Friday, March 19, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again - Who to Blame for Social Problems

Pots and Pans: The tools of social salvation, along with soap, the purer the better.

I found a letter to the editor in the Gazette of 1909, which provides me with a key, of sorts, as I write Flo in the City, my novel in progress based on the letters of

The Nicholsons are middle class, and the middle class isn't interesting except in relation to the poor or the rich; in fact, the class doesn't exist except in relation to the poor and the rich.

The middle class also lives isolated and insulated from the rich and the poor, and the Nicholsons are no exception. There are few lower class characters in the letters, and no rich characters except E.W. Tobin, a self made man. Indeed, the Nicholsons don't even have maids.

I have done my homework and I understand the Nicholson's 1910 social context. I have studied the issues that led the Federal government to launch the Royal Commission on Industrial Training and Technical Education (a part of history that has been 'censored' because it is embarrassing.)

But now with this letter to the editor, I have a key. And in my next chapter, Flora will gain a social conscience (picked up from her sister, Edith) and Herb will lose his.

This letter is from a man who represents a Christian Aid Society in the Parish where de Bullion Street and Marion's room are situated.

He outlines the five main reasons for poverty and social problems: Oddly, they are pretty much the same ones we use today, with tweaks. We are going through a similar time of incredible change and we are reacting in the same way. Society changes, but human nature doesn't.

1)irregular or uncertain employment

2) intemperance (Well, today we say 'drugs' are the problem, as alcohol is a huge and respectable industry. In those days, little old ladies guzzled opiates in their tonics, and soft drinks contained cocaine and pot was legal.)

3) Domestic Ignorance and Incapacity on the part of wives. Oooh. This is a good one! I could write ten books on this line alone. Today, we blame the working mom, but back then all the social problems caused by rampant industrialization could be cured if women and mothers knew how to better keep house. So they created 'the profession of housekeeping' to train middle class women to be better wives and lower class women to be better domestics for the rich. (See, embarrassing. This proved a boon for companies like Procter and Gamble, that, thoroughout the century, exploited this belief that a woman's worth is reflected in the cleanliness of her home...hence those soap operas. The fact that women in the middle of the century had time to watch soap operas said something else, that housework wasn't as essential to survival as it once had been.)

4) To indirectly give rise to illness, most especially consumption. Bad housing, bad sanitation. (So bad housekeeping was being blamed for the plagues around at the time, not backward medical practices and poor city services.) Of course, this idea actually propelled the suffrage unintended consequence of blaming women for social problems: Women said, "OK then, give us the vote so we can have the power to fix these problems you've laid at our feet."

In the first part of Flo in the City, if you go back and read my 38 installments, you will see that people got sick and died quickly back then (the flu scares of today are nothing compared to the reality of life in 1910, when you could get a cold one week and die the next. )

5) The unhappy prevalenced of what has been called 'the social evil', where some children are brought into the world blighted in body and mind and prey to the saddest and most hopeless of all physical ills. Predestined to the prison or asylum. One of the medical witnesses at the commission said most of the children born into the slums are predestined to this evil..... Usually, the social evil meant prostitution and other sex related issues. (Today, of course, we have our own sex related social evils constantly brought up in the press.) Funny, but the arguments for and against legalizing prostitution haven't changed an iota in 100 years. It's a stagnant issue...In the old days, they didn't have 'child abuse' or, more precisely, it wasn't mentioned, but it was understood that many or most prostitutes were children. After all, girls left school at 12. So it amounts to the same thing. There was a great deal of child labour in those days, another kind of child abuse. Today, kids work, but in the middle class it's usually for pocket money which ends up fueling the entertainment and junk food industries. Plenty of young people do work to help support their families, though. And the Third World child labour fills our closets and drawers with cheap clothing.