Hard Times In Kochtown by Rebecca Minnich

When I picked up Dickens’ Hard Times, anticipating the now-familiar and deeply craved sensation of being swept off into Victorian England, I instead felt myself uncomfortably thrust into the political present, complete with industrial carbon emissions, a school system in crisis, and increasingly brutal ideological attacks on humanitarian values.

The novel is placed in Coketown, built around a coal refinery in northern England. The first hint that escape into the misty Romantic Period wasn’t an option came when I kept reading it as Kochtown; not named after the refined bitumen that heated homes and fueled steam engines at the turn of the century, but after two brothers, Charles and David Koch, who today lay claim to the second largest industrial holdings in the United States. Having made their fortune in oil and petrochemicals, their reach has extended into paper and consumer products.  Their names are ubiquitous, attached like designer logos to their philanthropic fancies – Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, PBS programming. But if the Koch brothers had a town named after them today, a company town in which Koch industries provided the bread and butter for the populace it might actually look quite a bit like Dickens’ Coketown: “a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye…”

One of today’s Kochtowns is Crossett, Arkansas, where the Koch brothers-owned Georgia Pacific Paper Company employs 2,200 people out of a population of 6,000. The fumes from the paper mill leave residents’ eyes stinging, and many are forced to rely on respirators to breathe. On one street near the paper plant, eleven people from just fifteen homes died of cancer in one year. The toxic sludge filling the town’s river has been the subject of lawsuits and investigations into drinking water contamination. Residents are mainly African American, poor, and hesitant to speak out, as they could lose their jobs. The per capita income in Crossett is just over $18,000 a year. Georgia Pacific spokespeople deny that the plant is endangering public health, and have argued that as the town’s main “job creators,” they are doing the population far more good than harm.

This line would be a big hit with Dickens’ industrial man of action, Josiah Bounderby, Coketown’s most successful businessman. He’s a blustering, vulgar industrialist, and chief employer of the town’s workers, who are referred to only as the Hands, as if the only part of them that mattered were the parts with which they produced goods. Claiming to have pulled himself out of poverty after being abandoned by an alcoholic single mother, Bounderby considers the Hands a spoiled lot, and those who profess grievance might as well be demanding “to be set up in a coach and six, and fed on turtle soup and venison.”

These assertions  seem to be a Nineteenth Century version of today’s outlandish claims: Mitt Romney bemoaning the 47% of the population whose votes he couldn’t count on because they think the government owes them a handout, or the Fox news commentators who denounced minimum wage workers for demanding to be paid enough to both eat and pay their bills. This spring, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade advised struggling fast food workers to simply “get a second job.” Without a single dissenter, last March House Republicans voted against increasing the minimum wage. Economists generally agree that a full-time job at minimum wage cannot adequately support living costs of even a single individual, much less one supporting children. Despite mounting evidence that people living on minimum wage are increasingly resorting to food banks, are without heat or meals, or living in their cars, lawmakers on the house floor call their demands unreasonable, warning that a living wage would destroy businesses across the country.

In Dickens’ Coketown, industrialists are equally alarmed by any ruckus stirred up over negative effects of their own brand of lean and mean production. “They were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.”  In a phrase reminiscent of the oft-heard threat that factories can easily pack up and move offshore if American laborers get too cocky with their demands, a factory owner in Dickens’ Coketown, when  “it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts–was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would ‘sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.’”

As I continued reading, my paperback copy of Hard Times soon became so stained with ink from underlining phrases and scribbling in the margins that it was turning my fingers blue. I thought of today’s underfunded and overcrowded schools as I read about the children of Coketown assembled in their drab, colorless classroom to hear the lectures of industrialists Thomas Gradgrind and Mr. M’Choakumchild. Gradgrind has a square forehead and points at the children with a square forefinger, “a cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.” As Gradgrind represents the mechanized persona, the triumph of the machine over the human, Schoolmaster Mr. M’Choakumchild is its rationalizing counterpart, the brain trust, as he stands before the class, saying, “Now, this classroom is a Nation. And in this nation there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty?”

Girl number twenty is ridiculed for giving the decidedly wrong answer: “I couldn’t know whether it was a thriving nation or not unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine.”

Poor, beleaguered girl number twenty is Sissy Jupe, whose insistence on viewing the world in poetic terms makes her a laughingstock in M’Choakumchild’s class. Sissy gets in trouble for praising flowered carpets and wallpaper, as Mr. Gradgrind thunders that since flowers do not march up and down walls and across floors, why engage in the nonsense of decorating one’s house with images of them?

Mr. Gradgrind’s opening sentences in the novel shoot out like a bullet from a gun: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Dickens is describing an education system that reduces all learning to a game of numbers, of proper pegs in proper holes. A school system where artistic thought is discouraged, knowledge is boiled down and tailored to exams, in order to form good, unquestioning workers – it was all too close for comfort. I thought of the increasingly crushing pressure of standardized tests in today’s elementary schools, the dismantling of art and music programs to make more time for math and science, all in order  to get those test scores up. I thought of the desperation of teachers in fear of losing their jobs, or of the city shutting off funding for the school, if their students don’t make the cut.  While some can be spared the most mind-deadening aspects of this disastrous education policy, not everyone will be lucky enough to win a private school voucher, and not everyone can afford the tuition, and they certainly won’t have time to help their kids with the homework once they get that second job Fox News recommends.

What do we lose when we systematically destroy the human capacity for imagination? Dickens argues that what is lost is more than just the pleasantries of childhood. Mr. Gradgrind raises his own children on the same thin spiritual gruel he feeds to his students, and with calamitous results. His son ends up robbing a bank, his daughter enters a loveless marriage. Both live miserable, failed lives. The workers of Coketown never seem to recognize the insult of being referred to as the Hands. The honest and put-upon textile worker, Stephen Blackpool, can only say of the situation, “aw’s in a muddle,” neither believing in the promises of unionization or making enough money to get out of his misery on his own.

The one disappointment in Hard Times is the portrayal of the union organizer, Slackbridge, who seems a mere opportunist blowhard, interested only in rousing the rabble, not in substantial change. Stephen Blackpool won’t join the union, not only because he’s promised the love of his life, Rachael, that he’ll stay out of trouble, but because he doesn’t believe in it. When Bounderby swears to string up Slackbridge and make and example of him and his unionists cohorts, Blackpool tells him it would be useless.

“If yo was t’ take a hundred Slackbridges…an sink ‘em in the deepest ocean… yo’d leave the muddle just where ‘tis.” More telling, perhaps, of Dickens’ perspective on labor unionists, Blackpool goes on to say, “I ha’ no reason to favour ‘em – but ‘tis hopeless and useless to dream of takin’ them from their trade ‘stead o’ taking their trade fro them!”

Blackpool articulates a popular view among social reformers of the time, who argued there would be no need for collective bargaining or labor combining and the strife it sometimes causes if factory owners simply created better working conditions. There is nothing particularly Victorian about this argument, as it is exactly what many economists today say will save the US manufacturing sector: offer more perks, remove the incentive to organize while keeping wages “competitive” (read, low). The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Wages that don’t increase with costs of living do not make for stable homeowners or reliable consumers, leaving the economy prone to stagnation. Minimum wage stays at $7.25 an hour not because there isn’t enough money to pay workers, but because that is what businesses can get away with paying. Those who make the decisions at the top of these corporations do not choose to improve these conditions, for one simple reason – because they are not compelled to. As long as there exists a large sector of those who work and a tiny sector of those who own, the interests of each will be fundamentally different, and worker organization will be necessary to balance the equation.

It is unfortunate that the ugly character of Slackbridge causes some to write off Hard Times as purse sentimentalism, or as artless allegory. I rather think of Slackbridge as the point at which Dickens takes leave of us, rather like Virgil saying goodbye to Dante at the gates of paradise. Dickens shows us the problem, but the solution ultimately lies with us.  It wasn’t for Dickens to give us the blueprint for how to fight the Gradgrinds, Bounderbys, or Kochs of the world. Neither was it his job as a literary genius to portray union organizers in a way that wouldn’t offend the labor organizations of his time – or ours. Artistic minds have to be given leeway to be inconsistent, and we do ourselves no favors by relying on them too much in informing our own politics.  Perhaps Dickens will never be for the Left what Ayn Rand has been for the Right – a flag, a clarion call. He’s too nuanced, too complicated, and for this, I am actually grateful.

Whether by coincidence or not, the name Kochtown has taken hold among one particular sector of rabble-rousers, a spinoff of the Occupy movement of 2011 called Occupy Kochtown, which formed to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Koch brothers, key investors in the Keystone pipeline, plan to build the pipeline to span the United States north to south, pumping the dirtiest oil on earth, essentially petroleum sludge, from Canada to their refineries in Texas. The phrase “coals to Newcastle,” would immediately resonate with Dickens, but as irrational as it sounds, there is a cynical motive behind it, which is to save $30 a barrel by not buying from Venezuela, as those stubborn socialists refuse to lower their prices.

Keystone XL will endanger some of the most sensitive aquifers in North America, threaten the hemisphere’s largest old-growth hardwood forest north of the Amazon, not to mention hundreds of miles of U.S. farmland, all so the Koch brothers can save a few bucks.

In Hard Times, Sissy Jupe, (girl number twenty) is told to stand in class and define a horse. It should be an easy task, as her father rides horses as part of his circus act, and she’s grown up around them all her life. Still, she blushes and stumbles before the class. Mr. Gradgrind tells her to sit down and listen to a boy named Bitzer do it right. Bitzer defines a horse as a graminivorous quadruped with forty teeth, and he is showered with praise. Dickens juxtaposes flesh and blood reality against a mechanized world view imprisoned within charts, tables, facts and figures. The reduction of what Kant called “the thing in itself” to mere digits. A cow is a bovine ruminate, the workers are Hands; “something to be worked so much and paid so much…something that was pinched a little when wheat was dear, and overate itself when wheat was cheap.”

This same reduction of life’s value to numbers, charts, and tables is what drives the logic of the Keystone XL pipeline. If the dollars are on the positive side of the ledger, there is nothing more to weigh. Never mind that pipelines have a habit of bursting, flooding the land with toxic chemicals, or that storage centers have a way of exploding without warning, or that the processing of Canada’s tar sands oil already accounts for the fastest growing industrial source of carbon emissions in North America.

Unfortunately, the voices crying out to stop the Keystone XL pipeline are fighting with the same weapons in their arsenal –  facts, figures, numbers, and statistics. Climatologists have been arguing for decades that the world is in serious danger from climate change. In Scientific American David Biello argues that our current atmospheric carbon load of 394 parts per million is already too high to safely stabilize average global temperatures at 2 degrees higher than the current average. Nations willing to abide by worldwide emissions targets (which by and large exclude the biggest polluters) are setting their sights on 450 ppm. Regardless of the best intentions, and thanks to projects like Keystone XL, that aim to extract the last dregs of fossil fuels from the earth, the world is presently on track to surpass the emissions safety threshold, bringing average global temperatures up to a catastrophic 3 degrees higher or more.

Hearing this, the average human being misses the “catastrophic” part altogether and simply says, So, what’s an extra three degrees? I’ll just switch on the AC a couple of weeks earlier. Sadly, facts, figures, and statistics do not move us, even when they should. This is something Dickens understood when he described the mental paralysis of Sissy Jupe when asked to define a horse. It isn’t that Sissy is stupid, or that she doesn’t know a horse. It is a question of how we, as humans, go about knowing.

In 2011, only 58 percent of Americans polled believed climate change was real. One year later, after a crippling Midwestern drought, that number jumped to 68-70%. In 2010, only 48 percent of the voting population considered climate change “a serious problem.” In November 2012, post- Hurricane Sandy, that number had jumped to 68 percent. Did the people finally take the wax out of their ears? Did the scientists develop better ways of getting their message across? No. The images of corn wilting in cracked fields, people’s homes tumbling into the sea, cars washed like paper cups down flooded streets of New York City – these things frightened people at their core. Dickens and the Romantics who inspired him understood that we are essentially creatures of imagination. Our perceptions of the world are driven more by image and narrative than by facts and data. The Occupy protesters understood this when they constructed a fifty-foot long, carbon-black, serpentine Keystone pipeline and carried it to the White House amid thousands of protesters in fall of 2011. The news media picked up and reproduced the image of the pipeline again and again, getting far more play out of it than five hundred panel discussions, or climate change summits. And what happened? A minor victory weeks later, as Obama signed a temporary moratorium on the development of the Keystone XL pipeline.

But we do not always see our victories or understand what we have gained and why. Of course, we cannot do without facts and figures, but we must make them communicate on the level of imagination and imagery if we are to create real change. The Keystone moratorium has expired, and those pushing for the pipeline have the force of money behind them. It will take sustained mass creative action to communicate to people what Keystone will really mean – making use of every image, from the tar sands sludge piling up in Detroit to Arkansas backyards flooded with spilled pipeline oil.

In their pursuit of wealth, even the  Bounderbys and Kochs of the world cannot do without imagination. Dickens’ Mr. Bounderby goes so far as to conceal his mother from public view to preserve the fiction that he was an abandoned waif who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps to achieve wealth. This narrative has a powerful effect on his young protégé, Bitzer, who wonders aloud why the Hands of Coketown can’t all pull themselves out of poverty, save and invest their wages, “make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence.” Bitzer’s words might just as well be from Donald Trump’s mouth: “What one person can do, another can do.” But the fiction of the self-made man was a story powerful enough to keep the Hands cowed, and it is alive and well today. Mitt Romney used it in his GOP Convention speech of 2012 when he reminded the audience, “My dad never made it through college and apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter. He had big dreams.” What Romney neglected to mention was that his father was on welfare in the early years of his life, a nanny-state handout many of Romney’s supporters would like to abolish. Interestingly, it was an interview with Romney’s mother from the early 60’s that brought this to light.

The truth that Dickens reveals in Bounderby’s embarrassing downfall, and that Romney stepped into by omission, is that nobody ever makes it out of poverty entirely on their own. But somehow the inflated narrative of the self-made man lives on. When embraced by working people it is deadly, as it puts the blame on the individual for not being financially successful. In place of anger and the urge to collectively act against oppressive policies, we feel worthless when assaulted daily by media images of wealthy people enjoying vacations, fine food, fashionable clothes, while we struggle to pay the rent. The eye pulls away from the broader human picture and into the miserable self, until we can no longer see that our pains and frustrations are collectively shared, part of a worldwide condition in which the vast majority are working far too hard for far too little. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is a cruel jest to say that a bootless man should lift himself up by his own bootstraps. It is even worse to tell him to lift himself up by his bootstraps when somebody is standing on the boot.”

We would all do well to take a closer look at Dickens as we find ourselves sliding into ever more Dickensian times. Within the pages of his writing, we may just discover ways to reclaim our voices and our humanity.

 

 

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