What the American Irish faced in the nineteenth century

This week in North Philly Notes, Howard Lune, author of Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irish, writes about Irish immigrants in America.

Before I got too far into my early research on Irish nationalism, and before I had recognized the nature of transnational organizing efforts in supporting the long campaign for Irish independence, I was curious about the surprising success of the American Irish in public service fields such as police and firefighting squads. The answer to that puzzle turned out to center on fairly straightforward jobs-for-votes deals with the Democratic Party. But looking into widespread anti-Irish, anti-Catholic activism in the United States in the nineteenth century I was stuck by two patterns. The first was that the language and tactics of “othering” the Irish strongly resembled the tactics used to deny African Americans freedoms and citizenship rights at the same time. The second was that the same ideas have been resurrected with only slightly different language to attack other immigrant groups and African Americans under the present American regime. The continuing existence of discrimination is not surprising. I guess I just expected that we would develop more sophisticated forms of it.

The essential starting point for all of these organized acts of hostility is to present an unquestionable assumption that whenever we say “we” in America we all know that “we” are white, Christian men. Of course, in the 1800s, Christian meant Protestant while Catholic was part of the other, but they still preferred the term Christian. Few nativists ever argued that America was supposed to be white. They simply argued that the non-whites were “invading,” “taking over,” and “replacing” us. They never had to say “our kind” is supposed to dominate in all social, economic, and political institutions. They only had to say that “those people” would be infiltrating all of our spaces if we didn’t stop them. This business of the unexamined “we” sounded like a call to community, solidarity, and fellow-feeling while actually building walls, mobilizing violent mobs, and, especially, preventing others from voting.

Transitional Nationalism_smOther familiar patterns followed. “We” destroyed their schools and claimed that we couldn’t help them when they were so ignorant. We denied them jobs and claimed that we didn’t want such poor people bringing down the quality of life in our cities. We held up the example of the most successful of the whole (in this case, the wealthy Irish Protestants) in order to claim that the rest could obviously succeed too if they weren’t so lazy, or criminal, or whatever frightened us at the moment. We relegated them to slums and then said that no one who lived like that should be trusted with civic responsibility. We passed new laws about labor, vagrancy, and debt to target them, and then declared that they were mostly criminals and scofflaws. Our people raise families. Their people “breed.” And, in the more extreme publications that were commonly read but rarely acknowledged, we lamented the threat to the sexual purity of our white women if those people were allowed to run free.

In the 1800s we depicted the undesirable other as drunks. Today we describe them as probably using drugs.

These patterns, and so many others, demonstrate that the white, Protestant, male center of American life hasn’t really got any tangible complaint with any particular other group. If it did, then we would focus on different supposed attributes of each group pertinent to any given time period. Rather, it seems that the privileged core of the nation desperately fears having to share with others. This fear seems to be just as strong among those who have too much and those who have too little. Either way, the smallest excuse, the least supportable claim, and the most minor differences are enough for members of the culturally dominant group to band together to collectively degrade anyone and anything that could threaten the idea of their dominance. We are willing to allow anyone into college now, as long as they don’t get to be our bosses. We feign shock at each and every obvious example of racist violence but we hate it when people try to address “systemic” inequalities. We admit that the justice system isn’t always just, but we built it up that way in order to keep other people in their place, and we’re not planning to change that. We don’t hang signs that say “no Irish need apply” anymore, but try getting a corporate job interview without a white-sounding name. The Irish are accepted as white now, which almost implies that we have improved as a culture. Yet, with increasing globalization, we have no shortage of “other” people to casually disregard or openly hate. As a people, we are remarkably similar to our forebears, in the worst sense of the comparison.

Vice as a tourist attraction?

This week in North Philly Notes, Andrew Israel Ross, author of Public City/Public Sex, writes about the “problem” of public sex in cities. 

I recently visited Amsterdam for the first time and I could not help but be struck by how successfully the city marketed what once would have simply been considered “vice” as a tourist attraction. After making their pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House, for example, tourists can take advantage of the walking tours of the Red Light District. Meandering along the streets of the Dutch city, gawking through windows at nearly-naked women hawking sexual services, women, men, and children can tell themselves that they participated in a venal economy even if they did not actually purchase anything from the women. Indeed, the success of the Red Light District as tourist district has outstripped the imaginations of those who legalized it. The Dutch government has considered limiting how many people could enter the area and permitting sex workers to work elsewhere in the city. The legalization of sex work may or may not have actually made it safer for those engaged in the profession, but it definitely made it into an apparently appropriate experience to the millions of international tourists who flock every year to the Dutch capital. Inscribed in the city, but also cordoned off into its own zone, female sex work becomes a carefully curated experience of the urban center.

Public City Public SexTwenty-first century Amsterdam represents the height of trends I explore in my book Public City/Public Sex: Prostitution, Homosexuality, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. The book traces the relationship between those who participated in and sought out a culture of public sex and those who sought to regulate, understand, and control that culture in Paris over the course of the nineteenth century. In doing so, the book shows some of the ways that public sex was more central to the nineteenth-century city than to the twenty-first. Public sex —primarily evidence of female prostitution and men seeking sex with other men — was not “marginal” to the life of the city. Rather, it was central. Indeed, I show how nineteenth-century urban culture relied upon a culture of public sex that could not be evaded. It was only with the rise of modern consumer culture in the latter decades of the century that public sex came to be a “safe” attraction for Parisians and tourists, sold by male entrepreneurs to a willing audience of middle-class men and women.

During the nineteenth century, state administrators, expert moralists, and private entrepreneurs collaborated in an effort to transform Paris in ways that would open the supposedly “medieval” city to control by the police, to business by capitalists, and to movement by residents. Coupled with new systems of regulation, urban development enabled greater surveillance of the city by the police, but it also offered opportunities for social practices the authorities had intended to prevent in the first place. In an effort to remove sex workers from the streets, the Prefecture of Police “tolerated” brothels that could and would be recognized by anyone passing one by. In an effort to clean the city’s filth, public hygienists advocated for the provision of public urinals that could and would be appropriated by men who sought sex with other men. The creation of new boulevards, parks, and commercial spaces such as cafés and dancehalls where people interacted and encountered one another all enabled public sexual interaction that could be viewed by anyone at any time. The existence and availability of public sexual activity became a key feature of the nineteenth-century city, as administrators, businessmen, prostitutes, men seeking sex with other men, and other Parisians all competed to define urban space in their own terms. The urban culture of the nineteenth century emerged through these tensions.

By arguing that the origins of “modern” urban culture rested on forms of public sexual activity recognized and recognizable by anyone and everyone, Public City/Public Sex historicizes efforts to manage the experience of urban environments, both those explicitly sexualized like the Red Light District and those meant to be asexual. Understanding our own responses to the sexualization of space depends on acknowledging the thin line between the two. Public City/Public Sex historicizes the experience of public sexual encounter by showing how female prostitutes and men who sought sex with other men in deployed city space to locate sexual partners and assert their right to the city. The emergence of the Red Light District as a solution to the “problem” of public sex, therefore, was as much as way of taking power away from sex workers as it was an attempt to ensure their safety in the modern city and can only be fully understood as a direct response to the more fluid sexual culture of the nineteenth century.

The Working People of Philadelphia, Then and Now

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight a program entitled, “The Working People of  Philadelphia, Then and Now,” which honors a reissue of Bruce Laurie’s classic labor history,  Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850.

The program is one in a series planned in conjunction with the reissuing of 30 out-of-print Temple University Press Labor Studies and Work titles in open access format.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Press, in collaboration with Temple University Libraries, will reissue 30 outstanding labor studies books in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats and make them freely available online. Chosen by an advisory board of scholars, labor studies experts, publishers, and librarians, each book contains a new foreword by a prominent scholar, reflecting on the content and placing it in historical context.

VannemanLast week, Matt Wray penned an essay for Public Books on  The American Perception of Classby Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon.

He writes, “… the 1987 publication of The American Perception of Class came as something of a shock. Many in the social sciences, particularly those affiliated with the New Left, seemed not to know what to make of the renegade ideas put forth by Vanneman and Cannon, whose central claim was simple and elegant: one should not mistake the absence of class conflict for absence of class consciousness.”

 

The Working People of Philadelphia, Then and Now

On November 7, at 6:00 pm at the Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Sq. in Philadelphia, Temple Libraries and Temple University Press are presenting a panel entitled, “The Working People of Philadelphia, Then and Now.”

Laurie_Cover_SM.jpgIn 1980, historian Bruce Laurie published The Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. The book has now been reissued and is freely available online thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This title is part of a larger collection of open access books on Labor Studies and Work published by Temple University Press.

In celebration of its return, please join us for a conversation with historians and Philadelphia natives Francis Ryan and Sharon McConnell-Siddorick. They will discuss questions such as: what was it like to be a worker in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century? How was the Philadelphia working class constituted by race, ethnicity, gender, and occupation? What were some of the major problems, hopes, and aspirations that workers shared? What were the cultures, organizations, and institutions that workers created? In what ways have things changed for the better for Philadelphia workers in 2018, and in what ways are they still struggling?”

Registration is requested https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-working-people-of-philadelphia-then-and-now-tickets-50361771414

About the panelists for The Working People of Philadelphia, Then and Now.

Speakers:

Francis Ryan is graduate program director at Rutgers University’s Masters in Labor and Employment Relations program in New Brunswick, New Jersey. His book AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century was published by Temple University Press in 2011. He is the editor of The Memoirs of Wendell W. Young III: A Life in Philadelphia Labor and Politics, forthcoming from Temple University Press.

Sharon McConnell-Sidorick is an independent historian and author. She attended the University of Pennsylvania on a Bread Upon the Waters Scholarship for returning women and graduated with a degree in Anthropology. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University. She is the author of Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz-Age to the New Deal (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), and has written for Jacobin, H-Net and Pennsylvania History. She wrote the forward for the new edition of Bruce Laurie’s The Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, published by Temple University Press, 2018.

Moderator:

Cynthia Little began her involvement with public history in the 1970s when she was a doctoral student in history at Temple University. She has worked at the Philadelphia Area Cultural Consortium, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and most recently at the Philadelphia History Museum. She has consulted on public history initiatives including for the local tourism industry and the City of Philadelphia. Many of the projects she created have highlighted labor history.

About The National Endowment for the Humanities

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov

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