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Please, Liberals: Stop Abusing 'A Tale of Two Cities'

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines

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Wednesday was a big day for Charles Dickens, the beloved novelist who died 143 years ago. At the inaugural ceremonies for Mayor Bill de Blasio, singer and activist Harry Belafonte called the justice system under Mike Bloomberg “deeply Dickensian.” The new mayor himself followed suit: “When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it,” he said. “And we will do it.” Decrying inequality by invoking the 1859 classic—the title was capitalized in his prepared remarks—is certainly nothing new for de Blasio and his supporters. Neither is the more ballistic phrasing, “taking dead aim at A Tale of Two Cities,” which echoes Senator Joe Manchin's words before literally shooting the cap-and-trade bill.

I get what the mayor is saying about the yawning gap between the rich and poor in New York, and I’m among those who are glad we’re having a public conversation about it. I acknowledge that using the book title is a convenient shorthand with the appealing ring of familiarity, and that there are worse things for public discourse than to have literary references thrown around. But this one is getting unmanageable: A friend at a liberal nonprofit in the city reported that her colleagues, who’d used the title for one of their own initiatives, actually griped that de Blasio was pilfering their line. Enough! I’d like to stand up for Dickens enthusiasts and high school English students everywhere and declare that A Tale of Two Cities is a novel, not a demographic condition. It’s a wonderful read and a timeless achievement of narrative, and it never deserved the scorn that lately has been heaped upon its title.

The main thing that bothers me, apart from one of my favorite books being made into a public enemy, is that the popular usage is a misappropriation of the title’s wording. A Tale of Two Cities is called A Tale of Two Cities because it is a tale about two cities. Specifically, it’s about London and Paris, and the intertwined lives of people living in those two cities during the upheaval of the French Revolution. Looking at the world around us, it is more than valid to make the point that a struggling family in the South Bronx, where the poverty level stands at 32 percent, is functionally living in a different city than their neighbors in the glittering high-rises across the river. But if we are going to use A Tale of Two Cities to illustrate that point—and there is a case to be made that we actually should—we’re going to have to move beyond glib thievery of the title and into the actual elements of the story.

It happens that A Tale of Two Cities is in fact deeply concerned with poverty and inequality (just not as a comparison between the cities). Much of the action takes place in the years before the outbreak of the Revolution and centers around the hideousness that sparked the bloodshed. It is Dickens at his best and most familiar, which is to say the descriptions and plot are riveting, the minor players and bad guys are wonderful, and the main characters are a bit lame and forgettable. But for someone like me who was never a very good history student, the scenes of privation in the Parisian slums are almost source texts in forming an understanding of what the uprising was all about. If you’ll allow a fan to quote liberally:

Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat…Depressed and slinking though they were, eyes of fire were not wanting among them; nor compressed lips, white with what they suppressed; nor foreheads knitted into the likeness of the gallows-rope they mused about enduring, or inflicting.

It goes on, and gets more purple, and more delightful, for thousands of words; suffice it to say that eventually the sensible English protagonists wander into this hellscape at precisely the wrong time, and things get really bad. The vividness of the masses’ destitution is matched by the vileness of the heedless nobility, one of whom literally rolls over a penniless child in his gilded carriage. From there we plunge into the gore and hysteria of the Reign of Terror, from which our heroes must escape by dint of self-sacrifice and many a Dickensian plot twist. Heads fly off, the streets gush with blood, man turns on man, and the populace is left in just as sorry a state as it was before. This summer I reread my dog-eared copy from Mrs. Imhoff’s English class, and the margins are crammed with loop-lettered notations like FORESHADOWING, *BLOOD*, and REVENGE!!!, which actually annotate the book pretty nicely. Anyway, the point is that A Tale of Two Cities, for all of its cartoonishness, is satisfyingly agnostic, even torn, in its treatment of the idea of vengeance on the rich.

At the moment, none of our elected leaders are talking about actual armed overthrow. The revolution brewing in 2014 is likely to be far less bloody, and involve a lot more press releases, than the one in 1789: From the looks of it, the potential for a serious, Tea Party-style insurrection within the political left seems to be increasing by the day, pitting revenue-raising populists against business-friendly centrists. Noam Scheiber highlighted this nicely in a piece about the emerging Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren polarity. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed from the heads of the center-left think tank Third Way warned that “Economic Populism is a Dead End for Democrats” and specifically brushed back Warren and de Blasio, igniting a major contretemps. DailyKos called Third Way “a corporatist Wall Street front group” and announced that its community would no longer support any candidate who considers aligning with the organization. Meanwhile, some of Third Way’s own co-chairs distanced themselves from the column. (Here is where I will make the convenient disclosure that one of Third Way’s founders is a family member, and I have worked with and for several of de Blasio’s campaign advisers—so you see, I couldn’t possibly take a position on this myself.)

The stage thus set, Mayor-elect de Blasio took the stage on Wednesday and left no doubt whether he’d be softening his class-warrior rhetoric now that he’s moving into Gracie Mansion. He described his ideological opponents as “some on the far right”—a polite sidestepping of their location within his own party—and set up their belief system as a defense of “rugged individualism,” which he rebutted (in Dickensian terms) by quoting former mayor Fiorello La Guardia: “No ‘rugged individual’ can survive in the midst of collective starvation,” he said. De Blasio enumerated once again the unapologetically liberal policies that helped his campaign catch fire. Foremost among them, of course, is universal pre-kindergarten and after-school care for middle schoolers, paid for by a tax hike on wealthy earners. De Blasio measured the daily impact of such an increase in terms the rich would be sure to understand: “About the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.” Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith characterized the strategy this way: “de Blasio, in showing a willingness to make and keep enemies, revealed a political priority: Keeping his friends.”

“We do not ask more of the wealthy to punish success,” de Blasio said, by way of dismissing antagonism. “We do it to create more success stories.” He ended on an inclusive note, pledging that “working together, we will make this One City.” One of the core insights of his campaign was that you don’t need the support of the wealthy and well-connected to win. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have—and if the mayor wants the people on Park to take him at his word, he might do well to change up his literary references. It would strain credibility to liken the One Percent—a term he used in his remarks—to the abusive French aristocracy, just as it would strain credibility to liken a tax increase to guillotinings in the public square. The problem is that the fixation on A Tale of Two Cities suggests both. If progressives think that’s the wrong analogy, then they should pick a different book. And for Mrs. Imhoff’s sake, I hope they do.