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When Right-Wing Blather Killed

Irish Catholics peddling nonsense about "dependency on government" need to read a new history of the Great Famine.

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God bless them every one.

At least once a generation, we have to fight the idea that the poor and struggling are to blame for their own hardship. But it’s harder to fight it if we can’t see it. I’m grateful to the modern GOP for making its prejudice plain. While that prejudice hits black people and Latinos hardest, it stunts opportunities for all Americans, particularly the poor, whatever their color. A lot of people who aren’t “dependent” on government voted for Obama; sadly, a lot of people who are dependent voted for Romney. Mitt’s “47 percent” is by far majority-white and at least a quarter are senior citizens, but Romney won the white vote, and the senior vote, overwhelmingly.

I find myself particularly puzzled by my people, the Irish Catholics in that group. I hope they all get John Kelly’s book for Christmas.

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I’m not reviewing “The Graves Are Walking;” Laura Miller did that  here. A brief overview is necessary: Kelly fights the notion that the British famine response was “genocide,” or even, as I put it in  my book, “ethnic cleansing.” It was more benign and commonplace, he argues, though still cruel and deadly: An effort to use a tragedy to advance a political agenda, and to imagine God’s hand at work advancing that agenda, in matters that are well within the realm of human action to prevent or correct.

Famine Ireland combined the worst of feudalism and capitalism. Anglo-Irish landlords, given their land in “plantations” after decades of war in the 16th and 17th centuries to displace conquered Irish Catholics, were a big part of the problem. At least a quarter were absentee and only wanted the highest rents they could gouge; resident landlords preferred “conspicuous consumption” – Ireland enjoyed a million acres of deer parks and gardens – to building the infrastructure of modern agriculture.

So British leaders wanted to use the famine “to modernize the Irish agricultural economy, which was widely viewed as the principal source of Ireland’s poverty and chronic violence, and to improve the Irish character, which exhibited an alarming ‘dependence on government’ and was utterly lacking in the virtues of the new industrial age, such as self-discipline and initiative,” Kelly writes. Trevelyan told a colleague: God “sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson…[and it] must not be too mitigated.”

It was particularly easy to see the hand of God in the potato blight, because the potato was at the root of the lazy culture of the “aboriginal Irish,” according to Victorian moralists. “Why did the Irish have ‘domestic habits of the lowest and most degrading kind…more akin to the South Seas…than to the great civilized communities of the ancient world?” Potato dependency!” writes Kelly. “The little industry called for to rear the potato, and its prolific growth, leave the people to indolence and vice,” wrote one man in charge of Irish relief. “Food for the contented slave, not the hardy and the brave,” the Economist rhymed about the Irish staple.

Thus the failure of the potato crop was God’s way of getting lazy landlords, and more importantly, the “aboriginal Irish,” into the modern age, where they’d either work harder for better crops, or preferably, leave the farm, enter the emerging industrial society and earn wages to buy food, rather grow their own. It didn’t work that way: relief efforts and public works projects were opened, and then closed, because of worries about “dependency,” that those starving, rag-wearing slackers might prefer the dole to working. Anglo-Irish landlords evicted tenants rather than pay a higher poor rate for them; there was no one to plant the next season. Finally they opened the poor houses more widely, and they became teeming vectors for spreading disease, most notably “famine fever” and typhus, killing people more quickly (and even killing those who weren’t starving, a reminder of why public health is, or should be, a national responsibility.)

 
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