History can be a depressing mistress sometimes. Most people will be familiar with an expression attributed to Marx, that history repeats itself “the first as tragedy, the second as farce.” In fact, Marx was quoting Hegel and referring specifically to “great world-historic facts and personages, but it’s still held to be true. Even Slavoj Zizek says so, and you wouldn’t want to argue with such a forceful beard.
However, life is often more complicated than that. As a historian whose research includes the Irish immigration and settlement in the UK in the nineteenth century, I’ve often been saddened by the all-too-familiar rhetoric wielded around today’s poor migrants. Two events of the last weekend have suggested to me that Marx could sometimes have stood to reverse his aphorism; the repeat is not always the farce.
One of the most interesting books I’ve read of late is LP Curtis’ Apes & Angels (1971). It tells the story of the representation of the Irishman in popular cartoons, tracking the changes from the daft Paddy of the early nineteenth century, to amore “prognathous”, i.e. ape-like character as fears grow over the migratory influx, to the hirsute, threatening character of the later century when Fenianism and terrorism start to find a place in British politics. In a world of Graham Norton, St Patrick’s parades and twenty years of Father Ted, where the Irish are far more celebrated in Britain than mistrusted, these pictures are shocking. ‘Racist’ hardly seems to cover it, and indeed the feeling went far deeper than cartoons. The Irish were abused for their perceived racial inferiority (to the burgeoning master race of the British, of course); mistrusted for their ‘Papism’, exploited as the lowest-paid workers; and resented by workers for taking their jobs. The Irish were de-humanised to society in this way, presented as figures worthy of comic abuse – farce, if you like.
Fancy: characterising human beings as something sub-human just because they dare to be foreign. 100 years ago (pre-Irish independence) it was deemed within the realms of decency to describe the Irish as apes; given what the human race has been through since then, it doesn’t seem like much progress when today’s migrants can be described as cockroaches, or as a virus. Yet those are the expressions that have been used in the best-selling newspaper in the country to describe the refugees seeking asylum in Europe, away from the tragedies of their own nations. Virus! Might as well call them “the very pests of society.“
Images of overcrowded boats lost in the Mediterranean have been on our news for some time now, with something like 700 lives lost in one go just yesterday. Katie Hopkins called for gunships rather than transport ships for the migrants. Zoe William’s perceptive piece in the Guardian has perhaps the most tragic take on this: “her idea proved unnecessary, of course.” Williams compares Hopkins’ language to that used in 1994 in Rwanda, when Tutsis were described as “cockroaches.” We can think further back to other times in the last century when human beings were considered less than human. Further back than that and we can think of our Irish friends again, fleeing tragedy and starvation in their own country, this time on vastly-overcrowded boats, crossing dangerous waters. Perhaps it won’t be long till we’re referring to the boats fleeing North Africa and the Middle East as “coffin ships.“
History repeats itself, certainly. But if the Louis Bonaparte that Marx was describing could be thought of as a farce, these events suggest that tragedy is often the true result of history repeating.