Joe Biden Debates Bounderby

[Unless I hear many objections from readers—either through e-mail or the comments section—I will be suspending my regular posts about film and will only write about movies sporadically. Keeping up with the blog is making it difficult to find the time to watch movies, and I also have more literature to discuss than there are days of the week. My decision is not set in stone but there may be no more Film Fridays. ]

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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  • Bruce

    “Turtle soup and venison served on a golden spoon while riding in coaches!”

    I finally got around to Dickens after years and started with Hard Times. When I hear about job creators going Galt or shipping jobs overseas with a tone of taking their ball and going home, all I can think of is Bounderby. It’s amazing how his words resonate.

    Love the blog!

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks, Bruce. During this past election I felt as though I could have posted on Hard Times pretty much every day. Of course, Dickens’s wish fulfillment is that our Bounderbys will be thoroughly and utterly exposed. In real life, nothing ever seems to shut them up.


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