Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Charles Dickens and Modern Political Sensibilities

In each period, different combinations of political beliefs tend to go together. These days, for instance, a belief in the importance of generous social welfare programs tends to be correlated with a suspicion of private enterprise, a belief that crime is largely a product of circumstance rather than character, an opposition to the death penalty, and a suspicion of religion.

But it's worth remembering that there's no particular reason that all of these should go together. And once upon a time, they didn't.

I just finished reading 'Oliver Twist'. And if you had to try to pigeonhole Dickens' sympathies in the book as 'conservative', 'liberal' or even 'libertarian' by modern standards, you'd struggle.

Dickens is very sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Large chunks of the first part of the book are scathing satire of the brutal conditions in London's workhouses and orphanages, and the smug self-satisfaction of religious authorities who run them, juxtaposed with their indifference to the misery around them.

So by that measure, he'd be pretty liberal in today's terms.

But in terms of the question of the causes of crime, Dickens is quite emphatic that certain people are drawn to it because they're irredeemably greedy and wicked. To be sure, there are some characters that are drawn in by circumstance and lack of opportunity, and for those he writes with obvious sympathy. But the overall picture of crime is a long way from the 'root causes' crowd of today.

In addition, Dickens has a fairly neutral attitude towards the death penalty. In the book it's directly described as applying for being an accessory to murder, but it's implied that people get it for robbery as well. And while this fact isn't cheered, it seems to be just part of the landscape - rob houses, and you're going to hang. It's fair to say that even the most strident law-and-order conservatives of today might shy away a little from this viewpoint.

And while Dickens is quite suspicious of the Church as it operated in terms of poverty relief, he seems quite supportive of Christianity in general:
I have said that they were truly happy; and without strong affection and humanity of heart, and gratitude to that being whose code is Mercy, and whose attribute is Benevolence to all things that breathe, happiness can never be attained.
The reality is that this portfolio of views has no obvious analog today. But that's often how it is. If you don't believe me, have a read about the Whig Party and try to make sense of it. They were the antecedents of the modern Liberal Democrats. Except they were firmly in support of free trade. And really didn't want a Catholic as King. But liked Parliament over the King. And were in favour of abolishing slavery and extending the franchise to women. But they also passed the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which caused so much of the misery for the destitute that Dickens rails against in the first part of the book.

Just think, your political views might seem equally confusing to a child born in 200 years time.

No comments:

Post a Comment