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Forum Post: True History of a Tramp: Chesterton on Eviction

Posted 3 years ago on Nov. 16, 2011, 4:53 p.m. EST by coldsalmon (1)
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Apropos of evicting protesters, here is a selection from Chapter 2 of Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chestertion (1922).

The free peasant, in ancient or modern times, is free to go or stay. The slave, in ancient times, was free neither to go nor stay. The serf was not free to go; but he was free to stay.

Now what have we done with this man? It is quite simple. There is no historical complexity about it in that respect. We have taken away his freedom to stay. We have turned him out of his [105]field, and whether it was injustice, like turning a free farmer out of his field, or only cruelty to animals, like turning a cow out of its field, the fact remains that he is out in the road. First and last, we have simply destroyed the security. We have not in the least destroyed the inequality. All classes, all creatures, kind or cruel, still see this lowest stratum of society as separate from the upper strata and even the middle strata; he is as separate as the serf. A monster fallen from Mars, ignorant of our simplest word, would know the tramp was at the bottom of the ladder, as well as he would have known it of the serf. The walls of mud are no longer round his boundaries, but only round his boots. The coarse, bristling hedge is at the end of his chin, and not of his garden. But mud and bristles still stand out round him like a horrific halo, and separate him from his kind. The Martian would have no difficulty in seeing he was the poorest person in the nation. It is just as impossible that he should marry an heiress, or fight a duel with a duke, or contest a seat at Westminster, or enter a club in Pall Mall, or take a scholarship at Balliol, or take a seat at an opera, or propose a good law, or protest against a bad one, as it was impossible to the serf. Where he differs is in something very different. He has lost what was possible to the serf. He can no longer scratch the bare earth by day or sleep on the bare earth by night, without being collared by a policeman.

Now when I say that this man has been oppressed [106]as hardly any other man on this earth has been oppressed, I am not using rhetoric: I have a clear meaning which I am confident of explaining to any honest reader. I do not say he has been treated worse: I say he has been treated differently from the unfortunate in all ages. And the difference is this: that all the others were told to do something, and killed or tortured if they did anything else. This man is not told to do something: he is merely forbidden to do anything. When he was a slave, they said to him, "Sleep in this shed; I will beat you if you sleep anywhere else." When he was a serf, they said to him, "Let me find you in this field: I will hang you if I find you in anyone else's field." But now he is a tramp they say to him, "You shall be jailed if I find you in anyone else's field: but I will not give you a field." They say, "You shall be punished if you are caught sleeping outside your shed: but there is no shed." If you say that modern magistracies could never say such mad contradictions, I answer with entire certainty that they do say them. A little while ago two tramps were summoned before a magistrate, charged with sleeping in the open air when they had nowhere else to sleep. But this is not the full fun of the incident. The real fun is that each of them eagerly produced about twopence, to prove that they could have got a bed, but deliberately didn't. To which the policeman replied that twopence would not have got them a bed: that they could not possibly have got a bed: and therefore (argued that thoughtful officer) they ought to be [107]punished for not getting one. The intelligent magistrate was much struck with the argument: and proceeded to imprison these two men for not doing a thing they could not do. But he was careful to explain that if they had sinned needlessly and in wanton lawlessness, they would have left the court without a stain on their characters; but as they could not avoid it, they were very much to blame. These things are being done in every part of England every day. They have their parallels even in every daily paper; but they have no parallel in any other earthly people or period; except in that insane command to make bricks without straw which brought down all the plagues of Egypt. For the common historical joke about Henry VIII. hanging a man for being Catholic and burning him for being Protestant is a symbolic joke only. The sceptic in the Tudor time could do something: he could always agree with Henry VIII. The desperate man to-day can do nothing. For you cannot agree with a maniac who sits on the bench with the straws sticking out of his hair and says, "Procure threepence from nowhere and I will give you leave to do without it."

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2 Comments


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[-] 2 points by powertothepeople (1264) 3 years ago

Much to think about there.

[-] 0 points by ronjj (-241) 3 years ago

YEAH - Much to think about. And with your educational attainment, can you put what you just published so eloquently - into the words of the common man, or are you actually now "master" of education and big words which we serfs are not meant to understand. THANK YOU SIR