I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.


I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

OWS: Trust and the need to revel in difficulties

Why I support the Occupy movement

First, I need to explain who the Occupy supporters and protesters are. These people are my friends. I respect the values of my friends; my friends are well-educated, experienced, thoughtful, and often wise. If they support an action or a cause, I don’t necessarily jump on the ol’ bandwagon just because I like them; but I do take a good look at their claims. The description that follows is based upon my own experience and may not be statistically accurate.

There is no way to generalize my friends and colleagues who support the protests. They range in age from 18 to 86, and they are of both sexes and numerous “races,” a term to which I object on scientific grounds but which serves a purpose here. Sexual orientation among these friends varies, but the vast majority of them are heterosexual people involved in long-term committed relationships. Many attend religious services regularly. While I may be acquainted with a few more radical liberals than the average citizen is, I do not know any Communists involved with Occupy and most of the people I know who support the movement are moderate, middle-class or formerly-middle-class taxpayers. None of them are homeless. Although one or two are “underwater” with their mortgages, most of them are managing to pay their loans and make ends meet; they are all employed or under-employed (a term I shall define below).

The vast majority of my Occupier colleagues have college degrees, but not all of them are employed in white-collar jobs. Many, many, many of my friends and colleagues who support OWS are working part-time, or working at jobs for which they are over-qualified, or working free-lance on a less-than-regular basis; or they own and run small businesses such as consulting practices that don’t always generate income when the economy is stale. They are educators and artists and even young lawyers right out of grad school. These are the under-employed, and there are so many of us out there that the government statistics are bound to under-count us. They are recent college grads who have mountains of debt to pay off and who now realize the career for which they’ve trained has, at present, no place for them…so they pick up some retail work or start a part-time small business or try to earn a living however they can, often swinging two or more jobs just to pay the bills. They are not lazy lay-abouts who want a government handout for free.

The majority of these people support capitalism, yet they feel our nation’s government has not quite lived up to its role of protector and defender of the people. Most of these folks feel that a government “safety net” or a more equitable method of taxation is not the same as a socialist agenda and that a moderate level of social support is not incompatible with democracy. They are willing to pay taxes for the kinds of support they request, but they want fair taxation and fair wages and a chance to serve the world through diligent and profitable work. The lack of fairness is what irks them; they want to live in a nation that is “just.” The idea of justice is not only something that pertains to the judicial branch of government but to the idea of fairness across the board, in all endeavors, including economic endeavors.

I have friends and colleagues who are atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Wiccans, Muslims, and agnostics; but the majority of the people I know personally who are involved in OWS identify themselves as Christians. I think this is relevant on many levels: it messes with stereotypes of Christians as “right-wingers,” for one thing. Jesus’ teachings tend to focus on caring for the least among us— Jesus was not a supporter of oligarchy. He did remind us that we need to be grateful for whatever we have, to love the world that God gave us; the implicit and explicit reminder is that each human being is part of that world.

There’s a slogan with which we are all familiar: “In God we trust.” Some Americans have chosen to focus on the Big G-word of this slogan. Some citizens think it should not appear on the legal tender of a nation where there is separation of church and state. Others claim that God is what the country should be all about and that we need to rewrite or re-interpret our laws to reflect that idea.

Suppose, however, we were to focus on the T-word instead? Trust. My diagnosis—and I admit, I am basing it only on the people I know personally (and I know quite a few) among the loose collective movement that is OWS—is that people feel a loss of trust. Protesters often use the word “betrayed” when they are interviewed about why they are sleeping in Zuccotti park. For many years, Americans have been naively but wonderfully trusting:

–why didn’t you read the fine print, Grandma?

–because the banker was trustworthy on my last two mortgages; why would the bank want to take all my money now?

Does this country really want to move from “In God we trust” to “caveat emptor”? That would mark a huge change in the collective character of the US citizen. I hope that legislators and politicians will pay attention to the people of the Occupy movement and hear how vital trust is. We cannot move forward until there is trust on all sides of the discussion.

The press has made much of the OWS movement as being vague or aimless, and it is true that the anti-war protests of the 60s and 70s seemed to have more purpose. Still, “End the War” was not the only demand of those protesters, and some of the protests were both obscure and misdirected. The protests that made up the War on Poverty were composed of a cacophony of different and often dissenting voices, too. Certainly, there was little agreement on the specific ultimate aims of the Civil Rights movement or on how to attain those rights. In retrospect, it’s always easier to say what the purposes were.

I’m not out on the streets with a sign and a sleeping bag. I have classes to teach and I desperately need to keep my day job. But being silent doesn’t show support or argue for trust and fairness in a nation founded on rational goodness which, idealistic as that is, was one of the aims of Thomas Jefferson. My sense is that specific aims will be synthesized from all this discontent. People are brainstorming. This is what I tell my students to do when they have to write a paper: revel in difficulties for awhile. Figure out what your purpose is going to be.

Then go for it.

Here’s another take on OWS, with some quite reasonable analogies:

Lemony Snicket on OWS