‘On the side of the underdog, always and everywhere’

Here, yet again, is a bit from one of my favorite essays, George Orwell’s appreciation of Charles Dickens:

Roughly speaking, his morality is the Christian morality, but in spite of his Anglican upbringing he was essentially a Bible-Christian, as he took care to make plain when writing his will. In any case he cannot properly be described as a religious man. He “believed,” undoubtedly, but religion in the devotional sense does not seem to have entered much into his thoughts. Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so. He loathes the Catholic Church, for instance, but as soon as the Catholics are persecuted (Barnaby Rudge) he is on their side. He loathes the aristocratic class even more, but as soon as they are really overthrown (the revolutionary chapters in A Tale of Two Cities) his sympathies swing round. Whenever he departs from this emotional attitude he goes astray. A well-known example is at the ending of David Copperfield, in which everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong. What is wrong is that the closing chapters are pervaded, faintly but not noticeably, by the cult of success. It is the gospel according to Smiles, instead of the gospel according to Dickens.

I was reminded of that yesterday when reading Andrew Brown’s column in The Guardian on the Anglican bishops and their challenge to government cuts affecting the poor. Referring to recent forceful statements by the new archbishop of Canterbury and by 43 bishops from the Church of England condemning their government’s kick-the-poor “austerity” measures, Brown writes:

The Anglican bishops’ attack on government cuts this weekend is entirely serious. It offers a programme around which almost the entire church can unite, which appears to transcend party politics and even the familiar divisions of church politics.

The Church of England is certainly the only organisation represented in the House of Lords that has wide and deep experience of the poorest areas of the country. There may have been a time when the Labour party was like that, but how many Labour MPs have worked and lived in inner-city areas? More, at a guess, than Labour peers have. But bishops with experience as parish priests will almost all have worked among the poor and homeless and many will have lived in parts of the city where there are no other middle-class professionals.

This is also true of the two archbishops. The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby comes from a background of privilege at the heart of the establishment, while John Sentamu, the archbishop of York was born in rural Uganda and came to England as a refugee. But Welby, as a romantic young man, dreamed of working in the inner cities, and in his work at Coventry, Liverpool and Durham came into contact with the parts of England that Etonians like to pretend do not exist, while Sentamu worked for 17 years as a priest in a scruffy part of south London.

Welby’s commitment to ending the evils of loan sharking is one of his most consistent policy lines …

Brown is not a Christian, but he’s a close and keen observer of the church. He is, like Orwell was before him, a sharp-eyed, sometimes-admiring critic of us Christians whose outsiders’ perspective reads like that of an honest friend.

I suppose that supporters of Britain’s conservative austerity regime might want to dismiss Brown’s praise of the bishops’ advocacy for the poor as mere partisan politics. But there’s far more than that going on here. This is not a question of liberal vs. conservative politics, but of the same conviction that Orwell expressed, that we Christians — whether Anglican, Catholic or “Bible-Christian” — are at our best when we adhere to a “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors … on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.”

But for both Brown and Orwell this praise comes with a warning: “Whenever he departs from this … he goes astray.”

Brown’s columns are often harshly critical of church leaders — not along partisan political lines, but for straying from that which is most admirable about them, for betraying their impulse to be “on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.” Consider the church’s exclusion of LGBT people, or its refusal to accept women as fully equal — instances where “everyone who reads it feels that something has gone wrong.”

There are other echoes of Orwell’s essay in Brown’s discussion. Here again is Orwell on Dickens:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, “Behave decently,” which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, “an expression on the human face.”

And here again is Brown on Welby:

This looks like a return to the ’80s, when the Church of England was a bastion of resistance to Thatcherism. Certainly, the counter-briefing from the government is redolent of that. The rightwing press today has all the patronising cliches traditional to these occasions: Welby, says the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, is “a nice man doing what he thinks is his duty as a Christian.” Why we should prefer the policies of nasty men is not explained.

This suggests that the bishops have actually caused the government some pain, which should cheer them up. But it also suggests the difficulties ahead. There are some subjects, like the treatment of asylum seekers and prisoners, where the Church of England is almost entirely out of step with the rest of society, because of its insistence that these people are human beings just like us. Certainly no one would run for election on the church’s policies.

This is very much the same point Micah Bournes is making in the video we looked at last week. The struggle for justice is always worth it, Bournes said, because once you identify with those experiencing injustice, “you never stop fighting for your own.”

Once “your own” comes to include those Orwell calls “the underdog,” then their problems become your problems, and it becomes, as Bournes said, “ridiculous” and “offensive” to suggest that you could ever consider anything other than fighting on behalf of poor children being punished by austerity or sequestration, or on behalf of asylum seekers and prisoners.

And when we stray from that everyone can see that something has gone wrong.

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  • AnonaMiss

    It’s not about making you feeling generous, it’s about you taking /responsibility/ for being charitable, instead of sloughing it off to the government.

    >implying the American government aren’t elected and employed by the nation to manage our community affairs

    Is it irresponsible to trust your investments to a professional broker, instead of managing them personally?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I can personally feed a couple people a couple times a week, or I can pool my money with a great many other people so that we can hire a few people to do the buying of food (in bulk, to save money) and the distribution of food to a whole bunch of people, more than we could individually feed.

    The latter seems more efficient. If one’s prime concern is getting people fed, anyway, rather than being charitable. How one could prioritize the latter over the former is beyond me.

  • Isn’t that what the budget is supposed to be? Except the last two budgets have featured a bunch of Republicans demanding that unless the Democrats allow DOMA to be retained (and now Obamacare to be repealed), they’ll tank the country… that doesn’t strike me as people being honest.

  • Unless you’re actually baking food and going over to a hungry person and giving it to them, how is this different, aside from being less efficient and reliable? I mean,what’s the difference between giving my money to Meals on Wheels and paying taxes which go into government food programs?

  • MaryKaye

    The interesting thing that Jeff is doing in all of his posts is repeatedly trying to refocus attention away from the hungry person and how they can most effectively be fed and onto the person with ample resources and what would be best for them–whether they should give willingly or via taxes, whether they should feed the poor directly or pool resources, etc.

    The big effect of this reframing is to make the hungry person and their needs less visible and less important.

    Frankly I think it is stupid to obsess over whether giving money in way X or way Y is better for my personal development.  I am not the one who is starving.  That’s like prioritizing medical services after a plane crash based on what will be most educational for the doctors.

  • Madhabmatics

     hmmm yes jeff you are right, letting people starve WOULD save us money

  • Madhabmatics

    Won’t SOMEONE think of the MONEY??? is the conservative version of “Won’t someone think of the children?” but even dumber because cash isn’t people

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m just sad he left without acknowledging any of my points. Poor dear’s picked up all his talking points from Fox News and first-semester econ students.

  •  By the way, did I read the closed captioning right? “They’ve all read Ayn Rand now, and they have realized that the problem facing the republican party is that they aren’t being extreme enough”?

  •  The thing about Austerity Measures is that they’re not even meant to be economically sound. They’re a moral solution. They assume the actual problem of the economic crisis is “poor people got too uppity”, and therefore the “solution” is an act of extreme contrition out of the poor. Only then will great Mammon return our beloved money to us.

    Fixing the economy isn’t the point of austerity. Hurting the poor is.

  • Tricksterson

    You don”t think the rich get money spent on them in the for of tax-breaks, subsidies and favorable pork-barrel projectsu’re disingenuous or hopelessly naive.

  • auroramere

    Didn’t Maimonides rank forms of charity (from direct in-person giving through various levels of anonymity) in terms of protecting the dignity of the recipient and avoiding glorifying the giver? Speaking of Judeo-Christian morality. It’s not actually considered a bonus if you can shame the recipient and boast of your generosity.

  • arcseconds

    I think it’s more along the lines of ‘well, whatever happens, we can’t let the rich suffer, and while we’re at it, let’s start dismantling that expensive state apparatus that you keep making us pay for and take a few steps towards indentured servitude’. 

    That’s not to say there isn’t also a bit of what you suggest happening too, but again I’m inclined to see that as scapegoating, which helps to direct attention away from the rich and give us someone to froth about / feel righteous about instead.

    The other thing is, it makes some kind of intuitive sense in terms of a household, or a small business, or the protestant work ethic.  If you’re in debt, you scrimp and save and ‘make sacrifices’.

  • Lori

    If the President had instead said “I’m going to convene a summit on
    welfare reform, and we’re going to construct a list of the 10 best
    conservation solutions and the 10 best liberal solutions, and then
    construct legislation, which I commit to sign, that includes not less
    than 3 ideas from each list”, do you honestly think that Republicans
    would not enthusiastically participate, or that their ideas would be so
    awful that their half of the list couldn’t be completed? 

    Yes, I honestly think that the Republicans would not enthusiastically participate, at least not in good faith. Have you missed the fact that the GOP currently opposes its own ideas if the president supports them?

    Also, I haven’t noticed Conservatives putting forth plans to use Liberal ideas because reasons when they win elections. When the GOP wins elections it’s all “Elections have consequences.” When the Dems win then suddenly it’s all “Lack of bipartisanship is the worst thing eva! How rude!”

    Anyway, we’ll
    never know, because the president thinks the way that you apparently
    do:  opposed to the status quo = opposed to the underdog. 

    Again, it’s funny how when Conservatives talk about the supposed status quo that needs to be changed it’s always  about taxes and giving too much help to the poor and never about something like letting bankers break the law with impunity.

  • Lori


    Lori, the Judeo-Christian values of charity and compassion are
    foundational to our society and shared by many/most of its members,
    Christian or otherwise, and presumably that includes you.  

    They are not foundational in the way that you seem to be trying to imply. US citizens who do not share them are still citizens. I am not a Christian, allow I was raised in fundieland.

    Giving under
    compulsion is not charitable.  

    1. Taxes are not intended to be charity. They are the price we pay for a civilized society.

    2. Leaving people in need and begging so that you can feel good about yourself is also not charitable.

  • Lori

    There’s no such thing as “money spent on the rich”   

    Are you actually so divorced from reality that you believe this? Good lord man, get a clue. We spend plenty of money on the rich. Look up the concept of private profits and public loses. Check into how much of our military dollars are spent defending US businesses interests, not our national interests. Check out how our infrastructure spending vastly favors the needs and wants of the wealthy over the rest of the citizenry.


    But I don’t see how compelling the rich to be more charitable by
    confiscating more of their money makes them more likely to actually be
    charitable.  Some problems are beyond the government’s ability to solve.  

    You seem to worship Rand more than Jesus.

  • Lori


    It’s not about making you feeling generous, it’s about you taking
    /responsibility/ for being charitable, instead of sloughing it off to
    the government.  

    No, it’s not. If it was about taking responsibility for being charitable then you would take responsibility for being charitable instead of blaming your lack of charity on the government.

    Again, taxes are not, and are not intended to be, charity. You need to stop whining about Liberal this and Liberal that and either do what you claim to believe you’re supposed to do by being charitable or own up to the fact that you are not charitable and have no intention of being charitable.

    That’s your personal moral drama and no one should be deprived of the ability to get enough food to eat in order to be a bit player in that drama.

  • Lori


    The other thing is, it makes some kind of intuitive sense in terms of a
    household, or a small business, or the protestant work ethic.  If you’re
    in debt, you scrimp and save and ‘make sacrifices’.  

    Yes, this particular intuition is high on the list of things that are killing us. The idea that a government budget should be run like a household or small business budget needs to die an ignominious death ASAP.

  • Lori


    Has a sitting Republican president ever said that the opposition party wanted poor kids to starve?   

    Probably not, since Dems generally don’t vote to cut food aid to children. Sitting Republican presidents have leveled other accusations against Dems though. You’re stacking the deck by acting as if Obama’s comment was somehow totally out of line with what others have said simply because it involves starving children.

    In general, it’s not as if Conservatives are all sweetness and light about Liberals. Tying this thread to the one about the new Pope, I give you Erick Erickson’s:

    That lefties are accusing the new pope of handing over lefties to the
    right wing junta for execution makes me adore the new pope. 


    In case you miss the significance of this, allow me to introduce you to the concept of eliminationist rhetoric. The Right has been engaging in it as a matter of course for some time now. In case it’s not obvious, this is not a sign of willingness to reach out and have an amicable and productive dialogue.

    So again, it is not legitimate to act as if Obama made that remark in a vacuum, totally unrelated to anything Conservatives have done or said. It is also not legitimate get to act as if there’s some substantial group of Conservatives who are extending the true hand of friendship and getting it slapped away. It’s not and there aren’t.

  •  I could point out that Paul Ryan was captured yesterday uttering the following phrase:

    This is something we will not give up on because we are not going to give up on destroying the healthcare system for the American people.

    It’s being attributed to a gaffe, though, much like George W. Bush’s one regarding the Iraq war:

    Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

    I say less gaffe and more freudian slip.

  •  Hey, I run my household budget like a government. Just the other day, I told my son, “Look, nobody’s questioning your value as a person, but in this economy, can we really afford to have 33% of this family living on handouts from Big Dad without contributing anything?  I’m sorry, son, but your mother is cutting the milk subsidy.”

  • arcseconds

     I don’t even think it’s the correct way to run a household budget or a small business, which is why I threw the ‘protestant work ethic’ in there, because I think it’s got more to do with cultural expectations of work and debt than any rational economic decision making.

    If your business is struggling, sometimes it really is the right thing to do to take on more debt so you can increase your capital expenditure to buy the best gear, or do a huge marketing push.   Feeling like you must always remain in the black no matter what is a recipe for business failure under those conditions – you might never dip down into the red, but eventually you’ve got nothing left at all.  You’re now a debt-free pauper with no business — great!

    That’s not very analogous to what happens when you’re running a whole economy rather than a very small part of it, but it does indicate that even a small economic unit can benefit from borrowing and spending rather than belt-tightening and scrimping.

  • Lori

     Good point. I seriously doubt that most of the deficit hawks run their family budget on the principle of zero debt of any kind, ever. I know the ones in congress don’t. I saw something just the other day pointing out how many (supposed) anti-debt Congresscritters have huge personal debt, including multiple mortgages totaling in the millions and business loans and the like.

  • Ellie, my last response to you:  I am not saying whether you are being
    charitable is more important than whether people are hungry.  I am
    saying, if people are hungry, YOU feed them.  Don’t let the government
    do it for you.  YOU go out and take care of those that are in need.  The
    status quo makes us collectively LAZY, and our lethargy has resulted in
    a system that doesn’t actually help people (in general).

    Ha! Pull the other one, please!

    For all the high-flown rah-rah bootstraps oompah-oompahing I see from you I bet if you had to actually do anything substantial to help anybody but yourself you’d find a million reasons not to.

    You know back in World War II there were soldiers who’d purposely fix it so their orders were cut in such a way that they’d be deployed on the home front while a high percentage of their fellow soldiers were being sent overseas into the meat grinder?

    You’d be one of those paper soldiers. Doing the absolute bare minimum not to look like a complete selfish jackass.

  • I think the subject of this post gave us a good summary of Jeff’s position on the matter of government programs intended to promote the general welfare:

    “At this festive season of the year, Mr.
    Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually
    desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and
    Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are
    in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of
    common comforts, sir.”

    “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

    “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

    “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

    “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

    “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

    “Both very busy, sir.”

    “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had
    occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very
    glad to hear it.”

    “Under the impression that they scarcely
    furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the
    gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor
    some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because
    it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance
    rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

    “Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

    “You wish to be anonymous?”

    “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I
    wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at
    Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to
    support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and
    those who are badly off must go there.”

    “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it,
    and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t
    know that.”

    “But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

    “It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man
    to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other
    people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

    Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the
    gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge returned his labours with an improved
    opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual
    with him.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.