Details in politics

I wrote earlier how easy it is to believe in broad, sweeping statements. It is the details that are hard to accept. I said that a key difference between science and religion is that religious beliefs actually discourage people from asking detailed questions and investigating how the big picture manifests itself in concrete and specific situations, while in science it is precisely the issue of how well the details are explained that established the plausibility of the big picture.

The same holds true for politics. Politicians are fond of grand sweeping gestures and policies and equally fond of avoiding the details of implementation. Take for example the recent (but failed) attempt to enshrine in the constitution an amendment that would allow congress to pass laws preventing desecration of the flag. If you ask most people if they oppose flag desecration, they would likely say yes. But it is only when you get into the details of this policy that you see its ridiculousness. (Incidentally, I find this veneration for the flag in the US to smack of fetishism or even idolatry, but that is a topic for another day.)

What exactly constitutes desecration? Since the impetus for this amendment arises from people who are offended by flag burning protestors, one can infer that it is the very act of burning that constitutes desecration. The Washington Post reports that “The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.” As the reporter dryly notes, when one looks at the actual number of burnings, this constituted an increase from three to four, hardly an epidemic. In fact, the comic strip Doonesbury is running a series of strips (starting July 3) in which the Bush administration, frustrated by how few burnings there are to stir up outrage, covertly hires someone to burn a flag.

But the recommended method of disposing of old flags is burning, so it cannot be the act of burning that is objectionable, it must be the thought behind the act. So is the amendment aimed at creating a ‘thought crime’? If so, then if someone simply says that the flag should be burned and does not actually burn it, is that desecration? Or someone silently burns a flag while not saying or doing anything to indicate motive, is that a crime?

And what exactly constitutes a flag? The flag emblem is used for commercial purposes all the time and can be found on all manner of objects, including clothing. Can paper napkins with the flag design used at picnics be tossed in the trash or burned? Does such an act become desecration only if accompanied by some kind of protest statement?

But ‘defenders of the flag’ don’t like these questions being raised because it exposes the utter silliness of the issue. They would much rather stay with the big picture and intone with gravity about the deep significance of the flag.

The same thing about the importance of details is true for the much graver issues of war. If journalists covering the run up to the attack on Iraq had focused on investigating the details of the charges that were made by the Bush administration, instead of just reporting their global statements, the fraudulence of the case for war would have been exposed to a far wider audience.

The Bush administration simply kept making the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US and implied that they had links with al Qaeda and thus were complicit with the attacks of 9/11. People seemed to have no trouble believing all these big picture claims, which is why there was support for the war, at least initially.

Major media journalists should have repeatedly asked for details of each of these assertions, and asked questions such as: What evidence does the administration have that Iraq has threatened the US? What evidence does it have that they actually have the capacity and the intent to do so? What evidence exists for the alleged al Qaeda links? If they had done so, the case for attacking Iraq would have quickly fallen apart. But they will only do so if we, the public, insist that we want to know the answers to such questions before we approve military actions.

Another example of how details can reveal important truths in a political context is provided in this article by Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams on June 18, 2006.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors’ preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander — who for security reasons can’t be identified — elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding
. . .
I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

“Only during the mass-hanging incident,” the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec – operational security – watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

Details matter. It is well known that when people try to lie, they are often exposed by little details that trip them up, which is why crime suspects are urged to talk. It is easy to lie on a grand scale. It is hard to make details internally consistent if the big picture is false.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to deceive the Supreme Court

On June 29, 2006, the US Supreme Court in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al. struck down the Bush administration’s assertion that they could basically do what they like with the detainees at Guantanamo, and that the courts had no jurisdiction over them. The court argued that the Geneva conventions, among other things, applied to the prisoners and that they had basic rights of due process.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of a law, it frequently examines the legislative debates that took place during the enactment of the law in order to more accurately determine legislative intent. Some Republicans have tried to use this to try and deceive the court during the arguments on this case, which involved the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), passed on December 20, 2005.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) created a script of a bogus colloquy between them that did not actually occur while the act was debated, inserted the script into the congressional record after the legislation had passed, and then used that bogus debate as the basis for filing a friend of the court brief in the case to argue that the law meant the opposite of what it meant. The Justice Department also used that bogus debate as part of its brief.

As John Dean writes:

Hamdan’s lawyers, however, spotted the hoax. In their opposition to the motion to dismiss the case, they advised the Court that the supposedly conflicting legislative history was entirely invented after the fact, and that it consisted of “a single scripted colloquy that never actually took place, but was instead inserted into the record after the legislation had passed.” The brief noted, quite accurately, that this Graham-Kyl colloquy was “simply an effort to achieve after passage of the Act precisely what [they] failed to achieve in the legislative process.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not decide the jurisdictional issue until it rendered its full ruling on June 29 of this year. There, Justice Stevens concluded correctly that the Congress had not stripped the Court of jurisdiction with the DTA.

Out of an apparent concern for interbranch comity, the High Court has chosen to ignore the bogus brief filed by Senators Graham and Kyl, rather than reprimanding the Senators. Nevertheless, when Graham and Kyl sought to file the very same brief, a month later, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columba (sic), Slate’s Emily Bazelon reports that court “issued an unusual order rejecting” their amicus brief alone, although they accepted five others.

No one familiar with this remarkable behavior by Graham and Kyl can doubt why the court did not want to hear from these senators.

This is the kind of chicanery that ensues when people try to defend the indefensible. How dishonest can these people get? Do they have no sense of ethics? Does no one hold them accountable?

The role of emotion in maintaining religion: a follow up

There were some very interesting comments to the original post on this topic that I would urge people to read. There was one point raised that I realized required a much more extended response. In that comment Corbin questioned some of my conclusions and asked “Is there really evidence to support Marx’s claim that religious persons and societies are more docile and more likely to simply endure social injustice?”
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The role of emotion in maintaining religion

As I have said before, I grew up being very religious and actively involved in church and Christian youth activities. I enjoy meeting old and close friends and relatives, many of whom I have known since my early childhood. Growing up, they all had known me as a practicing Christian, even more so than your regular Sunday churchgoer since I was an ordained lay preacher and regularly conducted services that many of them had listened to as members of the congregation.

Most of my relatives and childhood friends are still religious. When I encounter them now, many have heard on the grapevine of my apostasy and start up a conversation about faith, sometimes out of curiosity as to why I renounced my own belief, at other times to try and bring me back into the fold.

This happened again recently and during the discussion, the question was posed to me as to what, as an atheist, I could offer someone whose lot in life was wretched and hopeless. She said that at least religion could promise that person a better life in heaven, something that they could look forward to, and thus make life on Earth, however harsh, at least bearable.

It made me recall an Andy Capp cartoon where he and his wife Flo are stopped by a perspiring man carrying a heavy suitcase who asks them how far it is to the railway station. Flo replies that it is just a short distance away. The man perks up considerably and goes off. Andy then asks her why she said that since the station is a good way away. Flo replies, “The poor man looked so tired that I thought it would cheer him up.”

This is probably the main appeal of religion, that it provides hope (even if false) that enables people to face life. Religion provides a strong emotional appeal, providing people with something to look forward to so that they can face the present, however harsh, with a greater degree of equanimity.

It is this feature of religion that Karl Marx described as the “opium of the people.” What Marx was objecting to was that such an attitude had the effect of preventing people from protesting the injustice of their situation and seeking to change it. As he said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (February 1844):

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx was accurate with his metaphor of opium for religion. It not only takes away pain, it also dulls the will to action. Perhaps religion persists because it is a form of addiction, removing us from the realm of reality just as effectively as heroin or cocaine, and is just as hard to relinquish. What the promise of heaven does is to ease the pressure on us to improve life on Earth. It is the ultimate cop-out.

But if we do not have religion, we are forced to take action. In the Andy Capp cartoon context, that translates into not lying to the person as Flo did in order to help that person feel good in the short run, but to either help him carry his suitcase so that his journey would be easier or to add wheels to the suitcase so that his journey is made easier.

The emotional appeal of religion is strong. It is appealing to think that there is some sense of cosmic justice where good is rewarded and evil punished. It is nice to think that in the afterlife, those who suffered unjustly will be rewarded and that there is a heavenly war trial where all those who have been responsible for willful and major human suffering would face their ultimate comeuppance. I think that it is this emotional appeal that keeps people faithful to religion.

Just yesterday, the news media reported that Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron head, had died of a heart attack just prior to his sentencing. Many people, appalled at the high life he led while swindling thousands of people of their life savings, were hoping to see him brought down from his life of luxury and spend his last days in jail. Some people expressed disappointment at the news of his death, that he had escaped the hardship of jail but expressed hope that he would pay in the afterlife. This is a common enough reaction and presumably gives those feeling aggrieved some consolation.

But atheists know that no such cosmic justice exists. The fate that evil people ultimately face is the same as the fate that anyone else faces, and that is death. Paradoxically, this need not be depressing but actually can serve as a call to action. If this is the one life that we have, it becomes clearer that our obligation to ourselves and to others is to make sure that it is the best it can be, so that everyone had a chance at a decent life.

If we seek justice, then it has to be done by us right here on Earth. That buck cannot be passed. That is the message that atheists have to offer to people. It may not have a soothing effect but is more likely to lead to concrete action.

POST SCRIPT: Minor Milestone

In checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that on June 30, 2006, the one million hit mark since its inception on January 26, 2005 was reached. Thank you very much to all those who visit, read, and comment. It has been a pleasure to write and, I hope, to provoke thought and discussions.

Why small problems create the most difficulties for Christians

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has some interesting things to say on the importance of details in establishing credibility of any knowledge system. In his Reply to a Christian he points out how central it is to religious beliefs that one avoids any kinds of details that might lead to refutation, something that I have also been writing about for some time. His essay is worth quoting at length.
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Thoughts on Mark Twain’s The War Prayer

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer fits into the latter category.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its basis is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through. The key section about the nature of such prayers is revealed when he writes:
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The War Prayer by Mark Twain

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. Coming at a time when the mood of the country is being whipped up to mobilize and support yet another attack on another country (this time Iran) I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works.

I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain’s work and about Twain himself. Tomorrow I will look at what Twain is trying to say in this piece and the background to it. For today, I’ll let this remarkable piece of writing speak for itself.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

POST SCRIPT: Strange statues

Take a look at this collection of strange statues from all over the world.

The devil in the details

In one of the classic Peanuts cartoons, Linus says that when he grows up he wants to become a great doctor and rid the world of illness. His sister Lucy tells him he can’t because he doesn’t care enough about humanity. An indignant Linus responds, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I remembered that cartoon as I was writing the recent series of posts about the difficulties with believing that the mind/soul is a non-material entity that can exist independently of the material body and brain. I wrote about how Descartes struggled with how to understand the actual working of the model.
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Algeria and Iraq

I just saw a remarkable film The Battle of Algiers. Made in black and white (French with English subtitles) in 1966 by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, the story is about the Algerian struggle for independence and the battle between the rebels and the French colonial powers in the capital city of Algiers in the period 1954-1960.

In order to deal with the increasing violence during this period, the French government sends in elite paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu. Mathieu sets about ruthlessly identifying the structure of the insurgent network, capturing and torturing members to get information on others, and killing and blowing up buildings in his pursuit of the rebels even if it contains civilians. And yet, he is not portrayed as a monster. In one great scene where he is giving a press conference, he is asked about his methods of getting information and the allegations of torture. He replies quite frankly that the French people must decide if they want to stay in Algeria or leave, and if they want to halt the violence against them or let it continue. He says that if they want to stay and stop the violence, then they must be prepared to live with the consequences of how that is achieved. It is the French people’s choice.

One gets the sense that Mathieu does not torture and kill suspects because he enjoys it. He is simply an amoral man, who has been given a job to do and he will get it done using whatever means he deems necessary. This is the kind of military person that political leaders want. They don’t want people who worry about the niceties of human rights and human dignity. But when you train people to deny their normal human feelings, then you get the kind of people who carry out the tortures described in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and who are even surprised when there is an outcry that what they did was wrong.

And Mathieu does succeed in his task, at least in the short run. By his ruthless methods he destroys the rebel network. But all that this buys is some time. After a lull in the violence for a couple of years, a sudden eruption of mass protests results in Algeria becoming independent in 1962. The French win the battle of Algiers but lose the war of independence.

The film gives a remarkably balanced look at the battle, avoiding the temptation to fall into easy clichés about good and evil. It shows the FLN (National Liberation Front) using women and children to carry out its bombing campaign against French civilians living in the French areas of the city. In one memorable sequence, three young Muslim women remove their veils, cut their hair, put on makeup, and dress like French women to enable them to carry bombs in their bags and pass through military checkpoints that surround the Muslim sector of the city (the Casbah). They place those bombs in a dance hall, coffee shop and Air France office, bombs that explode with deadly effect killing scores of civilians who just happen to be there.

In one scene:

Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force. During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: “Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets.”

The parallels of Algeria and Iraq are striking, so much so that it is reported that the US policy makers and military viewed this film with a view to hoping to learn how to combat the Iraq insurgency.

As in Iraq, the rebels are Muslims and the objections they have to being ruled by non-Muslims plays an important role in their motivation to revolt. The French had just humiliatingly lost in Vietnam in 1954 and their military was anxious to rehabilitate their reputations by winning elsewhere. In other words, they had their own ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to deal with, just like the US.

In the film, you see how the ability of the insurgents to blend in with the urban population enables them to move around and carry out attacks on the French police and citizenry, with women and children playing important roles. We see how the privileged and western lifestyle of the French people in Algeria makes them easy targets for attacks. We see how the attacks on French people and soldiers in Algeria causes great fury amongst the French citizenry, causing them to condone the torture and killing and other brutal methods of the French troops.

One major difference between the French involvement in Algeria and US involvement is Iraq is that Algeria had been occupied by the French for 130 years, since 1830. They had been there for so long that they considered it part of France and refused to consider the possibility of independence. The long occupation also resulted in a significant number of French people living in the city of Algiers, thus making them vulnerable targets. In Iraq, there are very few US civilians and almost all of them are in the heavily fortified so-called ‘green zone.’

The film takes a balanced look at what an urban guerilla war looks like and those who wish to see what might be currently happening in cities like Ramadi and Falluja and Baghdad can get a good idea by seeing this film. The scenes of mass protest by huge crowds of Algerians and their suppression by the occupying French forces are so realistic that the filmmakers put a disclaimer at the beginning stating that no documentary or newsreel footage had been used. And amazingly, this realism was achieved with all novice actors, people who were selected off the streets of Algiers. Only the French Colonel Mathieu was played by a professional actor, but you would not believe it from just seeing the film since the actors give such natural and polished performances, surely a sign of a great director.

For a good analysis of the film and background on its director, see here. The film is available at the Kelvin Smith Library.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary about Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama

Today at 10:00 pm WVIZ Channel 25 in Cleveland is showing No More Tears Sister. I wrote about this documentary earlier.

The strange game of cricket

I am a lifelong fan of cricket and spent an enormous amount of my youth devoted (many would say wasted) to the game. As a boy, much of my free time was spent playing it, reading about it, watching it, or listening to it on the radio. I was such a devoted fan that I would set the alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to listen to crackly and indistinct short wave radio commentary of the games from distant time zones in England, Australia, and West Indies. Such was my fanaticism towards the game that I was going to all this trouble to listen to games involving other countries, Sri Lanka achieving international Test playing status only in 1981. And now with the internet, I have been able to renew my interest in the game since the lack of coverage in the US media is no longer a hindrance, so the time wasting has begun anew.
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Cricket and the politics of class

Whenever I read the novels of (say) Jane Austen or P. G. Wodehouse, that deal with the life of the British upper classes around the dawn of the twentieth century, one thing that always strikes me is that the characters who inhabit those books never seem to do any work. Beneficiaries of a class-ridden feudal system, they seem to live on inherited income and property that enables them to spend their days not having to worry about actually making a living. There is rarely any description of people’s jobs. Work seems to be something that the lower classes do and is vaguely disreputable. Even in Charles Dickens’ novel, which often dealt with characters who were desperately poor, the happy ending usually took the form of the hero obtaining wealth by means of an inheritance or otherwise, and then promptly stopping work and hanging around at home, even if they were still young.
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