Here’s something I really don’t understand:
I do not have a drop of Irish blood in my body. (In fact, a few of my ancestors were Northern Irish Protestants, though that’s about all I know of them.) In spite of this, I am expected to spend Ireland’s national holiday dressed as if I were a member of the Irish nation. If I fail to do this, I get pinched by fellow non-Irishmen. What’s a nice Jewish girl to do?
Most people, of course, would say I’ve made a logical error in the third sentence. In America, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just for the Irish; it’s for the Irish and those who love them, at least enough to remember what day it is when they get dressed in the morning. It’s some type of pluralist solidarity, apparently, to let our rivers and taps flow green, generous in appreciation for someone else’s motherland.
It’s hardly controversial to say that this “appreciation” lacks substance, that the Irishness being celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day — alcohol! leprechauns! the Dropkick Murphys! — is more kitsch than culture, that no one has ever learned what it is to be Irish or Irish-American while on a Guinness-sponsored pub crawl. This doesn’t embrace Irish culture, it hollows it. Maybe it was inevitable after two hundred or so years of significant Irish presence in the States; assimilation is the product of demographic macroprocesses as well as individual decisions, making it hard to understand properly and harder to reverse. But it’s also a response to a particular strand of “multicultural” pluralism, which seeks to eliminate intercultural border skirmishes by reducing barriers to entry as much as possible, stretching a culture until everyone can fit inside. (Helen wrote about this almost exactly a year ago, though the St. Patrick’s Day connection didn’t seem to occur to her — perhaps because of her affection for the Boston Irish.) When so much has been whittled away in the interests of inclusion, the question is no longer “what is lost?” then “what could possibly remain?”
The answer, it seems, is binge drinking. On St. Patrick’s Day, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” slurs into “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced” by the end of the night; Mardi Gras’ rich carnival has become a massive frat party; and while Americans may not know that Cinco de Mayo isn’t actually the “Mexican Fourth of July,” they can count to “one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.”
For a round or two, this is a sign of legitimate triumph. In Ireland, the conflict between Unionists and Nationalists may (or may not) be heating up again, but here in America we’ve come so far that no one even knows what a Black and Tan really is, and Catholics and Protestants are urged to forget old rivalries and lay Bushmills and Jameson side-by-side on their shelves. At the end of history there is nothing to do but sit at the bar and reminisce about how crazy the good old days were. But the self-consciously excessive drinking that characterizes these holidays turns them into something much darker and more harmful than that. It’s one thing to risk a hangover tomorrow for a little fun tonight, but it’s quite another to turn the act of drinking itself violent, quaffing Black and Tans, Irish Car Bombs, Hurricanes, Hand Grenades. We’ve eliminated violence to outsiders from our holidays. We’ve replaced it with violence to ourselves.