Magazine article The Spectator

How New York's Governor, Pataki, Compels Teachers to Lie to Kids

Magazine article The Spectator

How New York's Governor, Pataki, Compels Teachers to Lie to Kids

Article excerpt

Who now merits the title of the Greatest Liar in America, left vacant by the late and unlamented Lillian Hellman, of whom Mary McCarthy said, `Every word she writes is a lie, including "and" and "the" '? I have been inclined to award it to the character assassin Christopher Hitchens, who recently poured his mendacious filth over Mother Teresa. But a new challenger has arisen. Step forward, Governor George E. Pataki of New York! On 9 October, this Ananias of Albany, this Mnchausen of the Hudson, signed a law which not only suggests or advises but actually compels New York state schools to teach their pupils that the Irish potato famine of 1845-49 was deliberately caused by the British. `History teaches us', said this perjured prestidigitator, `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'.

I am not sure that even Stalin, when rewriting the Soviet Encyclopaedia to suit his changing policies, or Joseph Goebbels, when carrying out his strategy of the Big Lie, went as far as Pataki. For what in fact he is doing is forcing New York state teachers, on pain of dismissal, to tell innocent children something which they know to be a complete fabrication. For anyone who has so much as glanced at the contemporary documents about the famine, which exist in staggering abundance and have been worked over in scores of monographs, is aware that Pataki is lying. I trust that one or more of these teachers will flatly refuse to lie on Pataki's political behalf and take the issue to the courts. And I have no doubt at all that the New York State Court of Appeal or, if necessary, the Supreme Court in Washington will rule this statute unconstitutional. In the meantime, it is of interest to look once more at the facts of the potato famine, because in this instance they have an ironic twist.

The best essay on the Irish potato was written by Henry Hobhouse in 1985 in a fascinating book, Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind, published by HarperCollins. There are three potatoes: the yam, the sweet potato or Ipomoea batatas, and the true white or Irish potato, Solanum tuberosum, which was originally grown in the High Andes. It reached Europe from America in the 16th century - possibly got to Ireland via the wrecked ships of the Armada - and became a staple in Ireland about 1625. The potato was produced by what was known as the lazybed system, which was extraordinarily economic of labour and enabled a narrow strip of indifferent land 500 yards long to feed an entire family throughout the year. The Irish made lazybed farming of potatoes universal in the south and west and it was for them both a blessing and a curse. With death rates, especially of infants, falling fast as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ireland underwent a population explosion such as the world has seldom seen. Between 1760 and 1840 the Irish people increased from 1.5 million to 9 million, a rise of 600 per cent in 80 years. This was particularly marked in southern Catholic Ireland, where in the 40 years, 1801 to 1841, the population multiplied five times over. The potato fed them all; or rather, it did when things went well.

Apart from the earliest years of the settlement of America in the 17th century, Americans have never been in danger of starvation and famines are unknown to them. …

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