“The Graves Are Walking”: Was the Great Potato Famine a genocide?” (And, let’s rethink “genocide” in general)

20 Aug

“A new book argues that free-market ideology, not murderous intent, killed Ireland’s millions.”  See Salon‘s entire review of the book here.

Some quotes:

“Citing an Irish nationalist author who accused Britain’s Assistant Treasury Secretary Charles Trevelyan of infecting Irish children with a special “typhus poison” in a government laboratory, he writes that the man “should have stuck to the truth. It was incriminating enough.” The story Kelly tells in “The Graves are Walking” is indeed damning, a shameful, bloody blot — and far from the only one — on the history of the British Empire. But calling it a genocide, however satisfying that pitch of moral condemnation may be, only acts to obscure the chilling contemporary relevance of Ireland’s 19th-century agony.”  [my emphasis]

Exactly.  Even if there was “no murderous intent,” it was still criminal.

“Kelly, like most historians, places the brunt of the responsibility for this fiasco on the shoulders of Trevelyan. As the policy leader of the famine response program, Trevelyan was not a Mengele-style mad scientist but a civil servant known for his “unbending moral rectitude and personal intensity.” Unfortunately for the Irish, the faith he embraced was a fusion of Moralism, “an evangelical sect that preached a passionate gospel of self-help” and the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. At several key points in the evolution of the catastrophe, when strategic intervention might have fended off thousands of deaths, Trevelyan refused, maintaining that there was no greater evil than interfering with market forces. When a subordinate protested, he would send him a copy of Burke’s “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.”” [my emphases]

See my older post Maybe Germans ARE Scary, my commentary on a borderline Nazi opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times“German Austerity’s Lutheran Core”, in which I argue that Protestantism-s (except for Anglicanism, which grew out of very different historical circumstances and forms of “protest”) aren’t really religions at all but moralist codes, on which capitalism depended for its growth, and for which, whatever transcendent entity their adherents may believe in, serves only as divine confirmation of their righteousness.  It was the aggressive evangelical fervor that swept Methodist, Presbyterian and “low church” Britain in the mid-Victorian age that was perhaps the primary cause of the Indian Rebellion only a decade after the Irish catastrophe (see William Dalrymple’s brilliant The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857).

“These strategies amount to the 19th-century version of what Naomi Klein has dubbed the “Shock Doctrine”: an attempt to force economic reforms on a population reeling in the aftermath of a disaster.”

Like Germany and southern Europe today?  (Read Klein’s great book: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism)

“Both sides were ignorant and shortsighted, confident in their stereotypical notion of the irresponsible, fanciful and lazy “Irish character” but oblivious to all the ways that rural subsistence economies cannot be expected to start functioning like England’s more developed agricultural one overnight.”

The classic accusation of laziness in these situations (like against Greeks, who, it turns out — when they had employment — worked more hours than the population of any EU country) is just infuriating.  People don’t work when they don’t have an incentive to, when the technological and political and class restrictions imposed on them limit them to anything more than subsistence or, in the Irish case, even rob them of the means of subsistence.  That the Irish are lazy, man…  To know what work-horses, and I mean that only with great respect and admiration, these Irish kids are, who are coming to New York again in the wake of the Euro-crisis and to even think “lazy”…

Yes, well, not England’s finest hour — though it’s a nation and a people I respect and feel a curiously personal pride in.  And yes, Ireland is outside the borders of the “Jadde” world.  But I love the Irish so much that they’ll keep appearing from time to time and, actually, they’re as much objects of Western imperialism as we are.

But really I’m posting this piece because I think it’s past time that we, in the “Jadde” world, begin some serious discussion on the use of the term “genocide.”  I think it’s getting thrown around much too loosely lately, and that not only disrespects the victims of true genocides, it pariah-fies and unfairly singles out certain groups for vilification (Turks, Serbs) and creates simplistic analyses of complex historical events that then become conventional wisdom, all in ways that makes deeper dialogue between our peoples impossible.  So, we need to talk about it and what “it” really is.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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