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Little changes among riders at the top

May 29, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

BThe parable of the stagecoach, crafted by Edward Bellamy for publication in 1888 in his novel, "Looking Backward 2000-1887," lays bare, in utter simplicity, the fundamental weakness of species homo sapiens. Reprinted by Random House in 2000, the editor declared that "Looking Backward" was "undoubtedly the most influential book on social reform ever to be written in America."

The parable begins with Bellamy describing (from the perspective of the year 2000) what life was like in 1887. At this period of time, the industrial class leadership - later to be called "robber barons" - was approaching the zenith of its pre-Great Depression political and economic power. Some regarded these captains of industry as the "fittest," who had been the survivors in the economic struggle. Other analysts of the period rated them as moral delinquents with insatiable greed, eager to accumulate power and wealth.

Bellamy begins his parable with the following imagery. "Perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hungery, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down even at the steepest ascent. These seats at the top were breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, the occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team."

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Naturally, there was competition for these highly coveted seats and the rules permitted the holders to award these prized possessions to whomever they pleased. Nonetheless, these seats were not entirely secure because riders could be jarred from their seats when the coach hit a rough spot in the road. Worse yet, the prospect of a complete overturn if the coach encountered an especially bad bump was a constant cloud over the enjoyment of those who rode at the top.

Bellamy then asks those who are listening to his parable, "Was not their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight added to their toil? Had they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them?"

The paltry, putrid response of the pampered and affluent elite revealed their total incapacity to empathize with the toilers in harness. From the top, they offered verbal encouragements that were quite commendable. "Fight the good fight," "Stay the course," and the always dependable, "Do your duty with faithfulness and, with patience, and a heavenly reward is assured." Truth be told, however, the sight of such pitiful and hopeless suffering of the toilers in harness served only to make those at the top hold on to their seats with more tenacity.

The sad conclusion reached by Bellamy was that, "If the passengers could have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages, they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach."

The drama played out in this parable has been repeated in many times and many places - only the names of the riders at the top and the toilers at the bottom have changed. This parable has more to do with the human condition than it does about political or economic ideologies. For those who suppose that Bellamy was overly harsh on the riders at the top of the coach in 1887, just contemplate what he could say about the riders at the top of the coach in 2007 when looking back from the vantage point of 2057?

How could a rider at the top of the coach in 2007 even look Bellamy in the face knowing that they had brought their corporation to ruin? They then made a plea to the sufferers in harness to supply "bailout" funds for their survival and then give large portions of that sacred gift to fellow riders at the top as bonuses even though they were a party to the collapse? Bellamy, if he could be resurrected from the grave, could smile with satisfaction that his parable was straight to the mark?

Allan Powell is professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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