Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Satan's Bushel - II

Click here for part I.

On further reading of Satan's Bushel, I discovered a speech that rivals any of the great speeches I have read in any work of fiction. It certainly deserves its place with the speeches of Roark or John Galt (although it is not as comprehensive as the speeches from those characters).

One of the main characters, Absalom Weaver, sits listening to a sales pitch for the local farmers to join a marketing cooperative. At the end of the sales pitch, the farmers persuade Weaver to rise and give his opinion:

. . . He had not yet begun to speak, but he was peering about in the grass, stooping here and there to pluck a bit of vegetation. He walked as far as the fence for a bramble leaf. Returning he snapped a twig from the elm above his head and faced them.

"This towering elm," he began, with an admiring look at the tree, "was once a tiny thing. A sheep might have eaten it at one bite. Every living thing around it was hostile and injurious. And it survived. It grew. It took its profit. It became tall and powerful beyond the reach of its enemies. What preserved it - cooperative marketing? What gave it power - a law from Congress? What gave it fullness - the Golden Rule? On what was its strength founded - a fraternal spirit? You know better. Your instincts tell you no. It saved itself. It found its own greatness. How? By fighting. Did you know that plants fight? If you could only see the deadly, ceaseless warfare among plants this lovely landscape would terrify you. It would make you think man's struggles tame."

"I hold up this leaf from the elm. The reason it is flat and thin is that the peaceable work of its life is to gather nourishment for the tree from the air. Therefore it must have as much surface as possible to touch the air with. But it has another work to do. A grisly work. A natural work, all the same. It must fight. For that use it is pointed at the end as you see and has teeth around the edge - these. The first thing the elm plant does is to grow straight up out of the ground with a spear thrust, its leaves rolled tightly together. Its enemies do not notice it. Then suddenly each leaf spreads itself out and with its teeth attacks other plants; it overturns them, holds them out of the sunlight and drowns them. Marvelous, isn't it? Do you wonder why the elm does not overrun the earth? Because other plants fight back, each in its own way. I show you a blade of grass. It has no teeth. How can it fight? Perhaps it lives by love and sweetness. It does not. It grows very fast by stealth, taking up so little room that nothing else minds, until all at once it is tall and strong enough to throw out blades in every direction and fall upon other plants. It smothers them to death. Then the bramble. I care not for the bramble. Not because it fights. For another reason. Here is its weapon. Besides the spear point and the teeth the bramble leaf you see is in five parts, like one's hand. It is a hand in fact, and one very hard to cast off. When it cannot overthrow and kill an enemy as the elm does, it climbs up his back to light and air, and in fact prefers that opportunity, gaining its profit not in natural combat but in shrewd advantage, like the middleman. Another plant I would like to show you. There is one nearby. Unfortunately it would be inconvenient to exhibit him in these circumstances. His familiar name is honeysuckle. He is sleek, suave, brilliantly arrayed, and you would not suspect his nature, which is that of the preying speculator. Once you are in his toils it is hopeless. The way of this plant is to twist itself round and round another and strangle it."

"This awful strife is universal in plant life. There are no exemptions. Among animals it is not so fierce. They can run from one another. Plants must fight it out where they stand. They must live or die on the spot. Among plants of one kind there is rivalry. The weak fall out and die; the better survive. But all plants of one kind fight alike against plants of all other kinds. That is the law of their strength. A race of plants that had wasted its time waiting for Congress to give it light and air, or for a state bureau with hired agents to organize it by the Golden Rule, or had been persuaded that its interests were in common with those of the consumer, would have disappeared from the earth.

"The farmer is like a plant. He cannot run. He is rooted. He shall live or die on the spot. But there is no plant like a farmer. There are nobles, ruffians, drudges, drones, harlots, speculators, bankers, thieves and scalawags, all these among plants, but no idiots, saying 'How much will you give?' and 'What will you take?' Until you fight as the elm fights, take as the elm takes, think as the elm thinks, you will never be powerful and cannot be wise."

This speech is the ultimate rejoinder to those who preach "compassion" as the justification for socialist economic policy. This speech denies and disproves any policy that would use government obstacles and barriers against those who must fight for survival (all of us - not just farmers). This speech helps us understand our own nature and how that nature is suited to the capitalist economic system.

While Weaver's speech needs context for it to have the most impact, that context would soon be provided by the policies of the New Deal. We can forgive Garrett for failing to apply Weaver's lesson to broader government policy. Such a comprehensive approach did not seem as imperative in the pre-New Deal days of 1923.

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