Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Deserted Village

One Christmas time I was in a bookstore where the proprietoress felt the need to editorialize to her patrons. Being the only patron at the time, I was treated to her opinions, including a tirade on the insanity and immorality of the capitalist crusade in Iraq. I was certainly able to agree with her on that topic. Thinking she had a soul mate, she then launched into some editorials in favor of all the radical ‘isms’.

The woman was evidently in the midst of chemotherapy, so I refrained, at first, from disagreeing with her. But when she persisted, I did, as gently as possible, let her know that we were not on the same page, nor were we soul mates. She was surprised and confused because she thought that since I was anti-capitalist, I must be a radical.

This is a common mistake that Americans make, equating capitalism with conservatism, but it is an especially egregious error when made by a proprietor of a book store where one can find the works of all the great poets of Europe. If she had read less commentary on the poets and more of the poets, she would know 1) that all of the great poets are conservative – they are the defenders of the permanent things – and 2) there are very few poetic defenses of capitalism (Carl Sandburg’s work is an exception) because capitalism destroys the permanent things – and in fact the mantra of capitalism is that there are no permanent things and that everything is malleable and changeable.

The law of the jungle is the law of capitalism. The strong devour the weak, and the many overwhelm the few. There is no divine law above free market jungle law in the capitalist world, which is why the Christian poets have always shown that ‘ism’ so little mercy.

Dickens was the supreme critic of capitalism, but there were others before him. Oliver Goldsmith, author of The Vicar of Wakefield, was an intensely conservative writer who loved the village church and the small farm. During a five-year period of his life when he made excursions from London to the country, he observed that the large landholders were squeezing out the small farmers, creating a landless, laboring class, setting up an agrarian version of Wal-Mart.

He begins his poem “The Deserted Village” with an apologia for the permanent things as embodied in the simpler rural life (idealized, yes, but an ideal with a basis in reality), and then proceeds to depict the brave new world of free market capitalism that has replaced the old world.
Sweet Auburn!
Loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed;
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm,
The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm,
The never-failing brook, the busy mill,
The decent church that topped the neighboring hill,
The hawthorn bush with seats beneath the shade,

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn!
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn.
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green.
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But choked with sedges works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert-walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the moldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade—
A breath can make them, as a breath has made—
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land.
Down where yon anchoring vessel spreads the sail
That, idly waiting, flaps with every gale,
Downward they move, a melancholy band,
Pass from the shore, and darken all the strand.
Contented Toil, and hospitable Care,
And kind, connubial Tenderness are there;
And Piety with wishes placed above,
And steady Loyalty and faithful Love.
And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit, in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so’
Thou guide, by which the nobler arts excel,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
Farewell! And oh! where’er thy voice be tried,
On Torno’s cliffs, or Pambamarca’s side,
Whether where equinoctial fervors glow,
Or winter wraps the polar world in snow,
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigors of the inclement clime;
Aid slighted truth with thy persuasive strain;
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
Teach him that states of native strength possessed,
Though very poor, may still be very blest;
That trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labored mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy,
As rocks resist the billows and the sky.
That capitalism was a radical serpent in the European garden was ever the opinion of the European poets. Capitalism became associated with conservatism in this country largely through the influence of National Review. In the early years of that publication there were some writers such as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk who held genuinely conservative views, but their voices were not the dominant ones. The soul of National Review was a capitalist one. And as the magazine acquired influential converts like Ronald Reagan, the magazine became less tolerant of anti-capitalist dissenters and more dogmatically capitalist.

Capitalists always label their critics socialists, but the only way to rid the world of socialism is to rid the world of capitalism because capitalism spawns socialism. Gross inequalities in wealth create a demand for an excessive equality in wealth. The only effective antidote to capitalism is the Christian society depicted by Goldsmith.

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