Where is Mr. Knightley when you need him?
I do not subscribe to the "real men read Austen" philosophy. The only time I have read Austen is when I had to in order to teach the book, and despite having three daughters, I have managed to avoid watching the film adaptations of her works. I can respect Austen as a literary genius. I respect her wit as a satirist with keen insight into human nature and romantic relationships. There is no doubt she can teach our culture a thing or two about the male/female dance. The problem I have with her books is that, well, nothing ever happens. Or at least it seems that way. I know the standard answer to this objection: in Austen's work, the real action is not in the external world but in the inner life of key characters who undergo transformation, demonstrating that the real test of one's character is in the ordinary details of life. (Flannery O'Connor, who once said "all good stories are about conversion," would no doubt approve.) Still, to read over 400 pages in which the highlight is the planning of a ball is just a bit much. At least for me.
Nevertheless, I do think Austen's Emma has something to teach us in this particular moment in history. While we do not typically think of Austen as a trenchant source of social or political commentary, in her masterwork Emma, she helps us understand what happens when a ruling aristocracy loses touch with the commoners. The book is aimed squarely at elites, reminding them of their responsibilities to those beneath them in social and economic rank. Austen published Emma in 1815 when she was about 40 years old. She lived through a period of epic revolutions -- political revolutions, including the the American Revolution and the French Revolution, as well as cultural revolutions, including the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Romanticism. While as I far as I know she does not touch directly on these revolutions (her thoroughly domestic stories hardly ever wander far from their rural settings), she certainly understood them and had family members involved in them. If we read carefully, we can discern what she thought about them.
The whole plot of Emma revolves around the title character who comes from an upper crust family in Highbury. When we first meet Emma, she is described as "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition . . . and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” But as the story proceeds we see exactly what this means, as her deep flaws become apparent. She is selfish, immature, arrogant, condescending, manipulative, meddlesome, and mischievous, especially in her misguided attempts to play matchmaker for others. In today's terms, we might call her a ditz and a flirt and a snob. She is guided by her feelings and her overactive imagination, which blinds her to reality. She is idle, lazy, bored, and undisciplined. She is prone to flatter and be flattered. She had never been told "no" through her growing up years and it shows. Her father is an effeminate weakling; while he is a man of wealth and standing, he is too oblivious, self-absorbed, and stuck in his ways to do any good for anyone else. Her teacher/governess, Miss Taylor, is likable but not enough of an authority figure to rein Emma in the way she needs. Emma's high social status continually protects her from being told what she needs to hear. She has let her social standing go to her head.
Opposite Emma is Mr. Knightley. Knightley lives up to his name. He is a knight of a man, a knight in shining armor, possessing a fortune, fortitude, and sterling character. His nobility comes through again and again, especially in his generosity to the poor of Highbury. Not coincidentally, Knightley lives in an abbey, and he is far more effective as a Spiritual guide than any of the clergy we meet elsewhere in the story. Knightley is a gentleman, in his late 30s, full of wisdom, with keen insight into both persons and situations. He is a hard edged realist, a man of honesty, familiar with the ways of the world yet not worldly at all. Knightley is ideal aristocrat, a man who knows how to use whatever power is entrusted to him for the good of others. He is the one character in the story who is able to tame the shrew that Emma has become. Emma had been reluctant to admit she desired to marry, but eventually comes to desire Knightley above others who have vied for her hand (or, more accurately, realizes she has actually desired Knightley all along). Knightley's masculine honor makes him irresistible, and he will ultimately become her husbandly lord and savior.
The key to understanding the book is to see how various characters treat the lowest person on the social hierarchy, the spinster Miss Bates. Miss Bates is kind and gentle. But she is also a bit of a bore, too talkative and silly for most to pay any attention to, as she lacks both the looks and cleverness that might otherwise give her value in society. She is very needy, financially and otherwise. As a poor middle aged woman, she has no prospects for marriage, and thus no real hope of security. She will forever be dependent on the good will of those who outrank her in the social caste. How do others in the story treat her? Most barely tolerate her. Churchill shows her momentary charity, but only out of ulterior motives, for show, to gain something for himself. Emma's arrogance and condescension come out in how she treats Miss Bates throughout the story. This is especially noteworthy because Miss Bates has been a longtime friend of Emma's family and has even helped raise Emma. Yet, Emma wants nothing to do with Miss Bates because Miss Bates is beneath her and annoys her. She occasionally mocks Miss Bates in private. Knightley, of course, is the exception. He has taken care of Miss Bates continually, and Miss Bates has thanked him repeatedly. Knightley has taken her under his wing and provided for her, as he has other destitute women in the community. He is the epitome of masculinity, a man who protects and provides, a man who takes responsibility.
The treatment of Miss Bates is the pivot around which the climatic scene of the book turns. The group has gathered, rather awkwardly, at Box Hill. When they begin to play a game, Emma makes a joke at Miss Bates' expense in front of the whole assemblage. Miss Bates realizes that she has been the butt of Emma's mean quip, and blushes with both pain and embarrassment. She makes an excuse for Emma, whom she refers to as "an old friend," and blames herself. This is the low point for Emma in the book. As the group begins to break up so they can return home, Knightley has a crucial exchange with Emma. This is really the climax of the book as Knightley essentially delivers the sermon Emma needs to hear. His message has the intended effect, but only after he drives it home forcefully. Emma has been a sheep without a shepherd, but now Knightley will direct her in the way she should go. As a true friend, he confronts her privately, but he does not dish up the flattery she is accustomed to from others. He speaks the truth to her -- yes, he speaks in the truth in love, but he also speaks firmly, directly, piercingly. He asks her, "How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?--Emma, I had not thought it possible." When Emma tries to laugh it off, Knightley presses her, pointing out that Miss Bates responded to the cutting remark with forbearing kindness, but also obvious hurt. Again Emma tried to defend herself and her shaming of Miss Bates: "You must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her." Knightley pushes back again:
“They are blended,” said he, “I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation— but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.”
This word of truth, the wound of faithful friend, is what finally breaks Emma and leads her to genuine repentance, humility, and ultimately maturation:
While they talked, they were advancing towards the carriage; it was ready; and, before she could speak again, he had handed her in. He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted, and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able to speak; and, on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome—then reproaching herself for having taken no leave, making no acknowledgment, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to shew a difference; but it was just too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in motion. She continued to look back, but in vain; and soon, with what appeared unusual speed, they were half way down the hill, and every thing left far behind. She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!
Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed. Happily it was not necessary to speak. There was only Harriet, who seemed not in spirits herself, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.
The word "mortified" is key. While Austen was more of a high church Anglican than an evangelical, and while she likely never read John Owen's The Mortification of Sin, she undoubtedly knew this as a technical term from Romans 8:13, describing the heart of the Christian life: by the power of the Holy Spirit, we mortify sinful desires. Of course, the same language is found in the collects of the Book of Common Prayer, which Austen was certainly familiar with. Emma is angry with herself and her tears are the tears of a broken and contrite heart. This becomes obvious as the story races to its conclusion, in which not only does she unite with Knightley, but does so as a suitable match for him not just in status but in character. While Emma has had manners, she lacked morals; Knightley, as one possessing both manners and morals, exposes this lack in Emma and helps her grow in needed ways. Emma seeks forgiveness from Miss Bates and produces fruit in keeping with repentance, as she begins to have sympathy for the plight of Miss Bates and those in similar circumstances. By the end of the story, Emma has been transformed. As a result, she makes a happy marriage that blesses the wider community, one even her father can approve os. Knightley's commanding leadership of her has made all the difference. The foolish girl has become a wise woman, fit to be a queen. She will thrive under his steady leadership and headship.
In this story, Austen has given us a parable uniquely suited for our times. Again, this is not just a love story, or even a story of personal transformation. It is social commentary. It is a lesson not just in male/female roles, as important as those are. It is not just instruction in the social graces needed to make courtship or community work, but in what it takes to make a larger society work. Perhaps Austen's dedication should tip us off to this aspect of the book: The novel is dedicated "to his Royal Highness, the Prince Regent." It is directed towards an aristocrat because it is rich with lessons for aristocrats. Again, Austen is well aware of the revolutionary spirit that filled the air in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The French and American Revolutions had already rocked the Western world, and while they were very different in their orientation, as demonstrated by the likes of Gentz and Burke, they both stemmed from common people who believed their leaders had grown insular and out of touch. These revolutions were about the people rising up against rulers who used their power in entirely self-serving ways. Likewise, Austen would have known about the riots in London, as workers rose up against inhumane working conditions in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Austen's book is a warning to royalty, to elites, to those with power and wealth: Unless you use your power to serve the common good, do not be surprised if the peasants revolt. If Britain wants to avoid the fate of France -- revolution, followed by chaos, followed by war -- the higher classes must care for the lower classes. Not all members of the lower classes will be as genial as Miss Bates, obviously, and so those in power best learn to imitate Knightley. Knightley lives up to his name: he is chivalrous, kind-hearted, and generous. He is a servant who serves by leading, and a leader who leads by serving. He is the model man, the epitome of what the elite should be. Knightley does not leave care for the poor to the government or even to the church; he takes initiative time and time again to look after those inferior to himself. Leaders like Knightley are the key to social cohesion and flourishing.
Austen herself is no revolutionary. She wants to prevent revolution. Likewise, Austen is no egalitarian. Her book is not an attack on wealth, status, or privilege. She recognizes these realities are inescapable, as they are built into the very fabric of God's world. Rather, she is opposed to those who use wealth, status, and privilege in entirely self-serving ways. Again, Emma (prior to her transformation) is the model of what not to do, as she uses her status in a reckless and snobbish way. Knightley, on the other, is the model of gracious and grace-filled rule. When he helps Miss Bates, he does not cease to outrank her; they remain unequal in station. But he uses his higher rank to help those of lower station, especially those in the lowest station.
Austen's social conservatism is seen in the fact that Emma's attempts to be a "social revolutionary" by trying to get a cross-class match for Harriet blows up. Emma fills Harriet's head with "revolutionary" ideas about the kind of man she can snag. The result is near disaster. In the end, every couple that marries in Emma does so within their own social category; the caste structure of 19th century British society is completely reinforced. Indeed, this seems to be the only Austen novel without a cross-class marriage, which is all the more significant given that it has the most political commentary going on in the background. Austen is not taking down wealth and privilege as if they are evil in themselves; rather, she is reminding those with wealth and privilege how they must use them.
What does Austen have to teach our American aristocrats today? As in Austen's day, the peasants (so to speak) are getting restless, as they see their political and cultural leaders completely out of touch with their plight. We have seen a new populism arise in the last 5+ years. The victory of Brexit and Trump were signs of this movement, but it has only intensified since 2016 (Trump's defeat in 2020 notwithstanding). While nothing can justify some of the actions of the lower classes, and sometimes the lower classes are being manipulated into certain forms of action by the elite, there is a growing, gnawing sense that the American elite are completely disconnected from the every day realities facing millions upon millions of Americans. Our culture is deeply divided. But the key divisions are not the ones the media harps on incessantly. The main fault lines in our culture are not race or political party. What America is really experiencing is a form of class warfare. It is the elites in the Washington, in Hollywood, on Wall Street, and in the mainstream media vs everyone else. It is the elites vs the "average Joes." Our elites are acting like Emmas rather than Knightleys. We common folk are like Miss Bates, taking the butt of their jokes, helpless to do much of anything about it.
If there is one thing the COVID lockdowns made clear, it is that our elites play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. They never missed a paycheck while the Miss Bates' of the world got hammered. The elites in many cases actually got wealthier during the lockdowns while the working class stiffs, who generally cannot work from home as easily and whose places of employment were much more likely to be shuttered, had to figure out how to pay bills on a declining income. It should be made clear, the economic catastrophe brought upon the working class and small business owners was not caused by the pandemic per se -- it was caused by the government's overreaching, panicked, tyrannical response to the pandemic. Of course, then there was of the open hypocrisy of the elite, e.g., Gavin Newsom going to a non-socially distanced fancy dinner at one of California's best restaurants, while the poorer people of his state suffered incalculable financial and emotional harm from his shut down policies. When Nancy Pelosi got caught going to a hair salon, defying her own lockdown orders, she claimed it was a "set up." When celebrity figures died, they were able to have funerals not allowed to commoners. The same governors who shut down churches and small businesses did nothing to stop BLM and Antifa riots over the summer, often even encouraging those riots. Fauci told us masks would not help, then told us to wear them, then got caught not wearing one himself. And so on. The icing on the cake is the way blue states suddenly decided it was time to start opening back up after Biden's inauguration. The driving force behind the lockdowns was not public health or an interest in the common good; it was political, designed to especially hurt their political enemies. Again, and again, we have seen the blatant hypocrisy of our leaders on display -- but they do not care because they know they can get away with it.
The GameStop/Robinhood fiasco is yet another brick in the wall, furthering the impression that the system is rigged against the little guy. Wall Street has been bailed out repeatedly, usually at Main Street's expense, over the years. We all saw this unfold in the aftermath of the housing crisis in 2008, largely brought on Wall Street's irresponsibility (granted Main Street committed plenty of sins as well, but Wall Street caught the bulk of the windfall following the crisis). In the last few weeks, the peasants thought they had finally found a way to get back at the Wall Street fat cats by driving up the price of stocks many hedge funds had shorted. Alas, their plans were foiled (to some degree) when the hedge fund elites got Robinhood (the brokerage of the common man, supposedly with the mission to "democratize finance") to shut down trading of the key stocks in play. Yes, there is debate over the propriety of Robinhood's actions, given the complexity of trading regulations, but it certainly looks like Robinhood decided to play on the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham rather than the commoner in the end. If ever there was a sign that the game is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful, this is it. (And I do not say this in any way to justify the greed or vengeful spirit of many of those day traders who drove up the price of GameStop and other stocks; not all hedge fund managers are evil, and there is certainly nothing wrong with shorting the market. But I do sympathize with their frustration over the way the system now seems to serve those who are already connected and to disadvantage others who are not connected. Something deeply unjust about our economic system has been exposed, even if neither the Robinhood day traders nor the hedge fund managers nor the brokerages are spotless in this ordeal. While I am a huge fan of the American stock market in general, as it has potential to spread wealth and ownership in amazing ways, various Federal Reserve actions and government policies have detached it more and more from reality. Hedge fund managers have often manipulated the market to their own advantage; they can hardly complain when a bunch of investors from a message board get together to manipulate it to their advantage -- though it should also be pointed out that this is not likely to end well for a lot of the little guys who have gotten in over their heads.)
Likewise, we have seen attacks on free speech. Parler got shut down when Apple and Amazon decided to squash them, under the guise of "promoting violence." Never mind the way other social media apps have been used for questionable or illegal purposes (e.g., Twitter is full of salacious material). Individuals, especially conservatives and Christians, have felt the full wrath of cancel culture, ranging from posting privileges on social media being revoked to having small businesses and careers destroyed. Calls for justice and fair play seem to fall on deaf ears. The corporations are too powerful, the mobs too out of control, our political leaders too cowardly.
Then there is the ongoing mess in DC. Trump was elected in 2016 in large measure because so many people believed DC no longer served the interests of the people. He came as an outsider, hated by the elites but adored by the dregs of society, the "deplorables," as Hilary Clinton famously called them. Trump and his supporters rightly figured out that DC is disconnected from most of the nation: Special interests rather than common interests have come to rule. Trump was willing listen to the disaffected, the marginalized, the forgotten. He was truly a populist candidate. But his victory did not have the effect it should have. It did not make DC insiders stop and ask what went wrong, or how they could reconnect with their constituents, or how they could better serve the nation rather than lobbyists. Instead, they decided to mock Trump and his voters as racists, doubling down on the status quo. In reality, racism played virtually no role in Trump's victory; the kinds of evangelicals who were closest to Trump are the least white, and his electoral base was driven by economic concerns far more than racial ones, which explains why he actually did significantly better with lower economic classes and ethnic minorities than every other Republican presidential candidate in recent memory. In the end, it was whites, especially upper class suburban whites, who cost Trump his chance at re-election. But the constant charge of racism against the Trump base over the last 4 years has served to mask what is really happening and has allowed the DC elite to avoid having to ask themselves hard questions or do any soul searching. With Biden/Harris in office, things are back to "normal" and that is bad news for the average American.
Typically conservatives want limited government regulation because they believe emphasizing personal and familial responsibility actually leads to greater prosperity. Meanwhile, liberals supposedly want the government to intervene and manage at least some aspects of the economy so there will be a robust safety net for the poor and needy. The problem today is that we have neither of these. Contrary to the vision of those on the right, we have all kinds of government intervention into the economy, but contrary to best intentions of those on the left, it is not intervention on behalf of the poorest but intervention on behalf of the richest. Who does our system really serve? It serves those already in power and those most closely connected to them. It serves the elites -- those who dominate Wall Street, those who already have elected or high ranking positions in the vast government bureaucracy, those who do the lobbying on behalf of mega corporations. It's no wonder we see so much synergy between Big Government and Big Tech -- this is just the elite protecting the elite, the rich enriching the rich. It is also no wonder Fairfax County and Silicon Valley are the two places with the highest wealth concentration in the nation.
The average American voter, whether Republican or Democrat, needs to realize that both parties essentially despise their bases. Aaron Renn recently addressed this phenomenon on the right with a podcast entitled "The Republican Party Hates Your Guts." While there are some good Republicans in office, many of them have no intention of following through on the priorities of those who voted for them. For example, the Republicans will talk a good pro-life game, but when it comes time to actually do something -- like defund Planned Parenthood -- Republicans slink into the shadows like cowards. We keep sending people to DC who promise to make changes and nothing changes -- or if things do change, they change for the worse. When the Republicans had full control of the Presidency and Congress in 2016-2018 they did nothing that actually helped their voters; the best they could do was a tax cut, mainly aimed at corporations. While I thought the tax cut was generally beneficial, making America more competitive on the global stage, it had little connection with the populist platform that actually got Trump elected. Because most Republicans in Congress did not share Trump's populist agenda, they did not act on any of those issues, and then lost control of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections. At that point, Trump's agenda was gridlocked for good. While Trump exposed the RINO phenomenon more than it had been in the past, the problems run so deep, it is hard to imagine how the Republican party can actually transform itself into a party that acts on behalf of its most loyal and consistent base. Instead it continually betrays that base. Could today's Republican party produce a Knightley to rescue us?
The Democrats are even more corrupt. They claim to be the party of the poor and minorities but virtually all of their policies make things worse for these groups (e.g. virtue signaling acts like minimum wage increases, which only hurt the lowest skilled workers by costing them jobs). Democrats are now talking about "equity" and the problem of the "wealth gap." But the biggest driver of this wealth gap is our fiscal policy, heavily supported by Democrats (and only really challenged by a handful of Republicans). The wealth gap really started to take off after the bailouts following the housing market and stock market crashes in 2008. Since then the Fed has created money at an alarming rate; 22% of all the dollars ever created were printed in 2020 alone. Who gets their hands on that money first? Where does it go? Who does it help? It's not hard to figure out. The more connected you are to the elites in DC, the more that flow of new money helps you. But for the average American who is hardly invested in the stock market at all, this "quantitative easing" just means the purchasing power of every dollar he earns or saves is being eroded. The party that claims to be for the "little guy" actually hates the little guy and does the most to hurt him. Of course the way leading Democrats have used their time in public office to enrich themselves and their close associates (the Clintons, Obamas, Bidens, Pelosis, etc.) further adds to the disgusting hypocrisy of the left.
Time fails to cover all the foibles of the media. From the way the mainstream media attacked Trump and his supporters with hoaxes and half-truths, to the way they have covered for Democrat corruption, there is no question the elites in journalism (or should that be "journalism"?) and cable news absolutely despise rank and file Americans, especially if they happen to be Christians who believe in traditional marriage and like the Bill of Rights. The contempt is on display every day. Disagree with the mainstream media on any issue? Prepare to be called a bigot, a racist, a white supremacist. That's the situation we find ourselves in. Our cultural Emmas (snobbish elites) are giving it good and hard to the Miss Bateses (ridiculous, silly middle class people) of the nation. Is there a Knightley who will stand up to them and call them out for their self-righteous and arrogant disdain?
Given these realities is it any wonder that many Americans have become full fledged conspiracy theorists? Is it any wonder millions of Americans believe the same people who have stolen their wealth and and their jobs and their future could steal an election? Is it any wonder so many Americans are angry with the ruling class? Is it any surprise we have seen politically motivated violence break out in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the French Revolution? Alas, remember the French Revolution actually ended in a dictatorship, hardly the kind of society those who it sparked it were hoping for.
I agree with Austen's social vision. I am not a populist or an egalitarian. I believe we need elites. We need aristocrats. We need experts. The only way to preserve social order is if the ruling class actually rules. But if the elites and the ruling class are as generally incompetent and evil as we seen in recent years, then we might as well become populists. Many Americans are wondering if there is any other choice. It seems that our elected representatives are not really representing us. It seems our free markets are not really all that free. It seems our elites are not elites and our experts are not really experts.
Of course, analyzing America in terms of class warfare (elites vs commoners) does not negate the deeper Spiritual division between believers and unbelievers that is already in play in any society. Ultimately, our problems will not be solved with better politicians or a more just and free economic system. We need reformation, revival, and repentance. But it is hard to see a way forward for America unless God raises up leaders for us after the pattern of Knightley, leaders who are competent, righteous, noble, compassionate, firm, and wise. And the only way to get there is if some of our leaders are willing to undergo an Emma-like transformation, weeping over their arrogance and mortifying their selfishness so they can begin to use their power in ways that serve the common good instead of merely serving themselves and their cronies.