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Thursday, April 24, 2003

Pilgrim's Regress

Via John Coumarianos at Innocents Abroad comes this fascinating piece by Janet Daley of the London Daily Telegraph.

It describes how Berkeley turned her into a Marxist, and how living the Marxist dream turned her into a conservative. This article puts its finger directly on something I meant to write about in the next few days, so I'll save that part for later. But I did want to mention another thing that struck me.

Daley starts out life as liberal New Englander ("I had my own version of the American dream: a cross between New England Puritanism and cerebral Jewish idealism.") and comes to late '50s California for her last two years in high school. She's "appalled" that her new classmates don't seem to have any shred of social consciousness (conscience?): "The idea with which I had been raised--that life was, at least in some sense, a moral mission--was literally unintelligible to most of my friends."

She says she was particularly moved by the film Operation Abolition, made by the House Un-American Activities Committee to discredit its critics, especially those in San Francisco---but not in the way those who showed it to her intended:

The film described the demonstrators as "dupes" of a communist plot to abolish the heroic congressional committee (hence the movie's title). As the water swept them painfully down the marble stairs of San Francisco City Hall, we were, I suppose, expected to cheer...What I thought went something like this: "There is something seriously wrong here. I have been taught that we live in a free country and that, of all the freedoms, free speech is the most important. Whatever it is that these people believe, they ought to have the right to express it without being hounded into silence. And whatever objections they have to this committee, I would like to hear them. And, furthermore, I didn't know that I lived in a country where people who disagreed with congressmen got flushed down the stairs by fire hoses."

I was going to point you to the Prelinger Archives, where, I thought, you could download Operation Abolition, but it's not there. You can, however, download Operation Correction (Part I and Part II), a film made by the ACLU to "correct" the impression made by Operation Abolition. I thought both films were there.

The commentary on the Prelinger Archives site says, of Operation Abolition, "the resultant publicity did much to engender the social consciousness of the 1960s."
When Daley got to Berkeley she found herself among sympathetic souls. However, she never quite explains how a concern for civil liberties (which I would have shared) became sympathy for Marxism (which I wouldn't). In any case, she eventually went to Britain, where she taught "liberal studies" to lower-class boys "with no occupational ambitions beyond becoming factory hands."

They greeted any suggestion that they might consider professional or higher academic training with flabbergasted hilarity...[T]he parents, it seemed, were part of the problem. British working-class parents hardly ever urged their children to do better in life than they had done themselves. On the contrary, the adage was, "What was good enough for us should be good enough for them." Self-improvement and ambition were not traits to be admired but rather signs of class disloyalty and snobbery. I had never before met people who, when urged to let their children go to university, said, "Don't go putting ideas in his head."

The point I wanted to make was that this attitude is not confined to urban British factory hands: it works for rural Americans too. I encountered this attitude when I wanted to go to college to study physics. It stems partly from the old-fashioned notion of a university as a sort of junior social club for the rich---a place where personal ties can be formed so that business ties can be formed later. Hobnobbing with the high and mighty will avail the poor boy nothing (since they will always stick to their own kind, in the end), and only make him dissatisfied with the life to which he must return.

But that's only part of it. Another part is the realization that when one member of the community makes good, it makes the rest look bad. "Hey, it wasn't bein' poor that kept us back; it was the fact that we'd rather drink than study! Who knew?"

Daley believes that this attitude was excusable in people whose ancestors "had learned bitter lessons about the dangers of 'getting above yourself.'" She does not clarify what this means, but whatever it is, it's hardly likely to apply equally to the descendants of American farmers, which is where I found it.

But here's something even more interesting:

But what was less explicable than this working-class defeatism was to hear those who regarded themselves as progressive liberals conniving in it. The Left in Britain then (and scarcely less now) believed deeply that personal ambition was a petit bourgeois vice to be despised...

The notion that private prosperity could transform the lives (and self-image) of ordinary people was viewed as faintly obscene...

Not only did the left-wing intelligentsia dislike uppity lower-middle-class arrivistes: they positively discouraged the most deprived working-class people from rejecting their "roots." With a sentimental complacency that astonished me, they venerated the very social habits and attitudes that seemed to me so perversely backward...

Bourgeois values were the real enemy of working-class self-respect, because they made people who did not subscribe to them feel alienated and insecure. The socialist ideal was not to free people to fulfill their personal potential but to guarantee that no one would ever feel inferior to anyone else in any respect--intellectually, socially, or economically.

There's much more of this, in four paragraphs around the middle of the article. Does it sound familiar? It should; they're basically the same arguments the anti-globalization crowd makes.

"Oh, how terrible that Hejhogovenia has a McDonald's now! It will completely supplant their wholesome native ant puddings and dirt pies and boiled slugs. Right now their children are starving; soon they'll be---eeewwww!----obese! And when McDonald's comes in the door, you know their authentic culture will go right out the window! What will happen to the colorful Pricking Festival? You know, the dangers of being stabbed repeatedly with long needles are really over-rated, and besides, it's their culture, isn't it? I mean, you have to really respect that, don't you? And besides, my friend over at UNONUTN says they'll have pricking-related deaths down by five percent in only ten years!"

This point was the one that really struck me, and it ties in nicely with a similar attitude that cropped up in the Prelinger CD set Our Secret Century (which I have finally got my hands on). I'll be posting about that in a day or so. Betcha can't wait!