Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Difference That Biological Determinism Can Make In Turning Depravity Into Contemplations of Genocide

It occurs to me that there is something interesting to be learned from Carlyle's infamous option for the Irish between reformation and extermination.   Actually, more than one thing.  The argument is to be found in the fourth chapter of the pamphlets he published as "Chartism" .

The whole thing is so depraved - though couched in assertions of morality and virtue - it's hard to know where to start but here:

But the thing we had to state here was our inference from that mournful fact that the third Sanspotatoe [Caryle's clever term of invective for the destitute Irish, without so much as a potato], - coupled with this other well-known fact that the Irish speak a partially intelligible dialect of English, and their fare across by steam [to England] is four-pence sterling!  Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns.  The wild Milesian [Spanish, certainly associated in his and his presumed audiences' mind with Spain's proximity to Africa and the presumed origin of the Irish people.] features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, unreason, misery and mockery, salute you on all highways and byways.  The English coachman, as he whirls past lashes the Milesian with his whip, curses him with his tongue;   the Milesian is holding out his hat to beg.  He is the sorest evil this country has to strive with.  In his rags and laughing savagery,  he is there to undertake all work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back; for wages that will purchase him potatoes.  He needs only salt for condiment;  he lodges to his mind in any pighutch or dog hutch, roosts in outhouses;  and wears a suit of tatters, the getting of and on of which is said to be a difficult operation,  transacted only in festivals and the hightides of the calendar.  The Saxon man if he cannot work on these terms, finds no work.  He too may be ignorant;  but he has not sunk from decent manhood to squalid apehood:  he cannot continue there.  American forests lie untilled across the ocean;  the uncivilized Irishman, not by his strength but by the opposite of strength, drives out the Saxon native, takes possession in his room.  There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder....

Carlyle's mountain of abuse and bigotry goes on before the next paragraph containing the money quote, which I've underlined:

.... And yet these poor Celtiberian Irish brothers, what can they help it?   They cannot stay at home, and starve.  It is just and natural that they come hither as a curse to us.  Alas, for them too it is not a luxury. [Ya think?]  It is not a straight or joyful way of avenging their sore wrongs this;  but a most sad circuitous one.   Yet a way it is, and an effectual way.  The time has come when the Irish population must be improved a little, or else exterminated.  Plausible management, adapted to this hollow outcry or to that,  will no longer do;  it must be management grounded on sincerity and fact, to which the truth of things will respond – by an actual beginning of improvement to these wretched brother-men.  In a state of perennial ultra-savage famine, in the midst of civilization, they cannot continue.  For that the Saxon British will ever submit to sink along with them to such a state, we assume as impossible. *

Carlyle's call for reform or extermination of the Irish, in the period just before the famine of the 1840s numbering between 8 and 9 million, was a call for the national preservation of the "Saxons" the English from the Irish among them even if by extermination.  However, his calling for that in 1839 contemplated an alternative of improvement of the Irish (if only possibly "a little") as an alternative to their extinction through a struggle for existence, which is the term he put it in for his British audience.

That possibility of even minimal improvement of "the Irish race" rescuing their worthiness to live, was something that was extinguished from the most advanced and scientific of thought by the claims of natural selection which identified such dysgenic traits as the British intellectuals were already prone to attributing to other "races" and the poor would largely disappear in the rise of the doctrine of natural selection and its biologically deterministic features.   And, as I've noted before, Darwin did, actually, attribute such innate biological depravity to the Irish, quoting W. R. Greg in a milder, in-short assertion otherwise identical to Caryle's.

Caryle's third chapter on the New Poor Law is a study in lavishly self-satisfied contemplation of the hellishly harshest treatment of the poor in the infamous work houses, including their elimination and putting in terms of their own good and improvement.  It shouldn't be forgotten as you read it that this was what Darwin, twenty-two years later would bemoan as a dangerous indulgence which would keep too many poor people alive until they could have children who, might, also, somehow, survive the horrors of the work house and New Poor Law to have a third generation which they would have to starve and work to death.   Such narrow escapes from that condition were, in reality, what provided the "downstairs" personae dramatis of such clap trap as provides many with their information on this period.   As Marilynne Robinson has pointed out, in language sometimes less extravagant and colorful and, often, presented as cold, scientific fact, such thinking pervades British social thought, even philanthropy.

That really is the basis of so much of that Victorian era British opulence which you will see on PBS, imported here from BBC stately mansions pageantry and costume drama.

Of course, under British occupation, Ireland had many work houses as horrific as any in Britain.  One of those was the focus of a world-wide story claiming that nuns had thrown the bodies of babies into a septic tank. Though, in reality, the story was more an echo of Carlyle than it was founded on fact. Far more people died far longer under the British work house system than American's brought up on TV would ever possibly imagine.  Though they don't seem to have any problem imagining Catholic nuns doing so.

* I don't think it would be too taxing of the imagination of anyone who had read or seen Nazi propaganda to imagine every reference to the Irish replaced by almost identical attributes and arguments made about Jews and other ethnic groups targeted by the Nazis.

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