Saturday, January 21, 2006

Of Dickens, War and Irony

by Joe Miller

This afternoon, my brother Josh and I had one of those really great all-over-the-map IM conversations. Somewhere in the course of discussing pot-smoking Republicans (also known as libertarians), Bleak House (a new PBS version is out on Sunday), the proper way to watch Jessica Simpson videos (sound off, please), just war theory (Josh is the technical advisor for Bellum et Mores), the new Chicken Online Counting Kiosk that Josh designed for the Florida Department of Agriculture (gotta love programmer humor), the competence of the Bush administration (this part of the conversation didn't take long), and the fact that 'joystick' is an amazingly-dirty term to have been foisted off on the Atari-buying public ("What 'pleasurewand' was already taken?"), Josh offered that there is a nice analogy just dying to be made between President Bush and Mrs. Jellyby.

For those of you not up on your Dickens lore, Mrs. Jellyby is a dedicated philanthropist, but a rather oblivious one. Here is Dickens' description:

We expressed our acknowledgements, and sat down behind the door where there was a lame invalid of a sofa. Mrs. Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it. The shawl in which she had been loosely muffled, dropped on to her chair when she advanced to us; and as she turned to resume her seat, we could not help noticing that her dress didn't nearly meet up the back, and that the open space was railed across with a lattice-work of stay-lace--like a summerhouse.

The room, which was strewn with papers and nearly filled by a great writing-table covered with similar litter, was, I must say, not only very untidy, but very dirty. We were obliged to take notice of that with our sense of sight, even while, with our sense of hearing, we followed the poor child who tumbled downstairs: I think into the back kitchen where somebody seemed to stifle him.

But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl, at the writing table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. And, from her tumbled hair to her pretty feet, which were disfigured with frayed and broken satin slippers trodden down at the heel, she really seemed to have no article of dress upon her, from a pin upwards, that was in its proper condition or its right place.

Mrs. Jellyby, in short, is remarkably good at helping those in far-off places and remarkably bad at seeing the rather dreadful conditions in which her own children live.

So is the comparison between Bush and Mrs. Jellyby fair? Well, one might consider that we are engaged in a massive project whose goal (this week anyway) is to bring democracy to Iraq. The price tag for that project: a cool $2,000,000,000,000. Yes, that's the right number of zeros. The estimate for the total long-term cost of the war in Iraq is around two trillion dollars. In the meantime, 19 different states (including several with Republican governors) have had to step in to guarantee that those covered by Medicare's new prescription drug plan are able to receive their medication. A host of spending cuts (mostly for domestic welfare programs and for guaranteed student loans) are on the way for 2007 to offset a $4 billion deficit while at the same time, the President pushes to make several more tax cuts permanent. What no one mentions is that deficits eventually have to be paid back. Taxes aren't being cut. They're just being passed along to the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers. So in that sense, at least, Bush is busy saving Iraqis while ignoring his "own" children.

All this is not to say that one ought necessarily to help Americans even at the expense of needy non-Americans. The analogy is descriptive, not normative. Charity is morally required of us, and even the poorest Americans are far better off than the majority of the world's population. Perhaps, though, it is fair to suggest that our $2 trillion might have been better spent. Indeed, here's a suggestion that is even in keeping with the free-market notion that people spend money far better than governments do. Simply give $2000 in cash to each of the poorest 1,000,000,000 families in the world.

Incidentally, the discussion of Mrs. Jellyby, the philanthropist whose own children are in need of charity, led us to wonder whether there is an actual term for someone who fixes some kind of problem for others but who is blind to those same issues in her own life. The oncologist who dies from undaignosed cancer. The profiler whose child is a serial killer. The marriage counselor whose spouse unexpectedly files for divorce. Surely there is some term for this sort of irony. Any suggestions out there?


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I'd like to think that since WWII, this has been the case, at least to a degree. Not only with the current administration, but the basic workings of the Federal government. I guess what I'm thinking of here is the typical 'right hand not knowing what the left is up to' scenario.

I'm not sure, but I think the term we're looking for just might be "situational comedy".

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Joshua Miller said...

After some digging around the term that I found that I feel best fits the description is "telescopic irony” – borrowing again from Mr. Dickens. This situation could be considered somewhat ironic – an “irony of fate” to be more specific - but since it is likely due to the individual’s lack of attention to their own matters it seems that “telescopic” does it equal justice.

Dickens used the term “telescopic philanthropy” which seems to be as accurate a depiction of the Bush administration’s foreign policy today as it was of the British Empire’s policy at the time of his writing. What bothers me personally in regards to our current administration is that they somehow have found a way to be both telescopic and myopic at the same time leaving them at best out of focus and at worst just plain blind. It seems that our government spends a great deal of time looking a long way off but often forgets to remove the lens-cap before doing so.

Perhaps it is simply human nature to try and solve the very problems we grapple with ourselves outside of ourselves; a subconscious attempt to solve difficult problems we face without actually facing them. Perhaps that is exactly what is going on in Iraq – somewhere deep down the powers that be know that regime-change is in order, they just can’t see that it needs to take place at home.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous jimi said...

joe (look, no doctor!), your comparison might be fair, but i'd argue that bush is remarkably bad in both arenas--foreign and domestic--as reflected by joshua's comment that the administration is "both telescopic and myopic at the same time."

if history is any indication of the impact of mrs. jellyby's philanthropic endeavors we can be quite sure she was indeed a proto-bush. on the other hand, bush excercises a great deal of influence over his failures, while, for all we know, mrs. jellyby may have had some excellent ideas which were never applied.

at any rate i'm still obsessing over the dr. pangloss analogy, although that may be owed more to the whistling-past-the-graveyard rhetoric or the administration that to actual belief.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I don't think the analogy works well at all. It is based on the assumption that Bush is oblivious to what is happening here. Please remember, that while it has not been obvious of late with the spending issue (earmarks, etc.) the core conservative republican view IS less federal money to social programs that were originally designed to be implementd by the states. Spending an issue?: I agree. But also remember that congress controls the money, not Bush. One could make the claim that republicans may be oblivious to the plights of the middle and lower classes if the spending cuts had a peripheral effect on the programs you mention. Since the cuts are targeted at these programs, I don't think oblivious is the proper term.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

While I can agree up to a certain point with Rick, I would like to point out that the Executive -and I'm pointing out an issue I see with they system, not any individual or group of individuals- makes policy and that policy is, for some reason, actuated through the Legislative. I suppose what I'm trying to get at here with all my fumbling syntax is this: when the Executive wants to make changes to the way things are done -rather than executing the law as it exists- it issues requests -mainly in the form of the SotUA- for the Legislative to change said laws until it suits the Executive. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but is this not a tradition contrary to the law in the first place? I don't carry around a copy of the Constitution -anymore- so I may be wrong about the 'Article mixing' that I think is going on.

Anyway, I have a paper to write, what am I doing here?

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Jamie McCall said...

Im so late on this, but I would just like to point out that us Libertarians are not infact pot smoking Repblicans.

We do crack. Lets get it right, people...

2:11 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

Yea but still after ww2 u old ideas of teh administration still prevelant within it. It needs to look at the things from the past so its able to adpat to its future administartion which incudes knowing what everyone is doing

5:54 PM  

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