Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Debtor's Prison?

the Hogarthian view

            My half-hearted attempt to keep atoe if not abreast of the daily news begins in the wee hours with on-line surveys of the New York Times and Real Clear Politics and ends, after a substantial hiatus devoted to what might be called Real Life, with the PBS “News Hour” at seven in the evening.  Saying that the “News Hour” is the best television program I know may mean little seeing that I know so few.  But the morning survey of Real Clear Politics is probably the most important for me.  That is because it offers a fairly generous and eclectic sampling of various more or less influential politicians, pundits, talk-show hosts, Sunday gabfests, and edgy comedians whom I never would encounter in undigested form.

            I don’t listen to speeches or interviews of Sarah Palin, for example.  I have never viewed Martin Bashir’s television program on MSNBC or listened to Mark Levin’s radio program.  I am not a regular reader of the Washington Post and until yesterday was unaware that somebody called Eric Wemple published a blog sometimes attached to that paper.  Hence without Real Clear Politics I should never have known of the following sequence of events.

            (1) Sarah Palin, in a public utterance decrying the dangers for future generations of Americans of a huge and rapidly growing public indebtedness, compared debt’s possible constraints to slavery.  (2)  Martin Bashir suggested that for making such a verbal comparison Ms. Palin, “America’s residence dunce,” should be punished with revolting torments of an appallingly obscene and scatological nature.  (3) Mark Levin, without obscenity but in language otherwise hardly less violent than Bashir’s own, attacked Bashir and other commentators on MSNBC.  (4) At considerable length Bashir apologized to Sarah Palin publicly, unreservedly, and so far as I can tell sincerely.  (5)  The blogger Eric Wemple opined that Bashir had made “towering mistakes” in his fashion of attacking Ms. Palin, even though her comparison of debt and slavery “was idiotic on its face”.

            I am sure that many other events could be related to the five enumerated above.  My point is that a half hour spent on one useful website can offer a kind of  “casebook” entrĂ©e—happily not always so depressing as this one—to an emblematic political episode or debate so ephemeral that two or three days later it will be difficult to track down the relevant links.  Of course in this instance I also have some interest in the substance buried deep beneath the muck.  I suppose I am a “fiscal conservative”—perhaps even a “deficit scold”.  I am also a grandfather, and at times a rather worried one, as I ponder the America my grandchildren may know when they are my age.  Add to that my profession: I am a student of literature, so much of which is a matter of comparisons, especially similes and metaphors.  Is a comparison of debt to slavery “idiotic on its face”?

            “My love is like a red, red rose,” writes Robbie Burns, “that’s newly sprung in June.”  Now I suppose that Eric Wemple would judge that this comparison is idiotic on its face, or rather on the girlfriend’s face, since no Scottish lass known to history has had skin of a scarlet hue.  Nor did one ever sprout pinnate leaves or sharp spines.  Yet many a man seeking to express his sense of a woman’s beauty and desirability has judged “My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose” to be a capital song.  Now a partial list of the things to which writers of repute have said that men and women are enslaved would include the following: slaves of passion, of alcohol, of fame, of reputation, of convention; slaves to the office, slaves to the telephone, slaves to blueberry pie.  Somerset Maugham’s great novel Of Human Bondage extends the metaphor over practically all of human social, sexual, and psychological life.

            How about indebtedness as slavery?  Has anyone of intellectual authority ever talked of such a thing?  Before answering with the obvious and required affirmative, it is worth noting that actual, historical slavery has existed in many forms.  The chattel slavery of the ante-bellum South, which for obvious reasons is likely to leap to the American mind, is actually something of an “outlier” in the history of servitude.  The racial dimension of slavery has not been constant, but slaves have often been conquered people.  The Old English word for slave, weahl, means a Celtic Briton (cf. welsh); in a similar fashion slave itself reflects the fate on many conquered Slavs in the pre-modern world.

            Slavery was both involuntary and voluntary, as in many places people could (and did) in desperation sell themselves into servitude.  Many white people came to the American colonies, and other outposts of British Empire, under the scheme of indentured servitude.  Here slavery was not merely like indebtedness, but coterminous with it.  There are probably a million people in indentured servitude today.  Under these circumstances it would be odd indeed if slavery and indebtedness were not frequently brought together in metaphor.

            There has been pretty ecumenical agreement across the political spectrum that economic indenture is or might be “slavery”.  Though we should not entirely neglect such right-wing gurus as Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944), it has principally been the theoreticians of socialism who have made the equation debt=slavery.  One need look no further than Marx in whose system the entire proletariat are “wage slaves”.  If the means of production are in private hands those who have nothing to sell but their labor (the workers) are doomed to de facto subsistence slavery without the possibility of capital accumulation.  Lots of people have disagreed with Marxism, without however finding his metaphoric vocabulary “idiotic on its face.”  It has been a large inspiration to writers of the greatest repute down to and including Tennessee Ernie Ford:

            You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
            Another day older and deeper in debt….
            Saint Peter, don’t you call me, cause I can’t go.
            I owe my soul to the company store.

I presume you understand the term company store?

racing against the clock