Friday, March 24, 2006

Co-opting the I-word

Amartya Sen has an interesting and complex op-ed in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Two of his themes are that democracy means more than voting, and that this broader concept of democracy is much more rooted in "oriental" traditions than standard dichotomies would suggest -- not least because of the now-glossed over eastern orientation of the ancient Greeks. But there's an odd argument near the start:

... cultural stereotyping can have great effectiveness in fixing our way of thinking. When there is an accidental correlation between cultural prejudice and social observation (no matter how casual), a theory is born, and it may refuse to die even after the chance correlation has vanished without trace. For example, labored jokes against the Irish, which have had such currency in England, had the superficial appearance of fitting well with the depressing predicament of the Irish economy when it was doing quite badly. But when the Irish economy started growing astonishingly rapidly, for many years faster than any other European economy, the cultural stereotyping and its allegedly profound economic and social relevance were not junked as sheer rubbish. Theories have lives of their own, quite defiantly of the phenomenal world that can be actually observed.

The main market in Irish stereotypes these days seems to be one increasingly cornered by the Irish -- Irish "pub" chains, actors and comedians, and even tourist promotions -- all working with what might have at one time been seen as derogatory images. But we think it's a stretch to be arguing that British people are still walking around with fixed ideas about the Irish little different from 19th century Punch cartoons. In fact the only remotely relevant recent example that springs to mind is Tony Blair's ill-advised decision to draw an analogy between Protestant bigotry in northern Ireland and Islamist bigotry (more from Slugger O'Toole). So these stereotypes seem somewhat more malleable and responsive to recent events than Sen would have it.

UPDATE: And on the topic of Irish stereotypes, albeit now intra-island ones, Friday's New York Times reports on the rise of Irish-American agitprop comedian Des Bishop in Ireland:

In Belfast, he told a bristling Protestant audience that they were more like their hated Roman Catholic neighbors than they liked to admit.

In Southill, an area of Limerick known for boarded-up houses and burned-out cars, he boasted that his show would support the area by attracting tourists whom locals could rob.

Maybe because a camera was present, the crowds refrained from hurling pint glasses at Mr. Bishop, a 30-year-old American. Instead, they laughed. As he kept spouting jokes and insults, they kept on laughing.

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