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.
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