Virtuous Poverty

June 29, 2009

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The small TV in my home office is tuned to a classic-movie channel which just now began showing My Fair Lady, a rather elaborate morality tale whose plot and characters are fixed in the rigidities of the old-fashioned British class system.

It occurs to me—as Eliza howls her wretched cockney at ‘Enry ‘Iggins—that decades of affluence, various aspects of modernity and, above all, the Welfare State have utterly changed the nature of poverty in the West.

Democratization of education means that those at the bottom of the ladder bear the stigma not merely of ignorance, but indeed of ineradicable stupidity. This same force, meanwhile, enables the “meritocrats” (a term with which David Brooks is unstintingly enamored) to congratulate themselves not merely on having the good fortune to afford first-class schooling, but to enjoy the pleasant conceit that no one beneath their strata is capable even of comprehending the sublime abstractions entertained in those meritocratic minds.

As self-centered and arrogant as Professor Higgins was—and My Fair Lady is set in an era when eugenics was all the rage—he was an examplar of empathetic humility compared to some of our 21st-century meritocrats.

There is something Newtonian in the equal-and-opposite impact wrought by these same forces in regard to the culture and worldview of the poor. Television is a big part of this, I think, and especially the fantastic selection of entertainment afforded by cable TV (and DVDs, etc.).

Television has always functioned as something of a funhouse mirror in which the viewer perceives a reflection of reality warped by the conventions of the medium. (Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, et al.) With the advent of the 100-plus-channels of cable, however, every viewer selects his own funhouse mirror, offering him just such distortions as suit his taste.

My Fair Lady, I suspect, is not being viewed by a very significant percentage of America’s cable-subscribing poor. The cultures of olden times and distant places don’t seem to hold much interest for them. I live 70-odd miles from the splendid museums of Washington, D.C. Among the poorer denizens of this community, I’d bet that they’d far rather drive to Hershey, Pa., and pay a hefty fee for a day of riding roller coasters, rather than drive down to D.C. and see the exhibits—free to all—at the Smithsonian complex.

Well, I’ve merely scratched the surface. The social problems that perplexed Professor Higgins and his contemporaries—George Bernard Shaw penned Pygmalion in 1912—have been “solved” in such a manner as to utterly transform society, while human nature remains what it ever was. We have undergone a revolution that has changed manners, customs, beliefs and attitudes. I am far from certain that these changes amount to “progress.”

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