Thursday, September 25, 2008

Temperance is Fun! (Part II)

But Intemperance is Even More Fun!

Jane Addams finished her speech on Hull House's goals for 1898 and made her way to the punch bowel. Her gaze flickered briefly to the gentleman standing with his arm looped around a pillar, grinning madly at the other guests. His behavior, in addition to his bizarre dress, had been unnerving her throughout the evening but she ultimately decided to ignore him. Settling into an apathetic slum to establish a revolutionary social experiment had taken great courage and the subsequent years had not depleted her reserves. Pouring herself a drink to relieve her parched throat, she returned to the bustling throng, only to find herself back at the punch bowel several seconds later. She really had talked quite a bit. The punch had a funny tang to it, but she was thirsty. Quite thirsty. The room tilted.

"Miss Addams, I must say I found your speech quite enjoyable. Your grasp of the social sciences is impressive." She gripped the edge of the table. "However I do believe you neglected the economic side of the issues . . ." The crowd buzzed like so many bees, the speaker's words soaring vividly above the hum. "But perhaps I should introduce myself first. My name is Edward Bellamy. You may be familiar with my book, Looking Backward. . ."

"Edward Bellamy!" Addams slammed her glass down onto the table, magenta liquid swirling violently. Heads turned. The eccentric stranger darted from his pillar to the opposite end of the refreshment table, where he hovered anxiously. Bellamy took a step back.

The world had suddenly become very sharp and very clear. The crowd had ceased and the silence was very loud. A damper had been lifted and she saw what was and what was to be done and by God she would do it! Bellamy! "I most certainly did read your little book and was most distressed!" The room had turned to her but the universe had collapsed into the object of her displeasure, who stood directly before her.

"'Under no circumstanced is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as kind and degree of labor, to her sex.'" The odious sentence, so long emblazoned in her mind, flew out her mouth. "Reformers are mistaken in trying to eliminate differences between the sexes? Tell me, Mister Bellamy, from what feminine authority did you derive such idiocy? You go on and on about imperium in imperio and the natural sympathy between members of the same sex and how the two sexes cannot possibly understand each other and it's a mistake to try to erase those differences – I daresay you contradict yourself! If woman cannot comprehend man and man cannot comprehend woman, then how in the world do you know women are so utterly different and indeed weaker than men? Have you ever given birth?" Her eyes narrowed. "Well neither have I , but I have witnessed the spectacle and tell me sir, have you any idea of the strength required to endure such an event? And on multiple occasions! 'Unnatural rivalry' with men! Perhaps you are concerned that women will prove the superior!"

Bellamy was speechless. "Now, now there's more to it than that," he managed to stammer out. "Truly I concede – and I believe I made it quite clear in Looking Backward – that the woman of the nineteenth century is imprisoned by marriage, helplessly dependent on her husband, her great potential untapped. You and I really are in agreement –"

"You say your women have everything they strive for now when you wouldn't even have us as President or Senator! No! You would have us as advisors only, no real leadership outside the confines of the woman's world! You say only those women who have been wives and mothers may hope to reach the pinnacle of the system? I have been a teacher, a thinker, a writer, a sociologist, a statistician, a mediator, an activist, an organizer, a visionary, a speaker, but I have been neither wife nor mother. By God, have you any idea how this smacks of the 'separate but equal' they're now trying to force on the Negroes of the South? We'll give you your imperium in imperio but you shall be as the creek that trickles alongside the rush of a mighty river. We'll allow you your playhouse but we have the real house, we hold the power, we make the final decisions!"

Krutch gave a happy little jump. The race question! If only Reinhold Niebuhr were here!

"That is a poor comparison!" Bellamy protested. "The Southern Negro lacks any type of authority whatsoever and is daily threatened with violence –"

"And that's another thing!" Addams swung dangerously, but steadied herself. "Where is the cultural diversity of the year 2000? Where are the Poles, the Jews, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Russians, the Germans, the Italians, the French, the Hungarians, the Greeks, the Irish? Your world is one enormous industrial complex! In your world to be equal is to be identical! You, sir, seem to be under the impression that in order to achieve equality we must eliminate all our wonderful differences, all that makes us unique! I suppose that makes sense in an awful sort of way, I mean uniformity of standard and practice and expectation and whatnot would make it so much easier but tell me, haven't you ever heard of Faust? There I am at Hull House working to encourage our hardworking immigrants to hold onto 'whatever of value their past life contained' I believe were my words. You would have us all as little more than cogs in a vast industrial machine! Your world has no humanity!

"Your views on this matter of social diversity are extraordinary in their utter perversity. You imagine the only the 'better sorts' reproducing, thus 'purifying' the race, a prospect I find most exceedingly disturbing. Good God, first you would turn us into slaves to the state then you would breed us! Human beings are not animals! Just what is your definition of 'the inferior types' that ought to 'drop out'? You never did tell us! Give me a reason, sir, not to be thoroughly disturbed by this! I have devoted my life to aiding and improving the lives of the 'inferior types' and let me tell you that moniker is hardly an accurate description! Poverty is the result not of vice and laziness, but of the imbalance and selfishness of society. You claim to see wasted potential and disrupted greatness in their forlorn and desolate faces, but I wonder!"

Krutch didn't blame her. That sounded a lot like that other demented German. Despite the predicament he had put him into, as well its frightening social and moral ramifications, Krutch found himself feeling almost sorry for Mr. Einstein. That Hitler did not seem to be very fond of Jews. He began to wonder which German would destroy the world first: Hitler and his mania or Einstein and his time travel. Perhaps he should travel to 1944 and see what had had happened. Krutch began laughing again.

Bellamy opened his mouth to counter, but Addams was on a roll. "Although I suppose I really shouldn't be surprised, given the inherently elitist character of you year 2000. You postulate that corruption will be defeated by limiting suffrage to only the select few, the so-called 'honorary members.' That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. While we're at it, let's combat betrayal and backstabbing by eliminating friendship! Don't you see, sir, that democracy derives its dynamism and vibrancy from all the varied forces of society? Do you honestly believe that the will of the people can be adequately represented by only a small fraction, especially one determined by specific man-made parameters?

"You claim that a lack of exercise of the intellectual faculties makes humans soft and dull. Well what do you think happens when citizens are denied a voice and rendered powerless and at the mercy of their so-called 'social betters'? The notion of initiative, the very bedrock of our self-government, suffers and absolutely nothing gets done! We of the Settlement House movement neither support nor deny any specific socio-political idea or any individual idealist, but grant them all a place at the table 'if perchance one of them be found an angel.' You ought to attend one the Working People's Social Science Club sessions. Once the speaker has finished and the discussion ensued, you will never see a livelier bunch. Everyone, that is, all members of a given society, have a right, indeed an obligation, to full participation in the political system. This is lateral progress, the advancement of society through the betterment of all its members, not merely a few individual achievements glowing like pinpoints in the dark. Do you truly believe that a small gathering of elites behind close doors possesses the all the requisite knowledge to comprehend the complete operations of the interdependent society? To know what is best for it better than the masses that make it? Is this your idea of Utopia?"

By now the room had fallen silent and focused once again on the indomitable Jane Addams. Krutch, the stranger from a strange time, was not so unsure of Bellamy's theories on democracy and suffrage. Even by the twenties, many felt, the world had reached such complexity, such a frighteningly delicate dance of infinite facets, that few of the "masses" dared attempt comprehend it, much less help govern it. It was far easier to bustle about your own particular niche and hope that the neighboring niches did their jobs well. No, Bellamy had a good point. The notion of a "public" was nonexistent. Or laughable. Just look at what had just happened in Germany.

Bellamy, for his part, was utterly stunned. It was a full minute before he found his voice and even then it was quite subdued. "Well, well, yes, I suppose we do have our differences, ma'am, but perhaps we are not so different as you would have everyone believe. I really do agree, first and foremost, that rich have become listless and the poor dispirited by the great gulf between them and their mutual isolation from one another. That vivid verbal portrait you once painted of an entire generation shocked into silence and rote clich̩ by the realization of its powerlessness in the face of entrenched custom and tradition to affect any sort of positive change РI most thoroughly agree with you. To be confined to a single, remote sphere, far from the dizzying excitement and challenges of the greater world, is to deaden and soften the heart and mind. I argue that this is the effect of the contemporary restrictions placed upon women. We are all, quite frankly, restricted by social conventions that separate us from our brothers and sisters and this lack of human brotherhood Рor sisterhood Рis what is numbing us. We are all too focused, I agree, upon ourselves and will only progress by uplifting society as a whole. We all claim humanity; I am saddened by your assertions that I am hypocritically antagonistic to the downtrodden and wish to 'breed' them out of existence. That is not what Looking Backward meant to imply at all and I truly apologize if that is the message you received. If you will recall, I also criticized the apathy, corruption, laziness, and parasitical nature of many of the upper class. A tiny elite that exists to consume the bulk of society's benefits produced by those whom they so ruthlessly crush and command: one of these days, they will fall from the top of the stagecoach.

"We both, you and I, believe that the rich must do their utmost to aid the poor in their struggle for survival and search for life and meaning beyond the drudgery and deprivation of their existence. We must only extend the love and compassion we feel for those closest to us, our friends and family, to all humanity for we are the human family. That was the true message of Looking Backward: the Kingdom of God, if you will, descended from on high and finally embraced by society. Centuries and centuries of dreaming, of the visionary few glimpsing the light brimming on the horizon – we can achieve it, Miss Addams, it is within our ability if we would only set our hearts to it. You say you see a Christian renaissance rising all around you, 'a thousand voices singing the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel's "Messiah."' I promise you, that single transcendent moment of conversion is not far off; soon we shall cast off our ancient shackles. Love, love for the human family, compassion for the weak, the mobilization our forces not to fight but to cooperate – the industrial army, Miss Addams, we must all join hands and work together for peace instead of war. If we can mobilize so quickly and effectively for the purpose of destruction, can we not do the same for building and growing?"

It was the most beautiful speech of the evening. People wept, turned to one another and embraced; many raised their glasses of grape juice in salutation. How they envied their descendants! Addams sighed and clasped her hands in anticipation. Edward Bellamy was right. It was glorious, glorious and well within their reach. The room suddenly slid at a dangerous angle. Glorious, glorious! She cheered and scooped more punch out of the bowel with her glass, downing it in seconds.

Krutch stared at Bellamy and Addams in disbelief. Oh this was too much. What a bunch of daydreaming children, squealing about the castle in the sky. He let out a yell and slammed his fists down on the table. Gasps were heard, glass shattered, and patches of grape juice stained the rug. Krutch drew an angry breath. "You pitiful, sentimental fools!" the mad time traveler roared. "Do you honestly think love is a social ethic? Do you honestly believe anyone can be made to care about strangers on the opposite coast when they can't even stand their own neighbors and would sooner drive them out of business and reap the spoils than to join hands? Your naiveté disgusts me! You are all woefully ignorant about the brutal facts of society if you think love will find an answer! Don't you realize the cruel necessity of power, of coercion? No one is going to sacrifice their own interests if they are not either forced to do so! Army? ARMY?! You haven't seen it yet have you! The wasteland, the no man's land, the trenches choked with bodies, the yellow fog of the mustard gas laced by barbed wire, the machines of death, bodies torn apart, veterans with no limbs, no faces, no lives though they still be living! You talk of a new generation rising to the challenge of bringing love and compassion to the downtrodden? I shall talk of a generation destroyed! I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I shall show you fear in a handful of dust! You purport the greatest fallacy of them all! You believe we can be divine! You think we can identify with the Absolute! And you are all sadly delusional if you even think such an Absolute exists!" Krutch snatched a glass, intent on the rest of the punch. Addams, for her part, simply stared at him.

Murmurings twittered to life amongst the guests, Addams' uncharacteristic attack forgotten in the wake of this horrid speech by this horrid person. What a sad, strange little man! "It must be terrible to go through life thinking like that . . ." "Oh dear, do you truly think he believes that?" "Tragic, really . . ." "Some people just have no faith, I tell you." Krutch smiled jovially and drunkenly waved his glass at the crowd. Addams fell over in a dead faint. Bellamy stormed up to Krutch. "You know, it is people such as yourself who continue to stand in the way of . . ."

Screams were heard as a ring of light materialized directly behind the two men and its interior shimmered like a lake suspended sideways in the air. Krutch jumped for joy while a look of shock crossed Bellamy's face as a great force issued from the watery surface and he found himself falling forwards.

* * *

"I got it, I got it!" Albert Einstein assured the attendees of the Harvard Physics Lecture Series. Despite the enormity of the situation, he felt quite relieved. Good God, he hadn't expected the Temporal Relocator to actually work. . . "I'll have him back in a jiffy!"


To be continued. . .

1 comments:

Matthew Smalarz said...

This is one most interesting pieces of writing I've ever read. Some people, I imagine, would have a hard time understanding the obvious parallels between Progressivism and the modern Democratic party, even though it's apparent that they share many common ideological approaches to social change. You've certainly found a creative way to make history pertinent to our times, while critiquing modern day liberalism's earliest manifestations. Great job!

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