When right-wing blather killed

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

Published November 26, 2012 12:45PM (EST)

Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity
Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity

Taking a break from 24/7 politics after the election, I finally read John Kelly's troubling "The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People." Our problems feel small. Ireland lost one in three people in the late 1840s. At least a million died in the famine and its related illnesses; another two million fled for England, Canada, the United States or other ports of refuge.

But I kept coming back to U.S. politics anyway. Hauntingly, Kelly repeats the phrase that drove British famine relief (or lack of it): they were so determined to end Irish "dependence on government" that they stalled or blocked provision of food, public works projects and other proposals that might have kept more Irish alive and fed. The phrase appears at least seven times, by my count, in the book. "Dependence on government:" Haven't we heard that somewhere?

In fact, the day after finishing Kelly's book, I found Salon's Michael Lind writing about the Heritage Foundation brief, "The Index of Dependence on Government." It could have been the title of a report by famine villain Charles Trevelyan, the British Treasury assistant secretary whose anti-Irish moralism thwarted relief, but of course it was written by well-paid conservative Beltway think tankers. The very same day PBS aired a Frontline documentary revealing that our fabulously wealthy country has the fourth highest child-poverty rate in the developed world, just behind Mexico, Chile and Turkey. And I couldn't help thinking: we haven't come far at all.

I don't believe in appropriating epochal tragedies and singular cruelties for modern political use. Genocide, slavery, famine, the Holocaust; rape, incest, lynching – those terms mean something specific.  A recession, or even a depression, can't be equated with famine, let alone genocide. Nor can rampant child poverty: we fend off starvation pretty successfully with food stamps, government help and charity today. We still have poverty programs, even though we slashed them in an anti-dependency backlash Trevelyan might have approved. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, acting at least partly on Ronald Reagan's insight that "we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won," eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996 and replaced it with a time-limited, work-incentive program that cut its rolls by 58 percent in the last 15 years. One in five children was poor in 1996; the exact same percent are poor today. (Among black children, the rate is almost 2 in 5.) Whether we're fighting a war on poverty or a war on the poor, what we are doing isn't working.

But instead of digging in to find solutions to growing poverty in the midst of plenty, and increased suffering even among people who aren't technically poor, Republicans spent the last year recycling theories from the Irish famine era. They're best expressed in Mitt Romney's remarks about the "47 percent," the people who see themselves as "victims" and are “dependent upon government.” Romney's job, he told us, "is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Of course, now conservatives are very worried about "those people:" Supposedly, they re-elected President Obama. An increasingly crazed Bill O'Reilly says Obama and Democrats have created "a social free-fire zone that drives dependency and poverty." Obama voters "want stuff," he continued," big spending on government programs," and they've rejected "robust capitalism and self reliance." Sean Hannity says Obama's strategy was "to encourage Americans to be dependent on the government." Of course, it's not just the Irish: Charles Krauthammer agrees. "The more you make more people dependent, the more you have your constituencies, the more they re-elect you," the eternally sneering righty said on election night.

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.


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.)

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.

Even today, a key obstacle to a public works jobs program in this long recession is the Republican delusion that such measures coddle slackers; that only job creators, not government, can help the poor. Unfortunately, some Democrats, including at times the president, have been unwilling to identify such arguments as the ancient defense of privilege that when unchallenged has led to tragedies like famine Ireland. Maybe Romney's defeat, and the subsequent right-wing freak out over  "dependence," can awaken more people to the contempt and cruelty behind their politics.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill O'reilly Irish Famine Poverty Republican Party Sean Hannity The Graves Are Walking