Greetings from Killarney, Cork, Ireland
I’m writing from Killarney, Cork, Ireland. Leigh and I are here to celebrate our friends’ 20th wedding anniversary. That happened yesterday evening. Lots of fun!
In a bit we are off to Cork. We return to England Friday evening, and are back home on Thursday the 5th. We’re having a grand time, but we’ll be happy to get back to our regular rhythms. (Happy may be a strong word!) We do, though, wonder who will be happiest when we get back? Max and the Corgis, June and Ozzie? Or us, because Max and the Corgis will be among us?
Ireland has been lovely. Much calmer than Great Britain. Dublin felt like Madison or another decent-sized college town. Nothing “national capital” about it.
We’ve also enjoyed plenty of Irish hospitality. Two cabbies stand out, though. Great rides, with lots of enthusiasm for Ireland, along with plenty of information.
In Dublin the driver who picked us up from the ferry filled us in on Ireland and Dublin. Leigh asked him about the Dublin population. Something more than one million, which is about 25% of the Ireland population, we learned. Of course, he said, Ireland used to have eight million people, before the famine. The famine, you’re thinking? Yes, that one, 170 years ago.
In Killarney we got more of the same, but at greater extremes. Nine million before the famine, and only three million now.
The famine represents a seminal event here, even though great-great-great-great-great grandies experienced it. Understandable it is, too. Ireland never had the power profile of its neighbor to the east. Still, the famine and its consequences—death and, as important, emigration—left the nation different in a lasting and forever way.
This core experience thing hit me, about America, last week. We saw a wonderful Dorothea Lang photo exhibit at the Barbican in London. Ms. Lang, a chronicler of poor people in America, took a photo of a man during the Depression who had his own something or other, as opposed to working for others. The caption said, more or less: “Working for yourself is better, for if you succeed it’s yours and if you fail, you can only blame yourself.”
When I saw the photo I thought, “that fellow epitomizes the American experience.” His thesis explains why people rejected “It takes a village.” Why individual rights sell. Why no one is the boss of me.
In fact, Americans want the communitarian benefits of Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, and so much else. But, at our core, the American value system rejects the notion that any of us need help. Right Wingers talk about entitlements—cutting them, actually—while the beneficiaries think about having paid for the benefits. And the Affordable Care Act suffered mightily through its early stages because its opponents focused on the notion that premiums and benefits don’t match up perfectly. “Why should I have to support someone else” represented the kernel through which the opposition germinated.*
Back in the day, the United States started celebrating the virtues of the man, taming the wilderness. Going west, claiming land, cutting down trees, and making it … or not. Abraham Lincoln’s father tried and failed. Lyndon Johnson’s dad, too. So did millions of others. Still, we honor the effort at our core.
Truth be told, almost all of us have never had those “I’m alone” moments. However, that blistering level of aloneness reflects America today. Sadly, it holds us back greatly. Infrastructure? Why should I support a road somewhere if I won’t drive on it, ever? Guns? “I have my rights,” no matter how they trample on yours. Religion? Again, my rights, even if in exercising them I mess with yours.
From a distance, sometimes, clarity arrives. Our individualism has always been evident, but it took a couple of cabbies to really appreciate how an event or an ethos can color a nation for centuries. And how hard it will be to change ours.
*D politicians have routinely opposed means-testing benefit programs because doing so will give them “welfare” characteristics.