Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Political Presbyopia

I recently read a friendly biography of Beatrice Webb, the British reformer. Although annoyed at the book’s general lack of analytic depth, I did find a few nutritious nuggets of thought to chew on. Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) was a self-taught social scientist and political progressive who didn’t approve of a society that allowed so many of its citizens to live without “sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and (a) modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged.” She was good at envisioning a better future, but not so good at seeing the currents of the present.

With her husband Sidney Webb and a group of friends, she shaped the Fabian Society, and later founded the London School of Economics. Members of the group were also instrumental architects of the pre-World War I Labour Party, and launched the New Statesman. Beatrice and her friends believed in preventing poverty, not charitably relieving it. They held sensible — but advanced for their times — views about the value of public health and a minimum wage, and they advocated governmental support for children and the elderly. They believed more and more people would inevitably come to agree with them and then society would gradually evolve into a better place for all.

Like her, I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could be opposed to building a community where no one was starving or homeless or illiterate or (dare I say it?) without access to primary health care. I tend to get impatient at well-fed, sheltered, well-insured people who do not seem to mind that millions of their fellow citizens are not so well protected.

Mrs. Webb thought of herself as “one of the B’s of the world — bourgeois, bureaucratic and benevolent” as opposed to her friend and fellow Fabian Bernard Shaw, whom she saw as one of the “A’s of the world — aristocratic, anarchist and artistic.” The “B’s” of the world tend to think that everyone tries to be as rational as possible when making both personal and political decisions.

Reading the biography, I realized that I also am a “B.” Like Beatrice Webb, I continually undervalue the forces of personal emotion (jealousy, fear, anger) that underlie people’s political stands. “All their lives,” the biographer says in one of her rare on-target comments, “the Webbs were insufficiently aware of the deeper currents of irrational public opinion.” (This sort of sentence is exactly why I keep reading books that might otherwise not be very well-written).

The Webbs really thought people could be swayed by sensible, moral discussion, and that, in the end, rich people could be peacefully persuaded to share their wealth for the good of all.

Reading the book reminded me of my appearance in 1969 in a Chicago courtroom. I had been arrested and jailed, and was now was being arraigned in the aftermath of a violent anti-war demonstration. When given the opportunity to plead guilty, I instead carefully explained the vicious, imperialistic nature of the American presence in Vietnam to the judge, whom I mistook for being a little like my father, an open-minded intellectual who loved philosophical conversation. I acted as if I was in a graduate school political science seminar, not a courtroom. I acted as if I were in a rational environment. My grasp on the present was clearly much shakier than my vision of a better future.

Successful reform requires both.

[Kitt Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reform of All Kinds.]

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