Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.
First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that organizing programs to feed hungry children could produce “a full stomach and an empty soul.” Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be unsettlingly inaccurate—in both specific details and broad premises.
The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could—with a note explaining that the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”
Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could—for being “inarticulate.”
And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.
For disregarding his own history.
Just as he now disrespects and diminishes the experience of hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-nineteenth-century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children—including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”
After reviewing Ryan’s remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend that “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.”
Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from—and what his immigrant ancestors went through.
“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.”