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Propaganda and Roadside Help: A Rheticon

In 1942, when Hardin Craig retired from Stanford University at age 67, he was as famous as a Renaissance literary scholar can get. Yet he kept on teaching. In 1960 he was on the English faculty at the University of Missouri, 84 years old. That year I was taking the last course in Shakespeare that Craig taught there. So I was surprised, on looking out of my boarding house window one January morning, to see him helping with a student’s car stuck in the snow.

Professor Craig, briefcase in the snow, head down, pushing at a car beside two other good Samaritans—that mental snapshot, now more than a half century old, has stuck with me. There is a good reason why. The image is iconic, embedded in our culture and other cultures world wide. Here are people five years ago lending a helping hand in Hungary, about a hundred miles northeast of Budapest.

The icon touches on some basic core of social moving-along. People drive vehicles. Vehicles get stuck. Passersby, strangers, help out. Import: we are in it together.

We have always been in it together. Here’s another photograph, from a family album, of a 1913 Model T Ford being hauled out of Michigan mud by a team of horses.

Note, however, that the icon is not free of social class. The driver of the car is in suit and tie and the driver of the horses is in overalls. We should not be surprised to find that over the centuries the helping-hand icon has helped propagandists. In the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, the landed gentry found it advantageous to represent the peasant class as in no need of aid or relief. This belief, or hope, often took the form of moral platitude: Don’t depend on others to help you. Here is Thomas Bewick’s woodcut of a famous story of self help: Aesop’s fable of Hercules and the wagoner.His wagon stuck in the mud, the wagoner curses the holes in the road, the horses, the wagon. Then he calls on Hercules to help him. All he hears is the voice of Hercules, saying, in Jean de La Fontaine’s late seventeen-century rendering, “Hercule veut qu’on se remue, / Puis il aide les gens” (Hercules would rather people act on their own / Then will he help.” The wagoner puts his shoulder to the wheel, the wagon is freed. The moral? “Aide-toi, le Ciel t’aidera.” Help yourself and Heaven will help you—conveniently freeing higher social classes of responsibility.

In the nineteenth-century clash between capitalist and worker, the helping-hand icon took a new spin. Labor-class propaganda represented management as clueless, ineffective, and top-heavy. Look at this acerb cartoon drawn by Edward Bellamy, of Looking Backward fame:This isn’t just nineteen-century socialism, of course. Recently, when Reddit posted Bellamy’s cartoon, it got 231 passionate comments, from FedEx warehouse workers and other workers.

Current business propaganda spins the icon one more time. It portrays the good Samaritan as the potential danger. Might strangers offering help not be thieves, or worse, in disguise? Britain’s Automotive Association, a new and different Hercules ex machina, tells their stranded driver to telephone them for help (app provided), and If you feel at risk from another person, get back into your vehicle using a left-hand door and lock all doors.”Of course don’t bother if you haven’t bought our insurance policy.

This kind of automotive roadside assistance forms part of what is called, disingenuously, the “hospitality trade.” Some institutions of higher learning offer degrees from their Department of Hospitality Management—if you have the money or the loans. In the old days of hospitality, it was the person in need of help who might be in disguise, an angel or a god.

Despite the propaganda, genuine hospitality—offering help without any expectation of monetary return—is still alive and well. Witness the ever popular news story of the driversby who stop and pull a person out of a burning car, or a horse out of an icy lake. Or witness one of my neighbors a month ago. He looked out of his window and saw our town’s police chief hanging upside-down from a house ladder, one leg twisted and caught in the rungs. He grabbed his chainsaw, ran across the street, and cut the chief loose.

Genuine roadside help—are these iconic stories free of propaganda? Is that part of their appeal?

2 thoughts on “Propaganda and Roadside Help: A Rheticon”

  1. The 17th-18th century propaganda that the underclasses don’t want help is also still alive today. Here’s Ivanka Trump today in an interview with Steve Hilton of Fox News on a guaranteed minimum income: ““I don’t think most Americans, in their heart, want to be given something.”

  2. Most interesting, Rich! Thanks.
    To me, all the examples cited can be interpreted as illustrating the following (oversimplified for discussion’s sake) perspective:
    (1) Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. To use Jonathan Haidt’s term, we are “groupish.” There is strength in numbers, and the basic mode of human life down through the millennia has been tribal, not solitary. Tribes are more egalitarian than they are hierarchical.
    (2) Modern capitalism and consumerism are radical departures from tribalism, enticing the individual entrepreneur and consumer with material rewards that may well benefit only that individual. Radically non-egalitarian, this mode of life values POWER above traditional values like cooperation, teamwork, solidarity, etc.
    (3) Though we live in a capitalistic society, we have not entirely shed our age-old, subconscious tribal instincts. This is why we respond as we do to acts of kindness by motley strangers pushing a car or otherwise rescuing someone. It triggers a fundamental, social aspect of our human nature.
    (4) But those who have power in the capitalistic world — from 17th century landed gentry to modern-day insurance companies and other corporations — don’t want ordinary workers to band together (e.g. unionize). That would give such peons too much power! No, they want to separate workers from each other in whatever way they can. Divide and conquer, that’s the ticket. In America, they do it under the rubric of “individual freedom,” “right-to-work” laws, etc. That’s where the propaganda comes in, and it’s relentless.

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