Tell Everyone on This Train I Love Them

by Maeve Higgins, 2022

I learned a lot from this book. For example, Ireland has been blowing up monuments (to British men) for centuries. If our Black Americans blew up the monuments to slavery, the outcry would never end. Maeve was welcomed to America from Ireland because she is white and young and European. The brown people trying to come to America through our southern borders are not welcome. What’s worse, they (Mexicans) were here first.

I love Maeve Higgins! She is SO funny on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Her voice is so appealing, so sweet, and I wish she was on that show every week. This book was not funny, though. She definitely has a serious side and cares deeply about the poor and downtrodden and also our planet. She covers major issues: Racism towards Blacks, Racism towards Mexicans/Hispanics/Latinos, and climate change. When Bush was president in the early 2000s, a Republican strategist named Frank Luntz told him to stop saying ‘global warming’ and to say ‘climate change’ instead, and also to raise doubts about the science itself. So, 20 years later we have done basically nothing to prevent the earth from warming further. In 2017, Luntz’s home in LA almost burned down in a wildfire. He said to the Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, “Just stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago, because it’s not accurate today.”

The last pages of the book tell the story of a hero on a train in Portland who dies protecting two girls from a deranged person with a knife. His last words were, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.” So Christ-like! I appreciate her perspective and learned a lot from her.

Here are some quotes I particularly liked:

After a strange man yells, “You better not be taking a picture of me, you fat whore!” at her, she writes about the shock and the hurt this causes her. “Overall I was upset at this stab of aggression that made a rent in the fabric of gentleness I’m accustomed to.”

She was in a movie her Irish friends wrote – a comedy horror – called Extra Ordinary.

After George Floyd was murdered by the police man, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, many people gathered and wept together. “They gathered at the Confederate statues, these tributes to men who fought to keep Black Americans enslaved.”

She gives a brief history of Ireland and, in particular, a man named Gough and a statue honoring him in Ireland that the IRA blew up. “Next, in a twist nobody could have seen coming, except for those who know every empire must fall, that statement, in the form of a statue, was destroyed by people hungry for as complete a freedom as they could imagine.”

“In Ireland, the question of what to do with monuments to former oppressors was just one of many gigantic conundrums facing the brand-new Irish Free State upon its birth in 1921. It has been a difficult labor: after almost eight hundred years of British occupation the people suffered a short but brutal war of independence that ended in the foundation of the Irish state but also cemented in place a partition that would leave six counties in the north of the country part of Britain. That was followed by another war, shorter but arguably more brutal, this time a civil war waged over the partition and other attempts by Britain to retain a hold on Ireland.”

“In the decades following independence, the monuments erected by the British all throughout Irish public space were removed by both the new Irish government and, as in Gough’s case, a host of less official ways involving gelignite and other explosives. Monuments have long been handy targets for direct action.” Then she talks about Nelson’s Pillar, 130 feet tall in the middle of Dublin, placed there in 1809, as “a mark and a warning to the population.

“Nelson had never even visited Ireland; his monument was not a commemoration. It was a political act, as all public monuments are, a towering reminder to the Irish of who was in charge. The pillar was blown up in 1966, by whom it was never officially known, and its destuction didn’t harm anyone and was widely celebrated.”

See, if Blacks in America blew up Confederate statues, they would not be “widely celebrated,” they would be arrested, mistreated, scorned. But because Irish people are white, their violence to the British statues is understood and forgiven. She doesn’t come out and say this, but what different thoughts and feelings toward the Irish than towards our Blacks. She does point out that what was done to the Black slaves is so much worse than the oppression of the Irish by the British. The Irish were not slaves, they were “smallholders.” “There is not a comparison to be made between what enslaved people were subjected to and the experience of Irish smallholders.” But the Big Houses in Ireland (300 of them) were burned and blown up. In America, big plantation houses are celebrated places and white people have weddings in them. The blacks continued on as sharecroppers and the white plantation owners continued on as landowners and profited from their black sharecroppers. She compares that situation to the situation the Irish were in under the British, and the Irish, when independent, went on to burn and destroy 300 of the Big Houses, whereas Black Americans never could rid the land of the symbols of their horrible oppression. “A process as brutal and racist as chattel slavery has never been seen before or since; it’s not comparable to colonization, and nor is a straight comparison between Robert E. Lee and Field Marshal Gough possible.”

“British oppression and imperialism are no longer a direct force on the life of a person in the Irish republic. Indirectly I think it does still linger, but the same cannot be said for the oppression meted out by white supremacy here in the US. That oppression and its material consequences are felt daily on Black and Brown people living here. Enslavement is long gone, but other white supremacist structures are on view as clear as a statue in a public park: poverty, redlining, and environmental violence are alive and kicking in many communities. Monuments are just one symbol of that violence, and the debate about what to do with them is painful and unpredictable. In Ireland in the 1920s, nobody knew the right answer either.”

“Many people on the right who are fighting to keep the Confederate monuments by arguing that to destroy them is to destroy history are simultaneously acting to, well, destroy history. Speaking at the National Archives Museum just weeks before my trip, President Trump said he would fight what he called an emerging narrative in schools that “America is a wicked and racist nation, by creating a new “1776 Commission” to help “restore patriotic education to our schools.””

“Direct consequences of British imperialism included the partition of India and Pakistan, resulting in pure horror and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people there, and “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, smaller in scale but with equally terrible repercussions for those involved.”

Talking about Lady Wakefield and her family who made a fortune through the Atlantic slave trade: “On the Chillingham Castle website, Lady Wakefield’s father is described as “a one-time Governor of the former Rhodesia, of the South African protectorates and, finally, of the then Mau-Mau stricken Kenya.” I laughed out loud at the word “stricken”–the Mau Mau were simply an armed response to the British people who had stolen Kenyan land and abused Kenyan people. Kenya was “stricken” by men like Lady Wakefield’s father, not by the Mau Mau, not by its own people waging war on the colonists. But it is clear from the telling that the Wakefield family still see the oppressed fighting for independence as some kind of aberration on the natural order of things.”

“Through carelessness or malice, nothing threatens the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland like Brexit does, bringing up as it does the question of borders and parity.”

“Life goes around in circles, it does, but sometimes those circles spin so hard they transfer something new to the next round.”

In the chapter, Situational Awareness, she talks about borders: “My point of view is evolving but fundamentally this: migration is a human right. “Open borders” is consistently used by right-wing Americans as a frightening threat, one that only a lunatic progressive would even consider. I feel relatively calm about it, though, and look forward to exploring how it could be possible and what kind of a future it could provide.”

“Ireland was divided in two following the Irish war of independence in 1921, leaving six counties in the north as part of Britain and making the rest a republic. To this day, that partition has deep scars that threaten to tear open and bleed again. Borders are man-made, with all the inherent flaws that inevitably entails. Even calling borders “man-made” is obscuring the fact that many of the world’s borders were made by a specific group of self-serving and racist men. the Middle East was divided ludicrously, with straight lines, by a British and a French man in 1916. Thirteen European nations parceled Africa into fifty crudely cut up “countries” back in 1884, disgracefully jamming over one thousand regions and cultures into them and leaving the continent vulnerable to every kind of pain imaginable in the century to come.”

She attended the 2020 Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas. In the chapter, Situational Awareness, she writes about that experience. Here’s how she starts the chapter:

“I remember the Alamo, of course I do. I remember the evening I stood on the grounds beside the biggest bowl of queso I’d ever seen while a man, his face reddened with emotion and alcohol, stood on a makeshift stage and auctioned off a homemade gun.” She was practically the only female among a bunch of gun-packing men. Her “heart quickened at the sight of the rifle, as it does every time I see a gun.” There were about 20 protestors outside, one an indigenous man who wore a sign: “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.” She gives the history of the border patrol – many of the first agents were KKK.

This is cute: “The only time I eat in bed is when I’m in hotels. It feels like a treat that way, whereas if I started doing it at home it would feel like a defeat. That night I tucked under the sheets with all the pillows propping me up like a Victorian invalid, one who is somehow strong enough to eat beef jerky and read that paper again. Do you ever have a moment when you find yourself surprised at how content you are? Those moments tickle me because they are so unpredictable; I try to note them when they happen because when I string them together they really do lead me to a far more honest version of myself than my conscious mind will allow.

Then on to more serious stuff: “There are countless facts being ignored by the US when it comes to so-called illegal immigration. San Antonio was once part of Mexico but was wrested away by violence and the colonial mindset of the burgeoning United States.”

She talks about the Border Patrol wanting to collect DNA to match “juvenile aliens” to their parents – the parents they had been separated from at the border, by the Border Patrol Agents. She says, “Here was a man calling real-life babies and children “juvenile aliens.” You know, the juvenile aliens with burgeoning personalities and adoring granddads and vulnerable little shoulders you could scarcely imagine bearing the weight of being alone in a fenced-in camp in a foreign country.”

She talks about sitting at a picnic table with a bunch of retired Border Patrol agents and asking them about the Alamo. They told a tale of Mexican violence towards the Texans – “Thinking about it, one woman looked troubled and urged me to understand how awful it had been, as if remembering it herself.”

“In context, the battle was one of many in a war that ended with the US annexing 55 percent of Mexico’s territory and militarily occupying the remaining country between 1846 and 1848. The future president Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in the war, later called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He compared American aggression to that of the European monarchies, who continued their colonial rampaging for decades to come.”

“The Alamo is a historic site of struggle between Mexico and America, but it was originally in Mexico. Much of history omits that.”

This is interesting: She writes about Biden undoing some of the most violent anti-immigration policies of Trump, but that “The border security industry contributed three times more to Biden’s presidential campaign than to Trump’s reelection campaign, and that is worrying. The Democrats consistently opt for a “smart wall,” using technology to police the border, but both parties have expanded the physical fence too.”

What she learned in Texas: “I had to go to the very edge of this country I loved and deliberately made my life in to learn what was aleady there: a disregard for how precious and important each person is, a profit-making exercise for a small number of people at the expense of millions of us.”

In the chapter Death Tax, she writes how words have power and how what we’ve called “climate change” rather than “global warming” has shaped our behavior. Basically, we’ve done nothing about global warming for 20 years and now it is probably too late. Some people are talking about leaving the planet and colonizing Mars. She explains what ghosting is: “Ghosting, in modern dating parlance, is when your beloved vanishes without explanation, having taken what he or she needed.”

“Ghosting the planet is the worst thing we could do to ourselves. It’s difficult to fully love the one you’re with, though, if you don’t see a future together. So I’m imagining a beautiful future for us and this planet, the happiest of marriages with coral and forests and honeybees all around. There will be no tut-tutting about where your take-out boxes end up because we’ll have all calmed down and traveled back to a time when we sit around for hours and eat from real plates. We’ll reminisce about that time we almost ruined everything but we’re fine again now and, actually, aren’t the butterflies getting to be a little much?”

In the last chapter she explains what anarchy is: “As it turns out, anarchy does not mean chaos. “Anarchists say that in a crisis, people revert back to what comes naturally to them, which is mutual aid.” [That is a quote from Professor Robert Weide.]

She end with the story about the two girls on a Portland train who were attacked by a white nationalist. Three men saved the girls but two of them died. One of them said as he was dying, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.” “All I know for sure is that everyone on the train was a stranger to him, but his last words were that he loved them. I try to hold on to those words. Love is an action: love is paying attention, love is a reckoning and a reconciliation with how the world really is. Somehow his words became a rule I made for myself: to try to better understand and accept this city of mine [NYC], to try to love everyone on this train.”

Thank you, Maeve Higgins! You are wise and funny and sweet and gentle and loving. You have written a book we all need to read. Thank you!