Grub Street USA

“Impossible to take offense at such obvious sincerity.” These eight words in a Victorian novel sum up one of many problems with U.S. politics today.

Let me back up. 

The novel is “The Odd Women” (1893), by George Gissing. Gissing is remembered today, if at all, as the author of “New Grub Street” (1891), a cold-eyed look at English journalism in the 1880s, in which a serious, high-minded writer, Edwin Reardon, struggles and fails, while his glib friend, Jasper Milvain, who despises the readers he writes for, succeeds greatly — and ends up with Reardon’s wife.

Gissing’s social realism comes across as didactic and heavy handed today, using his characters as symbols, to prove a point. Yet he is still worth reading, as he cut through many of the dominant trends of his English contemporaries, which we may call, justly, Victorian trash.

“Odd Women” was a catchphrase in Gissing’s day for women who did not believe that the sole purpose of a woman’s life was to marry and have children. They believed that a woman was equal to a man, and if educated and given a chance, could do “a man’s job.” If unmarried, that required celibacy — in Victoria’s time.

In short, the novel was about The Woman Question. And despite the clunkiness (to us) of many of its pages, it’s clear that Gissing, in 1893, was taking a stand for what would come to be known as women’s liberation.

What does this have to do with U.S. politics today? Hold on, we’re getting there.

In “The Odd Women,” two protagonists, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, have set up a school to help unmarried women obtain decent, well-paying jobs, and not as shop girls, working 80-hour weeks for a pittance. Rhoda is flame-thrower; Mary, a bit older, is more of a realist.

One student defects to become the mistress of a married man, who throws her out after a year. She writes to Mary and asks to be re-enrolled. Rhoda says absolutely not; Bella is a traitor to the cause and would contaminate the other girls. Mary takes a broader view, sympathetic to the rejected mistress.

As the tense argument concludes, Rhoda says: “I have offended you.”

To which Mary replies: “Impossible to take offense at such obvious sincerity.”

This brings us to today’s Republican Party.

Let us leave aside for the moment the many serious problems not really being debated in our Congress and state legislatures today: voting rights, civil rights, global warming, racism, corrupt policing, a degraded justice system, the Rule of Money, political corruption at all levels. Let’s look at Gissing’s words: “obvious sincerity.”

If anything is obvious in the rancid nondebates dominating our wretched feeble politics today, it’s that the noisiest Republicans are not sincere.

Do they really believe, as they claim, that the seditionist rioters of Jan. 6 were dangerous socialists disguised as Trump supporters? Despite the more than 300 indictments already issued against them — all of them Trumpies?

Do they really believe — unanimously — that despite the murders of more than 70 people in mass shootings this year, there is no need to take any steps at all to address the proliferation of semiautomatic weapons used in these slaughters?

Is it possible that not a single Republican in the House or Senate thinks that we should spend no matter how much money it takes to squelch a pandemic that has killed more than 560,000 Americans in the past year? More than one death a minute — for a year.

I can understand quibbling over details, but really: Zero out of 212 Republicans? That’s not legislating. That’s not governing. And it sure as hell can’t be sincere.

The Republican Party today is led by the people with the loudest and most foul mouths. And sincerity? O, please: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that corporations should “stay out of politics,” so long as they keep sending Republicans hundreds of millions of dollars in “political donations” (wink, wink).

Do any of these people actually believe what they are saying?

Are they sincere? 

If they are, they’re stupid, and if they are not, we should sic the Environmental Protection Agency on them, to make them clean up the toxic bilge they spew from their mouths.

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