What Dickens Would Say to Today’s GOP

Sol Eytinge, "Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit"

Sol Eytinge, “Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit”

It’s been an interesting experience teaching Hard Times following the shutdown and attempts to end a program which will, for the first time, provide health care security for millions of the uninsured. And while I hate to be pessimistic, I have no doubt that the upcoming budget negotiations will see the GOP calling for cuts to entitlement programs while offering nothing in return. At the moment, America’s right wing believes that government is too large when it benefits people not like themselves, and we can expect in the upcoming weeks to see attempts to chip away at Social Security, Medicaid, the food stamp program, unemployment insurance, and other programs that help the poor and disadvantaged. The callousness that Dickens described in 1854, especially in the figure of factory owner Josiah Bounderby, is alive and well today.

Bounderby embodies the hypocrisy that we have come to expect of the American right: it believes the government should let the privileged do what they want while tightly controlling those that are vulnerable. We see Republican legislatures around the country fighting regulation and turning its back on job creation–in fact, the sequestration has been slowing job growth–while doing all it can to shut down abortion clinics and undermine Planned Parenthood. In Hard Times, meanwhile, Bounderby is very sanctimonious when talking about working class morality, even as he practices a form of laissez faire capitalism that denies his workers even basic protections.

In the scene I have in mind, Stephen Blackpool, one of Bounderby’s workers, goes to him looking for a way out of a wretched marriage. An unsympathetic Bounderby invokes family values. He doesn’t care about whether Blackpool lives or dies but he cares about morality. Here is their interchange after Bounderby has just informed Blackpool about the prohibitive costs of divorce:

‘There’s no other law?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Why then, sir,’ said Stephen, turning white, and motioning with that right hand of his, as if he gave everything to the four winds, ‘’tis a muddle.  ’Tis just a muddle a’toogether, an’ the sooner I am dead, the better.’

(Mrs. Sparsit [a pretentious gentlewoman living with Bounderby] again dejected by the impiety of the people.)

‘Pooh, pooh!  Don’t you talk nonsense, my good fellow,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘about things you don’t understand; and don’t you call the Institutions of your country a muddle, or you’ll get yourself into a real muddle one of these fine mornings.  The institutions of your country are not your piece-work, and the only thing you have got to do, is, to mind your piece-work.  You didn’t take your wife for fast and for loose; but for better for worse.  If she has turned out worse—why, all we have got to say is, she might have turned out better.’

‘’Tis a muddle,’ said Stephen, shaking his head as he moved to the door.  ‘’Tis a’ a muddle!’

‘Now, I’ll tell you what!’ Mr. Bounderby resumed, as a valedictory address.  ‘With what I shall call your unhallowed opinions, you have been quite shocking this lady. . .

Last October, I ran the following post applying Hard Times to House Budget Chair Paul Ryan. Since we will probably be hearing quite a lot from Paul Ryan again over the upcoming weeks, I am rerunning it. Despite the GOP losing the 2012 election and taking a drubbing in the polls following the shutdown and debt ceiling debacles, I doubt whether Ryan will have changed his tune:

Reposted from Oct. 12, 2012

Today’s essay was written and posted before last night’s debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan but, having just been teaching Hard Times by Charles Dickens, here’s how I hope Biden performed. I hope he channeled some of Dickens’ righteous indignation, along with his own Dickensian penchant for sentimental stories, and called out the policy prescriptions of his GOP challenger.

Dickens would have nothing but scorn for the Ayn Randian Ryan, who calls for people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and who claims that social safety nets (like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) are hammocks that create dependency. He has called for gutting Medicaid, for transforming Medicare into a voucher program (which would spell the end of the public program), and for turning Social Security over to the stock market. Meanwhile, his tax cuts for the very wealthy, which include doing away with the estate tax, would, if they were paid for, devastate the federal government. (If not paid for, they would explode the deficit.) In other words, he is a modern-day Bounderby.

Bounderby is the factory owner in Hard Times who goes on and on about how he wasn’t raised with a gold spoon in his mouth but was raised in a ditch and pulled himself out of poverty all by himself. He is one of those wealthy businessmen who whine incessantly about government regulations. Make a couple of adjustments and you can hear our own 1% in the following Dickens description:

The wonder was, [Coketown] was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile chinaware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send laboring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. Besides Mr. Bounderby’s gold spoon which was generally received in Coketown, another prevalent fiction was very popular there. It took the form of a threat. Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill used – that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts – he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would “sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.” This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it. So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.

While claiming special privilege for himself, Bounderby is impatient with the misfortunes of others, which he ascribes to their laziness and their weak moral fiber. One of these poor is Jupe, a circus performer and father of Sissy Jupe. Jupe has fallen on hard times because, as one of his fellow actors notes, “His joints are turning stiff, and he is getting used up.”

“Offered at the Garters four times last night, and never done ‘em once,” said Master Kidderminster. “Missed his tip at the banners, too, and was loose in his ponging.”

‘Didn’t do what he ought to do. Was short in his leaps and bad in his tumbling,’ Mr. Childers interpreted.

Nevertheless, Jupe has a plan. Envisioning a better future for his daughter, he enrolls Sissy in a school and then runs away, hoping that the school will continue to educate her.

Sissy, who knows him well, understands exactly what he has done:

“O my dear father, my good kind father, where are you gone? You are gone to try to do me some good, I know! You are gone away for my sake, I am sure! And how miserable and helpless you will be without me, poor, poor father, until you come back!” It was so pathetic to hear her saying many things of this kind, with her face turned upward, and her arms stretched out as if she were trying to stop his departing shadow and embrace it, that no one spoke a word until Mr. Bounderby (growing impatient) took the case in hand.

Bounderby, after all, is a cold hard facts man. He would adamantly oppose current-day entitlement programs that would help Jupe, such as unemployment insurance, disability insurance, food stamps, Medicare, and public education (hopefully Ryan at least believes in the latter). When Bounderby looks at the situation, all he sees is a father who has irresponsibly abandoned his child:

“Now, good people all,” said he, “this is wanton waste of time. Let the girl understand the fact. Let her take it from me, if you like, who have been run away from, myself. Here, what’s your name! Your father has absconded – deserted you – and you mustn’t expect to see him again as long as you live.”

Jupe’s fellow circus performers take a dim view of Bounderby. As Dickens notes, they are so much in “that advanced state of degeneracy on the subject” that they are prepared to assault the mill owner. The circus master, who speaks with a lisp, feels it necessary to intervene:

I tell you what, Thquire. To thpeak plain to you, my opinion ith that you had better cut it thort, and drop it. They’re a very good natur’d people, my people, but they’re accuthtomed to be quick in their movementh; and if you don’t act upon my advithe, I’m damned if I don’t believe they’ll pith you out o’ winder.

I don’t know how many self-righteous platitudes Ryan delivered last night—perhaps he pretended to be a moderate—but there have been a number of times since I first learned about what he was preaching in the House of Representatives that I felt the same impulse to pitch him out of a window.

Oh, and by the way, Bounderby hasn’t pulled himself up by his own bootstraps any more than Ryan has. Both were raised in privilege with plenty of opportunities. They just like to point out the infirmities of others.

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One Comment

  1. Betsy
    Posted October 27, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I agree so much that Dickens gives us a perspective on what is happening in our country today. In fact, it is exactly the same thing that was happening in England 150+ years ago, as you point out, Robin. I find myself ascribing to the Paul Ryans of our government one of Scrooge’s (many!) well-known quotations sometimes, in which he expresses cold-hearted willingness to consign the poor to starvation because this would “reduce the surplus population.” This sounds exaggerated–would anyone really just want millions of people to die? But I think the attitudes of the Ayn Randian free-marketers reflect the same underlying sense that the poor–and indeed, the 47% at least–are of no use to them, and indeed, are a drag on the world they want to live in. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical! But this is what I hear as a subtext whenever Paul Ryan and his ilk speaks about the need for austerity and the cutting/gutting of social programs. Ryan doesn’t say “It would be just fine if a lot of them simply died,” but that is the inevitable outcome of his budget, and he surely knows it. Scrooge just said it out loud.

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