When Right-Wing Blather Killed
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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.