Letters from our readers.
Jan. 31 1997 3:30 AM

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(posted Thursday, Jan. 30)

Fightin' Irish?

I have to take issue with Franklin Foer's piece "Pataki and Potatoes."

I agree with his criticism of the New York law mandating the teaching of the famine as a historical example of genocide. As a sometime teacher, I see this sort of legislation as the worst kind of politically-motivated government meddling in education. It is also clear that the motivation behind such legislation is a reaction to "multiculturalism" and the history of European brutality toward non-Christian, non-European peoples. The resulting tit-for-tat is perhaps the best possible argument for refraining from even well-intentioned political efforts to shape the public-school curriculum. I object, however, to Foer's characterization of both the famine and the current vogue of Irish-American identification with Irish history and culture. His understanding of the famine and the British government's role in it--at least as demonstrated in this piece--is shallow, at best.


British economic policy aggravated a desperate situation. That Irish grain should have been exported while Irish people starved--for little other purpose but to hold down the price of grain on the English market--was as morally repugnant to contemporary observers as it is to modern ones. Many contemporary English observers advocated intervention to thwart the famine. Their voices went unheeded by the likes of Peel, Russell, and Trevelyan, and the ideology of laissez-faire political economy meshed with anti-Irish bigotry to produce catastrophic results for the Irish poor.

Unfortunately, Foer's apparent ignorance of Irish history goes deeper still. The English government was responsible for the underlying conditions of the Irish agricultural economy that made the Irish poor so vulnerable to the blight. The dispossession of Irish Catholic farmers, which took place in successive waves over several centuries, relegated them to the most marginally cultivable pieces of land. A cash-crop market system supplanted the traditional locally based subsistence economy, and placed Irish farmers in a position of dependence on a single crop. When that crop failed several years in succession, they had no viable alternative to starvation or (if they could afford it) emigration. English-imposed legal disabilities also hobbled the efforts of poor Irish Catholics to redress ill-treatment by Anglo-Irish landowners and merchants. Furthermore, Foer makes no mention of the deliberate withholding of corn from the Irish market to prop up prices for corn producers in England.

As Foer points out, other areas of Europe experienced blights of the potato crop from the same fungus, but none suffered the human devastation that Ireland did. The historic policies of the English crown, and later, the British government, turned a crop failure into one of modern history's most tragic episodes. To argue, as Foer does--that the notion that the British government bears a substantial measure of responsibility for the humanitarian crisis of the famine is merely an Irish "folk tradition"--is as absurd as arguing that the blight itself was introduced deliberately in a genocidal conspiracy.

As for Foer's criticism of Irish-American identification with Irish culture as part of a so-called "Diaspora chic," he is unfair to those Americans of Irish descent who do not romanticize terrorism, support Sinn Fein or the IRA, join organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, or celebrate St. Patrick's day by getting obnoxiously drunk and excluding Irish-Americans who happen to be gay. That there are Irish-Americans who do these things in no way devalues the efforts of others to connect with their past. If Irish-Americans tend to have a superficial understanding of their own history, and to focus on the positive aspects of their culture to the exclusion of less admirable parts, this only proves that they are human, and as prone to historical myopia as Anglophiles or Afrocentrists. As an Irish-American who is unapologetically proud of both parts of my hyphenated identity, I find Foer's piece less offensive than tendentious and historically ill-informed.


--Dan Gorman

Feeding Hunger

The article "Can We Really Feed the World?" only scratches the surface of this issue by focusing on the murky areas of politics, raw power, and corruption.

A more in-depth view would recognize that when the basic framework of a society disintegrates, external food supplies may just lead to additional reproduction, and thus more widespread starvation. Desperate people who have lost all hope for themselves are biologically driven to propel possibly surviving offspring into the next generation.


This in turn is just one of the issues posed by the relationships between technologically advanced societies (TAS) and technologically primitive societies (TPS). Should "we" (who is "we"?) let nature run its course and let TAS groups eradicate the TPS culture or the people themselves? Or should the TAS groups take it upon themselves to "elevate" the TPS to their level? Or should the TAS build and patrol walls around the TPS to keep adventurers and entrepreneurs from preying on the TPS? Should the TAS withhold medical technology from the TPS to preserve their balanced ecosystem?

Clearly I have no answers, but a suggestion: Look at the global picture and step down from ideological and judgmental postures onto the plane of common sense and compassion.

--Paul Kailor

Buns of Steel

As Low Concept as "Rumble in Hollywood" may be, I take issue with David Plotz's choice of ballet dancer Baryshnikov to unfavorably compare Jean-Claude Van Damme with Steven Seagal. Now nearly 50, Baryshnikov may no longer make a career of jumping higher than Seagal's grasping hands might reach, but he is still dancing professionally. Which means, just like our grunting action heroes, the mighty Misha still has buns of steel.

--Kathleen Morris

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