Are we living in Dickensian Times? Four years ago I wanted to explore this question, but recently, I’m starting to believe it’s pretty much fact. Period. I’ll go so far to say it hasn’t been a question for the last 12 years.
The times and even the attitudes, I’ve noticed, more or less resemble a Charles Dickens novel: Contempt for people living in poverty, contempt for the unemployed or underemployed, the homeless, children, women – as if they are totally responsible for any unfortunate circumstances thrust on them.
The prison industrial complex and even some of our public schools can be inserted into the pages of “Oliver Twist.” The “Scroogicizing” of our domestic policy by lawmakers — “Are there not enough prisons? Are there not enough workhouses?” — and their unwillingness to help those needing the most, in favor of bailouts for those wanting the most.
I don’t think we talk about class enough. I think it’s on the top of the list of unspeakables (even politics and religion have been crossed off that list). We don’t take class seriously here in the US because for some reason we think we’re above it. We believe the battle for independence dropped the subject. Like it or not, we have class issues, very deep ones. They can be as defining as DNA.
Our culture loves the rags to riches and comeback stories. They’re inspiring but can also mislead and distract from the root of the problem in our social environment. The same rules, attidues, and expectations are still firmly in place. The rags to riches and comeback kids have only figured them out and artfully worked the rules to their advantage.
We have code words to dismiss the discussion: “elitist,” a bottom up put down of people with a college education and different tastes. Count it as another divisive tactic and diversion from seriously tackling the issue of inferior public education, lack of access to higher education and training programs. Usually the people tagged as “elitist” have much less cash than the “ah shucks” bootstraps types. That’s what makes our country complicated. It’s like living in a parallel universe.
A few days ago, Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now with Amy Goodman reported that two judges in Pennsylvania were being charged with corruption for receiving kickbacks totalling in the millions to send children (teenagers) to private work prisons managed by PA Child Care and its sister company Western PA Child Care. One of these young men or women may emerge as the Charles Dickens of the 21st century, if they’re lucky.
Apparently, writing saved Charles Dickens from total dispair. His books were semi-autobiographical. His father was thrown into a debtor’s prison and the 12 year old Charles Dickens was sent to the workhouse to paste labels on bottles of shoe polish. He had to endure cruel punishment from his taskmasters. But with his father in jail, Dickens had only his determination and wits to survive until his father and the rest of the family were rescued by an unexpected inheritance. Dickens learned the hard way the meaning of money in Victorian times.
Last Sunday I was watching “Oliver Twist” on “Masterpiece Theatre.” It includes a multi racial cast (historically appropriate). “Masterpiece Theatre,” one of public television’s oldest running drama series, is running several adaptations of Dickens’ novels starting this month and March. No points will be deducted if you choose the mini-series over the books, but these programs are well worth the 6 hours and more.
As I was browsing through the “Masterpiece Theatre” website for this post, I found this among the essays and background stories for “Oliver Twist” – Down and Out in Victorian London.
The Industrial Age and the financial opportunities surrounding it led to a rapidly growing middle class in early 19th-century Britain. Previously, the aristocratic upper class — one that scorned working for a living — dictated economic and social influence. Now the bourgeoisie, including factory owners, managers and purveyors of new services, wanted its place in society and needed to legitimize labor. They put forth a new ideal of work as moral virtue: God loved those who helped themselves, while “burdens on the public” were sinful and weak. This attitude validated the middle class by giving it someone to look down upon.
Class issue comes in more flavors than Baskin Robbins, or maybe it’s just the toppings: free|slave; citizen|non-citizen; straight|gay; rich|not rich; famous|not famous; owner|renter; hedge fund|savings account; private school|public school. And even when the topic is race, class belongs in that dialogue as well.
Dickensian times can bring out the best and worst in our character.