October 9, 1996, was a dark day for New York State. On that day, the forces of political correctness, historical revisionism, and victim politics won a stunning legislative victory. Henceforth, the law in New York stipulates that students must be taught not only about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s (in itself a reasonable enough stipulation) but that the famine was deliberately caused by the British.
It pains us to acknowledge it, but the instrument of this outrage was the Republican governor of New York, George E. Pataki. Senator Michael Hoblock and Assemblyman Joseph Crowley sponsored the legislation, but Governor Pataki signed it into law. According to a press release issued by his office, this is what the Governor said:
History teaches us that the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.
“History teaches us”? No, Governor Pataki, history teaches us no such thing. Allow us to introduce you to phytophthora infestans, the devastating potato fungus. In Modern Ireland 1600–1972, the historian R. F. Foster observes that the fungus first attacked the Irish potato crop in the autumn of 1845, “operating with cruel rapidity and unpredictability in moist, mild conditions, … reducing the crop to rottenness.” Phytophthora infestans, in case there is any confusion on this point, is not an Englishman, nor even a British subject.
As Professor Foster points out, there had been serious potato famines in Ireland at least since the eighteenth century, including fourteen partial or complete crop failures between 1816 and 1842. But between 1845 and 1849, the devastation wrought by the potato blight was immense. There is some debate about the number of casualties that can be attributed to the famine; most authorities seem to place the number at about one million; whatever the figure, Professor Foster is surely correct that “no amount of disagreement can conceal the devastating extent of depopulation or the horrific conditions in which lives were lost.” The question that has preoccupied historians, he notes, is what the government could have done to stop it.
One thing that history does teach us is that, despite the hostilities that existed between England and Ireland, the governments of Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell did a great deal to address the misery caused by the famine. Not that their actions were above criticism: far from it. But they did establish government-run relief programs, price controls, food depots, and various public works. These remedies were inconsistently implemented and, in hindsight, may seem woefully inadequate. But the fact remains that, as Mary E. Daly, professor of modern Irish history at University College, Dublin, noted in her essay “The Operations of Famine Relief, 1845–57,” “every famine alert appears to have enlisted assistance from both government sources and private charities.”
In other words, far from being “the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive,” as Governor Pataki asserted, many British politicians and agencies endeavored in good faith to help. Were their policies adequate to the task? Obviously not. Did political squabbling, greed, and other factors interfere with good intentions? Undoubtedly. But Professor Daly was right to warn that we should “beware of the omniscience of hindsight or of adopting a late-twentieth-century attitude of moral superiority” when attempting to understand the Irish famine. “It is easy,” she observes, “to be wise after the event.” To say that a relief program did not entirely succeed is not to say that its architects are therefore guilty of criminal malfeasance. Anyone who doubts this needs only to compare what happened in the Irish famine with the many instances the twentieth century affords in which governments really did embark on a “deliberate campaign” to destroy a population.
And this brings us to the most shameful aspect of this latest effort to legislate history: the implication that British behavior during the potato famine is comparable to the atrocities perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. The Governor’s press release notes that the law requires that the Irish famine be studied in mandatory courses “in patriotism, citizenship and human rights issues, with particular attention to be devoted to the study of genocide, slavery and the Holocaust.” Genocide? Slavery? The Holocaust? The inescapable suggestion is that the British response to the famine belongs in this list—that it was, perhaps, akin to Stalin’s forced collectivization of the Ukrainian peasants in the 1920s in which millions were murdered or died of starvation.
Thus Senator Michael Hoblock, speaking in the grammatically challenged language of victim politics, praised the new legislation as follows: “Being from Ukrainian ancestral ties, I am keenly aware of the necessity to inform New York’s children of the sacrifices and injustices suffered by many of New York’s ethnic population.” And what, pray tell, do the “sufferings and injustices suffered by many of New York’s ethnic population” have to do with the case at hand? Nothing. But Senator Hoblock does manage to insinuate, falsely, that there is some connection between the case of the Irish potato famine and the infernal machinery of totalitarianism.
In the press release announcing this legislation, Governor Pataki said that it was “imperative” that the youth of New York “receive a full appreciation of the lessons of history, however troubling they may be.” Quite right. We entirely agree. Which is why it behooves us to point out to the Governor that one of the most vivid lessons of the twentieth century is the folly of attempting to rewrite history for the sake of political expediency. The Soviets, he will recall, already tried that. The moral is that politicians have no business attempting to legislate history. The truth waits upon no political party or vested interest. The effort to bend historical truth to the demands of ideology is out of place in a democratic polity. This latest effort to distort the historical record for the sake of politically correct victim politics is an unconscionable blunder. We hope that it will soon be corrected.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 3, on page 1
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