I was a WSJ wage slave!

by Henry on June 27, 2006

I meant to mention Philip Connors’ sharp and funny piece about working for the Wall Street Journal (to be found in the most recent issue of N+1, but not available on the WWW) last week, when I was writing about newspapers, editorial policies etc. His description of Bob Bartley, late editorial-page editor for the newspaper:

Bob Bartley, who has since passed away, was among the most influential American journalists of the second half of the twentieth century … He was fairly soft-spoken and his posture was poor. He rarely smiled, but when he did he looked like a cat who’d just swallowed your canary. His abiding obsessions were taxes and weapons. He thought taxes should be cut always and everywhere, except for poor people, and he thought Americans should build as many weapons as possible … Bartley was appalled by the very idea of poor people. In fact, he’d once said he didn’t think there were any poor people left in America – “just a few hermits or something like that.” (This quote can be found in the Washington Post Magazine of July 11, 1982.) On this issue, Bob Bartlley was the intellectual heir of an old American idea expressed most succinctly by the preacher Henry Ward Beecher: “No man in his land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault – unless it be his sin.” For Bob Bartley, the agrarian pictures of Walker Evans and the homoerotic pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe were morally equivalent. Both depicted human beings in a sinful state of filth and degradation, and such images had no place in an American museum.



Brendan 06.27.06 at 10:20 am

Unless enough people beg me not to (always possible and perhaps desirable) I plan, before I die, to write a book about the impact of radical Protestantism on American political thought. The key point is that you can, in effect, be a radical Protestant (i.e. have a radical Protestant style of thinking) even if you personally are an agnostic or even an atheist. A key piece of evidence for this thesis will be the post by Henry, above. The Protestant influence on Bartley’s politics have been spelt out but just to make it clearer: Catholics (and Muslims and Jews and others) tend to have a far greater emphasis on the social than Protestants who concentrate overwhelmingly on the INDIVIDUAL’S relationship to God. Therefore, sociological influences on, for example, poverty tend to be sidelined in the Protestant worldview. Instead, as Bartley more or less states, if you are poor it is always YOUR fault. And it is, of course, a sign of sin.

The corollary of this is that American (‘the shining city on the hill’) a Protestant colonist state, is surrounded by heathen pagan Indians, beastly French (and South American) Catholics, and other, even less palatable religious apostates (e.g. Muslims and Communist atheists) who are ‘beyond the pale’ (in the original sense of that phrase) and against whom American must defend herself as much as possible, lest the Protestant purity of the American nation state be compromised. The corollary of this is that the shining Protestants have, illuminated by the light of the Lord, have a duty to go forth and act as a beacon unto the nations (especially where there is oil, oops sorry I mean where there are pagans in need of conversion), in much the same way that Constantine did to the Francks.


abb1 06.27.06 at 11:11 am

I say the guy is right: in a country with 40K/capita GDP and democratic form of government for 12% of the popualtion to suffer from poverty is entirely their fault and their sin. They could’ve easily formed a voting block and ended this nonsense within a few years. They don’t do it, so indeed they must be some kind of hermits.


rfs 06.27.06 at 11:12 am

Brendan, I think that this approach would unhelpfully reify a particular abstract and unitary idea of what “radical Protestantism” is, when the reality is much messier, diverse, and historically contingent. Walter Rauschenbusch was a “radical Protestant.” So was Martin Luther King. Protestantism is, like other forms of Christianity, a complex, often self-contradictory, overlapping system of ideas, practices, and institutions, and identifying any one set of social implications from that system as characteristic of the whole misses the complex dynamic by which actors sort through those factors and apply them to social issues. It also involves accepting a conservative interpretation of what Protestantism “really” is, while throwing guys like Rauschenbusch and King out of the story. (Instead, their story is segregated into “Progressivism” or “Civil Rights” and allowed only the most marginal place in narratives of religious development.)

I also think that large-scale distinctions between “Protestant” and “Catholic” ways of doing things are pretty played out, relying on stereotypes and oversimplifications of both traditions that aren’t attentive to the persistent diversity and interpretation that exist in nearly any religious tradition.

You may be able to identify a particular religiously-inflected intellectual tradition of focusing on individual salvation and purposefully neglecting larger social issues, but I’d hesitate to equate that with “radical Protestantism” — in fact, I’d suspect that Bartley’s thinking reflects a late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century secular, social-Darwinist influence as much as a Protestant one. Tracing the precise lineage of that way of thinking, and how and when it becomes dominant among particular groups seems worthwhile… but positing it as present and dominant from the outset seems insupportable to me.


rfs 06.27.06 at 11:28 am

Following up…

I’m not saying that the view Brendan identifies doesn’t exist or that it’s not a powerful one in American political and social thought, but rather that (1) I don’t think you can characterize it as “radical Protestantism” without doing violence to the established meaning of that term, and (2) its existence is a historical phenomenon that needs to be examined and explained, not a baseline or a given that can serve as an overarching explanation for American attitudes and policies.


Adam Kotsko 06.27.06 at 11:35 am

The idea that people generally get what they deserve has existed for far longer than any kind of Protestantism — for instance, it can be found in the book of Job, which predates Luther and Calvin by millenia.

Of course, there is always a market for books based on over-simplified binaries — presumably you could write a concluding chapter in which you make the shocking discovery that we need to find a happy medium between these two poles.


Brendan 06.27.06 at 11:35 am

‘ Walter Rauschenbusch was a “radical Protestant.” So was Martin Luther King.’

I’m well aware of that. But the fact that in the ‘sixties the ‘radical right’ (i.e. Ku Klux Klan etc.) and at least some elements of the ‘left’ (Martin Luther King) were BOTH radical Protestants merely emphasises the importance of radical Protestantism to understanding the American political landscape. Obviously, like any religion, there are ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ elements which might be drawn out by different people at different times.

Your point about Bartley may or may not be right, but it clearly was not the point of Henry’s post which was that Bartley’s social views and his economic views had a ‘root cause’ which was his view of ‘human beings (being) in a sinful state of filth and degradation’ (emphasis added) which is not a secular viewpoint. He also wanted to point out the similarity between Bartley’s views and the preacher Henry Ward Beecher.


Brendan 06.27.06 at 11:46 am

‘The idea that people generally get what they deserve has existed for far longer than any kind of Protestantism—for instance, it can be found in the book of Job, which predates Luther and Calvin by millenia.’

Yet again, the point of Henry’s post was not that Bartley believed that ‘people get what they deserve’. On the contrary, as the post makes clear, Bartley believed that there WERE no poor people in the US. Instead the point of Henry’s post was that Bartley’s worldview was an overarching and coherent one that linked his belief in cutting taxes, stronger ‘defence’ spending, and dislike of ‘sexual deviance’ (e.g. Robert Mapplethorpe) and that this worldview is closest to that stated by Henry Ward Beecher. I don’t mind you disagreeing with me, but at least read the original post with which I was agreeing. Straw man argumentation etc. The reason why the US (more than say, Britain) should be prone to this kind of thinking should be self-evident: think of who were amongst the first settlers. You might also want to look up the phrase ‘shining city on the hill’, see by whom it was first used, to what it referred, and who has used the phrase since, and in what contexts. You might also find this article interesting.


Matt 06.27.06 at 12:58 pm

Who got what they deserved in Job? It’s been a long time since I’ve read it (10 years, maybe) but it seemed like the moral of that story was that God could and would do whatever he wanted for no good reason at all, and if you asked why it happend to you even though you were a good and faithful servent the answer was “shut the fuck up, Job.” I’d always taken the moral to be that what you get has nothing to do with what you deserve. How do you read it differently, Adam? (I’m not saying it can’t be read that way, just that it seems funny to me.)


Don McArthur 06.27.06 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for the reminder. I once worked with a very affluent psychiatrist who came from a background of New England privilege, and had been educated at Yale and Dartmouth. I was discussing a woman who was severely depressed for a variety of reasons, one of which was that she had no money. The Doc looked me in the eye and in an Old Testament voice said, “You can’t have NO money.”


Adam Kotsko 06.27.06 at 2:22 pm

Matt, I meant to say that that is the opinion held by Job’s friends (i.e., “people get what they deserve, so Job must have sinned”), not that it is the message of the book.


yamb 06.27.06 at 2:23 pm

Adam–the point of the book of Job is that you can do everything right and STILL lose it all/be punished/be unlucky. It’s clear that Job did not “deserve” the misfortune visited on him.


Adam Kotsko 06.27.06 at 5:32 pm

yamb, I believe that in Internet parlance I “pwned” you.


minerva 06.27.06 at 5:42 pm

Maybe Adam was referring to the way Job’s friends came around and said: “Oh, c’mon Job. COME ON. You must have done SOMETHING. All wealth wiped out? Whole family dead? Covered in boils? That just doesn’t happen for no reason at all.”

I don’t think God just said “shut the fuck up Job.” I think he said something more like: “I am super powerful. Are you? Well, are you? Didn’t think so.”


james 06.27.06 at 5:46 pm

Is it perhaps that the writer was comparing Poor in the US to the world has a whole? The fact that a very poor person in the US can occasionaly eat chicken or beef versus starving to death kind of makes world comparisons strange. Or it could be that the guy was a jerk.


tom bach 06.27.06 at 5:56 pm

I beg you not to.


derrida derider 06.27.06 at 7:40 pm

With many Americans it’s a little more complex than just Protestantism. It’s about Calvinism – some are predestined to be damned and some predestined to be the elect, but because the universe is just each group must have deserved damnation or election. Prosperity is a sign, though not a cause, of election. A bit different from the Lutheran and Episcopalian strain of Protestantism (with its emphasis on free will because we deserve our goods through our actions) that Max Weber wrote about. Both types, though, tend to a strong work ethic – “labore est orare”.

It’s quite amazing how the foundation of a nation affects its ethos – we in Australia have the convict’s simultaneous contempt for and subservience to authority, while the Yanks are bloody puritans.


JR 06.27.06 at 8:20 pm

The crusading abolitionist and advocate of women’s suffrage, Henry Ward Beecher, may have said that, but he also said:

“A man’s ledger does not tell what he is, or what he is worth. Count what is in man, not what is on him, if you would know what he is worth — whether rich or poor.”

“You cannot sift out the poor from the community. The poor are indispensable to the rich.”

“That is true culture which helps us to work for the social betterment of all.”


Brendan 06.28.06 at 3:14 am

I beg you not to.’

Sorry mate, one vote ain’t cutting it. I was confidentally expecting hundreds of anguished emails begging me not to write it (or anything else for that matter). And I won’t stop until I get them, I tell you.


Barry 06.28.06 at 7:49 am

What I find interesting is that Bartley was one of the prominent people in the right-wing movement in the USA, during the last quarter of the 20th century. Using his platform of the WSJ, he was able to inject the fraud of ‘supply-side economics’ into the national consciousness. We’re still paying for the last binge, during the Reagan era; our children and us will be paying for the Bush fraud until the day that we die. He helped cut taxes on the rich, and spending on the poor; he enabled mass murder done by the USA.

In short, the world is the worse for him having lived, and the better for him having died.

But nobody mentions that – this thread went off on an odd tangent.


Stan 06.28.06 at 12:26 pm

A curious tangent indeed. I’m wondering if anyone viewing these lines recalls the furor, a decade or two back, when a senior writer at WSJ left for a job in academe and sent out a brief advisory to friends and colleagues (‘free at last’ etc.). He also came
out of the closet as a socialist or some other variety of infidel (as Bartley would view it); and the howls of WSJ management that a staffer had done superb work for years without their suspecting his personal political deviationism. The reaction was revelatory of their psychology. Ran across this in Monthly Review, believe the reporter’s name was Kent McDougal [sp?].

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