The Ugliest Political Emotion – Pity

No, not envy…which is the chosen weapon of the left usually…now they are using a more despicable weapon…pity.

Brendan O’Neill at The Telegraph explains.

One of my abiding memories from childhood is of the time my dad told the local priest to sling his hook. A newbie in our parish in a rough-ish part of north-west London, the priest was knocking on the doors of the most churchgoing families and introducing himself. Standing imperiously in our living room, he asked my dad where he was from in Ireland. “Connemara”, my dad replied. Whereupon the priest put on his best sad face and said: “Aah – from one rough part of the world to another, oh dear.” My dad – a lifelong despiser of pity – told him to get out. “We don’t need people like that feeling sorry for us”, he told me and my brothers, “especially when there’s nothing to be sorry for!” The priest was all enthusiastic smiles and handshakes when we arrived at Mass the following Sunday.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I have always hated pity. In my view, there’s no uglier emotion in the pantheon of political feelings than pity, especially for “the poor”, whom it treats as an agency-lacking blob that must be cooed over and cared for by better-informed sections of society. The high-handed manner in which that priest expressed his feelings of sorrow for us – even though we had a nice house, an actual minibus (you need one when you have a family of eight), a TV and so on – taught me at a very early age that pity is a most selfish emotion. It’s not about helping the pitied but rather about making the pitier himself feel puffed up, through allowing him to make a big, public display of his ability to feel bad for the less well-off. As the old saying goes, “Friends help; others pity”.  

The left-wing loves a good helping of pity. They embrace it.

Sadly, pity made a massive comeback in 2013. Where in recent decades this nauseating, vicarious emotion was the preserve of priests and certain charities, this year it went mainstream, informing the vast bulk of the Left’s and liberals’ response to the recession and government cuts. A borderline Dickensian sensation of sorrow for “the poor” has crept into everyday commentary. Nowhere is this clearer than in the discussion of food banks. Hysterically, a new billboard advert produced by Church Action on Poverty declares “BRITAIN ISN’T EATING”. “Thousands are going hungry because of benefit changes”, it says, next to a picture of a long line of faceless victims – “the poor” – queuing up for grub, giving the completely baseless impression that poor folk in Britain are actually starving.

Others have gone even further in promoting the Victorian-like idea that the emaciated urchins of poor Britain are desperately scrabbling about for scraps of food. “STARVING BRITAIN”, said one newspaper headline recently, making you wonder if modern journalists know what starvation even means. How insulting to genuinely malnourished nations in the poorest parts of the world to describe Britons, who only a few months ago were being branded obese, as “starving”. Poor Brits are “hungrier than ever”, said the Independent. Than ever? Really? Including when there was no welfare system at all and everyone lived on a tiny farm, precariously grew their own food, and died when they were 31? There are “Dickensian levels of poverty” in London said a charity bigwig recently. Someone should buy him one of Dickens’ novels for Christmas. There is simply nothing in today’s Britain that compares with the child-labouring, raggedy, diseased conditions in which poor people lived in Dickens’ times. We are witnessing the rise of competitive pity, with the well-to-do trying to outdo each other in their expressions of shrill sadness for the down-at-heel.

We have been witnessing the very same thing here…the media love pimping the poor…feeding off of pity and the opposition politicians savour it. Living wage, poor taxi drivers, hapless cleaners in parliament…we are meant to pity the poor. Except they aren’t poor.

Meanwhile, caring commentary in 2013 has been packed with concern for “the poor”. What a terribly dehumanising, undiscriminating phrase that is, lumping together as destitute pretty much everyone who doesn’t own a 3D TV, regardless of whether they are genuinely poor or just working class (which is not the same thing). It is more than 200 years since Edmund Burke chastised those who used the term “the poor” to “excite compassion”, without distinguishing between the genuine poor – “the sick and infirm; orphan infants; languishing and decrepit age” – and the man who works for a living “by the sweat of his brow”. Yet we’ve learned nothing. Indeed, today the definition of poverty is constantly being expanded in order to co-opt more and more people into it. Now when people talk about poverty, they mean relative poverty, which means earning less than 60% of the median income. Which means that, according to Oxfam, “nearly 13 million people live in poverty in the UK”.

This is clearly nonsense. The definition of poverty is forever being stretched largely to keep the poverty industry – those who make a cushy living from fretting over the hardships of “the poor” – in business. To these people, “the poor” aren’t individuals with different levels of income and different needs; they’re just big fat fodder for fundraising.

You see left-wing commentators here clutching at made up numbers like 240,000 children living in poverty and other bullshit statistics.

Left-leaning observers also cranked up pity for “the poor” this year. The impeccably posh Polly Toynbee now seems to write about nothing other than “the poor”. A couple of years ago she outdid all the other Dickens wannabes by saying the Tories were coming up with a “final solution” for “the poor”. I think she was referring to the fact that the Tories are quite modestly trimming some welfare benefits, though you could have been forgiven for thinking they were planning to put “the poor” into death camps. Owen Jones refers to “the poor” as “victims of social problems” and “vulnerable groups”, lamenting that there is “no sympathy for them”. He’s doing his best to change that by ratcheting up pity for these vulnerable, battered objects at every opportunity he gets. Labour MP Tristram Hunt recently went into full-on pity mode, writing about the “cold gruel” and “soiled cages” that the workhouse poor of Victorian England were subjected to, before telling us “the approach of David Cameron and George Osborne… reeks of the 1800s”.

This is oh so familiar.

Such pity is the opposite of solidarity. Where solidarity is about recognising that a group of people have it within their power to run or change their lives, pity presents “the poor” as merely vulnerable entities, “bullied” by the rich and hated by the Cabinet, sad, hungry, destitute, forlorn, incapable and in need of help. It dehumanises the less well-off, sticking every one of them in a file marked “The Poor”. It nurtures a vast system of paternalism, from the sweeping welfare state to numerous charities and campaign groups, whose livelihoods depend on the propagation of the idea that less well-off Brits are starving and helpless.

Such paternalistic pity for the poor has a long history, of course. Leon Trotsky slammed the early 20th century Fabians and other “socially-minded philanthropic bourgeois [individuals] who feel pity for poor folk and make a ‘religion of his conscience’ out of this pity”. But for the latter part of the 20th century, such pity was kept in check by the fact that the working classes and less well-off had a pretty lively presence on the public stage. Who could pity people who were going on strike, demanding higher wages, making nice lives for themselves? Today, it is the decline of such independent working-class politics, the withering of the political working man, the moral collapse of the trade union movement, that has allowed pity to surge on the Left once more. The Left now views workers as “The Poor”, as the objects of brutal capitalism rather than the subjects of history. It calls into question their capacity to feed and look after themselves, never mind control their destinies. The less well-off should march into 2014 behind this banner: “Friends help; the Left pities.”

The left-wing loves pity parties.

  • Euan Ross-Taylor

    Great stuff Mr O’Neill. This man has a grasp on the ‘truth’ that few others seem to be able to see – the fact that those who are truely poor are missing out because of the socialist mentality that anyone who earns less than average is poor. The real poor, and there will be some in NZ, are now hidden amongst the less well off and are much harder to find because their voice is so much softer than the gimme’s holloring all around them.

  • timemagazine

    Let us all go back and read Rodney’s article posted on this blog a few days ago. Brilliant!

  • cows4me

    Going by the pity stories recently run by the lefty media you would have to think the pricks are losing the plot. There was a story on TV1 about the hungry masses showing up at Auckland’s food bank desperate for help. Showed several women with trolley loads of loot leaving the food bank with one saying Christmas is hard with hungry children. My good wife is many times more charitable than I but even she exploded. She said something like, “look at those bloody women, if they didn’t eat as much they could give more food to their kids”. I couldn’t believe it, the wife is becoming hard and cynical in her old age, she’s starting to learn. If the left insist on pushing the starvation line they should go about and employ some starving North Korean’s, they at least should make an attempt to make it harder to mock them and their bullshit propaganda.

  • GazzW

    A brilliant article. There is a definite agenda going on internationally by the left to redefine poverty. The word itself is so highly emotive and the perfect catalyst needed to herd that sector of society previously defined as working class into a political movement that is guaranteed to support the left. We can see this going on in NZ as we speak. Expect much more as we head into election year and it will be eagerly supported by all forms of the MSM.

  • MyTake

    A well round condemnation of the Pity the Poor industry.

  • Rex Widerstrom

    Today, it is the decline of such independent working-class politics, the withering of the political working man, the moral collapse of the trade union movement, that has allowed pity to surge on the Left once more.

    And yet this remains a large constituency. Hard working, proud, tolerant though socially conservative, with an innate sense of fairness (and thus no wish to for special treatment, just fair treatment… and no time for nonsense such as gender quotas that treat people differently based on chromosome count, not aptitude).

    There’s no one on the political landscape left to speak for them any more, yet they – along with the owners of small businesses – are who drive our economy and thus our nation forward.

    • GazzW

      Right on the button Rex. I recall my mother’s family in working class London in the 1920s & 30s. The men were clerks, shopkeepers & tradesmen and unemployment was an anathema to them. They were conservative in their outlook and very patriotic – some had fought in WW1 and their sons would fight in WW2. Salt of the earth people and a surprising proportion of them voted Conservative & Liberal. Attlee won them over temporarily post-WW2 but labour lost them as the extreme unions started to wield their influence.

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