I have been thinking a lot about regression lately. For instance there is a prevailing view that Western nations can no longer afford the levels of relative income equality they once enjoyed; that we must wind back the welfare state to pre-Keynesian times. This is regression of one kind. But its peculiar corollary is that the discourse around social inequality and poverty is undergoing a similar regression. In New Zealand – and I strongly suspect we are not alone – the only poverty that counts is child poverty, which cannot be eradicated but mitigated at best, whilst poverty amongst adults is increasingly viewed not only as a fact of life but as a mark of moral failure. Just as it was when conservatives worried that introducing welfare measures and worker protections would corrupt the whole of society.
I wrote recently about two cost of living surveys conducted in New Zealand and Australia one hundred years ago, contrasting them with the remarkable contemporary efforts of Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian Women’s Group to document the lives of working class families in the London suburb of Lambeth. I concluded that essay with a question: could we readily point to the progresses made in the representation and shared understanding of poverty in these societies? My implicit view was that no, we could not. However, lack of progress, or stasis, is not the same as regression. It might be more accurate to state that a discourse that progressed since the time of Pember Reeves has since been wound backwards. As if harsher economic realities required impoverished tools of description. As if we could no longer afford to speak intelligently and compassionately of the social ills that we have stopped seeking to redress.
This was New Zealand last week, but I’m tempted to say: this is New Zealand, always. A country that generally accepts that it cannot get rid of poverty. A country that knows, because it can count – however begrudgingly – that poverty skews brown (and female, and young). In another time, we might have regarded this as a sign of systemic, institutional discrimination. But no longer. Nowadays we can bundle our most troubling social statistics – around gambling, around addiction, around criminality – give them a brown face and portray them as the causes of poverty, as opposed to their consequences.
Cartoonist Al Nisbet’s fault is merely to have expressed two sentiments – racism and contempt for the poor – that are not appropriate to the form of the satirical cartoon as we have come to understand it. Nowadays satire, as the cliché goes, is supposed to punch up, not down. It shouldn’t give voice to the silent majority. But it wasn’t always so. Think of the representation of the Irish in the 19th-century English press, or of Māori in the New Zealand press for that matter. From a formal point of view, then, these cartoons are simply another example of regression: lacking a punch line or indeed much logic, they are nothing but savage caricatures of what John Key calls the nation’s underclass. As such they are mean-spirited, yes, racist, God yes, but in everything but form are perfectly at home in the mainstream, insofar as they are a vehicle of mainstream views.
In this respect the public expressions of qualified support for Nisbet have been more interesting than the denunciations. Instead of defending the cartoons on their merits, most sympathetic commentators have chosen to focus on their right to being published. Various reasons were given: because of free speech; because they sparked debate; because they exposed the misguided opinions of the majority; because offending the sensibility of readers is the job of a cartoonist. A guy whose job description is ‘political editor’ had this to say:
Nowhere was it acknowledged that this is in fact how poverty is portrayed almost universally in the media. Whilst a honourable mention must go to New Zealand’s worst paid writer, the most cognitively dissonant defence was Ric Stevens’ in The Press. After comparing Al Nisbet to David Low (to show he knows his history) and calling satirical cartoons ‘a taonga to be cherished’ (to show he’s not personally racist), Stevens proceeds to explain that Nisbet
is a good friend to Christchurch and many of his drawings over recent years have staunchly stood up for ordinary people whose lives have been blighted by earthquakes, aftershocks, insurance claims, EQC difficulties and school closures and reorganisations.Oh, really? Did he now? Wouldn’t it have been rather bolder of him – writing for The Christchurch Press – to represent Cantabrians dealing with all those calamities as, say, carpers and moaners who buggerise around on Facebook all day? I mean so long as we are talking about courage, and all other things being equal.
However, by far the best part of Stevens’ editorial is the one that deals with the racism charge. Here he not only engages in a heroic misreading of Nesbit's first cartoon, claiming that the white children on their way to school are somehow related to the much darker adult bludgers, but also makes the frankly embarrassing admission that he and the rest of the editorial staff compared the skin colour of Nisbet’s characters with his drawings of Press reporter Martin van Benyen, who is of Dutch stock, and, finding them only ‘a shade darker’, declared themselves satisfied that the cartoon was not racist. As a matter of fact, seeing as ‘people have looked at the characters depicted and made assumptions based on their appearance,’ maybe it is the readers who are racist. How do you like that, readers? But in the end it doesn’t really matter, because
[w]hile people were debating whether or not Nisbet and The Press were being racist, relatively few were getting angry about the issue he was trying to highlight – that because of parental failings, thousands of children in this country are going to school with empty bellies.
He was only trying to shame the poor. And we failed to get angry. At the poor. Shame on us.
I believe it was Martyn Bradbury who first dug up this classic Herman Melville quotation by way of comment on the Nisbet cartoons:
Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.If you want to talk about regression, consider that Melville wrote this in 1854, in a short story entitled ‘Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs’ that deals entirely with bourgeois and aristocratic attitudes towards the poor. It is an intriguing story in two halves. The first concerns rural poverty, and the popular view that ‘through kind Nature, the poor, out of their very poverty, extract comfort’. It is after testing this theory that the narrator/Melville makes the scornful observation above. But the second half of the story, which is set in London in the year of the battle of Waterloo – therefore almost exactly two hundred years ago – is far darker and more caustic. Napoleon has been defeated and the Royal Court regularly hosts lavish triumphal banquets. Just the night before, a feast costing at least £200,000 has taken place in the hall visited by Melville. Now it’s time for the charity. Throngs of the city’s poor are assembled, ‘a mass of lean, famished, ferocious creatures, struggling and fighting for some mysterious precedency, and all holding soiled blue tickets in their hands.’ Then they are let in, to roam where just twelve hours ago the most powerful men of Europe ate, so that they can feed on their scraps. ‘What a noble charity,’ whispers Melville’s guide. ‘See that pasty now, snatched by that pale girl; I dare say the Emperor of Russia ate of that last night!’
This is an idea that could just so easily be modern. Celebrity food scraps. A literal application of trickle-down theory. The almost ungraspable image of inhuman poverty co-existing with inhuman wealth, as if somebody told you that with the money they earned last year alone, the 100 richest people in the world could end poverty four times over (as if you or anybody else could do anything with that information). There is but the spectacle of the poor, the show of their beast-like humiliation. The guards want to spare Mellville the final act, but they fail to lead him outside in time.
Too late. The last dish had been seized. The yet unglutted mob raised a fierce yell, which wafted the banners like a strong gust, and filled the air with a reek as from sewers. They surged against the tables, broke through all barriers, and billowed over the hall—their bare tossed arms like the dashed ribs of a wreck. It seemed to me as if a sudden impotent fury of fell envy possessed them. That one half-hour's peep at the mere remnants of the glories of the Banquets of Kings; the unsatisfying mouthfuls of disemboweled pasties, plundered pheasants, and half-sucked jellies, served to remind them of the intrinsic contempt of the alms. In this sudden mood, or whatever mysterious thing it was that now seized them, these Lazaruses seemed ready to spew up in repentant scorn the contumelious crumbs of Dives.
It is not very difficult to speculate what kind of scenes Melville might have been basing his imaginative description upon. Perhaps this one.
|Bread Riot at the entrance to the House of Commons in 1815|