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.”
John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan’s habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same [approach] that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”
Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I learned from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and about the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro–civil rights movements—along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote the grand book Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), which explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.
Hayden’s exploration of his roots—in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin—helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration provided “the fertile soil of awakenings.”
It is disappointing that in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might offer him with broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he has been “inarticulate” in discussing.
It was certainly true in the nineteenth century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
And it is certainly true in the twenty-first century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.