Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, March 20, 2006


by Charley Reese

King Features Syndicate (March 10 2006)

I'm in the midst of rereading Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", his great 19th-century novel and sermon on behalf of the poor and oppressed. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. Hugo was a great plotter and creator of mythic characters.

Both Hugo and Charles Dickens can give you a very vivid picture of what capitalism without a safety net was really like. That is appropriate, because there are some in our own country who seem to wish to remove the safety net and revert to the law of the jungle.

The misery that the Industrial Revolution wrought also gives you an understanding of why and how communism and socialism arose. I've concluded that most of human history is reaction, not initiative. Problems arise, and people react to them. Certainly socialism arose as a reaction to the misery caused by capitalism.

Unfortunately, socialism turned out to be nothing more than substituting state capitalism for private capitalism. It created its own brand of misery. Alas, few are the humans who can avoid making their high place the lawless perch for winged ambition, to use the words of Alfred Tennyson.

We should all hang on to our ideals, but we should also be careful not to have extravagantly high expectations. There is no perfect system, no one answer, no ideology that will produce a human paradise, and no political messiah who will ride in and save us from ourselves. If paradise there be, it will be found somewhere else besides Earth. We are stuck with ourselves, the human race, ever prone to fallibility and folly.

One of the reasons young people in particular need to read history and historical fiction is so they will realize that things we take for granted today all had to be fought for. If there were no environmental regulations, no health and safety regulations, no workers' compensation, no unemployment insurance, no Medicare or Medicaid, no food stamps, no Social Security and no public housing, then you would see what capitalism was like in Hugo's time.

If you think coal mines are unsafe now, imagine how dangerous they were when no one dared tell the coal companies what they had to do. Most of this safety net is not that old. I've talked with retired coal miners who remember the time when they were paid sixty cents a ton to dig coal and had to buy their own equipment from the company store. Male children were put to work on the slag heaps, and wives and female children were often put to work in textile mills. Long hours, low pay and no concern at all for the health and safety of the workers were the norm in those days.

Every benefit Americans enjoy today had to be fought for, sometimes politically, but often physically, as owners set thugs and murderers on people trying to form unions. Unrestrained power, whether wielded by private individuals and corporations or by government, nearly always produces evil and misery.

Thus the work of the citizen never stops. We are always trying to find that balance between public and private power, between production of wealth and a fair distribution of it. We are always forced to combat corruption, lawlessness and exploitation.

Our problem today is that so few people seem inclined to join the ranks of active citizenry, preferring instead to pursue their own private pleasures and ambitions. Well, all I can say is that you will be governed - well or badly, and your only protection against bad government is participation in the political wars.

There is one other thing you can learn from history, and that is impermanence. What we have, we can lose. Status quo is the mother of all myths. So think about abandoning the couch and the remote and joining the rest of us on the barricades. It's certainly more interesting than reruns.

Copyright 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Bill Totten


  • You make a good point. To be truly effective one must go beyond the barricades. That is resistence. What you resist persists!
    To be effective one must work to put in place a better alternative.
    That means determine a better leader, one who will do as needed for the citizenry - and work to put Him/Her in place!
    Barricades may feel good, but get little done in the end. Your point is well taken, in that little is done from the couch.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:29 AM, March 21, 2006  

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