes Columbus, where my father’s family is from, and Greater Appalachia, which includes the Hocking Hills area, where we used to go camping in the summers. Growing up, it was clear that culture wasn’t the same in Ohio as you travelled south – it went from being “oh-Hi-oh” to “ah-Hi-ya.” And besides that, Woodard’s book also explained the drastic differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the interior of California, which is quite different from the coastal cities.

But what about the Irish? What does it mean to be Irish? What does an Irish accent sound like? Who gets to say what is and isn’t Irish? There was the famous “One-drop” rule with regards to the question of who was black with regards to racial laws in the United States, of course, but that was for the purposes of oppression. When it comes to identifying with some particular national or racial group, defitions can be difficult. In Israel there have been very serious legal disputes over who is included in the defition “Jewish” since all Jews have a legal right to reside in Israel. Not long ago, there was the fascinating case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman living as a black woman, who brought a firestorm of criticism down upon herself when it was revealed that she was white. In some sense, it seems that what defines a group identity is not really who is included, but who is excluded. I am very sensitive to exclusion, as I often felt excluded during my childhood and adolesence.

For the Irish, the English seem very clearly the “other” – just as for black Americans, white Americans are the “other” – the group to be excluded. And in this sense I am very much an American because I am white, straight, male, middle class, Christian, etc, etc. And that feels very odd to me because I don’t think of myself that way – and I mean that very specifically. In my own life, I always felt excluded from “the guys” – I wasn’t on a team, or part of a fraternity, or anything like that. I have friends who are also straight, white, middle class males, but I don’t have that many friends in the first place, so they’re pretty few and far between. Despite being the privileged subject, I do not include myself in that category within my own subjective narrative. Maybe I should?

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