Christmas Carol (VIII): Ignorance and Want

Christmas Carol has targets in mind and it isn’t Ebenezer Scrooge.

Charles Dickens is after Ignorance and Want. Nobody, even Mr. Scrooge, is in the Ignorance and Want Lobby, but Dickens knows that many of us support both without intending to do so.

My vices, small in themselves, added to the vices of my neighbors, can destroy a community. Dickens knew a people dedicated generally to Christian morality, which he took for granted, would generally fail in their moral ambitions, but vary in their weaknesses.  In all probability, we would have vices that canceled each other out. I might fail as a glutton, you are too abstemious: both of us are damned by our sins, but local culture can survive us. If we all become gluttons, then trouble begins.

Christmas Present confronts Scrooge and all Victorian Britain with common moral failure:

“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

Dickens prophesied doom for Victorian Britain if ignorance and want were not assaulted. He was right, as Russia would demonstrate.

Every Christian must fight any social system that forces ignorance and want on humans. This is not an excuse for moral tyranny. No wise person believes he can force knowledge or prosperity on men determined to embrace ignorance and want, but for a social safety net for children. Children cannot choose and so someone: at best their families, then the church, and in the last resort the state must protect them.

Instead, Dickens attacks social systems that destroy the prospects of children before they can choose. I dare any man to call my politics socialist, but as a Christian I would prefer socialism in economics to systems that use freedom to enslave children by making them ignorant and poverty stricken.

A starving or illiterate child cannot vote or use his freedom intelligently. There is no freedom in starvation and no virtue in being forced to bestial ignorance.

A starving child needs food. An ignorant child needs a school. Better imperfect means to achieve this, than allowing a search for some ideological perfection to leave children in ignorance and want. Perfect liberty without food or education is not liberty at all.

Doom, a just doom falls on a society that cannot feed or educate its children.

If the support for children then goes too far, transgressing liberty, it should not cause us to forget the horror of poverty and illiteracy. And yet even this discussion misses Dickens point: he is not arguing for somebody from the state to do something, after all the prisons and workhouses are state attempts to help, but for me to do something.

Soviet Russia destroyed a culture to help “the children,” but the solution is not a return to the dark Satanic mills of early Victorian Britain or Tsarist Russia. This is a false choice, but one that dominates some small minds.

Christians are for universal health care and it is simply sloppy thinking to assume that means socialized medicine. Christians are for universal education, but need not support universal government schools. Christians reject poverty as a fate for any child, but need not embrace Utopian statism as the best means to obtain a better society.

Instead, Christians are  conservative. We trust no single institution and so expect all of them to act: family, church, and state. We are pessimistic enough to destroy any claims for universal cures, but hopeful enough to try for improvement.

And of course, we know that avoiding ignorance and want does not mean giving every child an X-box. A child might even benefit from being raised by a Cratchit, but nobody survives a combination of ignorance and want.

The dangers of ignorance and want in children is, however, so serious that where even bad solutions have reduced it, then a Christian must be cautious in assaulting those solutions.

I would prefer private and religious schools to state schools, but better state schools than no schools. As I press for more educational choice, I must not be revolutionary in a conservative cause or I risk doing more harm than good. Public schools offer literacy to any citizen for free. There is terrible waste and a crying need for reform, but the reform cannot leave any child in a Christian nation without education or the basic means of comfort.

Fortunately, there are social conservative solutions that maximize liberty and minimize ignorance and want.

I am a conservative, but one like Benjamin Disraeli who heard Dicken’s cry and adapted Tory politics to social change. I am a social conservative, but one like Anthony Trollope who loved the old ways enough to help end those that destroyed the good they once did. In this way, I hope to avoid the societal doom of those who ignore the ignorant and the poor.

 


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