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It’s come to this.
The New York Times’ Timothy Egan used his weekend column to link America’s modern Republican Party—in the person of Congressman Paul Ryan—to the nineteenth century Irish famines that killed more than a million Irish people and led to the emigration of maybe a million more.
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 you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.
Do you see what he did there? Saying “There is no comparison, of course,” before he goes ahead and makes the comparison? So clever. So learned. So, I don’t know, what’s the word . . . spurious?
This is what I mean when I say, “It’s come to this.” Our most respected newspapers are filled with baseless, half-baked, soft-dough claims that are boiled and twisted into delicious, filling, salty—and thoroughly unhealthy—political pretzels.
Mmmm. Mmmmmm. MMMMMM. So good this pretzel. Mmmmmmm. What was that about Paul Ryan and the potato famine? Mmmmm. OH GOD I LOVE THIS PRETZEL.
Of course, to Egan, there is a comparison. A big juicy comparison. And it’s not spurious, it’s mathematically provable: Poverty and genocide are bad. Bad things are done by evil people. Republicans are evil people. Republican policies cause poverty and genocide.
What Egan misses entirely is that the English were responsible for Irish dependency. They caused it. And not by making Ireland a free-market paradise.
By colonizing Ireland—by installing their landlords and extracting rents from native tenant farmers, by suppressing Ireland’s language, history, culture, and religion, by hauling its (modest) riches off to a distant capital run by imperious middle managers, by setting its people against each other in a constant battle of all against all, and by presuming, finally, and most damnably, that the Irish couldn’t possibly take care of themselves—the English set the stage for the tragic hunger of the mid-nineteenth century.
Phytophthora infestans caused the potato crop to fail, which caused the famine. But England’s misguided attempts to manage the Irish economy caused the dependency which made tragedy inevitable. True, the English also did a very bad job of alleviating the misery. But let’s clear this up: There was no free market in quasi-feudal, nineteenth century Ireland.
[I]t is important to recognise that the potato was not just the staple food of a large section of the population. It was also in many cases a medium of exchange: farmers who would have found it difficult to pay cash wages for the labour necessary to pursue intensive tillage were able instead to hire cottiers who would give so many days work in exchange for a small plot of otherwise fallow ground on which they could grow potatoes for themselves and their families.
Not exactly Milton Friedman’s Hong Kong. Not exactly Paul Ryan’s vision for 2016.
Economic historians have debated for almost 170 years exactly what forces (apart from phytophthora infestans) caused the Irish potato famines. But Timothy Egan doesn’t care. He knows what caused it. People like Paul Ryan caused it. They cause everything.
Please pass the soft pretzels.