About that “Culture of Dependency”

There’s been a lot of discussion about Paul Ryan’s racially-tinged dismissal of inner-city poverty as evidence of a cultural deficit. As Timothy Egan’s recent column in the New York Times reminds us, there’s a particular irony in Ryan’s appropriation of an argument that used to be mounted against his own Irish forebears.

“We have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” In other words, these people are bred poor and lazy.

Where have I heard that before? Ah, yes — 19th-century England. The Irish national character, Trevelyan confided to a fellow aristocrat, was “defective.” The hungry millions were “a selfish, perverse, and turbulent” people, said the man in charge of relieving their plight.

You never hear Ryan make character judgments about generations of wealthy who live off their inheritance, or farmers who get paid not to grow anything. Nor, for that matter, does he target plutocrats like Romney who might be lulled into not taking risks because they pay an absurdly low tax rate simply by moving money around. Dependency is all one-way.

We humans evidently have a deep-seated need to distinguish the virtuous “us” from the undeserving “them.” As Egan demonstrates, however, the identity of “us” and “them” is anything but static. Many upstanding Americans can trace their roots back to a once-despised “them.”

Accordingly, a bit of humility might be in order.


  1. I’ll be the first to admit I know little to nothing about the Irish character or if such a trait even exists. All I know about purported ethnic character traits, at this point, is from my ancestry which is equally divided between Norway and northern Germany and perhaps explains why my family prefers living in the higher latitudes where a snowy winter season is the norm. However, I can recommend an excellent scholarly text “Albion’s Seed” written by Brandeis University History Professor David Hackett Fischer who compiled a thorough history of the four main regional migrations from Britain to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Professor Fischer examined each of these four migrations in great detail, describing the origin, motivations, religion, timing, and numerous cultural attitudes or folkways for dealing with everyday life, including birth, child rearing, marriage, age, death, order, speech, architecture, dress, food, wealth, and time.

    Fischer did an absolutely outstanding job with his research in accurately outlining and describing the 4 major folk cultures of the US.The 4 folk cultures he delineates are:
    1. New England-the Puritans came from the East Anglia region of
    England. They were pious, hardworking and intoxicated with theology and order.
    2. The Middle Colonies-the Quaker influence is profound in the region of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. William Penn and the followers of the Quaker founder George Fox were the most liberal minded of the quartet of folk cultures chronicled by Fischer. The Quaker culture was influential in the southwest and midland counties of Britain. Their belief in religious toleration has added much to American democracy.
    3. The Tidewater and Coastal South were settled by southern English natives who were Cavaliers supportive of the Stuart dynasty. This society was hierarchial and based on honor and fueled by chattel slavery and the Episcopal Church, an American off-shoot of the Church of England/the Anglicans.
    4. The Back Country region initially was settled by Englishmen from the northern border region of England, Scotland and Ulster Scotch-Irish. Exemplified by such paragons of this violent and emotional culture were men like Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and James Knox Polk. The Back Country region was composed of Hoosiers and Rednecks, Crackers and tough-minded pioneers who believed in individual freedom.

  2. 1/5th of the total wealth of Americans today can be directly traced back to slavery. But that’s the culture Ryan probably misses.

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