On Martin Luther King Day, here's a repeat of my St. Patrick's Day post:
With parades and parties, we take St. Patrick’s Day more lightly than other holidays. We treat it more as a celebration than a moment for solemn reflection. This is a wonderful thing, not only for the joy it brings, but because there is hope in the fact that we allow the deeper meaning of the day to pass unnoticed.
Our youngest national holiday is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, during which we not only commemorate the life of a peaceful leader who stood for justice and morality, but take time to contemplate the ways in which our culture and social structures still embody unfairness toward groups of Americans.
Though we seldom stop to think of it, St. Patrick’s Day stands for all that we wish for eight weeks earlier on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The mass Irish migration to America occurred in the first half of the 19th century and was met with fear, hatred and bigotry.
Overt job discrimination was rampant as every Irish worker knew of the “No Irish Need Apply” signs and the same sort of vitriolic rhetoric was voiced toward them as we see now against Spanish-speaking immigrants. The Know Nothing Party was organized specifically to undermine the political power of Irish Catholics. Kids today have no sense whatsoever how momentous it was in 1960 to have John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, elected president of the United States.
But the fact that anti-Irish discrimination is no longer a part of our collective consciousness is precisely what makes St. Patrick’s Day so wonderful. We do not use St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate Irish-American liberation and equality, we just use it to celebrate Irish culture.
Irish-Americans are now considered as American as anyone else, but this is not the result of complete assimilation. Irish-Americans were not made to surrender their identities. A decade and a half after Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for “Angela’s Ashes” and “Riverdance” sold out show after show, we see the Irish as contributing positively to the larger culture and on St. Patrick’s Day everyone partakes in the celebration of that contribution.
St. Patrick’s Day stands as a monument to cosmopolitanism, to the view that we are strongest not when we are homogenized, when our differences are stripped away in favor of a single way of being, but rather when we embrace differences and seek to understand how other ways of experiencing the world can be used to augment, to enrich our own limited perspective.
Ferdinand Tonnies, a founding father of sociology, argued that there is a difference between communities — groups bound together by what they have in common — and societies — which are created of distinct groups. It is human nature, he claimed, that communities would create societies, that no matter how similar the members of the group, we inevitably find ways to divide ourselves up, of creating us versus them situations.
As human beings, we naturally try to exclude, shut out and minimize others. St. Patrick’s Day gives us hope that it can be different. That we can not only peaceably coexist, but that we can cherish and benefit from our diversity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an important holiday because it forces us to focus on the places in our cultures where we erect boundaries, hurdles and brick walls to keep those who are different from fully realizing themselves as citizens and complete human beings in our society.
There remain major impediments to the full equality of many Americans. But while the heaviness of such a task should make us pause, the levity of St. Patrick’s Day should urge us forward, providing us with a success story that it can be done.
We can bring people into the family without forcing them to give up what makes them special. This sort of inclusion enriches us all. When it is said that on St. Patrick’s Day “everyone has a little Irish in them,” it acknowledges the ways in which we are a better culture for having added another set of experiences.
This is why, despite the fact that I am not Irish, I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as one of the great American holidays and lift a glass of Guinness to toast the legacy of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in hope that someday we will have created a society so moral, fair and mindful that his birthday, too, can be celebrated in the same way.