John Mitchel, impervious ideologies and the value of doubt

The other night in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast Anthony Russell gave a lecture on ‘John Mitchel; less revolutionary than the average English shopkeeper?’. [for other posts on this most remarkable of relatives see here, here, here and here)

Russell has just published Between Two Flags: John Mitchel & Jenny Verner and it is a very good book indeed.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the rebel’s birth but it is passing largely unremarked. Mitchel, once one of Pearse’s ‘four gospels’ of Irish nationalist literature and inspiring hero to De Valera, has long since become an embarrassment for nationalist and republican Ireland – and in his lifetime of course was already an embarrassment for his Protestant and Unionist kin whom he tried, vainly, to win over to the republican cause.

Russell’s lecture title is taken from a critical assessment made by Emile Montegut exactly 100 years ago. At first glance it seems a rather preposterous notion.

Not sure what the politics of an average English shopkeeper are these days, but let’s assume Montegut had in mind a quiet, no-nonsense, small businessman happy to make a modest living¬† from a local market of loyal customers.

What would such an icon of the status quo have to do with Mitchel the romantic, impetuous, ferocious, physical-force republican man of letters who rebelled against just about everyone and every movement he ever worked with? Who sacrificed his own life as well as two sons killed and one maimed in the uncompromising pursuit of political ideals in Ireland and Confederate America?

Well maybe more than you’d imagine at first glance.

What Russell brought out convincingly was how it was Mitchel’s fierce and violent tunnel-vison hatred of English rule in Ireland that was the driving force behind his elevation to rebel hero. At heart however he was no social or political revolutionary.

His was a classicist mindset of fixed hierarchies. Mitchel belonged in Rome where slaves remained slaves and social boundaries were maintained by a ruthless lack of sentiment. It was no accident that in his writings the English were the enemies of Rome – the Carthaginians

So negro slaves were to remain negro slaves – it was the good and right and proper order of things. The Confederacy’s way of life was to be preferred and defended (whatever it cost Mitchel and his family) against the industrial barbarian North. Likewise, lower-class convicts in Van Diemen’s land would be better off hanged. Epidemics were inevitable and natural ways to rid the world of the weak and the sick.

The Ireland he dreamt of seeing one day ‘free’ was, as Russell puts it,

“a rural hierarchical Ireland, peopled with fair landlords and well-treated tenants, an Ireland were crime and misdeeds were to be punished with the lash, if necessary.” (212)

This unlocks why Mitchel so despised capitalism and industrialisation. His vision of an independent liberated land was a romantic, classical, rural and simple pre-Enlightenment Ireland of “innumerable brave working farmer rising from a thousand hills” who would never trouble themselves about “progress of the species” and such worthless ideas. (213) Sound familiar? De Valera’s famous 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech is pure Mitchel. It was no accident that De Valera went on pilgrimage to visit Mitchel’s cell on Spike Island in Cork Harbour – the last place he was imprisoned before his transportation.

Anthony Russell described Mitchel’s one ‘moment of doubt’. As the Confederacy stared defeat in the face in 1864, it was proposed that slaves could be conscripted to fight. Later in the Confederate Act of Congress freedom was allowed to be a reward for faithful war service.

Mitchel’s entire worldview was threatened by such notions. With typical relentless honesty he reasoned

Now, if freedom be a reward for negroes – why, then it is, and always was, a grievous wrong and a crime to hold them in slavery at all … If it be true that the state of slavery keeps these people depressed below the condition to which they could develop their nature, their intelligence and their capacity for enjoyment, and what we call “progress,” then every hour of their bondage for generations is a black stain upon the white race.

But this wasn’t so much a moment of doubt as self-reinforcing rhetoric. Mitchel knew (as always) the answer to his own question. The black slave should remain a slave because he is not fit for freedom or equal in value to a white person. Case closed.

He was a man entirely free of the awkward encumbrance of doubt. To his dying day he despised any form of negotiation or compromise on England’s presence in Ireland.

Now I don’t know about you, but as I have grown older, I value doubt more.

To be without doubt is to be like Mitchel – never wrong, completely sure of your own rightness whatever the cost, impervious to other’s opinions (and often feelings), not needing to say sorry, and certainly not to repent (turn around) from actions, attitudes or words. (Mitchel had no time for Christianity’s call to confession, humility and forgiveness. The life and teaching of Jesus, as far as I am aware never appears in any considered way in all of his many writings). An inflated sense of self-importance coupled with a lack of self-depreciating humour make the no-doubter someone who will continually fall out with anyone who does not agree with him (and it usually is a him and that’s a whole other discussion).

Do you know some no-doubters? I suspect you do. In figuring out who I can work best with it is the no doubter I will avoid like the plague (if I can!).

No doubters can be personality driven – they are just right about everything by default. Mitchel, there is good evidence, was engaging, loving and loyal. He was more an ideological no doubter – and they are the most dangerous of all.

For an ideology without doubt can become a truly monstrous thing.

‘Hot’ nationalisms are a form of ideology that allow no doubt, no questions, no complicating alternative points of view that dilute their pure and simple utopian vision.

We’ve had our fair share in the last couple of centuries or so – British imperialism, American exceptionalism, German national socialism and the Holocaust, Serbian ethnic cleansing, Hutu ethnic genocide, Turkish genocide of Armenians, Communist eradication of millions of people in China and USSR for the greater good of the state, IS ethnic cleansing of Shia’s and any others outside their version of pure Islam, American and European no doubters who arrogantly thought they could bring Western democracy to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan, and various tribal, ethnic and religious cleansings in Africa, Asia and India …

Just to be clear, I’m not equating these morally. There are different temperature levels within and consequences of no doubt ideologies.

Back in Ireland, Mitchel helped to inspire Pearse and his ‘pure’ blood-sacrifice for Ireland on Easter Sunday 1916 – a centenary that I for one will not be celebrating next year.

Notice that the one thing in common with all political no doubt ideologies is violence. ‘No doubt’ legitimizes physical force. it did for Mitchel, it does for all others as well.

So, what do you believe in? How deeply and passionately do you believe? What room is there for doubt in your beliefs? What is doubt good for? Where does it become damaging?

When it comes to Christianity,¬† believers are to proclaim and share the universal ‘gospel truth’ that Jesus is Lord of all. What place is there for doubt in how Christians engage in this task? In how they read the Bible? In other words, is Christianity just another ‘impervious ideology’ or something else?

Comments, as ever, welcome.