In 1492, two cultures collided. In my school we were taught to call this Columbus’s discovery of America. Of course, there were already people living here, and they equally discovered the Spanish. There are no written records of how the locals perceived of these strange new arrivals. Columbus, on the other hand, left a diary, which made it quite clear that he did not understand the local customs at all nor did he believe he had any reason to.
Reading Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, I was often reminded of Undiscovery Day in Ocean Shores, Washington. Each year on the last Saturday in April the residents of Ocean Shores commemorate the time George Vancouver sailed right by their town without discovering it. They go to the shore and shout “Hey George!” (And then presumably head to the bar for drinks.)
Todorov’s thesis is that Columbus managed to encounter the people of America without ever really discovering them.
When Columbus first met the people he called Indians he found them to be generous and a bit foolish. He could not understand why they would trade gold for worthless things like bits of glass.
“No more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass in itself, but only in the European system of exchange,” Todorov wrote, “…a different system of exchange is for him equivalent to the absence of a system from which he infers the bestial character of the Indians.”
The people he encountered did not possess private property. They had an egalitarian society. “I seemed to discern that all owned a share of what one of them owned and particularly with regard to victuals.”
Another member of the crew confirmed that they owned everything as common property and would “make use of whatever they pleased; the owners gave no sign of displeasure.” The Spaniards seemed to admire this– until their neighbors extended it to their property, at which point they went from generous to thieving in their eyes even though their behavior had not actually changed.
Before we get too smug about Columbus’s blind spots, we should admit that we are really no better. Can you imagine a society without private property? Our system of organizing society is so ingrained that we are largely unaware that there could be any other way to do it. A few years ago I wrote about what Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics, the idea that money evolved out of a system of barter. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea that objects and services have a comparable value that can be quantified and exchanged developed with money. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:
Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.
So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?
Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy. That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others. This is the old relationship model of commerce. Money was of Caesar. The Kingdom of God was to operate on an egalitarian system.
Two-thirds of highly stratified societies once took part in the grisly act, while only a quarter of egalitarian cultures did. The groups who at one time practiced human sacrifice, had more rigid castes, titles that were inherited, and less social mobility. Researchers concluded that “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.” Though sociologists have posited such a hypothesis before, this is the first time it’s been scientifically studied.
Among many today, religion is thought to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet, this study, as Watts said, “…shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” Since these societies prospered, it proved an effective method of social control. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized,” in order to achieve the desired effect, Watts told Science. Moreover, ritualized killings would’ve given pause to rivals considering a power play for the throne, foreign ministers mulling over war, and bands among the populace grumbling for rebellion.
Yet, Watts and colleagues posit that social cohesion and stratification was necessary to give humans the ability to develop large-scale agriculture, build cities, erect monumental architecture and public works projects, and to allow for greater capacities for science, art, and learning. Though these findings are thought provoking and significant, some experts wonder if the phylogenetic analysis proves a causal relationship, or merely hints at one.
One of the things that interested me was the researchers’ conclusion that stratification was necessary to have modern culture. There is a double assumption here. Not only that we need a division of labor to achieve large tasks, but that some of the people must receive a smaller share of the rewards for a division of labor to work. In other words, Watts cannot imagine a division of labor without a corresponding class system.
As with gold and glass beads, values are conventional. There is no objective reason that the manual laborer must receive a smaller compensation than the manager. One could imagine rather that a job like working overnight to clean the machines at the slaugherhouse, a job that is both unpleasant and dangerous, might be compensated more than a job like management which has non-monetary rewards like status and a clean working environment. Just because we cannot imagine a large-scale system with a division of labor that operates on an egalitarian system doesn’t mean that such a thing could not exist. (See also my article on the Western notion of History as a Straight Line.)
Yet the human sacrifice theory makes sense to me. In the shift from the “I owe you one” economy to the monetary economy, imagine how radical this idea must have been: that I am entitled to a smaller share of the pie because my job is different from yours. Creating a stratified society required more than just differentiating jobs. It meant convincing people that not only should they take the unpleasant slaughterhouse job, but that the work is not worthy of as much reward as the job of the manager. To get people to agree to that, you need force and maybe the voice of a god.
There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.
It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.
Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”
In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.
Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.
In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.
Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.
There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion. In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place. Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)
Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.
This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.
Almost four years ago now, I wrote a post about a response I received in my twitter feed from a success coach who believed one should not say you “can’t afford” something but should frame it in terms of personal choice saying “it’s not in my budget now.” I haven’t thought about it in quite a while.
One of the things that bothered me in the success coach’s response (beyond the general annoyance at the idea of coaching for “success” without the specifics of “at what?”) as I think about it now, was that when there are things that you would really like to do, but you are thwarted because you don’t have money, it is annoying to have someone else tell you that you are actually just making a choice. It minimizes your experience.
Let’s say all your money is gone the day your paycheck arrives, spent on rent and groceries. Then the furnace breaks down and you have to wait two weeks, wrapping yourself in blankets and warming yourself over the stove, because you can’t pay a repair man. Well, I suppose “not in my budget right now” is true, but it doesn’t really describe the difficulty of not being able to get what you need or want.
I was reminded of this old experience when I was watching Meet The Press Daily this evening. The subject was the new GOP health care legislation. Rep. Kevin Brady was not concerned that thousands of people would lose health insurance because, he explained, it would be their choice. “This is health care they can’t afford,” he said, “so they are choosing [to]… wash their hands and say no thank you.”
Think about that. Because they cannot afford it, they choose not to have it. This logic can apply to almost anything. There is no reason to be concerned that 1.5 million people or so are homeless. You see, the reason they are homeless is that they have chosen not to have a home because they can’t afford one.
If you have only enough income that you can either pay your rent or pay for your health insurance premium, I suppose you can look at that as a choice. If you don’t have health insurance in that situation, you’ve chosen housing over health insurance You have, as Kevin Brady calls it “freedom.”
“You can’t commit atrocities with enlightened people, you need hatred, blindness and a knee-jerk xenophobia.”-Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid
The original manuscript of my forthcoming book Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as my publisher wanted. In order to make it an acceptable length, I had to cut 100,000 words from it, a book’s worth of material. In places, I am sure the tightening was an improvement, but there was also a great deal of material that I regret losing. Much of this fell into the category of cultural and social context. One aspect of the story of that time period was a growing anxiety about the loss of national identities and a fear of enemies within– those who lived as citizens but who could not, or were not allowed to, fully assimilate. The discourse these anxieties produced colored the worldviews and attitudes of everyone who lived through the era and thus are important to understand if you want to contextualize some of the behavior of the book’s main characters.
Oscar Wilde spent his last years in France, and while he was there the nation was gripped in a controversy that was tearing society apart. Everyone had an opinion on The Dreyfus Affair. It created what we might now call “a hyper-partisan environment.”
Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attache in Paris. The only physical evidence in the case was a memorandum, in French bordereau, found by a woman who emptied the wastebaskets of the German embassy.
Dreyfus was found guilty on the evidence of a handwriting expert and, before a howling mob shouting anti-semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Emile Zola took up his cause in 1898, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak. But he was not guilty.
In the wake of Zola’s article, J’Accuse, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word “intellectual” was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.
The underlying philosophical question had little to do with the guilt or innocence of Dreyfus, and much more to do with whether to be one nation a people needed to be culturally and socially similar. What was a “real Frenchman?” Religious and sexual difference both threatened social cohesion. In France this meant protestants were suspect. In Anglican England it was Catholics. In both nations Jews and homosexuals were “other.”
Oscar Wilde, perhaps surprisingly, did not take up the Dreyfus cause and instead befriended the real culprit Esterhazy. There were a number of reasons for this, which go beyond the scope of this article. My point is, that this era we are now in, in which fear and “othering” play such prominent roles is not unique.
Panics erupt from time to time like a virus. Societies come down with a kind of sickness, fear of outsiders bubbles to the surface and good people get swept up. Dark impulses, stereotyping, dehumanizing language, separating the superior from the inferior become part of polite discourse.
The fear and anger may be stoked by political actors with something to gain, but what I find more disturbing is not the evil actor. There are surprisingly few of them. It is that so many good, ordinary people go along. They try to associate themselves with the in-group and blame all of the problems of the world on the out-group.
One of my Facebook friends, a nice church-going lady, posted this meme on her wall.
Before I get to the overall message: that white Christians are superior to others, there are a number of facts that need to be dispensed with. To claim that “European Christians built America” you need to overlook a great many things.
Let’s begin with the first European settlers. I am quoting from my book Blame it on the Rain:
The New World was not the vast, sparsely populated wilderness that some history texts would have you believe. In fact, historian William McNeil estimates the indigenous population of the land we now call America was 100 million in 1492– when Columbus sailed the ocean blue– while the European population numbered only 70 million.
The natives of what is now New England were not nomads. They lived in towns and villages. They were farmers and skilled craftspersons and had technology that many historians believe rivaled that of the English. So how were the Europeans able to colonize this “new” continent so rapidly and completely?…
Although the Europeans had a slight technological advantage in the form of steel weapons and guns, it was a secret weapon that allowed them to dominate the Americas, a weapon the Europeans did not even know they possessed—germs.
In the 1600s, before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, British and French fishermen started fishing the New England coast. Occasionally they would come to shore and interact with the natives. These unremarkable encounters would prove deadly. Within three years, a plague had wiped out between 90 and 96 percent of the inhabitants of costal New England. By comparison, the Black Plague killed perhaps 30 percent of the population of Europe. Whole cities lay in waste. There were so many dead that there was no way to bury them all. The disease-ravaged mourners were in no position to fight off European invaders. In fact, one of the reasons the Wampanoags were so warm to the Pilgrims at Plymouth was that their tribe was so weakened by illness that they were afraid of being attacked by neighboring tribes to the West and they sought allies to protect them. European colonization was swift because the settlers, in many cases, simply moved into abandoned Native American villages and farms.
The Mexicans speak Spanish today largely due to this same effect. When the Spanish marched into what is now Mexico City, they found an Aztec population ravaged by smallpox. There were so many bodies that the soldiers had to walk on them. The Spanish were largely immune to the disease…
As the Europeans settled in, they brought even more disease. They settled their farms with domesticated animals that were not native to the region—sheep, goats, cows, pigs. The animals carried streptococcis, ringworm, anthrax and tuberculosis, all of which could be passed on to humans.
Between 1520 and 1918, historians have recorded as many as 93 epidemics among native populations including bubonic plague, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhus, cholera and small pox.
The first Europeans on the continent did not need to build anything. They moved into already constructed cities which had been abandoned.
To say that the Europeans “built” America is also to ignore the labor of slaves. The plantation owner may have overseen the operation but the actual hands-on creation of value was done by the laborers, the slaves.
It ignores the fact that Jews are disproportionately prominent in American society. They have built so much of America that even though they represent only 2% of our population, in polls people consistently rank their presence much higher– around 30%.
It ignores the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s. If you didn’t learn about this in school (I did not), I recommend Ken Burns excellent documentary The West. In episode seven it tells the story of this group of non-European, non-Christian settlers. People like Chung Sun, who arrived here “with $600 and dreams of becoming a wealthy tea planter in Southern California.” What the Chinese encountered instead was racism. Although most of the white settlers and prospectors were also recent immigrants they accused the Chinese of taking “their” jobs. There was no such thing as “illegal immigration” in those days. There were no passports, no quotas, and if you could get here you could settle here. This began to change when non-Europeans started to arrive.
“For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race,” said Ronald Takaki in The West, “And it set a precedent … because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced … We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.”
It also ignores the fact that large swaths of what are now the U.S. were built and inhabited by Hispanic people before Europeans got there.
As for the Christian European settlers, they did not all come to participate in the “American Dream.” There were also those who were forced out of their own countries. Quite a few of my European ancestors, for example, were victims of religious persecution, considered heretics at home. They were refugees.
In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”
And did they not bitch? Consider what historian Stephen Budiansky has to say about the first Thanksgiving:
…the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.
The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.
Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as “Gentleman,” which was defined at the time as, “Whosoever can live without manual labor.” John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: “When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have.” Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, “One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England.”
The “report in England” had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme…So here’s an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:
A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren’t simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.
Did they come to practice sharia law? No, of course not. But the Puritans did not sail to the New World to uphold the Constitution or to keep a separation of church and state. They were at odds with the Church of England and wanted their own land where they could set up their own official religion. They established religious law. Early on in Massachusetts the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the celebration of Christmas were outlawed. Only members of the Congregational Church were allowed to vote. It was illegal to question church doctrine and church attendance was mandatory.
Christian Europeans came to America for various reasons. They built some things, appropriated others, took credit for still others and dominated other groups with military force. That’s how this nation was built.
Lets go back and talk about the wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s for a moment. One of the insidious things about defining groups of our neighbors as “not us” is that we become blind to the harm that is done to them. There was no logical reason to call a recent Italian immigrant to California “American” and a recent Chinese immigrant “not American.” If we think of them as our fellow citizens, then any harm to them is harm to the body of our nation. The violence against Chinese immigrants was violence to our residents, even though the violence came at the hands of others of our residents. If we do not count them as us, then we are blinded to their pain, including the harm we do to them in the name of our fear. We recoil from guilt, and look for justifications.
I have been reading Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. Sansal is an Algerian author and the novel is billed as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust.” It is the story of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. They have lived most of their lives in the projects in France. After their parents are killed in an Islamist massacre, the older brother, now an educated professional goes home and discovers his father’s secret past as an officer in the death camps in Nazi Germany. The older brother Rachel is so overwhelmed by what he learns that he commits suicide and leaves his diary, with the story of his attempts to make sense of it all, to his teenaged brother Malrich. Malrich finds parallels between the Nazi regime and the Islamists who run things in the projects. He becomes determined to find a way to break the cycle. Sansal said he wrote the novel, “to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated.”
Rachel is haunted by the question of where responsibility for the crime ends. Is he guilty of his father’s sins? Are we blameless if we accept the benefits of our ancestor’s misdeeds? Do we, for example, look at the fortune inherited from a large plantation once run on slave labor and say, “Europeans built that.”
It is not the question of guilt or blame that haunts me as much as another. Once these forces of fear are unleashed, where do they go?
“Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876
Since writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.
The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”
Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?
Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.
One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”
There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.
The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?
It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)
So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.
"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)
In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”
Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.
In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.
“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”
The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.
In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother. Katz observes:
Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.
This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.
We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.
With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”
Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.
So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.
In this clip Mick Mulvaney defends cutting programs that provide meals to low income children because he says they have not led to good jobs. He also defends cutting funding for Meals on Wheels because it has not demonstrated “results.”
I’m not clear on what “results” he is talking about with with Meals on Wheels. Do housebound older people get meals or not? And why is it that Ebenezer Scrooge’s dialogue from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is sounding less and less a comic exaggeration by the day?
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
Even were it not for my forthcoming book, I believe I would be thinking of Oscar Wilde now more than ever. We live in an era, especially in the United States, in which the only politically valid argument for anything is an economic one. We are forced to argue that it is good to have public parks, and that attractive architecture is better than ugly not because it is nice to have a place to relax or because it is better not to have to live in an unattractive environment but because these things will attract the right kind of people and promote economic growth. F.S. Michaels calls this the “Monoculture.” I call it “Yucky Framing.”
The Monoculture, the requirement to use this yucky frame, makes it difficult to argue that anything has value that does not “promote growth,” “make us more competitive” or create jobs in the private sector– or indeed in certain limited parts of the private sector. (See Film Jobs are Jobs, and Job Creators for more on this.
So why shouldn’t art have to pay its own way? The danger in a world where only the most commercial survives is that the culture feeds upon itself. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:
They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference…
Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter… Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.
The reason to create art is that art is created. Business exists to allow human beings to prosper, human beings don’t exist to allow business to prosper.
Tonight poets will be protesting the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Many will shrug and say “what’s the big deal?” The budget for the NEA is miniscule, and, as The Hill reported:
No artists will go broke without the NEA; at its demise, the agency offered direct support only to a handful of the nation’s writers. All other artists had been federal grant-free since the mid-1990s. Many artists of all disciplines, though, had been paid by organizations through NEA-funded projects, often the least commercial venture in a company’s annual season. It is likely that the work of artists, already governed almost entirely by the marketplace, might have to veer even more toward the commercial.
This last observation is important. The reason to support the existence of art that does not naturally flourish in the free market is because we need some voices that challenge the Monoculture.
Yesterday I was reading Vaclav Havel’s letters. His 1975 letter, addressed to the general secretary of the Czechslovak Communist Party, Dr. Gustav Husak, argued that those who wish “total control over society” try to suppress culture in order to suppress its “differentiated inner development.” In it, I heard echoes of The Hill’s lament on the potential loss of the NEA.
The wheels of society continue to go round even without all those literary, artistic, theatrical, philosophical, historical and other magazines whose number, even while they existed, may never have filled the latent need of society… How many people today still miss those publications? Only the few tens of thousands of people who subscribed to them–a very small fraction of society. Yet this loss is infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved…It is simultaneously, and above all the liquidation of a particular organ through which society becomes aware of itself…For we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge, struck within range of the few brain cells, as it were, specially adapted for the organism’s self-awareness, may suddenly light up the road for the whole of society, without society ever realizing, perhaps, how it came to see the road…they fulfilled a certain range of society’s potentialities…
But of course, those at the top of the social pyramid, regardless of the social structure, are invested in the social balance remaining as it is and in people continuing to think in ways that support the status quo.
There is little I can think of at the moment that is more subversive than the notion that one does not have to be anything but only to exist beautifully.