In today’s dive into culture war mindlessness, I got baited by someone posting this gem of a Facebook status update: “St. Patrick was a cultural imperialist.” By the by, every factual claim I repeat here is taken from “How the Irish Saved Civilization” so this is a kind of sloppy summary of that book, which unless I’ve updated this post to admit that the book was full of lies, I give a full-throated Faugh a Ballagh or whatever approving cheer would be appropriate to respectfully indicate that I think this book may be worth your time for learning a bit about Ireland. I hope, dear reader, that your St. Patrick’s day was better than mine. Somehow I spent my day giving myself a vitamin D deficiency by not only fighting on Facebook, but then blogging away indoors about how stupid it is to pick fights on the internet.
Of course as the saying has it, it takes two to tango. I couldn’t have wasted the afternoon without a fellow culture war patsy. I know we’re patsies, because otherwise there’s no way we’d have been so mindless about wasting our time and sanity on a sideline battle of the larger culture wars. (Plus I can’t resist calling myself a Patsy when my sin is wasting time defending St. Patrick.) I’ve named my interlocutor “Patsy Left” and myself “Patsy Center” in recreating the dialogue below.
TLDR: After four hours of talking past each other, Patsy Center signs off with one final parting shot because Patsy Center has noticed some discomfort; it is a couple hours past dinner time. Patsy Center has so far won only the concession that St. Patrick is “100% not nearly on the same scale as Christopher Columbus.” (Do notice the way St. Patrick is still struggling to escape comparison to bad guys, rather than getting to join a pantheon with Ghandi or Frederick Douglass or whoever it is that isn’t problematic these days.) Patsy Left sends a direct message admitting to having really just been against the deliberate destruction of cultures, not St. Patrick in particular. Success? Patsy Center sighs, decides to re-live the whole joyous experience by blogging it.
Principle lesson: From this harrowing indoor experience your intrepid blogger at briefliteraryabandon reaches the same conclusion as Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, and G.K. Chesterton before him. I reject the notion that logical debate has been tried and found wanting. “I think it has been found difficult and left untried.” Perhaps my experience adds only this: difficult indeed!
So, again, the status update was:
Patsy Left: “St. Patrick was a cultural imperialist.”
I should have known better, but I thought I could end this with one definitive take-down comment, so…
Patsy Center: Maybe I agree, but some definitions: We are imperialists if we use the power of the state to advance our goals. We are cultural evangelists if we are mission-driven individuals who believe in spreading cultural beliefs/ways of life to other people or future generations. We are cultural imperialists if we use the power of the state to achieve our mission.
So far, so good, I guess I’m willing to say St. Patrick was something like a cultural imperialist. (My sense is there wasn’t really a single “state” in Ireland at the time that resembles the modern state at all, but that’s a minor quibble.) But my question is, was he the good kind of cultural imperialist or the bad kind?
I mean, it is good for us to teach our own children. And of course it is good for us to educate orphans. And we can educate other people’s children if those other people want our help–free school for children is about as clearly a good thing as ever a clearly good thing there was. And even if they don’t want our help, if they are child abusers, we can take their children from them and then it will be good for us to educate the children. And if another person’s child is sick and we are doctors and the child’s parents’ normally-adaptive religious beliefs prevent them from letting their child get help they need (like glasses for kids with very real short-sightedness), we can get pretty pushy about helping those kids, right? And we’re allowed to be cultural evangelists toward adults if we’re the kind of cultural evangelists who help violent men in prison become loving, gentle fatherly types, right? All of these, I would say, are examples of us being evangelists, and where the state’s authority is involved, of being cultural imperialists.
My understanding of St. Patrick is that his id got the better of him once, when he was 20, and he did something (maybe murder?) that he was deeply ashamed of. Then he was a slave for 10-ish years, living as an unpaid, poorly fed sheep-herder in remote Ireland. Then he escaped on foot to England, but then returned as a peacemaker and helped pacify warring Irish tribes, (mostly by writing letters and having meetings) built libraries, advocated for gentleness toward women and respect for marriage and for helping poor people, and founded monasteries where men without other good prospects could work and live in community with each other. Through all of this, his was a voice of calm and a call to take the long view, cooperate, and work hard.
So yeah, he was a cultural imperialist. But I really thought he was the good kind of cultural imperialist. Maybe we just have entirely different facts about St. Patrick? I mean, I got most of what I know (think I know) from a single book, so I could be wrong.
As an aside, I also responded to the lone comment that predated my little rant. The comment was from a third party who knew even less about St. Patrick than Patsy Left or Patsy Center, so let’s call this commenter Patsy Dumb.
Patsy Dumb: “He was an island native enslaved by the Romans at childhood and forced to try to convert his fellow pagans to Christians…”
Patsy Center: “Same question. I though St. Patrick was a Roman who was captured by the Irish and held enslaved for a decade, and who escaped, but then decided to *go back to the people who’d enslaved him* and build schools? I mean, I’m all for crapping on Christopher Columbus, but I thought St. Patrick was cool.”
Fortunately that was the last we heard from Patsy Dumb on the subject of St. Patrick. (More charitably, perhaps Patsy should have been named, Patsy Wisely Has Better Things To Do, because on a scale of how-much-of-today-did-I-waste, Patsy D is today’s winner.)
I returned to check on my post, and saw it needed a couple clarifications for completeness, so I added this:
Patsy Center: A few clarifications. Obviously he didn’t walk to England from Ireland–but he did walk across Ireland before getting on a boat for England. Also, he was a sufficiently privileged Roman that whatever the bad thing was he did as a young man, he wasn’t punished (or maybe wasn’t even punishable) by any legal process for it. The time as a slave was just a coincidence of living near the coast and being taken as a slave by Irish raiders.
Also, I’m not really sure he built schools/libraries, that was something that maybe the people in his work-communes did. And all of this is from “How The Irish Saved Civilization” which is a real book, but possibly one that is full of lies or something, so maybe I’m wrong.
Then I *did* get a reply, and a re-reply, and so on down to a re-re-re-re-reply and beyond.
I can’t imagine why you would do that to your heart rate, but read on if you feel inclined. By the end, I do earn an eventual concession that St. Patrick isn’t as bad as Christopher Columbus. Hooray, truth and justice are restored, the Patron Saint of Ireland isn’t as bad as Christopher Columbus. And I didn’t actually use any swear words or tell my interlocutor to do anything to himself of an unkind nature. So, St. Patrick would be proud.
Patsy Left: Definition stuff first. Imperialism does not require a state and christian evangelism is a textbook example of cultural imperialism.
St. Patrick cannot be understood just as an individual, but rather in a larger context. He is broadly used by historians as a placeholder for the Christianization of Ireland. Looking just at Ireland, it wasn’t just one person coming along and being a do gooder, it was the systemic erasure of thousands of years of indigenous oral tradition. I would also push back on the narrative of Christians as gender progressives. Gender politics have not been a single inevitable march forward toward equality. It has been a dynamic push and pull. Pre-christian Ireland had matrilineal ancestry, women could contract, bear arms, become druids, politic, and had particular sexual freedom. Pre-christian custom also allowed for considerable freedom in marriage for women. As christianization continued over the centuries the position of women in Irish culture declined radically and this was in no small part due to the church.
If he is a “good” cultural imperialist, it is in the sense that a Marine passing out chocolate on the streets of Bagdad is doing “good.” The larger context of the US military having just demolished a city block is important.
Patsy Center: Right, by my definitions, any culture that is capable of raising children is clearly a “cultural imperialism.” My question is, do you agree there is such a thing as *good* cultural imperialism, and if so, do you think St. Patrick was a good cultural imperialist, and if not, is it because you have different facts than I do? (I can completely respect that. It’s a crisis of our era that there is disinformation everywhere. I really could be completely wrong.) Or is it because you have different moral intuitions about whether it is right or wrong to instruct children? (I think we probably differ slightly–there’s no accounting for tastes, after all–but overall I bet we’re very similar here.)
I had thought St. Patrick was a hero. Today I shared a link to a story about Irishmen donating $170k to endow a scholarship (for cultural imperialist education!) for the Choctaw Nation, as a thank-you to the Choctaw for (some hundred-and-some years ago) sending $170 to Ireland to help with relief from the potato famine. I have St. Patrick filed in my head as the same kind of awesome as those Choctaw folks who, recently booted to a reservation, still took up a collection for the starving Irish. So I’m a little testy about lumping St. Patrick in with any ol’ Christian Imperialist as though that means he’s the same sort of person as Christopher Columbus, who I think is well-described here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day.
Sorry if I’m ranting. Just help me understand.
Patsy Left: Framing cultural imperialism in an analogy to teaching children is deeply patronizing and sorta the problem with cultural imperialism at its core. It has to do with the relationship of the change. It’s about power, talking with versus talking at. The imposition of culture versus the mutual exchange of culture.
Patsy Center: Right. So it turns out we have really different facts. I’m perfectly capable of grasping the distinction between talking with versus talking at, and of course if St. Patrick arrived at the same time as large armies, his own personal story wouldn’t matter much. But not all missionary stories are stories of success at the point of a gun, and I was not under the impression that St. Patrick was backed by an army. Quite the opposite, in fact–my impression of the facts is that he traveled alone or nearly alone when he returned to Ireland, that he did so against the advice of locals in Roman-held areas, and that the rest of Europe was going to hell with the collapse of Roman influence, to the point where before long, St. Patrick was sending Irish missionaries to go plant little work-commune-monasteries back in Europe.
Patsy Left: I didn’t say all missionary work is at the point of a gun. Lots of European missionaries in the 19th century did not have official state backing or military arms. They have still had a massive impact in dismantling indigenous cultures.
Patsy Center: On my facts, it doesn’t make any sense to call St. Patrick an imperialist unless what you mean is that a dude showed up somewhere life was violent and difficult, where he himself had previously been enslaved, and by being himself a saintly role model and peace-maker, caused people to change.
I think if we’re agreeing he didn’t have an army or use force, or even numbers, then I think we should start with a default assumption that the people who were changed by his presence did so voluntarily, and hence that the change was for the better in their own view.
Hypothetical. Say I am kidnapped and held by Isis somewhere in Syria, in extremely awful conditions for a decade, and then shortly after escaping back to the states, against everyone’s advice, I move back to Isis territory in Syria and spent my life there being a peacemaker and a letter-writer. At my death decades later, a peaceful, prosperous Syria notices that the U.S. has stopped holding elections, and has burned most of its libraries, and that peaceful Syria decides to send some young men to the U.S. to model a peaceful life of working together and treasuring books. Am I a cultural imperialist?
Patsy Left: A better way to look at it, is to understand the christian duty to proselytize. Most worldviews do not come with a call to proselytize. Up until the enlightenment, proselytizing was largely limited to Christianity and Islam. It’s a weird thing to do. Previously, most worldviews were deeply syncretic. There was a spreading and diffusion of beliefs between people and across space. Christian proselytizing wasn’t syncretic. It acted as a way to co-opt and distort other culture’s symbols and traditions, ultimately with a view to dissolve them. To put it another way, when syncretic belief systems interact they share and fuse beliefs, they don’t spread their belief with the intent to eradicate the other … Christians show up, and they’re like “I think you worship the devil, but I know you’ll be offended if I say that explicitly, so I’m just gonna build a little monastery on top of all of your religious sites and slowly co-opt all of your traditions until no one can even remember anything about you”
Patsy Center: When you put it like that, I think if I have to choose sides, I’m obviously on the side of the Christians. What does a culture that has no duty to proselytize do about a neighboring culture that likes child sacrifice? If the answer is “Nothing” then why would I agree?
I like the idea that we’re all periodically throwing our best ideas for human flourishing at each other, and whatever doesn’t make sense or isn’t good for kids gets thrown out over time. I think that process of throwing out crappy beliefs leaves us with a stripped down temple with fewer Gods and fewer slaves. That seems like a positive.
And I think if you told an Irishman today that Ireland stopped being Ireland because St Patrick killed it, he’d look at you like you were crazy. I mean, I can’t actually speak for more than the handful of Irish men I shared a flat with in Scotland for a few months, and I can’t even really speak for them with that much confidence, but I’m pretty sure if you asked on of those blokes, he’d say they kept the good stuff.
Patsy Left: Alternatively, if your neighbors don’t have child sacrifices and you are a proselytizing faith that believes in child sacrifices, what are you going to do? Nothing seems like a better answer (not to characterize syncretism as doing nothing, which is a mischaracterization)
Patsy Center: Not at all. If my proselytizing faith believes in child sacrifices, then by everything holy I hope everyone else gets a proselytizing faith also, and comes and disabuses me of my proclivity for child murder before I do something I can’t undo.
Patsy Left: ^ that’s how we got the crusades.
Patsy Center: Uh, I’m pretty sure the crusades are at the point of a gun. I think I shouldn’t have to deal with distinguishing why what I’m advocating for is different than the crusades.
Patsy Left: No, but it’s the logic of proselytizing that leads to violence. St. Patrick was just doing it from a point of weakness, when christians have force their proselytizing gets more forceful. Seems like it’s just a spectrum of the same behavior. It’s a “my worldview is divinely right, and I have a magically ordained mission to make you come to see the world my way” mentality.
Patsy Center: Have you seen this post: http://slatestarcodex.com/…/guided-by-the-beauty-of…/
What I’m arguing for is *change-via-argument*. What I’m arguing *against* is change-via-force. I think what St Patrick brought to Ireland was change-via-argument, and yeah, that probably was pretty bad in the long run for a lot of the local superstitions, just like many Roman superstitions didn’t survive long exposure to argument either, such that plenty of well-educated Romans were into questions like “what is truth?” and didn’t believe in any gods at all.
Patsy Left: I’m saying it’s not about argument or violence, it’s about the mentality undergirding the task of Christian conversion. It’s patronizing. It isn’t a dialogue. Mormons or Witnesses who knock on your door aren’t open to an equal exchange of ideas, they aren’t willing to consider paganism in exchange for you reading their pamphlet.
Patsy Center: Lumping St. Patrick, a 5th century slave who returned to the place of his enslavement to advocate for freeing slaves, with 13th century nobility dragging themselves and their serfs off to die in they holy land 800 years later is *weird* and really unfair. Lumping him in with modern day mormons is equally weird. He was an actual person at an actual time, who did actual things, which we can hold up as a beacon of hope that actual children who are raised to do terrible stuff (as, I would argue, the children who grew up to become his enslavers must have been raised, because they enslaved him) can be confronted with arguments that it’s possible to be better, and then go do that. It’s a miracle story. It’s Harriet Freaking Tubman, except it’s like if she got South Carolina to abolish slavery by asking nicely.
Patsy Left: Yeah, I’m not saying he didn’t do things that took considerable courage. I am saying that in the long run, he participated in cultural imperialism – the intentional systematic eradication of indigenous oral traditions and customs. It’s not equivalent to ending slavery…. he didn’t end slavery… tricking unsuspecting pagans into christianity isn’t the same grand feat of liberation as convincing violent white supremacists to free the source of their wealth for the past 200 years. It wasn’t a miracle, Christians had been tricking pagans for a long time. He wasn’t the first.
Patsy Center: I think intentional eradication is exactly what most of us would like to see someone do to the practice of slavery, right along with other indigenous practices like clitoral mutilation. But that’s too easy. More to the point, I don’t think it’s fair at all to say St. Patrick was intentionally eradicating a culture. So far as I know he didn’t try to force anyone to learn a new language (not that English as we know it even existed yet). It is simply unfair to lump him with slavers like Columbus simply because people like Columbus later abused institutions he helped build. If someone like St. Patrick had been active in West Africa in 1500, maybe there’d have been no post-Columbus slave trade because there would have been fewer folks in Africa who were willing to sell each other into slavery, and they’ve have resisted European attacks with a more united front once they noticed the Europeans contemplated enslaving any of them.
Patsy Left: That’s exactly what christian missionaries had been doing for centuries before and after him. They acted with the intent of eradicating “heretical” belief systems.
I 100% agree he is not nearly on the same scale as Christopher Columbus.
Patsy Center: Hm. Your point about him tricking pagans, and it being really easy… well, I don’t know exactly how to answer that. I mean, I guess if what you are arguing for is “modesty” in terms of being really careful not to argue with another culture that might not be improved by argument, because it might not have antibodies to modern cultural memes that are harmful, well, that’s a concern I can get behind. Let’s be as careful as we’re capable of being before we make any contact with uncontacted peoples. Sure. Let’s go Star Trek Prime Directive, even. We may not all agree on how much contact we can have because the Prime Directive is subject to interpretation, and the religion of Star Trek, like all religions, is mostly good or bad depending on who is practicing it. And we’re going to have to balance the prime directive, sometimes, against not liking slavery or not wanting to watch one people oppress another, more generally.
All that conceded, I’m still in favor of being concerned about the well-being of kids. Mostly our own kids, sure, but also other peoples’. Even though we’ve got to be really careful about being modest in our cultural confidence, because we’re not right about everything, caring about kids is a really great starting point for building–or choosing between, or arguing for or against–cultural institutions. And the intent of eradicating heretical belief is part of how you care for kids–kids need heros and they don’t need people shouting heresies about every hero they might aspire to emulate every time they start to believe in something larger than themselves.
Maybe this isn’t a great stopping point, but I’m running out of time for this conversation… so, let’s see.
Closing thought: St. Patrick can be a hero on which we can raise our kids well. He’s not quite Jean Luc Picard, but he’s a real person who went from being a slave to pacifying slavers. I think I plan to tell my kids he’s a hero, and if somebody tries to tear him down with words like “cultural imperialist” that make him sound like he’s the moral equivalent of Columbus… well, that’s pretty close to my definition for heresy. Thankfully we live in the kind of country where mostly the worst we do to heretics is argue with them on Facebook (I’ve been one or another kind of heretic too many times to count) and then go eat dinner. It’s been a pleasure arguing with you! I think I got something useful from your point that St. Patrick probably didn’t have it as hard aiming at pagans as folks did in the U.S. circa the civil war.
(At this point Patsy Center walked away expecting not to get the last word, but returning, found that Patsy Left had written Patsy Center a nice direct message that it wasn’t supposed to be about St. Patrick at all, it was about the way that history is full of stories of cultures being mostly wiped-out and then paying that favor forward, e.g. Romans => Gauls, Romanic Gauls => Normans, Romanized Normans/Anglo-Saxons => Celts, all of them => Native Americans. Patsy Center can get behind that as a concern, but Patsy Center remains convinced no progress will be had from the idea that hating on St. Patrick is somehow going to solve violence, so on balance still thinks we should all go on either loving St. Patrick for his heroics, and being a little bit bitter toward well-adjusted types who spend St. Patrick’s day enjoying what peace they have in their own lives by drinking and/or being happy. Principle lesson: “I think it has been found difficult and left untried.” Difficult indeed!)