the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 January 5


The strangest things inspire maudlin sentiment. I wouldn’t ordinarily expect a pompous and cynical intellectual to be moved by a Broadway musical based on a comic strip. It may just be nostalgia: my schoolmates and I performed excerpts from the musical ‘Annie’ when I was a child, and the numbers I find most powerful are those we performed. The first is ‘New deal for Christmas’*, where the characters contrast their present misery with their hopes for the Roosevelt administration. The second is ‘We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover’*, which is solely about the characters’ present misery, sung by adults living in a shantytown, unemployed (like half of New York at the time), forced to various indignities to survive, and marveling at the depths of their fall: “Who knew I could steal?”, asks one. The third, and the most affecting, is ‘It’s the hard-knock life’.*

The first two are unfortunately absent from the filmed versions; but the last is one of the best-known pieces in the show. I have had a recording on continuous play for hours as I try to understand why it has such effect. We are talking about children, so there is a tendency ― as the existence of the musical more or less confirms ― to view the situation as cute, even kitsch. But we are specifically talking about children living in an orphanage during the Depression. These are persons who are beginning their lives at the poor end of poor during a time of appalling poverty, whose parents are dead or have abandoned them, and who are under the control of an adult who habitually abuses them. They are complaining about their lot, which is natural. They are also exerting their humanity, and showing a determination to resist the weight of their poverty and also the brutal treatment of their oppressor, Miss Hannigan.

When, towards the end, they begin proposing escalating and very specific acts of violence against ‘her’, there is no doubt about whom they have in mind. And for reasons that I only partially understand, I weep when I hear that part. I am, to be sure, easily swayed by melody and rhythm. But beyond the physical, I am not sure whether I am more affected with sympathy for the oppressed or admiration for the spirit of rebellion, more full of sorrow to hear children dreaming of violence or more full of hope that they are still dreaming of something.

As a vicarious sufferer of poverty and oppression, I have recently felt absolute vicarious euphoria at the demise of the Kenya African National Union. I never expected autocrat Daniel arap Moi to leave voluntarily. When he selected a young, inexperienced political cipher, Uhuru Kenyatta, to succeed him, I like many Kenyans assumed that Moi would run the show from retirement, à la Jiang Zemin. Moi used the full resources of the state, especially the treasury, to sway the election. But shockingly, the election itself was fair, and opposition leader Mwai Kibaki outpolled Kenyatta two to one. After staying up all night to hear the outcome of the election, I then immediately had to stay up another night to find out if Kibaki’s inauguration would actually take place; and it did.

Mere days later, though, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo reneged on promises that he would step down this year. Eyadema took power in 1967 in a military coup, and since then Togo has been under readily-identifiable Stalinism. Eyadema has recently, in normal strongman fashion, been running a sham democracy to “legitimize” (with some success, alas) his rule. Under his rule a constitution was written which specified term limits, and under no duress it was stated that he would respect the constitution, which is to say retire. But the parliament has just unanimously revised the constitution to allow him to run again. Now there’s the dominion we have all been forced to love.

To get a good feel for the stifling injustice of poverty and oppression, an extreme example is often helpful, such as the actions of the British Empire in Africa, in India, and in Ireland. In 1930, when Time named Mohandas Gandhi its man of the year, it offered this matter-of-fact discussion of imperial policy: “If, finally, the Round Table breaks down, enough spontaneous violence is expected to give His Majesty’s Government enough provocation to use at strategic points the weapon of massacre, so effective when Brigadier-General Dyer sprayed with machine gun bullets and killed some 400 Indians at Amritsar in 1919. General Dyer received the censure of the House of Commons by a vote of 230 to 129, was endorsed by the House of Lords 129 to 86, and finally accepted from the Morning Post a large sum of money spontaneously made up by individual Britons.”

Among the things which I have always respected the Indians for is their unbelievable patience with the tactic of nonviolence. These are people who were subject to massacres as a matter of deliberate policy, and they were able to restrain the otherwise human, and utterly justified, response of violence. I do not suppose that most persons are capable of such thoughtful restraint. Michael Collins, Ireland’s prototerrorist, had a reaction more understandable, and, to be perfectly clear on this point, utterly justified.

Because I can concede the righteousness of violence against the British Empire, I have perhaps a more tolerant attitude towards the violent reaction that appears in subtler examples. The attitude of the wealthy to the life common in the ghettos, slums, and townships of the world is decidedly cavalier ― and here I am specifically evoking the image of the privileged dandy aristocrat. It is this same band of dandies who love to ridicule liberal consideration of possible motives belonging to terrorists. Well, the leadership of al-Qaida is curiously drawn from the same privileged and intolerant class of a different culture, but there is no doubt that those blowing themselves up to achieve the Grand Caliphate often come from the ghettos, slums, and townships of the world. Their like would never rule under the Caliphate anyway, and in killing themselves they obviously forfeit any earthly reward. Those who dismiss them as religious zealots looking for the face of Allah, or lechers envisioning an afterlife of casual sex with virgin harems, do not understand the motivation of these individuals even remotely.

Perhaps the worst reaction to poverty and oppression is despair and surrender, manifest in the alcohol abuse of North American Indian reservations or Russia during the Bolshevik period. Am I sick for preferring that a young unemployed Arab in Palestine throw stones at a soldier enforcing belligerent Israeli colonization rather than spend every day sucking on a hookah? At least with a stone in his hand, our young Arab is showing a desire for a meaningful life. I am likewise romantic about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Mau Mau rebellion, and the life of Tecumseh, with whom, thanks to historical injustice, I share a homeland.

I cannot similarly prefer urban gang activity to crack addiction; but I do recognize that they come from the same spring of despair. Blacks in the city slums of North America are faced not only with overwhelming difficulty in escaping the economic ghetto, but also with almost-constant harassment by the police, who, since they are generally white, middle class, and live in other areas of town, it is impossible not to view as occupying forces. I have taken the trouble on many occasions to imagine that I had grown up in the housing projects, deprived of material needs, given a seriously-substandard education, in danger of violent crime from those even more desperate than myself, and subject to intimidation and assault by haughty white men who believe everyone like me to be a criminal, and without any concern for my welfare or any belief that I might not deserve my circumstances. If I am lucky, such flights of fancy end in self-pity. Generally they end in hatred, in a palpable impulse to cause pain to my oppressors, and to the society which makes my impoverishment and oppression a reality. Had I a safety pin, or a gun, or a bomb, I might use it; yes, even had I a passenger jet.

Such hatred does not inspire pride; it comes with equal parts self-hatred. No one wants to live in anger, or to feel no other recourse but violence. There is no deus ex machina in this scenario, no Daddy Warbucks to swoop in and save the oppressed orphans with love and money. But fortunately there is also no Depression, no overwhelming phenomenon of sociology. Poverty and oppression are not inevitable or metaphysically necessary, merely tolerated; and without that tolerance they would end. Such is the power that our part of humanity possesses. I like to believe, because I am more of an optimist than I generally let on, that if all of the privileged but decent humans in the world could experience real poverty and oppression for one day of their lives, the tolerance would end, and with it the poverty and oppression. A flight of fancy, as I said; an empathic wish for the many with no tomorrow.


Original version



It’s the hard-knock life

It’s the hard-knock life for us
It’s the hard-knock life for us
’Stead of treated we get tricked
’Stead of kisses we get kicked
It’s the hard-knock life
Got no folks to speak of, so
It’s the hard-knock row we hoe
Cotton blankets ’stead of wool
Empty bellies ’stead of full
It’s the hard-knock life
Don’t it feel like the wind is always howlin’?
Don’t it seem like there’s never any light?
Once a day, don’t you want to throw the towel in?
It’s easier than putting up a fight
No one’s there when your dreams at night get creepy
No one cares if you grow or if you shrink
No one dries when your eyes get wet and weepy
From the crying you would think this place’d sink
Empty-belly life
Rotten, smelly life
Full-of-sorrow life
No-tomorrow life
Santa Claus we never see
Santa Claus ― what’s that? Who’s he?
No one cares for you a smidge
When you’re in an orphanage
It’s the hard-knock life
“You’ll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler Building!”
“Kill! Kill!”
Yank the whiskers from her chin
“Little pig droppings!”
Jab her with a safety pin
“Rotten orphans!”
Make her drink a Mickey Finn
“Nobody loves you!”
“I love you, Miss Hannigan!”
“Get to work! Strip them beds! I said get to work!”
It’s the hard-knock life for us
No one cares for you a smidge
When you’re in an orphanage

New Deal for Christmas

I know the Depression’s depressing
The carols are stilled, the stores aren’t filled
And windows are minus their dressing
The children don’t grin, the Santas are thin
And I’ve heard a terrible rumor
No good will, no cheer
But we’ll get a New Deal for Christmas this year
The snowflakes are frightened of falling
And oh, what a fix, no peppermint sticks
And all through the land folks are bawling
And filled with despair, ’cause cupboards are bare
But Santa’s got brand new assistants
There’s nothing to fear
They’re bringing a New Deal for Christmas this year
On Farley and Perkins
On Ickes and Wallace
On Morgenthau and Cummings
Fill our pockets with dollars
On Roper and Swanson
Get along Cordell Hull
Get along, giddy up
Call your committee up
Build every city up
Cheer every kiddie up
Fill every stocking with laughter
We haven’t got room for any more gloom
Let’s ring every bell from its rafter
And chime ’cross the land
Tomorrow’s at hand
Those happy days that we were promised are finally here
We’re getting a New Deal for Christmas this year

This refers to:
James Farley, Postmaster General
Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor
Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior
Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture
Henry Morgenthau Jr., Secretary of the Treasury (acting)
Homer Cummings, Attorney General
Daniel Roper, Secretary of Commerce
Claude Swanson, Secretary of the Navy
Cordell Hull, Secretary of State
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover

Today we’re living in a shanty
Today we’re scrounging for a meal
Today I’m stealing coal for fires
Who knew I could steal?
I used to winter in the tropics
I spent my summers at the shore
I used to throw away the papers
We don’t anymore
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover
For really showing us the way
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover
You made us what we are today
Prosperity was ’round the corner
The cozy cottage built for two
In this blue heaven that you gave us
Yes, we’re turning blue
They offered us Al Smith and Hoover
We paid attention and we chose
Not only did we pay attention
We paid through the nose
In every pot he said a chicken
But Herbert Hoover, he forgot
Not only don’t we have the chicken
We ain’t got the pot
Hey Herbie
You left behind a grateful nation
So, Herb, our hats are off to you
We’re up to here with admiration
Come down and have a little stew
Come down and share some Christmas dinner
Be sure to bring the missus, too
We’ve got no turkey for our stuffing
Why don’t we stuff you?
We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover
For really showing us the way
You dirty rat, you bureaucrat
You made us what we are today
Come and get it, Herb

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