In yesterday's New York Times, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Timothy Egan likens Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to the English overlords of Ireland's great potato famine of 1845-1852. Seriously.
Egan says he did a bit of "time traveling" in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day (whose celebration in the form of parades and drunkeness is largely an invention of colonial America). What did Egan find while traipsing about in the Old Sod?
A great debate raged in London: Would it be wrong to feed the starving Irish with free food, thereby setting up a "culture of dependency"? Certainly England's man in charge of easing the famine, Sir Charles Trevelyan, thought so. "Dependence on charity," he declared, "is not to be made an agreeable mode of life."
And there I ran into Paul Ryan…the Republican congressman was very much in evidence, wagging his finger at the famished. His oft-stated "culture of dependency" is a safety net that becomes a lazy-day hammock. But it was also England's excuse for lethal negligence.
But wait, before you dare say that Egan in any way means to compare Ryan to the architects of one of the most heinous acts of imperial brutality, perish the thought:
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.
You got that? "There is no comparison" between "de facto genocide" and Paul Ryan's call for, what, trimming (not eliminating, mind you) future increases in food stamps? And yet, that's exactly the point of Egan's article—to put Ryan's mug cheek-to-jowl with the 19th-century malefactors who controlled the food supply of Ireland and did little or nothing as the race of kings died like flies. All while mumbling that "there is no comparison, of course."
There's a "lazy-day hammock" going on in all of this, and it has nothing to do with Paul Ryan having "a head still stuffed with college-boy mush from Ayn Rand." It's got a helluva lot more to do with Timothy Egan's (and by extension, The New York Times') willingness to entertain any useless and un-illuminating comparison as long as it slags the right villain.
Paul Ryan's ritual invocation of his Hibernian roots is indeed every bit as grating to me as the howl of the banshee at the end of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. And it is sweet music to my ears compared to the underhanded and rotten sort of song Egan is singing.
As for the question of contemporary anti-poverty programs: Does anyone seriously doubt that we haven't been defining poverty upwards for a decade or more now? It definitely started under Bush, who doubled food-stamp spending during years when unemployment hovered in the 4 percent range, massively increased disability payouts, and created an entire new entitlement (Medicare Part D) in the name of helping penny-pinching seniors (yet the program, like Medicare itself, was not really means-tested). How else do you explain that at least 49 percent of the U.S. population lives in a household that receives a direct benefit from the government (including 35 percent who receive a means-tested benefit)? In 2006, according to a study by Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute and Douglas M. Call of the University of Maryland, between "between 74 and 81 percent of all American infants would be WIC eligible" (emphasis in original).
But the important thing to remember this St. Paddy's Day, folks, is that to even question the efficacy and effects of anti-poverty programs is to align yourself with Sir Charles Trevelyan, the English adminstrator who chalked up Ireland's poverty and starvation not to colonial exploitation but to a defect of character.