Let’s beat up the poor

Chris Prendergast
March 1, 2013

Giving is good, is it not? Intrinsically, but also utilitarianly, good as good for.  It is good for the recipients, who get something they value or need  (often in conditions of desperation) which they would otherwise not  have. But it is also good for the givers, along a whole spectrum of  potential benefits, from a moral return on the investment (in the form  of feeling, er, good about yourself, an example of the ethically better  sort of person) to an even grander salvationist return, as points are  added up to determine whether you earn a pass through the Pearly Gates.  Not everyone, however, thinks that giving is good, at least not to those  in urgent need of assistance. I see that the Bullingdon Club is back in the news. The Oxford Student recently ran a story  about a student who was admitted to the club only after an initiation  ceremony which allegedly included burning a £50 note in front of a  tramp. The publication of the story generated a lot of huffing and  puffing about its reliability and its source (a third party). More  generally, toff-bashing seems to have lost its allure. It is felt to be  in political bad taste, an expression of the ‘politics of envy’; what  matters is not where you come from, but where you are going, etc. The  press took a very relaxed attitude to the remarkable statement of the  current Top Toff, former Bullingdon Club member, the Prime Minister  (Eton and Brasenose) in which he declared that he wanted everyone to have the same education he did. Thus runs a version of toff-egalitarianism, a silver spoon in everyone’s mouth. What a decent chap!

However burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person might be  said to have something going for it, as a robustly contemptuous  rejection of the mealy-mouthed and self-congratulatory nonsense spouted  by the comfortably privileged on the political make. After all, we don’t  hear much these days of something called the Big Society.  The talk now is of cutting welfare benefits and of strivers versus  shirkers. That’s more like it! Drag those shirkers out of bed! Eliminate  benefits! Very possibly eliminate the poor themselves, or at the very  least give the homeless and the beggars a damn good thrashing as an  example to all disinclined to strive (very possibly for the reason that  there is nothing readily imaginable to strive for, like a job for  instance).

I find myself encouraged in these boldly and bracingly heterodox  views by the coincidence of re-reading the verse and prose poetry of the  19c French poet, Charles Baudelaire at the time of stumbling on the  tale in The Oxford Student, and wondering how all this might look when passed through the prism of Baudelaire’s narrative prose poem, ‘Let’s Beat Up The Poor’.  The text begins with the poet telling us of a fortnight spent in his  room intensively reading the works of the ‘entrepreneurs of public  happiness’, to the point of inducing a near catatonic state of vertigo  and imbecility. Yet from deep within his stupor there is born the ‘germ  of an idea’ which, on leaving his room for a brisk walk to a local  cabaret, he suddenly finds himself both clarifying and putting to the  test. Accosted by a street beggar, instead of handing over a coin as  prescribed by the philosophy of charitable works, he hurls himself at  the beggar, punches him in the eye, kicks him in the back, bangs his  head against a wall, and, seeing tree branch lying on the ground,  finishes the job by beating him ‘with the obstinate energy of a cook  tenderizing a steak’. This startling turn of events is however but an  hors d’oeuvre before the principal peripeteia of the narrative. A bloody  heap, the ‘decrepit’ beggar stirs, drags himself to his feet, and  impels himself into a counter-attack, punching his assailant in both  eyes, breaking four teeth (Baudelaire is nothing if not fussily  precise), and beating the living daylights out of him with the same  branch. The roles of ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’ are thus at once reversed  and equalized.

In many ways, the poem is deeply resistant to interpretation, and is  meant to be. The surface of demonic hysteria and sadomasochism is a  pokerfaced mask, concealing a range of provocative ironies. Against the  background of the spectacular collapse of ideologies of well-meaning  benevolence in the insurrections of 1848, Baudelaire’s poem probes all  the weak points of the philanthropic: the egoism in altruism (‘I am such  a nice person’); the bad faith of charitable giving as alibi, letting  oneself off the hook of finding real solutions to inequality; the  malicious thought that a relation of equality established through the  exchange of violence is far preferable to the humiliating servitude of  supplicant beggardom, the smile, the deference, the politeness, without  which the needy rarely accede to the status of the deserving.

I would therefore like to invite David Cameron or George Osborne to  propose Charles Baudelaire for posthumous honorary membership of the  Bullingdon Club. His great poem would of course be read out as part of  the ceremony of induction, and hailed as a fine way of converting  shirkers into strivers. We can then look forward to the moment when the  tramp, faced with the burning 50 quid note, grabs hold of it and sets  light to a Bullingdon Boy’s tails.


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Chris Prendergast