Three years ago, on my other blog, I wrote a post about the Irish Hunger Memorial in lower Manhattan. It’s a beautiful place, a bit of rural Ireland in the middle of New York City. It’s also a powerful bit of history, one that touches me personally. If not for the history it represents, I might not exist. And if I did, I might not be an American.
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, it seems like a good time to look back at the part of that memorial, of that history, that touched me the most deeply. It was this quote:
“Here I found a company of would-be intelligent Irish and English aristocrats who…professed enemies of the poor Irish, calling them a company of low, vulgar, lazy wretches who prefer beggary to work and filth to cleanliness…it is an established law of our nature to hate those we oppress.” – Asenath Nicholson, Ireland’s Welcome for the Stranger, 1847.
What was it about that one quote, out of the many inscribed on the Memorial’s walls, that reached me?
It pissed me right the fuck off, that’s what.
Because we haven’t changed. We haven’t learned. Not a Goddamn thing. Since 1847.
That post was written at the height of the healthcare debate. And as I participated in that debate, I was shocked at the hatred, the sheer resentment people have for the poor in this country. Since then, it only seems to have gotten worse. You have people cheering at the idea of allowing an uninsured man to die. Political careers are built on killing programs for the poor. There is public debate over whether or not poor people suffer enough (that is, if they get too much money, if we’re making it too “easy” for them), or if they jump through enough hoops to make sure they’re not getting away with…something. I don’t know. Not being miserable enough, I guess. Living too high on that sweet, sweet TANF lifestyle.
(Actually, that does seem to be what a number of people believe. The resentment. It amazes.)
And the justification for all this? Poor people must have done something to deserve it. They must be lazy, they must have made bad choices, they just want to live on government handouts, because it’s not possible that someone can work hard and do the best they know how in America and still fall behind.
So as you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, remember that this is the history behind it: the history of the poor losing their homes and fleeing to another country just to avoid starving to death, because an entire system decided they deserved it. If you’re of Irish ancestry, remember that this was you – your ancestors. Maybe you’re a hard-working, God-fearing, productive member of American society now, but not so long ago, you were the ones who deserved to be turned out of your homes and starve because you were low, vulgar, lazy wretches who preferred beggary to work and filth to cleanliness.
Ask yourself if you want to be part of the grand tradition of hating those you oppress.