Sunday, June 07, 2009

Politics of the Potato Famine

I am continuing to read The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World -- as I described here. (Illustration: Irish countryside from my most recent trip to Ireland.)

The misery caused by the potato crop failure in the 1840s in Ireland is a familiar topic, which the author covers in detail, illustrating the failure of social institutions -- both public and private -- to prevent mass starvation. He describes how the English, who governed Ireland at the time, handled the social issues of that time, comparing their approach to the way we handle the same issues.

"The Great Famine evokes familiar images from political and social discourse," he states, continuing "we still wrestle with many of the social-welfare devices and issues that emerged from the Great Famine: graft, bureaucratic fumbling, public works, means tests, taxpayers' rage, conflicts over what charity is. ... Political winds blow back and forth between whether government should leave matters to the private sector. President Ronald Reagan, for one, championed private charity, an ironic position given his family history. His paternal great-great-grandfather, it is said, emigrated from county Tipperary to England during the famine."

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