Thursday, March 20, 2014

Can't Shake This Virus

I've got some kind of respiratory system virus, or something, that is making me lazy.  

A year ago I was posting excerpts from the great essay by Marilynne Robinson, Mother Country.  I'll post some of that and, who knows, maybe it will inspire me to type more of it into the computer.

 Anyone who reads much of what I've written will know that there is no living writer who I respect more than Marilynne Robinson, the great novelist and, I say, even greater essayist.   In her writing the finest style is motivated by and matched with honesty, intellectual rigor and an enormous effort in researching her subjects.   But none of those is an end in itself,  all of that is in service to a deep and simple moral purpose, to tell the truth in service of the common good, to witness to a religious faith that is thoroughly relevant to today's life.   She achieves that relevance not by joining up with some ideological project of modernism but by telling the truth to the best of her considerable ability.  The truth is always and eternally up to date.   When a writer so thoroughly believes in the value of telling the truth, they place themselves above changing fashion and calculations of career promotion.  There is no more worth while writing than that, though it will escape the confines of respectability, it is more likely to get forced out of that cage, the door locked behind it.  And then there is legal suppression.*

Her great, suppressed long essay, Mother Country, indicts the cultural and intellectual conditions that allowed the massive British environmental crime of polluting the ocean with plutonium and other nuclear waste.   Her case, citing the ancient English Poor Law in its several iterations down till today, her indictment of British intellectuals and alleged charities is one of the major revelations of my life.  Her case against the Fabians turns the received, required POV on the left on its head.   Her explanation of how the aristocratic British "radicals" constructed a socialism that had the effect of reinforcing and intensifying the British class system is brilliant and fearless.  She takes down some of the biggest names, including many I have respected in the past.  Those revelations hurt, I will admit it, but it is invariably better to face the reality about people than to admire them on the basis of self-serving PR.  I will excerpt it below in order to promote the revival of the book, its reading and the message it contains. 

As the Obama administration seems poised to approve the tar sands oil pipeline, the civil trial of the company formerly known as British Petroleum is beginning and the ongoing human rush to murder suicide, not impossibly destroying life on Earth,  I can't think of a more important thing to do with my week.   

Here is some of  Robinson's revealing, condensed history of British social thought and its real motives. 


British social thought can well be imagined as occurring this way.  It takes place in a country house built and furnished to accord with conventions polished by use, a house filled with guests, great and minor luminaries, ornaments of literature, the sciences, the church and of philosophy and politics.   Most of them, not coincidentally, are cousins at some remove.  They are charmed to find in one another just that streak of intuitive brilliance they had always admired in themselves and to be confirmed in their sense that they are true members of a group in which there are no impostors by a very great similarity of taste, of interest  of sympathy.  It is a leisurely visit, some centuries in length, and in due course everyone has confessed his weakness for Hesiod, and admired the garden, and regretted the weather.  The evenings would perhaps have begun to weigh, if someone had not suggested a game called Philanthropy.  The rules of the game are very simple.  One must justify things as they are by attacking things as they are.  It is a philosophic game, perfectly suited to showing off a fine wit.  It has even the thrill of risk, since it invites subversive ideas.  But the point is always, of course, to achieve a resolution that will bring the argument right back where it began. 

This distinguished party warms to the challenge.  And how affecting it is to hear them, one after another, in the language of statesman and moralist decry the sufferings of the poor, until it seems that the very table they sit round must be made into splints and crutches and the topiary garden planted in potatoes.  Then, just when the pleasure of participation in this virtuous fantasy is at its height, that is to say, just when the temptations of virtue are most intense,  then the play er reveals the illusion:  This "virtue" is not a virtue at all, but an evil to be scrupulously avoided.  A little thrill of relief passes over the company when their world is safely restored to them.  But the risk is never as great as it may seem.  Any strategy is sufficient in defending the moon from the wolves.  

It is a distinguished company,  and everyone seems willing to hold up his part in the game.  Daniel Defoe, Bernard de Mandeville, Henry Fielding, Adam smith (who did not understand the point of it, and was given a hearty cheer and sent off to bed).  There is no need to observe chronology,  since at this table Jeremy Bentham might find himself seated by Beatrice Webb, and Herbert Spencer by John Stuart Mill.   This is only to say that their reflections on the subject accumulate rather than develop,  in the manner characteristic of rationalizations.  Their disputations produce a welter of harmonious contradiction,  the sort of thing that happens when any argument is welcome that will prop a valued conclusion.  So the centuries pass. 

The influence of this genteel assembly can hardly be overstated.  Only consider how important the notion of excess population - basically the artifact of an odd and unsavory history - has been to Britain, and therefore to the world.  Malthus felt he observed the fact of population being restored to equilibrium with food supply in the misery of the poor, but at the time he wrote the importation of wheat - bread was the food of the British poor - was restricted,  and land had been converted to pasture which had formerly been used for growing food,  and both industrial and agricultural workers had lost access to independent means of subsistence, the first by being crowded into urban slums where there was no corner of open land, the second by being crowded into rural slums where no bit of land was conceded to them.  Social reformers early in this century wrote dreamily of the little garden plots of Belgian workers, who throve better on, of course, lower wages than their British counterparts.  But the British laborer had no little plot of land.  Irish immigrants shared quarters with their notorious pigs, which they slaughtered for food, but that was considered degraded.  In fact, British workers, rural and urban, died of exclusive dependency on a meager wage, made up in part, especially among farm laborers, of parish relief,  more parsimonious because it was paid by ratepayers rather than employers, and because, being "charity," it always remained discretionary.  The relation of population growth to the productivity of land, which Malthus tidily but meaninglessly described as increasing geometrically in the first case and arithmetically in the second, had nothing to do with the the misery and vice he set out to account for. His was merely an early insistence on the tendency to refer to the consequences of a remarkably artificial situation to the hard laws of nature. 


It is interesting to read how William Cobbett, one of Malthus' severest contemporary critics had to say about the use of barley to make bread instead of the more expensive wheat and potatoes, which he disdained.  Particularly noteworthy is how as sympathetic a writer as Cobbett believed that British laborers, and, especially, their also laboring wives,  were in more control of their meager domestic economy than they could have been. 

Unless I get a cease and desist order, I hope to post more long passages from Mother Country, one of the most important and entirely neglected books of the past quarter of a century.  It should be reprinted, at the very least, if not updated.  If I can renew interest in it, the risk is worth it.

I can't think of a book with more to say in a country with a "liberal" administration regularly does the bidding of the banking and oil industry, which has appointed Summers, Geithner and Lew to its top economic posts, which is constantly putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on a negotiating table.  The total fraud that the official version of British social reform, exposed in all of its sordid and explicit depravity is being recreated in the United States by the current crop of The Best and the Brightest, who never have to worry about the consequences of its advocacy.  And maybe this is what is needed to cure a self-regarding intelligentsia,of sorts, that has taken Downtown Abbey to its collective breast -PBS and the BBC have done more to paper over the real history of Britain than any overt propagandists.  If that college educated intelligentsia learned the truth about Britain and the real history of American liberalism they wouldn't buy that stuff.

*Robinson has written Mother Country (1989), an expos√© of Britain's nuclear pollution of the North Sea and a book which also skewered the environmentalist group Greenpeace to the extent that Robinson was sued for libel by Greenpeace and, rather than retract her statements, saw her book banned from sale in England.

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