Friday, September 2, 2011

Naomi Wolf on David Cameron and the Return to a Dickensian England

Steve and I are in Minnesota right now, taking his two aunts who are nuns on a trip around the state to visit cousins they haven't seen in some time.  My posting may be less than regular for a few days, due to the demands of the driving and visiting schedule. 

As I scan news sites today in the few moments available to me for reading before we hit the road, I'm struck by Naomi Wolf's essay at Huffington Post reminding readers of the early Victorian social arrangements from which Britain emerged in the late Victorian period, due to the efforts of moral crusaders and reformers.  Early Victorian Britain was marked by stark disparities between rich and poor, and by the almost total lack of opportunity for poor families--of opportunity for health care, security in old age, education, and freedom from drudgery.  Wolf says--a statistic I hadn't seen before--that in the 1830s, a third of women in London were servants and another third prostitutes.

Such charitable assistance as existed was controlled and doled out entirely by the church.  There were no state institutions to assure that people had assistance in their old age, that they had access to basic health care, that they had the opportunity to become educated.

Writers including Dickens denounced the social arrangements prevailing in early 19th-century Britain as savage, and helped lay a foundation for the development of political institutions that mitigated the savagery.  And now, Wolf maintains, there is a determined effort on the part of powerful elites in both the U.S. and Britain to "clear a path to the past" and return to the kind of world about which Dickens wrote so powerfully and with such strong moral persuasiveness in novels like Bleak House and Oliver Twist

As Cameron and other Western conservatives intensify their efforts to clear a path to the past, it is important to bear in mind that there is nothing novel or innovative about the absence of a welfare state and the privatization of basic services. We have been there already -- indeed, much of what is now being dismantled in Britain was built in the Victorian era because of appalling social conditions for most people. If today's conservative political forces remain in power, the dark, dangerous, and ignorant past is where England -- and other Western countries -- risks returning.

In my view, the path to the Dickensian past has not only already been cleared in the U.S. and Great Britain, but our feet are already on the path, and will move further down the path if some of the Dickensian characters now on prominent exhibit in the 2012 election cycle have their way.  Though I seriously doubt if any one of them can spell Wilkins Micawber, let alone tell you who he is . . . .

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