A book that I’ve been meaning to read as well…
I finally read John Kelly’s troubling The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (iBook) 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.
(click here to continue reading When right-wing blather killed – Salon.com.)
and Joan Walsh’s thumbnail review:
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.”
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.
Laura Miller adds:
The Irish economy was backward and precarious, but for Trevelyan the failure of the potato crop presented not a life-or-death crisis but an opportunity to forcibly modernize it. He agreed to a limited public works program (in which out-of-work laborers were paid a pittance to build roads to nowhere) because he believed it would break the peasant class of its reliance on barter and subsistence farming. The idea was to sell them corn imported from overseas because the grain couldn’t be cultivated in Ireland, thereby accustoming them to using money. However, when Ireland’s mercantile men objected to the price-depressing effects of government-funded grain, Trevelyan vowed not to sell it too cheaply, claiming that high prices would promote foreign imports.
These strategies amount to the 19th-century version of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “Shock Doctrine”: an attempt to force economic reforms on a population reeling in the aftermath of a disaster. Kelly intersperses the nitty gritty of the shifting Irish economic situation with horrific glimpses of its human toll: streets jammed with gaunt, half-naked wraiths who had sold their clothes for food, families gathered mutely in miserable cottages to die, unburied corpses by the roadside, entire hamlets razed by landlords seeking to evict “dead weight” tenants they’d otherwise have to help. If only these unfortunates could have sought comfort in “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity”!
Recognizing that the British handling of the famine was “parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology” rather than deliberately genocidal is important because while powerful, paranoid, racist madmen like Hitler are relatively rare, our own time is replete with men like Trevelyan. The Moralists saw the famine as a combination of divine judgement on the Irish people and the market working itself out in accordance with God’s plan, an equation of brutal capitalism with pseudo-Christian piety that can be just as destructive as outright malevolence. That version of the story may not be as satisfying dramatically and morally as the one with the evil, homicidal Englishman, but it does do what history does best, which is to show us how not to repeat it.
(click here to continue reading “The Graves Are Walking”: Was the Great Potato Famine a genocide? – Salon.com.)