Monday, February 3, 2014

Something Thoughtful


I recently read for review purposes Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch (Text Publishing, $NZ32:99), an account of the author’s love affair with George Eliot’s most-esteemed novel. In it, she quotes from George Eliot’s private diary one moment when Eliot was being uncharacteristically bitchy as she recorded a visit to Charles Dickens’ home. Eliot wrote “Splendid library, of course, with soft carpet, couches etc. such as become a sympathizer with the suffering classes. How can we sufficiently pity the needy unless we know fully the blessings of plenty?” (quoted Mead pg.117).
Eliot was a woman of broad and humane sympathies, who liked and admired Dickens and would probably not have made such waspish comments in public, or in her thoughtful novels.
Still her remarks point to what is a fair cop with some people. It always seems incongruous to us when the wealthy speak on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. It can come close to the “Lady Bountiful” syndrome where, like the character in Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, well-to-do people show ostentatiously how generous they are to the poor. This smacks of hypocrisy, for the real motive of the Lady Bountifuls is not charity, benevolence or a zeal to improve the world. It is the desire to be admired. It also ignores that Gospel injunction not to let the left hand know what the right is doing – in other words, don’t run around telling people how good you are when you do good deeds.
 In more recent times, this impulse can manifest itself as “radical chic”, the ailment which the American satirist Tom Wolfe diagnosed in his essay of that name back in 1970. The “radical chic” are prominent and wealthy people – “celebrities” – who attach themselves to fashionable or radical causes not because the cause is important to them, but because it will allow them to be seen in a favourable light in glossy newspaper supplements and in the gossip columns. Wolfe’s original article may have been unfair (all satire is). The specific people he satirised in 1970 seemed to sincerely – if naively – support the radical cause they publicised. Even so, they and their methods were a fit subject for ridicule. The same could be said of many of Hollywood’s current “act-or-vists”.
But there’s a problem lurking here. If you bother to read Tom Wolfe’s later writings, and particularly his novels, you will discover that his apt satire on the “radical chic” has curdled into contempt, not only for the fashionably, flashily and publicly compassionate, but for ALL forms of charity and aid for those in need. [Look up my review of Wolfe’s Back to Blood on the blog index]. Wolfe is no longer rejecting those who let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. In the Wolfe universe, all well-to-do people who wish to share wealth more equitably or help the needy are ridiculed as poseurs and fools. And this becomes a convenient way of opposing higher taxation on the wealthy, aid programmes and egalitarianism. If you cry “Radical chic!” every time you see a prominent person promoting the sharing of wealth, you will not have to feel guilty about your own wealth.
I recently heard a loud right-winger excoriating members of New Zealand’s Labour and Green Parties.  Apparently they are a bunch of wankers intent on spending other people’s money, and just look at their hypocrisy! I was then given all the inside information on the rorts, scams and misuses of personal privileges that said Labour and Green Party representatives enjoy as they go about their plans.
Far be it from me to use this blog as a slate endorsing any particular political parties. But the obvious point is that said rorts, scams and misuses of personal privileges are as abundant in centre-right parties as in centre-left ones. If I were in a gossiping mood, I would now delineate all the rorts, scams and misuses of personal privileges of National, Act and New Zealand First members.
This, however, is beside the main point. To concentrate on personal failings of reformers like this – and especially the personal vanity of some – neatly relieves us of the burden of thinking how society may be improved and made more just. “Look at those hypocritical rich who want to spend other peoples’ money” really means “I don’t want to pay any more taxes.”

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