Today I brew, tomorrow I bake
The next the young queen's child I take
What joy that neither man nor dame
Knows Rumpelstiltskin is my name.
There are two kinds of Political Correctness. The "Cultural Left" polices a devout anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia. The "Fiscal Right" polices adherence to a "competitive" global marketplace; government and labour force downsizing; debt, deficit, and social benefit reduction. Both of these correctnesses have been engraved deep in the consciousness of most Canadians, thanks to mainstream academics, opinion leaders, and mass media. It matters not how thoroughly dissent may be grounded in reason, evidence, and compassion. Taboo views get angry, mocking responses. The nonconformist's credibility, friendships, and career can be at risk. Those who dare must kick in emotional doors before proceeding to evidence and argument.
Finlayson engages the Fiscal Right. Readers of Books in Canada will be familiar with her fellow warriors: Linda McQuaig, Lars Osberg, Heather Menzies, and John Ralston Saul (among others). The author has little of substance to add to what these writers say. But she kicks in emotional doors in a gentle, charming, and original way, with a tale we learned at our mothers' knees:
The miller boasts: "My daughter can spin straw into gold." The king marries her, but then imprisons her with some straw and a spinning wheel. In her despair, she has a little gnome make the gold for her, in return for her firstborn child. Cockily, the little man will relinquish his claim if she can guess his far-fetched name. Now comes the happy ending. Because the mean little fellow can't help bragging about his impossible name, he is finally overheard. Word comes to the young queen: "Is your name then perhaps Rumpelstiltskin?"
Finlayson promises us this happy ending. But we must first name (that is, unmask) our own Rumpelstiltskins: the multinational corporations which take from the poor and give to the rich. As long as we blind ourselves as to who benefits and who loses in this turbo-charged global economy, our miseries will get worse. Our woes come not from high technology or from globalization, but from the greed of the wealthy.
"Until we can name the Rumpelstiltskins and let the sun shine brightly on their motives, what hope do we as individuals and as a society of preserving the progress we have made and of safeguarding our dreams? How indeed can we even know what, if any, dreams we must abandon because we truly cannot afford them, or because we are living at a time and in a world in which they cannot possibly come true?"
Yet, as the author must realize, the fairy-tale does not quite fit. Already in the thirties Ferdinand Lundberg "named" big business the Robber Barons. More recently, David Lewis "named" the same crowd the Corporate Welfare Bums. Today they are caricatured in union publications, unmasked by a tiny minority of economists, even "named" and fingered from United and Catholic Church pulpits. It is easy to name the Rumpelstiltskin; but not without breaking taboos, not without ruining one's credibility.
Nevertheless Finlayson takes her allegory most seriously. The tale is told in full to introduce the book. Proof text and midrash precede each of her nine chapters:
"I must spin this straw into gold before the morning..."
"What will you give me if I do it for you?"
"Let us consider the offer. In agreeing he should have her child, she must have believed she had no other choice.... Would the king have carried out his threat to kill her if she did not spin the straw into gold?... How in a peaceful and prosperous kingdom could such monstrous events unfold? How could a benign and generous king threaten to take the life of a helpless subject. And why did Rumpelstiltskin want her first-born child?"
We see how Finlayson blames not only Rumpelstiltskin, but also the Miller (Joe Average) who exploits his daughter (women) and the King (government), who will do anything to make ends meet. She claims that the gold (wealth created by the globalized economy) is an illusion, the king has been duped, and Rumpelstiltskin attempts to steal the child to exploit him. The author speaks boldly from within her midrash, but never explicitly defines (as I did above) the key terms of her allegory.
Back in the real world she writes more clumsily: "I do believe in conspiracies of the cynical, conspiracies of the self-interested who deliberately seek, through fear-mongering, or simply by throwing their weight around, to further their fortunes at the expense of others." The conspirators "are also trying to steal our first-borns by creating a permanent pool of disposable workers, workers who will never enjoy job security or opportunities for advancement."
Finlayson provides only weak evidence for such claims, relying too heavily on "who benefits". This kind of ad hominem argument can, of course be used to soften up any Politically Correct target. Who benefits from affirmative action? Not the inner city poor; rather the large affirmative action industry-bureaucratic jobs are at stake. We still do not know whether affirmative action does more good then harm. Likewise, pointing out how wealth has been transferred from the poor to the rich still does not tell us whether we can safely ditch the "globaloney" (Finlayson's term). The emotional door has been kicked in. Prognosis and action plans remain to be determined.
Yet what, asks the author, do the impoverished, the overworked, those without hope for themselves or for their children, have to gain by remaining loyal to the current market economy? Why not risk a different view of man and society: where humans care for others as well as themselves, where governments legitimately regulate "combinations in restraint of trade", and serve the people in the ways business cannot. The real Adam Smith-unlike the puppet of the Fiscal Right-preached no less.
Perhaps we can forgive Finlayson her pollyannaish conclusion: "It is now time to tell Rumpelstiltskin that we know his name and that we are not going to allow him to bully us any longer...in honour of Adam Smith and his vision of a prudent and benevolent society, we could make him an offer...we will allow you to participate...."
Henry Lackner is a Halifax writer and student of the history and philosophy of science, with a special interest in heresies.