Is ethnic empathy the same as bigotry?

A zillion years ago I wrote an article for the American Journalism Review titled “The Blarney Beat: The Press Just Can’t Get Enough of Those Witty, Charming Irish Americans.” My point was that, almost uniquely, the alleged charm of the Irish was a stylistic crutch for writers of human interest stories (and editorials), notwithstanding the fact that “Irish wit” ranged from the clubhouse humor of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to the subtleties of his distant playwright cousin Eugene.

In that piece I focused on the popularity with reporters of a supposed Irish psychological trait, but I could have gone on to dissect the ubiquity of references to the way Irish people look (again, despite the fact that all Irish do not look alike, witness the “black Irish”). But this journalistic convention is also still with us.

Last week, following up on poignant news article about a 12-year-old boy who died because of a tragic misdiagnosis, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd eulogized Rory Staunton, the son of Irish immigrants who own two New York bars. Dowd wrote movingly about Rory’s ambition to be a pilot, the way he protected other kids from schoolyard bullies, his admiration for Rosa Parks and the fact that when he went online, it was in search of CNN, not porn.

But Dowd also went physical in her tribute. Rory was not just a good-looking boy; he was a “freckle-faced redhead.” “How,” she asked rhetorically, “could you resist that sweet Irish face?”

My first thought was that this ethnic overkill was a variant of the lazy journalist’s recourse to Gaeolophiliac cliches that I criticized in my essay about Irish wit. But on reflection, I think that’s unfair to Dowd. Maybe, for her, as for a lot of her Irish American readers, Rory’s appearance and ethnicity made his unnecessary death just a bit more more painful.


I’m not accusing Dowd of racism, any more than I would level that libel against my Irish mother, who if she were alive would have reacted the same way to the untimely passing of a kid who just happened to be “one of our own.” If Mom and Maureen are racists for feeling a special pang at the closed eyes on a “sweet Irish face,” then Barack Obama was a racist for observing that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Ethnic empathy isn’t the same as bigotry, after all. But it’s still politically incorrect -- except on the Blarney Beat.


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