It is fascinating how foreign societies that loathe someone else’s nationalist movements over time amplify the revitalized traditions from such movements in their mass culture and celebrate a parodied version of it. A case in point is the St. Patrick’s day celebration.
Ireland’s vibrant folklore tradition was revitalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a vigorous nationalist movement. Following this movement, a tiny rural Irish folklore tradition carried over to the Irish American context, like leprechauns decorating St. Patrick’s day cards, for example. The communal identity of the pastoral Irish homeland revitalized by their nationalist movement was vital for the Irish group consciousness in America over many generations, even for the new generations who didn’t visit their old sod.
Today the Irish group has to remind itself of its kinship and traditions as it continues to fade into the American mass culture. As an outsider, what I get from the American mass culture— that supposedly celebrates multiple cultures—is not the rich Irish folklore and tradition that arrived on the scene but mere stereotypes of it. The 19th century WASP anti-Irish caricature can be seen even today. Implicit in every Irish joke is either the image of a drunken Irish devoid of any cultural sophistication or a fighting Irish who is endlessly combative. Had the Irish been a brown or black community, would such a depiction—in a less mean spirited form or not—carry forward in today’s hypersensitive, race-obsessed American society?
St. Patrick’s Day, for the most part, a quiet religious holiday in Ireland, started as an occasion to demonstrate Irish heritage for those living in the United States. Instead, one primarily receives an American mass culture-induced Irish self-parody: holiday associated with alcoholic excess. How much of the self-parody was consciously nurtured by early Irish Americans is debatable. But, I recognize the Irish have resisted from being entirely consumed by the American mass culture in several ways, for example, by employing traditional Irish names such as Bridget, Eileen, Maureen, Cathleen, Sean, Patrick, Dennis, etc.
As a Hindu immigrant myself, I realize it is essential for immigrant groups to assimilate in several ways, like speaking English, which the Irish did effortlessly. Isn’t it the American mass culture’s duty to comprehend a certain authentic Irishness or Hinduness in popular culture without caricatures? As a Hindu, I have faced disdainful “holy cow” jokes from Muslims and Christians in the United States, but of course, Hinduphobia isn’t a politically dominant thing you see. In this light, when just about anything goes on in the name of a “melting pot,” I don’t see cultural salad bowls as regressive but protective. Interestingly, folks who sermonize blending of cultures, dilution of conserved cultural traits like names, etc., as the only form of progressive new beginnings in the social setting also shore up conserved group identities for certain communities in politics.
Not everything is healthy with the immigrants who wish to conserve their authentic identity as well. There is a bias among such immigrants to regard the United States as lacking a unique, respectable culture. Such immigrant-held prejudices get magnified when one-half of the country goes about canceling all faces on Mount Rushmore and actively devalues every founding document and personality of the United States. The impact of immigration and assimilation is complex. It requires the appreciation of traditions maintained by the immigrants and the immigrants appreciating the culture of the land they have entered.
Over time, however, colorful cultural parades that aim to link immigrant folklore and traditions to public policy and popular culture via song, dance, and merriment also dilute the immigrant’s bond with their authentic cultural heritage. In a generation or two, immigrants embody their projected, simplistic self-image parading in the mass-culture. Soon, the marketed superficial traits become deeply authentic pop-cultural heritage worthy of conservation in a melting pot. A similar phenomenon is taking over the diaspora Hindus and some communities back home in India, where a certain “Bollywood-ization” of Indic rituals and culture is apparent. I call this a careless collective self-objectification.
When a critical mass of people recognize a weakening of valuable cultural capital, reviving it is natural. If not for the revivalist Irish cultural nationalism, would there be a sense of pride, a feeling of collaboration among the Irish Americans in the early years? Would there be a grand sweep of Irish heritage for the melting pot to—no matter how superficially—celebrate?