Gingrich Auditions for a Dickens Villain

Oliver could earn his gruel by janitorial work

So Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed genius of the Republican Party, is advocating abolishing child labor laws and getting students to work as janitors in our public schools.  It seems to be only the latest in a series of claims by Rightwing members of the GOP that it’s not the wealthy (excuse me: “job creators”) who are failing to pull their weight but members of the middle and lower class. I remember back a few months the accusations that the lower income brackets were not paying their share of taxes and wonder if our country, still the wealthiest in the world, is becoming remarkably stingy.  I said last August that our age needs Charles Dickens back, and this is further proof.

Here’s Gingrich’s statement:

You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.

Interestingly enough, I witnessed students doing janitorial work when I was growing up in the southern Appalachians.  In seventh grade, there were two boys who were so poor that they had to work for their school lunch.  (I guess the lunches didn’t come free for the poor back then, at least in Tennessee, which regularly finished 49th out of 50th in money spent per student in the United States.)  Jackie Ladd and Johnny Hoback were regularly excused from class a half hour before lunch to help set up the cafeteria and sweep the floors.  I remember someone telling me that lunch was the only decent meal they got during the school year and that they went hungry for much of the summer.

I’m dubious that working in this way gave them a sense of pride, although I don’t know that for sure.  It certainly caused the rest of us to look at them differently.  I remember that we referred to them as “covites,” a class-based slur akin to “white trash.” The term indicated that they came from the mountain coves, lived in tar paper shacks, and had no running water. I’m shocked now at the casual way we used this language.

One novel that comes to mind is Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess, where the former rich girl must suddenly work for her fellow students when her father is ruined. But Dickens, as always, is the master in this realm.

I imagine Gingrich as one of the “gentlemen” on the workhouse’s board of directors that interviews Oliver Twist.  Here’s the scene where Oliver comes before them:

“Bow to the board,” said Bumble. Oliver brushed away two or three tears that were lingering in his eyes; and seeing no board but the table, fortunately bowed to that.

“What’s your name, boy?” said the gentleman in the high chair.

Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind, which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.

“Boy,” said the gentleman in the high chair, “listen to me. You know you’re an orphan, I suppose?”

“What’s that, sir?” inquired poor Oliver.

“The boy is a fool — I thought he was,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat.

“Hush!” said the gentleman who had spoken first. “You know you’ve got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by the parish, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.

“What are you crying for?” inquired the gentleman in the white waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What could the boy be crying for?

“I hope you say your prayers every night,” said another gentleman in a gruff voice; “and pray for the people who feed you, and take care of you — like a Christian.”

“Yes, sir,” stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian, and a marvelously good Christian, too, if Oliver had prayed for the people who fed and took care of him. But he hadn’t, because nobody had taught him.

“Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade,” said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.

“So you’ll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o’clock,” added the surly one in the white waistcoat.

For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward: where, on a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a noble illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers go to sleep!

Looking back over Oliver Twist brings back another memory connected with one of the boys doing janitorial duty at Sewanee Public School.  Our school had an annual Easter egg hunt and Johnny had won at large caramel popcorn rabbit. While the rest of us saw it as more or less decorative, Johnny saw it as food. I can still see the ravenous way that he tore into it.  I have never witnessed such hunger before or since.

Here’s the scene in Oliver Twist, along with Dickens’ savage indignation. Oliver has just been bought as an apprentice by a lugubrious undertaker and is being fed by his new boss for the first time:

I wish some well-fed philosopher, whose meat and drink turn to gall within him; whose blood is ice, whose heart is iron; could have seen Oliver Twist clutching at the dainty viands that the dog had neglected. I wish he could have witnessed the horrible avidity with which Oliver tore the bits asunder with all the ferocity of famine. There is only one thing I should like better; and that would be to see the Philosopher making the same sort of meal himself, with the same relish.

There’s been a lot of complaining from some on the Right about the social safety nets that were set up as part of the New Deal in the 1930′s and then supplemented in the 1960’s.  I don’t think we’ll ever go back to 19th century London, but reading Dickens reminds us not to take our more humane society for granted.

And yes, I’d like to see Mr. Gingrich, with his million dollar account at Tiffany’s, paid for by the millions he makes in speaker fees and governmental lobbying, doing janitorial work so that he develop a sense of civic pride.

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  • Mary Ellen

    Did you know that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire—which was the industrial accident in this country which killed the most people until 9/11? I have always been fascinated by this event which really started labor laws in this country.
    Mr. Gingrich, the supposed historian, needs to brush up on the history of labor law. The days before government regulations were really horrible as well as dangerous.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks for mentioning the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Mary Ellen, which I posted on last March. The Righwing assault on industry regulation that we are seeing indeed ignores history. One only has to look last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill to see what can happen when we become lax.

    Speaking of labor issues, my wife points out that I didn’t mention another way of describing Gingrich’s idea: a proposal to use children as scab labor to deprive janitors of their livelihoods.

  • http://www.letschoosejoy.com Susan

    good post, Robin. The Oliver exerpts are chilling, and timeless…I’m afraid.


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