Erewhon and the Contract With America: 
Wealth, Butler Knew, Was Virtue,
Bad Luck a Crime
First greeted with a gasp of recognition and haunted by a sense of deja vu, whence came this agenda for “renewing American civilization” that sent some 350 Republicans streaming up the Capitol steps to sign on for their Contract With America? Certain I had visited that fountainhead myself, still nowhere in memory could I recover that marvelous land where morality and good citizenship resided in health and wealth, where poverty and disease were criminal offenses and dishonesty and mendacity in high places treated as mere misfortunes, and I had at last given up the search when, in that morning ritual of despair whose every path of memory leads only to nowhere, NOWHERE . . . suddenly the word flashed across the shaving mirror as the letters in garbled reversal fell neatly into place, and I stood once more at that very New Zealand mountain pass where Samuel Butler’s intrepid hero descended a century ago to behold “many a town and city, with buildings that had lofty steeples and rounded domes” rising from the plains of Erewhon. 

The most cursory rereading of Butler’s utopian fiction of 1872 must, in fact, leave us with little doubt but that “Erewhon” has provided the guidelines for the “opportunity society” of conformity and evasion envisioned by our new Republican majority in the Congress, dedicated to achieving the American dream for all Americans with the golf links, good looks, fair hair, fresh complexions and blue eyes of, say, a Dan Quayle, this winter busied with pursuing a rigorous and well-publicized schedule designed to show him free of any lingering taint of illness or disorder of the sort that would have brought an Erewhonian up for trial “before a jury of his countrymen.” If convicted, he was “held up to public scorn and sentenced more or less severely as the case may be.” So draconian were the laws of Erewhon—consisting “in the sternest repression of all diseases whatsoever,” with “subdivisions of illnesses into crimes and misdemeanors”—that by way of an extreme illustration we are given at detailed length the sentencing of a young man found guilty of “the great crime of laboring under pulmonary consumption” to “imprisonment, with hard labor,” to the end of his “miserable existence.”

Indeed, the premium placed on health and personal attractiveness which had led, in the early days of Erewhon, to the public sacrifice of ugly—and, he implies, dark-skinned—interlopers from outlying tribes, persisted in the practice of excluding anyone “too ugly to be allowed to go at large, but not so much so as to be criminally liable,” much as their counterparts intruding on us today shun public view under viaducts and in railway tunnels, their numbers expected to decline significantly with the strict enforcement of laws against illegal immigrants promised by the new majority. Coupled with its not unrelated pledge to supplant existing crime-prevention programs with stronger emphasis on prison funding and effective death-penalty provisions, we hear echoes of Erewhon’s sentencing judge intoning “if you had been born of healthy and well-to-do parents, and been well taken care of when you were a child, you would never have offended against the laws of your country, nor found yourself in your present disgraceful position.”

“Nothing struck me more during my whole sojourn in the country,” Butler’s narrator observes, “than the general respect for law and order.”

As might have been expected, a major deterrent to “renewing American civilization” has been smoked out by the new House Speaker in his blunt notice that it is “impossible to maintain civilization with 12-year-olds having babies,” conjuring up once again Butler’s kingdom, where the birth of a child was looked on as a painful event, and the pregnancy concealed as long as possible “in anticipation of a severe scolding as soon as the misdemeanor is discovered.” For Erewhon was under constant siege by the World of the Unborn clamoring to enter its ranks, drawing lots for prospective parents, each unborn then setting himself to “plague and pester two unfortunate people who had never wronged him, and who were quite contented and happy until he conceived this base design against their peace.” Clearly, our own 12-year-olds are the more vulnerable to the blandishments of the hordes of unborn crowding slums in which religion and sex are the only free diversions available, and love more freely given than parental discipline. And where the Erewhonian baby was kept out of sight until it was able to walk and talk, the architects of this renewal of American civilization, facing the scourge of teen-age pregnancies and more than 10 million children already living in poverty, propose cutting all aid to mothers under 21 and consigning their intrusive offspring to the storied mercies of orphanages and private charities; cutting off aid to all welfare mothers and other recipients after two years whether health care and jobs are there for them or not; and, for good measure, ending Federal support for food stamps and nutrition programs for countless women and noncitizens. As bluntly expressed by the Speaker, “The welfare state kills more poor people in a year than private business.”

Embracing the principles of wealth as the measure of power, the millionaire as of greater benefit to society than the beggar and cunning as the guiding policy for all—the projected capital gains tax cuts and indexing, more generous business depreciation and estate and gift tax exclusions, revised laws on liability for defective products and similar arcane provisions in the Contract With America exalt Erewhon’s view of money as “the symbol of duty . . . the sacrament of having done for mankind that which mankind wanted,” holding so high the businessman who has made a fortune “worth 10 professional philanthropists” that the Erewhonian making over $:20,000 a year was exempted “from all taxation,” considered “as a work of art, and too precious to be meddled with.”

“I write with great diffidence, but it seems to me that there is no unfairness in punishing people for their misfortunes, or rewarding them for their sheer good luck,” Butler’s narrator takes up. “Wherefore should a man be so richly rewarded for having been son to a millionaire, were it not clearly provable that the common welfare is thus better furthered?” We can’t help thinking of the recently elected Governor of Texas when reading Butler: “We cannot seriously detract from a man’s merit in having been the son of a rich father without imperiling our own tenure of things which we do not wish to jeopardize,” since “property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential to organize our thieving.”

Accordingly, in that land where ill luck “of any kind, or even ill treatment at the hands of others, is considered an offense against society,” such breaches of decorum as swindling, check forging and even outright robbery were treated in hospitals at the public expense; or, if someone in good circumstances perpetrated them, he simply let it be known “to all his friends that he is suffering from a severe fit of immorality . . . and they come and visit him with great solicitude”—much, we may imagine, as the friends of our current Secretary of Commerce, or of the former Democratic head of the House Ways and Means Committee are currently engaged or, in the spirit of bipartisanship, those of the former President’s son Neil Bush, of Silverado fame, and even so blatant a case of deception and mendacity as our gap-toothed Marine colonel lately rehabilitated as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate from Virginia. Such egregious cases were subjected in Erewhon to correction at the hands of “straighteners.”

These highly trained specialists had passed their best years at the well-regarded Colleges of Unreason in the diligent study of “hypothetics” and the esoteric “hypothetical language” in which they were “always able to tell a man what is the matter with him as soon as they have heard his story, and their familiarity with the long names assures him that they thoroughly understand his case,” thus laying the foundations for the treatment of the many among us today who incline to conceal their ill health, but “are quite open about the most flagrant mental diseases” in the ramshackle mansion later erected in our midst by the father of psychoanalysis himself. Lesser “fits of immorality”—such as the book deals and Gopac funds entangled in the college courses taught by the House Speaker—may be expected to go into remission with the abolition of the House Ethics Committee under his party’s proposal to transfer its moribund activities to the House committee charged with handling office space and parking privileges.

“It is not our business to help students to think for themselves,” proclaimed the Professor of Worldly Wisdom at the Colleges of Unreason. “Our duty is to insure that they shall think as we do,” largely helping to explain the worship prevalent in Erewhon of the goddess of respectability, Ydgrun, whose law was “conformity until absolutely intolerable”—though she was seldom alluded to or even paid the hypocrisy of the kind of lip service that more fully corresponds to the new agenda’s call for a constitutional amendment to reintroduce prayer in our public schools and, with a provision strengthening parents’ rights in their children’s education, opening the classroom to the masked marvel of “creation science.”

“To the extent that we stay in the broad area of consensus, we avoid controversy,” John Ashcroft, a Republican senator from Missouri, states in a striking tautology worthy of the highest Ydgrunite, speaking now to his party’s efforts to terminate Federal support for the arts and humanities. In finding unacceptable the use of money wrested from our nation’s taxpayers (at some 66 cents a year) to “subsidize an assault on their values, religion or politics” he follows a former czar of education, William J. Bennett, who now casts its agencies as intellectually and morally corrupt in their support of artists and scholars who have undermined our “mainstream American values” as reflected in the art-school curriculum at Erewhon’s university, where those studying painting were “examined at frequent intervals in the prices which all the leading pictures of the last 50 or a hundred years” had brought, with their values fluctuating upon being sold and resold. “The artist . . . is a dealer in pictures, and it is as important to him to learn how to adapt his wares to the market, and to know approximately what kind of a picture will fetch how much, as it is for him to be able to paint the picture.”

“When we get into the area of challenging some of the fundamental values of American culture, we get ourselves in real trouble,” our Missouri senator takes up. He especially rejects any definition of art that means “it has to challenge and be offensive.” And given such arguments as these, who can disagree?

“Erewhon” was originally published at the author’s expense, like the rest of his books, excepting, of course, his posthumous work, including the novel “The Way of All Flesh.” He wrote, as one erstwhile editor remarked, “to please himself, and to have something to read in his old age.” Of his books Butler himself said, “I never make them; they grow; they come to me and insist upon being written.” And it is the “practical side of literature and not the poetical and imaginative—I mean literature applied to the solving of some difficult problem which may be usefully solved—that alone fires me with hot desire to devour and imitate it. That, and the battering down of falsehood to the utmost of my poor ability.”

REDISCOVERIES  New York Times, March 5, 1995
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