Politics and Commentary
Letter from America - 7
Irish eyes are smiling after last week’s Rugby World Cup victory over Australia – even in the United States. It’s a little-known fact that the US are the current Olympic rugby title holders, having won the gold medal in 1920 and 1924 (the last time the fifteen-man sport was endorsed by the International Olympic Committee). Although Americans today are largely ignorant about rugby, there is a small but enthusiastic rugby-following community here; a handful of cable TV sports stations are covering the travails of the national team in New Zealand.
Admittedly, however, the American citizens watching the World Cup are far outnumbered by the Australasian and European expats who (with a smattering of South Africans) crowd the Irish pubs to be found in each major city across the continent. These watering holes are perhaps the most prominent manifestation of the peculiar place that Ireland occupies in the American imagination; from the exuberant St Patrick’s Day celebrations of the “Boston Irish” to the old saw that country music has its roots in the Irish fiddle, there are plenty of pseudo-Irish elements in the multiple strands of American cultural identity.
Historically, there are two obvious reasons for the Irish sympathies Stateside: firstly, Ireland was anathema to the England from which the original thirteen states gained their independence; and secondly, in the mid-nineteenth century, almost half of the immigrants who arrived in the USA in their millions were Irish. The narrative of Irish experience in America has been simplified to fit the rags-to-riches archetype: from the destitution and desperation of these early refugees would emerge the glamour of the Kennedy family.
Most Americans have rather quaint notions about Ireland, of the Guinness-and-Leprechaun type rather than the more complex Catholic/Protestant type – applying a filmic paradigm, one could say that the emerald-green romantic comedy Leap Year has more purchase here than the gritty political violence of In the Name of the Father.
There have, however, been some interesting attempts to reinsert the details of a miserable period in Irish history into the American public consciousness. In New York, for instance, just a few hundred metres from Ground Zero sits the Irish Hunger Memorial. Paying tribute to those who suffered through, died in or fled from the devastating Potato Famine of the 1840s and 50s, the memorial was dedicated less than a year after 9/11. It makes one want to think the best of New Yorkers, to characterise them as outward-looking (literally, down the Hudson River to the harbour entrance, but also metaphorically, to the far-flung lands from which a cosmopolitan American population was constituted).
Yet, while the memorial draws attention to global twenty-first century problems of food shortages, malnutrition and starvation, some visitors may take umbrage at its suggestion that over-eating and obesity in contemporary America is a comparable, or even reciprocal, problem. The same is true of Michelle Obama’s description of America’s “food deserts”, not as places where food is unavailable, but where a third of the residents live one mile (in cities) or ten miles (in the countryside) from a grocery store where fresh produce is available. The First Lady’s thinking is, correctly, that this results in diets consisting largely of white starch and sugar in various forms.
Critiques of conspicuous, excessive and unhealthy food consumption in the United States are commonplace – almost to the point of cliché. Nonetheless, inured though he or she may be to the phenomenon through exposes such as Super Size Me or Fast Food Nation, the visitor to America (sitting over a breakfast of bacon-and-syrup on waffles) cannot help but reflect on the problem. There is, moreover, currently an interesting political dimension to consider.
“Obamacare” is a swear-word in the mouths of Republicans, who deride any increase in state control over citizens’ lives but seem especially outraged by interference in health choices. Recognising that obesity has almost become a national epidemic, not to mention a drain on the economy, Democrat healthcare reformers have recommended measures such as mandatory obesity ratings; unsurprisingly, this has resulted in claims that “demonizing the obese is a vital pillar of Obamacare”.
It’s no coincidence that obesity rates are highest in the red states.