Ruskin on Trump's Shipwreck of State

By Sharon Aronofsky Weltman

Long Ships Lighthouse Land's End By Turner
J.M.W. Turner, Longships Lighthouse, Land's End (1835)*

For John Ruskin’s 201st birthday in early February 2020, I spoke at a wonderful conference on Ruskin and ecology at Notre Dame organized by Sara Mauer and Robert Goulding. I think back to our naïve chatter about the new, scary-sounding coronavirus suddenly so much in the news, chatter between excited hugs and hearty handshakes, often at crowded receptions where our unsanitized fingers plucked treats from buffets and grasped drinks poured from communal pitchers in close and, of course, maskless proximity. I am still, in late January 2021, astonished and bewildered at what staggering changes these twelve months have brought.

For Ruskin’s 202nd birthday, the conference organizers have asked us to connect our continued work on Ruskin to our current conditions. A year of denial and mismanagement has exacerbated the cruelty of COVID-19. Just over two weeks ago (as I write this), an insurrectionist mob summoned by Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol. These calamities, combined with sustained efforts by the former president to undo long-standing environmental protections make Ruskin’s 150-year-old jeremiads railing against greed, lies, riot, and unrelenting human attack on the earth even more timely. Ruskin’s despair, hope, and ardent calls to action resonate emphatically now.

Passages pertinent to our present world crises appear all over Ruskin’s thirty-nine volumes, but I would like to focus here on Ruskin’s Time and Tide (1867). He charges his readers to build a world based on cooperation rather than competition, an issue Ruskin addresses often. In Letter XII, Ruskin imagines a crew and passengers in a lifeboat crammed with people of various ages, genders, and abilities:

When the crew of a wrecked ship escape in an open boat, and the boat is crowded, the provisions scanty, and the prospect of making land distant, laws are instantly established and enforced which no one thinks of disobeying. An entire equality of claim to the provisions is acknowledged without dispute; and an equal liability to necessary labour. No man who can row is allowed to refuse his oar; no man, however much money he may have saved in his pocket, is allowed so much as half a biscuit beyond his proper ration. Any riotous person who endangered the safety of the rest would be bound, and laid in the bottom of the boat, without the smallest compunction, for such violation of the principles of individual liberty; and, on the other hand, any child, or woman, or aged person, who was helpless, and exposed to great danger and suffering by their weakness, would receive more than ordinary care and indulgence, not unaccompanied with unanimous self-sacrifice on the part of the labouring crew.

There is never any question under circumstances like these, of what is right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, wise or foolish. If there be any question, there is little hope for boat or crew. The right man is put at the helm; every available hand is set to the oars; the sick are tended, and the vicious restrained, at once, and decisively; or if not, the end is near. (Works 17.372)

As an analogy to a society that supports those who cannot support themselves, this passage chimes with Unto this Last (1860), where a mother will not compete with her own child for a crust of bread (17.27). Unto this Last is the book that most influenced the UK’s first Labour MPs elected to Parliament, as they explained in 1906. It’s easy to see how Ruskin’s parable of the lifeboat also corresponds to a turn-of-the-century push to include social welfare protections.

But the COVID-19 pandemic spotlights exactly how thoroughly our current social structures are failing to protect us, especially those vulnerable to disease, often for reasons connected not only to their bodily health but also to economic and historical inequities. In a shipwreck, where everyone’s life is on the line, cash can’t buy an extra half-biscuit. No one who can help row the boat to safety would think (and here Ruskin assumes an honorable bunch have leapt into this lifeboat) of shirking his turn with a paddle. This scenario of men at the oar and helm—and in control of biscuit-buying capital—is of course typical of Ruskin, who can’t imagine Dickens’s heroic Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend (1865) powerfully rowing Eugene Wrayburn to medical rescue and marital bliss. But no one, male or female, in Ruskin’s shipwreck of state but the most vicious person (a non-gendered term) would consider endangering, by action or inaction, the aged or infirm.

Ruskin of course knows that his lifeboat, at once utopian and antifeminist, does not mirror society accurately; in fact, he spends most of the subsequent essay attacking the British government for how unlike it is to his example and insinuating disturbingly that even benevolent dictatorship might be preferable. But he is right that if the shipwrecked community doesn't cooperate, it will fail. People will die, especially the ailing and the elderly, and many others as well. In our current shared health emergency, too many of our shipmates refuse the most minimal sacrifice of simply wearing a mask to save the lives of their fellow travelers as well as their own. Ruskin’s position on such selfishness is unequivocal: not even “principles of individual liberty” permit endangering others.

Ruskin wants a world that manifests this vision of cooperation, of people working together to ensure the common good, or as he puts it, “the common wealth” (161), because in his definition of a commonwealth, it is more important that everyone be well than wealthy. He assumes his populace will have the good sense to place “the governing authority” into “the hands of a true and trained pilot” (373), experienced in navigating treacherous waters and committed to the wellbeing of all. In the United States, when the pandemic hit, someone untrained and untrue was piloting. For the past year, dedicated healers—inadequately equipped and continually undercut—have tended the sick but lost more than they would have under committed, capable leadership. The riotous persons were restrained only after violent insurrection.

Now, the installation of President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and their administration (all pilots trained and experienced in governance) portends less chaotic and more humane policies, including not only better, more sensible, and focused healthcare delivery but also restoring and improving environmental protocols. The twelve months commencing with Ruskin’s 202nd birthday will bring both foreseeable and unknowable challenges and, alas, many more COVID-19 deaths. Yet, I find myself optimistic (dare I say this?) that the tide has turned.

I anticipate hard work to get past the pandemic, hard even when it just means patiently masking and avoiding close contact with other humans. The further job of mitigating climate change will be a long-term task; perhaps in part furthered by understanding what made the Guardian in 2006 rank Ruskin as #30 in the top green campaigners of all time. To return to Ruskin’s metaphor, if we pull together on these turbulent seas, perhaps we can still bring our storm-battered boat safely ashore. And on the beach ahead, I spy hugs, handshakes, and biscuits to share (whole ones) by Ruskin’s 203rd birthday.

* Image in the public domain