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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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Sometimes I felt like quibbling with Kelly over his effort to refute charges that the famine response was a deliberate form of ethnic cleansing, given the way it was driven by centuries of crippling prejudice against Irish Catholics. But he’s right: It isn’t genocide when we don’t act to stop the deaths of people we don’t care about in the first place. Certainly some Irish leaders veered into crazy anti-British conspiracy theories. The famine even had its version of Jeremiah Wright: Irish revolutionary John Mitchel, who claimed the British government created typhus in laboratories and deliberately infected the Irish, much as Wright accused the U.S. government of spreading AIDS in poor black communities. I guess centuries of oppression can lead to some crazy, intemperate ideas.

Ironically, in one of his half-cocked soliloquies, Wright brought this whole story full-circle, talking about the way the Irish had once been denigrated and despised, just like black people: “People thought that the Irish had a disease, when the Irish came here.” Then he referenced Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, and added, “Well, they might have been right.”

It troubles me beyond reason that the face of the white GOP backlash is so frequently Irish Catholic: O’Reilly, Hannity, Pat Buchanan. Reading Kelly’s book again reminded me that everything racists say about African Americans was once said about my own people, and in the famine at least, with a deadly outcome.

To justify shutting down aid mid-famine, the London Times editorialized that it was to help the poor Irish themselves. “Alas, the Irish peasant has tasted of famine and found it good…the deity of his faith was the government…it was a religion that holds ‘Man shall not labor by the sweat of his brow.” Sounds like Bill O’Reilly, only more clever. “There are times when harshness is the greatest humanity.” The Times’ “chief proprietor,” John Walter, put it more crudely. The Irish were no more ready for self-government than “the blacks,” he said in Parliament (he was also a Tory MP).  ”The blacks have a proverb,” he explained. “‘If a nigger were not a nigger, the Irishman would be a nigger.’”

I suppose expecting Irish Catholics to therefore be appalled by efforts to blame the poor for their poverty is unfair. It’s like expecting African Americans, given their history, to unanimously be liberal do-gooders, and reading Herman Cain, Allen West or even Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell out of the race. We’re all entitled to draw our own conclusions about how we got here.  Pain can harden hearts as well as open them. And it’s possible to raise questions about the role of government, or even to resist “big government,” without being racist or anti-poor people.

Still, it’s striking the extent to which so many American Irish Catholics have historical amnesia, not just about the famine, but about the way we rose in this country: By fiercely building our own parallel society, with our own churches, non-profits and schools, while grabbing the reins of government and making sure no Trevelyan would ever hold our fate in his indifferent hands again. “Two institutions reached out and offered refuge to [Irish] immigrants,” Kelly writes: “The Catholic church…and the Democratic party, in the form of Tammany Hall, which provided jobs in return for political favors.” Government built the Irish Catholic middle class, whether by protecting unionization or by outright public sector employment, and helped other white immigrant groups in similar ways.

But now the O’Reillys and the Hannitys and the Buchanans demonize those who rely on government, in terms remarkably like those used to malign their own people. Our 40-year GOP-led grudge against government isn’t abetting a famine, but it is absolutely preventing action that would ease the slow-motion tragedy of persistent poverty and chronic unemployment, which ensnares Americans of every race but disproportionately hits African-Americans. People who relied on government to climb out of poverty and into the working and middle class suddenly decided that “harshness is the greatest humanity” when it came time to help a new generation rise.

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