Media  
comments_image Comments

Excerpt: The Fog That Cloaks Hypocrisy

Like Bush's dreams of democracy in Iraq, most of the worst lies in our society find their source in colossal delusion.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

One often hears that someone represents a "real Horatio Alger Story." Horatio Alger was a master of the dime novel in the mid-19th century. He churned out dozens of almost identical storylines: a young, poverty-stricken churl is alone in the big, cold city. He works harder than the other shoe-shine or news boys and puts every cent away, while the other boys gamble and drink and waste their money on trivial goods. Along comes a wealthy businessman. He takes note of the young lad's ethic -- and the sparkle of intelligence in his crusty eye -- and takes him under his wing. Soon the boy is a wealthy man of responsibility and high station.

Embedded in Horatio Alger's work is the Protestant work ethic, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American creed. The mythology of upward mobility in America is central to modern conservative thinking, and much of it can be credited to Horatio Alger and his adoring fans. But who was he?

In this excerpt from " Fog Facts", author Larry Beinhart does some digging, and what he finds would come as a surprise to many a conservative Alger fan:

Horatio Alger (1834-1899) wrote about 130 short novels. Like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, which I read at the same age, they are all the same, yet all quite readable. Alger had a great gift for narrative. For some reason or other, I happened to pick one up as an adult. I was quite surprised at what I was reading. Then I read several more to see if that was an aberration. No, that part of my memory, at least, was correct; they are all exactly the same.

They feature a boy just at, or on the verge of, puberty, from the country or the slums. He comes to the center of the big city. He does work, but he doesn't work astonishingly hard, certainly not as compared to the majority of other working children in the days of legal child labor. He doesn't start his own business or invent a better mousetrap or find the Northwest Passage.

What really happens is he meets a rich older man who takes quite a fancy to him and sets him up with money and educates him and teaches him how to dress and conduct himself. There is, indeed, a "meet cute" in which the boy does something that draws that nice rich man's attention. It's usually something heroic, like stopping a team of galloping horses that's dragging a coach that is carrying the rich man's daughter.

This action is referred to in the books themselves and by people like those at the Horatio Alger Society as a sign of character. It is also a chance for the older man to notice how this boy stands out from the other boys. He has that forthright, noble-boy quality. Which is very, very attractive. Eager, earnest, shining. It's what draws priests to alter boys. In addition to the convenience, of course.

I do not understand how an adult can read Alger's stories and not realize that these were homosexual pedophile fantasies. Actually, it's a single fantasy repeated over and over again.

So I looked him up. And there it was. He had started out as a minister in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was having sex with boys in his congregation. Two of them told their parents. He admitted to a certain "practice." He resigned and moved to New York City. There he became a writer and began churning out these fantasies as dime novels.

We have two distinct ideas of what happened when he went to New York. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, a critic, antiquarian bookseller, and gay activist, has written: "Alger continued his 'practice' although thereafter most often against types of boys nobody cared about, thus avoiding further trouble with authorities. The newsboys Alger glamorized in his fiction were in reality homeless child laborers who spent their nights in alleys or slum-squats .... Their plight included sexual exploitation ranging from outright rape to 'willing' prostitution."

Stefan Kanfer, writing in the City Journal , a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a neoconservative propaganda mill, has a very different tale to tell: "The fugitive repaired to New York City in the spring of 1866. Though never to wear the cloth again, he resolved to live out the Christian ideal, expiating his sin by saving others." Upon seeing the slum children of New York, "an idea came to him .... He had sinned against youths; now he would rescue them and in the process save himself. He would do it as a novelist."

In this version, Alger never had sex with a young boy again (nor anyone, presumably, as there is no reference to marriages, mistresses, or an adult male companion). Kanfer describes also how Alger did many good works, works that kept him close to the youngsters he was trying to save, and how he helped many of them and found them places with his friends.

So, two distinct interpretations of Alger's reality.

On the one hand we have the gay activist saying, in essence, "Let's get real. Alger was a sexual predator, and sexual predators stay sexual predators. Going to the big cities was the sexual tourism of the day. There were plenty of young girls and boys with no means of support and you could buy what you can buy in Bangkok today."

Kanfer comes out fighting for hypocrisy.

Elsewhere, George Bush, in a series of private conversations that were taped by a friend, explained the reasoning for hypocrisy over honesty as a policy choice:

Mr. Bush said [to Mr. Wead]: "'I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried.'" He mocked Vice President Al Gore for acknowledging marijuana use. "Baby boomers have got to grow up and say, yeah, I may have done drugs, but instead of admitting it, say to kids, don't do them," he said.

Joe Conason, in the New York Observer wrote, "For many American parents of a certain age, that self-serving yet poignant response must strike an empathetic chord. Concern that children will mimic parental misbehavior is universal, and so is the impulse to conceal embarrassing truths."

Hypocrisy of this type, though not labeled as such, is part of the Republican Party's program and has a great deal do with its appeal.

In the constellation of Republicanism, conservatism, and Christianity, the source of order is authority. A choice, a statement, or a rule is not made valid by logic or proof or evidence. It comes from the authority of the source. A godly man gets it from the ministers of God, who get it from the Bible, which is the word of God himself.

If there is no "authority," then there will be no order. To preserve order, therefore, we need to believe that each link in the chain is unbroken. To do so requires an effort not to know certain things.

In the matter of Horatio Alger's novels, this is probably trivial. But when it applies to abstinence-only sex education, it leads to unwanted teen pregnancies and increased transmission of STDs, and it brings misery and death. When it applies to not doing stem cell research, it perpetuates disease, pain, and early death.

Once we accept and sanction hypocrisy in matters of sexual morality, drinking, and doing drugs, the act of saying one thing and doing another becomes the norm in all things. The president wanted to take out Saddam Hussein because he was evil. It's good to oppose evil. In order to convince the world to go along, it was necessary to make a specific claim. So he said that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he was linked to terrorism and that's linked to Al Qaeda. When those specific claims turn out to be false, that's alright, because the hypocritical form -- say what is necessary to do God's will and oppose evil, true or not -- is the accepted form.

Here was a fog. The myth of Horatio Alger.

To get to the facts, we did something relatively simple. We ignored the rhetoric and looked at the events. Which is sort of funny, since, in this case, they're both fiction. Still, if we stripped the rhetoric off the facts and they stood naked, we saw them for what they were.

Then we looked outside. In this case, to the author's life. There was a correspondence. He was, in real life, the character who appears in every book, under different names and in different guises, the outwardly reputable older man -- a pastor, no less -- who is very fond of young boys.

This is, intellectually, relatively easy to do.

It is socially and psychologically difficult. Our social and psychological methods of sorting out the world will generally trump our strictly intellectual ones. There are certain automatics that exist in almost any situation. We automatically give credence to what people tell us. We give additional respect to the words of people in authority. We tend to go with the group. We compartmentalize. We let our preachers preach, our leaders lead and Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, fix our cars. These things are neither good nor bad. They are efficient and they bring personal and social benefits.

Here, there were additional factors.

Alger's rhetoric creates fog. There are clean and noble boys and there are adult men, whose motives are good and pure, who help such boys. Teachers and coaches and librarians and Scout leaders and even priests do reach out to young people and enter into asexual mentor-protégé relationships without groping them, and help them find their way. That's good and it is necessary and it is a significant part of social life.

So there could be truth in it. Certainly there ought to be truth in it.

The preaching about being good and godly and all the rest in Alger's novels sounds sincere. So does his poem, Friar Anselmo's Sin, which is taken to be autobiographical, is full of regret and repentance and is about the promise of redemption through good deeds:

"Courage, Anselmo, though thy sin be great, God grants thee life that thou may'st expiate.
Thy guilty stains shall be washed white again, By noble service done thy fellow-men."

Alger reportedly did do good deeds and helped out many a young man.

This last is only marred by our suspicion that pedophiles who choose to work in positions that keep them in contact with youngsters, have ulterior motives, or, at the very least are placing themselves nearer to temptation than they ought to.

Alger's sincerity and his confiscation of the sort of truths that we are fond of confuse us. At the very least, if he is sincere, then he is not a liar. To be a liar requires intentionality. To accuse someone of being a liar means that we are saying that they are aware of the difference between reality and the things they say and that they are making a choice to deceive.

This mix -- predatory desires cloaked in the rhetoric of goodness, sincerity so sincere, we can't believe it's not genuine, statements that could be real, even should be real, but aren't, untruths that we are hard-pressed to call lies -- can exist in other, completely nonsexual contexts.

We don't have words for that. We don't have a label that describes the sort of people who speak such untruths with such sincerity from within such delusions.

The name of the New York chapter of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association, is the Horatio Alger Chapter.