Compassion for the Poor Is Not Enough


A week or so ago Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast made an interesting point: in arguing against rightwing attempts to gut the food stamps program, slash entitlements and unemployment aid, and forestall young people from getting health insurance, liberals should not rely only on the language of compassion. His column gives me an opportunity to reflect on the relationship of compassion, literature, and progressive causes.

First, here’s Tomasky:

Liberals should stop talking about compassion. Oh, maybe not entirely. Some of the things Republicans are doing are just Dickensian mean, like cutting food stamps out of the farm bill, and Democrats should say that. But they should banish the word “compassion” from the broad, meta- economic dialogue.

What should they do instead? They should talk about how inequality is bad for the economy, bad for growth…Bad. For. Capitalism.

Let’s first revisit Dickens to remind ourselves what “Dickensian mean” looks like. Here’s his description of Scrooge:

Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

It’s not a bad description of those who emphasize austerity at a time when unemployment, underemployment, and badly paid employment are still running high. We can be pretty sure that this Scrooge would not support raising the minimum wage.

But can literature that focuses on compassion, and the lack of it, sway public policy? Sometimes yes. In the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped bolster the war to end slavery by showing us slave children torn away from their mothers and the villainous Simon Legree torturing to death the heroic and saintly Uncle Tom.

But Tomasky’s caution applies to literature as it does to policy. A colleague of mine, Christine Wooley, studies the sentimental novel and talks about how sentiment can be used for less than noble purposes. For instance, late 19th century African American novelist Charles Chestnutt was concerned that readers would bathe in novelistic scenes of pathos but not do anything about it. (As a countermeasure, he turned to realism and naturalism, providing almost scientific descriptions of the lives of African Americans.) More perniciously, Thomas Dixon in The Clansman, which D. W. Griffith turned into Birth of a Nation, used emotional scenes of brutish Blacks assaulting virginal white women to justify Jim Crow laws. Emotions can be used for reactionary as well as progressive causes, which is why (back to Tomasky here) there is something to be said for making economic rather than emotional arguments against GOP austerity measures.

In other words, don’t just say that it is immoral that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer in this country. Point out that society as a whole will benefit if the lower classes have more money to spend.

Tomasky doesn’t rule out invoking compassion, which novels do really well. But our greatest novels speak to the head as well as the heart and both need to be engaged if we are to get this country back on the right track.

One other note: if cheap sentiment engages the heart without the head and can be used for evil as well as good, there’s another kind of fiction that leaves out the heart altogether. I’m thinking of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, and the fact that Rep. Paul Ryan loves Atlas Shrugged helps explain the heartless budget blueprint that he has authored. Currently Ryan is leading committee hearings on poverty in the United States, and I suspect the picture he will draw will be more guided by ideology than the facts. What we really need are accurate three-dimensional depictions of poverty delivered with heart.

In other words, we need good novels.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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