Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Elementary, my dear

Gustave Doré, 1872, Wentworth Street, Whitechapel. Copyright Wellcome Images.
I had called upon my friend David Brooks upon the Monday after Thanksgiving, with the intention of wishing him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown, a laptop computer within his reach upon the right, and a pile of crumpled morning papers, evidently newly studied, near at hand, while I wondered how many times I could work the word "upon" into a single paragraph.

“You are engaged,” said I; “perhaps I interrupt you.”

“Not at all. I am glad to have a friend with whom I can discuss my results. The matter is a perfectly trivial one”—he jerked his thumb in the direction of the machine—“but there are points in connection with it which are not entirely devoid of interest and even of instruction.”

I seated myself in his armchair and warmed my hands before his crackling fire. "I have been much concerned of late," he went on, "with events in America. I allude, of course, to the case of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri."

"Of course!" It had been in all the papers: a young man of African descent had been shot dead, under mysterious circumstances, by a policeman who then fled the scene, leaving the body exposed, for hours, to the elements; an outraged crowd of the dead man's friends and relatives expressing its emotion in the streets had been met with violent opposition from a force armed as if for an invasion of Mexico, the authorities had dithered for weeks, failing to calm the population or restrain the troops, and the magistrate charged with the case, unable to come to a resolution, had thrown it in the hands of a jury which declined to do anything whatever about it, whereupon some members of the crowd had run riot, even causing some serious damage to private property, for an entire night.

"And I have no doubt you are appalled," I added, "as I am, by the racialism that animated this unfortunate police officer in his deadly actions as well as those who would excuse him!"

"Spoken like the warm-hearted, well-educated, conventional citizen you are," replied Brooks with a quizzical smile. "And yet I rather think not."

"What? You are not appalled, then?"

"I think that accusations of racialism may have been appropriate in historical times, say around 1964, when things were simpler, but hardly so much so in the ambiguities of the present. Surely from that perspective it is clear that what is at issue is a matter not of race but of social and economic standing or, as Professor Marx calls it, class. Are you aware that in Victorian London people were hostile to the poor because of their insalubrious lifestyles, crammed into tenements known as rookeries because of their resemblance to the rock faces on which English crows build their nests?"

"It has nothing to do with rocks, Brooks. 'Rook' is another word for crow, and English ones live in trees, the same as others. Besides, what does Victorian London have to do with the case? Surely if it's not 1964, it's not 1864 either. "

"It is one of the most fundamental principles of reductive logic to take the most general possible view of a situation and retreat to the more specific only if compelled to do so. We know, for example, that we are at a time remote from 1964; but is it before 1964 or after? From the reductive standpoint it should not be necessary to ask." He got up and poured a couple of glasses of sherry.

"Have one of these, old chap. You will allow, at any rate, that poor people of the time resembled dark, silent, uneasy shadows passing and crossing — human vermin in this reeking sink, like goblin exhalations from all that is noxious around. Women with sunken, black-rimmed eyes, whose pallid faces appear and vanish by the light of an occasional gas lamp, and look so like ill-covered skulls that we start at their stare. I got it from an essay by Arthur Morrison, in a quaint and curious volume of the Palace Journal, vintage 1889, that I happened to be leafing through the other evening."

"Leafing through my arse, Brooks. You got it from VictorianWeb, same as the rookeries."

"Well, never mind that. At all events I've already filed my feuilleton for tomorrow arguing that class, not race, is what's at issue."

"You must telephone your editor immediately to tell him the piece needs revision," I protested. "It has nothing to do with class, at least not as you understand it: Michael Brown was a college-bound youth born to married parents, though they later split up, and raised in a church-going extended family. Officer Darren Wilson, the killer, came from a wretched background, raised by various stepfathers while his mother lived a life of petty crime, stealing the neighbors' credit cards, and died, poor creature, at the age of 35. At 28 he had never been to college but was already divorced once and living in one of those cohabitation arrangements against which you constantly inveigh. Surely you don't suggest that he killed Brown out of class prejudice?"

"Not Wilson, my dear fellow, you! And of course Brown, the thoughtless bourgeois lad whose contempt for the humble "copper" led to the tragic results that destroyed Wilson's career. It is quite elementary. Your irrepressible class prejudices are blinding you to this unhappy man's mitigating qualities."

"What? You don't think the incident was more tragic still for the dead lad and his parents? And prosecutor McCulloch, Mayor Knowles, Governor Nixon all victims of class prejudice as well?"

"Absolutely. In Missouri, it's rednecks all the way up. You have to learn to show a little human understanding and compassion."

Inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, 1892.
Illustration by Sidney Paget, 1892, via Wikisource.

Driftglass takes the elegant and concise approach. Steve M, playing it straight, gives real value.

No comments:

Post a Comment