Friday, July 12, 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine: The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Child Labor

“Who are you?”

“I am Edward, the new number two.”

“Who is number one?”

“Thomas is number one. You are Percy, number six.”

“I am not a number; I am a Really Useful Engine!”

The Prisoner was the apotheosis of socially conscious television, a sometimes postmodern critique of the paranoia of the cold war. The village, in The Prisoner, is a prison for apostates of the cold war era national security state. Most inmates are hopeless, resigned to their fate; some, from cowardice or desire for comfort, work for the spymasters. Yet the Prisoner (played by Patrick McGoohan), virtually alone in his implacable in his desire to escape, by his success proves the lack, in the others, of a will for freedom. Each of us can escape our bonds, but most of us fail, and we fail because we lack the will truly to try. On the other hand, the Prisoner abjures pure license, recognizing that true freedom is not a simple lack of inhibitions or uncontrolled passion. The lesson of The Prisoner is that the village is everywhere, within everyone, but only the dedicated few exercise the freedom to escape their village. We are each of us prisoners of ourselves, of our fears and self-imposed restrictions, and our freedom to escape those depends only on our will to escape.

Still, The Prisoner was flawed. Perhaps it aggrandized negative freedom, freedom of the individual from state interference, at the expense of positive freedom, freedom that comes from cooperation with others. But, despite its flaws, The Prisoner at least prizes the genuine moral of liberty.

Some television programs, in contrast, prefer to indoctrinate our children into subservience and obedience to their capitalist masters. This insidious instrument of capitalist oppression is, of course, Thomas and Friends. A morbidly obese capitalist demands mindless obedience from his child-like charges while providing neither pay, vacation time, education, guidance, nor emotional support. An island, isolated from modern civilization, is governed according to the mad whim of the aforementioned obese capitalist. A group of train engines, to all appearances children or mentally disabled adults, but nonetheless fully conscious aware beings, are effectively enslaved by their capitalist master. Most insidiously, these child-like engines fervently contribute to their own subjugation.

A typical episode goes something like this:

Sir Topham Hatt: Thomas, I have a job for you.

Thomas: What is it, sir? You know I only want to be a Really Useful Engine.

Hatt: I want you to pick up a lion at the docks and take him to the zoo.

Thomas: Yes, sir!

Thomas chugs away to the docks. Cranky the Crane, vicious misanthrope, or at least mis-train-ist, grudgingly entrusts the lion in a cage into Thomas’s care.

Thomas: Thank you, Cranky!

Cranky: Get lost, punk.

Thomas travels along the track toward the zoo. As he passes a large forest, Thomas thinks that the lion might want to go outside briefly. Thomas stops and opens the crate and lets the lion loose. No driver, fireman, or engineer is there to correct or prevent Thomas from performing this rash act. Thomas, at times like these, entirely lacks the adult supervision necessary to prevent from endangering himself or others. Mostly he endangers others because trains aren’t really susceptible to harm in the same way humans are.

The lion runs away. Thomas, disappointed that the lion left, continues to the zoo. “Oh, no! Sir Topham Hatt will be cross,” Thomas thinks. “Maybe the lion went to the zoo on his own.”

Thomas arrives at the zoo. Sir Topham Hatt is there waiting for Thomas and the delivery of the lion.

Hatt: Thomas! Where is the lion? Your crate is empty.

Thomas: I let him out to see the village, and he ran away.

Sir Topham Hatt: That was a terrible mistake, Thomas. I am most disappointed in you.

Thomas: Has the lion killed unsuspecting Sodorites because of my incredible lack of foresight? Are you disappointed because I irresponsibly endangered everyone on the island of Sodor by loosing a giant carnivore into the neighborhood? Should I learn to put myself in the position of others and think about what is best for them, and thus learn not to endanger them or otherwise act irresponsibly?

Hatt: No, I am angry because you disobeyed me and caused confusion and delay.

Admittedly, Thomas and Hatt are not prone to discussing the ethical foundations of their work, but moral judgments in the books are always founded on the approval or disapproval of Sir Topham Hatt. This is unforgiveable enough when your moral arbiter is Aslan the (apparently vegetarian) Lion, the avatar of God himself. Even Aslan must have reasons for his moral pronouncements or be simply a tyrant or bully. But when the sole source of moral approbation or disapprobation is the capitalist overseer of the railroad, there is no hope that children can learn any lesson except blind obedience.

Continuing, Hatt says: Thomas, you must find him!

Hatt refuses to provide any further guidance to Thomas as to how he might complete this task, and most especially does not enlist the aid of any qualified experts who might help with the problem that his own awful judgment created. Instead, he angrily dismisses Thomas, placing the entire burden on him, a train with a child’s mind.

Thomas chuffs away. “How do I find the lion?” He returns to the village and begins looking. He looks in the mines, the beach, and the woods. He has no clue where to find the lion, and Hatt has provided no help.

Eventually he meets Edward, a kindly older engine. Thomas asks: Edward, have you seen a lion? I let him go near Knapford and now I can’t find him.

Edward: You did what? Go to the zoo and ask for a zookeeper, and then return as quickly as possible to Knapford I will go there first to evacuate the people.

Thomas retrieves a zookeeper, returns to Knapford, and miraculously finds the lion sunning himself near the station. The zookeepers capture the lion and Thomas finally delivers him to the zoo.

As you can see from my absolutely accurate description of life among the engines of Sodor, the island is capitalist’s paradise. The engines, and other animate machines that perform virtually all the labor on the island, are perfect slaves to the capitalist. The engines are either children or mentally child-like with no desires or interests beyond being Really Useful Engines, subordinating their wills to the whims of their overseer. Their only desires are to work; they are willing, even enthusiastic, tools of the capitalist oppressor. They are male or female, but have no sexual desires or ability to reproduce sexually (or so it appears; none of the engines is related to any of the others and no baby engines are ever seen). Their needs are simple; only the shelter of a roof over their heads and enough coal and water to function. They have all the mental life of a human simpleton, but they want nothing other than to work. They receive neither pay nor vacations. They own neither belongings nor property. In short, they are enslaved children. But the most salient fact of their lives is their subordination to the will of the overseer. They see their only goal as the success of the capitalist, represented by Sir Topham Hatt. The greatest cruelty of the capitalists who enslave these children, give them no future or hope beyond the strictures of their island community and the rails upon which they must travel, and then watch as their charges enforce his discipline on themselves. The greatest trick the slave-master ever pulled was convincing his slaves to think of his will as their own, to enslave themselves.

Completely unprepared for the world around them, our child-like protagonists predictably, inevitably fail in the arbitrary, and often unexplained, tasks given them only to be excoriated by the fat-cat capitalist for their, in reality Hatt’s, failure. The train then feels humiliated by the completely undeserved upbraiding. The engine never is taught why his/her action is wrong but is blamed only for disobedience to the capitalist. No one is ever taught to feel for those harmed by their actions. The lesson is clear: blind, unquestioning obedience to your superiors is the only moral action, and one is valued only insofar as one is a ‘really useful engine’ capable of working selflessly for the benefit of the tyrant.

Conservatives worry about the politically correct programming of our children, that our children are indoctrinated by the gay or LGBT community, by feminists or atheists. If only this were so! Unfortunately, the ubiquitous and much-beloved Thomas the Tank Engine teaches a lesson far more pernicious for a free society; it teaches willing servitude to our corporate masters. Thomas and Friends seduces our children into relinquishing their will to another and undermines the possibility of self-determination for our future generations. They are not our children’s friends, but their oppressors. Thomas is the opiate of the children, and voluntary servitude is the lot of its addicts. Parents of the world unite -- in rejection of the train’s propaganda -- you have nothing to lose but your children's chains!