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.