Thursday, March 20, 2014

Luck of the Irish

“For you stole Trevelyan’s corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.”
—Pete St. John, “The Fields of Athenry”

People who make a living at political discourse have their pet phrases intended to invalidate what the other side says.

For example, conservative commentators will be quick to accuse the other side of “playing the race card.” The aim is to equate the mere suggestion of racism with an effort to shut down debate. In other words, it’s an attempt to undermine the other side’s argument by suggesting that the other side cannot make its points on the merits.

Pundits on the left have their pet phrases as well. One that I heard a lot last week was “dog whistle.” This is an accusation that conservatives are making an appeal to racists by speaking in a code that the racists are able to understand. The term refers to whistles that emit a frequency too high for humans to hear but which animals can hear.

There was an eruption of “dog whistle” mentioning last week after Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s radio show and attributed chronic poverty in America to a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.”

The reaction came fast and furious. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee responded, “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’” Left-of-center columnists couldn’t get to their keyboards fast enough to echo her sentiments. Ana Marie Cox wrote in The Guardian that “it matters less if Ryan himself is racist or not—what matters is that his statements and actions don’t do anything to challenge or change racism in other people.” The The New York Times’s Paul Krugman wrote that “since conservatives can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening to opportunity in America, they’re left with nothing but that old-time dog whistle.”

And, frankly, as a target for such comments, Ryan definitely made himself low-hanging fruit. He acknowledged as much by later apologizing for being “inarticulate” and insisting that his comments were directed at society as whole and not at a specific group. He fell into the trap, as politicians sometimes do, of tailoring his words to a particular audience and forgetting that the rest of the country could hear him as well. Bennett’s listeners may not have minded his comments, but it never sounds good, when you are trying to solve a problem, to appear to be blaming the victim.

The rejoinder to Ryan that really caught my attention, however, was a piece in Sunday’s New York Times, written by Timothy Egan, the paper’s Pacific Northwest correspondent. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Egan drew a comparison between the Irish-American Ryan and Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British government’s assistant treasury secretary in charge of administering famine relief for Ireland in the 1840s. Egan has a gift for painting human suffering with words (he won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl), and he used that gift to evoke the “skeletal people, dying en masse, the hollow-bellied children scrounging for nettles and blackberries” of the Irish Famine and, in so doing, tie them to Congressman Ryan.

Trevelyan is a villain here in Ireland to this day. He is immortalized in the lyrics of the folk ballad “The Fields of Athenry.” Trevelyan was not coy about what he really thought. Here is a sample: “The greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.” It would be hard to find such a direct attack on the moral character of an entire group of people today—i.e. one that does not need decoding by those adept at detecting dog whistles—unless maybe you read what is written about Republicans on the pages of The New York Times or The Guardian.

Egan generously allows, “There is no comparison, of course, between the de facto genocide that resulted from British policy, and conservative criticism of modern American poverty programs.” But then he goes on to drive home the comparison anyway.

See what is going on here? The discussion is less about what works and doesn’t work in solving the problem of poverty than about who cares and who doesn’t care. Yes, it’s wrong to imply that people are poor because they are too lazy to work, but isn’t it also wrong to imply that a politician who wants to find a way to increase participation in the economy is at heart genocidal?

Egan makes one telling historical slip in his attack on Ryan. In referring to “language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy,” he gives the impression that Trevelyan served a Conservative government. He was actually part of a Whig government. The Whig Party (precursor to the modern Liberal Party) had abolished slavery in the British Empire and enacted Catholic emancipation, but when it came to the Irish Famine its laissez-faire economic philosophy prevailed.

It turns out that Trevelyan was the quintessential government bureaucrat. He spent his whole career as a civil servant and colonial administrator. Apart from his association with the Irish Famine, he is chiefly remembered for co-authoring a landmark report called The Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service. His distasteful attitude towards the Irish aside, it doesn’t appear that he deliberately intended for people to starve, only that he was massively and tragically incompetent. The lesson here may not be that the English are inherently evil but that you really don’t want to be in the position of needing the government—any government—to save you.

What was excruciating for the starving Irish was the fact that stores of food were being shipped out to paying customers. While you can by no means compare the current California drought to the Irish Famine, you do hear a faint echo of that frustration in the anguished complaints of Central Valley farmers today who say that water which could have been diverted to reservoirs during wet years was flushed out to sea by government bureaucrats in a bid to preserve a species of bait fish.

Despite its tragic history of colonialism, famines and poverty, Ireland provides encouragement to other peoples in similar straits. Just a few generations after the time of Trevelyan, Ireland’s economy prospered to the point that it became the envy of many European countries. There are still problems and the vaunted Celtic Tiger had a massive collapse, but there is still no comparison today to the low standard of living of just a few decades ago. How did the Irish turn around their fortunes so quickly?

If you ask ordinary Irish people that question, they will mention European Union investment money and the luring of international corporations to the country. But one answer I hear over and over in particular would bring a smile to Paul Ryan. People say it is because of a culture of hard work.

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